Inspirations is a Billboard interview franchise that examines the process behind new standout releases.
Before laying down vocals for Higher Power's first demo, Jimmy Wizard had never been a singer. Before embarking on its first tour, the band had played just five shows. Their first gig outside of England was a sold-out show in New York City. By the time Wizard and company returned home to Leeds, Roadrunner Records staff on both sides of the Atlantic had taken notice.
"It feels like everything we've ever done has been under the spotlight," Wizard says. "Bands can write two or three records before they even figure out their sound. With Higher Power, we've always pushed ourselves. We never wanted to be just a hardcore band."
After their indie-released 2017 debut Soul Structure made waves underground, Roadrunner took them up on those aspirations. Warner's long-running metal imprint has been on a hot streak lately, guiding elder statesmen like Slipknot to impressive sales success, while scooping innovative up-and-comers like Code Orange and Turnstile. Higher Power's sophomore album matches the hype.
On 27 Miles Underwater, released Jan. 24, Wizard and this bandmates — his brother, drummer Alex Wizard, guitarists Louis Hardy and Max Harper, and bassist Ethan Wilkinson — merge gauntlet-throwing hardcore with the radio wave heroics of Y2K era parent-concerners like Deftones, Korn, and Linkin Park. It sounds pulled from an alternate universe where alternative metal's crossover appeal didn't bog down in the mid 2000s and a new generation of Chino Morenos, Jonathan Davises, and Chester Benningtons rose up to set the course between VFW shows and amphitheater headlines, to bridge the gap between melody and savagery.
"That era in time is something I always look back on," says the 27-year old vocalist, just old enough to remember when Linkin Park's Hybrid Theory started spawning rock radio hits. "I always wanted to bring that emotional level. You can hear it in Chester's voice; you can hear it in Chino's. Maybe if I create that music I could do something to bring it back."
You could certainly hear it in Wizard's voice last Saturday, when Higher Power played Brooklyn's Union Pool two weeks after dropping 27 Miles Underwater. His voice zapped from the flu and his legs immobilized from a badly twisted knee, Wizard never relented, fighting through a sold-out set with help from little else than a raucous crowd and a doctor's shot to salvage his voice. "Sometimes you just can't cancel," he says.
Wizard has it. Same for Higher Power and same for one of 2020's first standout rock albums. Here's Wizard explaining the inspirations at the core of 27 Miles Underwater.
Straight edge hardcore. Growing up in Aylesbury, about an hour outside of London, Wizard was a skater who listened to all kinds of punk, often pulled from skateboarding VHS tapes: Blink-182, Rancid, the Casualties, Leftöver Crack, Cock Sparrer, the Clash. Then came straight edge, which got him into hardcore. "I grew up in a background where I saw the negative side of drinking," he says. "The drunk punk culture never resonated with me." He discovered straight edge bands like Minor Threat and Chain of Strength online and knew he'd found his people. "I was like damn, this sounds like punk and they don't drink and they're not trying to dress up!"
Years later, Higher Power's hardcore roots helped earn them their Roadrunner deal. Ricky Singh, guitarist for the respected Long Island hardcore band Backtrack, began doing A&R work for Roadrunner during the mid 2010s and was among the first people in the industry to hype the band. After releasing Soul Structure on his indie label Flatspot Records, he helped Higher Power secure its major label deal for 27 Miles Underwater.
Seven-year cycles. Since the onset of modern psychology, there's been a sense that humans possess an innate urge to reinvent themselves every seven years (see: the teachings of Rudolph Steiner and Marilyn Monroe). This hit home for Higher Power's frontperson: while prepping the new album, Wizard broke off a seven-year relationship and in order to devote more time to the band, then quit his job at a tattoo parlor, a position he'd held just as long. "Those were my two staples, that was my world," says Wizard. "I went through more changes that year than ever."
Every song on 27 Miles Underwater was inspired by Wizard's tumultuous 27th year. "I started reading into this seven-year cycle theory, but I didn't want to call the record Seven-Year Cycle or 27 Years Old." Finally, he went through the lyrics of "Seamless," the album's scorching lead single, and found the solution staring him straight in the face: "Now I'm 27 miles underwater and I'm still burning."
Long dog walks. Wizard doesn't write on tour. Instead, he composed all the lyrics on 27 Miles Underwater while walking his dog, a Staffordshire Bull Terrier named Harley, around the outskirts of Leeds, exploring canals, abandoned golf courses, and decrepit mills. "Only bad things are gonna go down there, but it's quite cool to check them out."
When the creative juices flowed, they didn't always take Wizard to a happy place. He wrote the searing, Alice In Chains-indebted ballad "In the Meantime" atop a hill, staring down at Leeds and feeling like an alien in his own city. "I was in a very dark place at that time and I hated coming back in between tours because I had nothing. Other guys were coming back to see their girlfriends and I didn’t have that. I had no money to even get out."
But Wizard let change bring positivity, too. On the metallic burner "Shedding Skin," Wizard looks his old friends in the eyes and comes to peace with the distance. "Everyone sheds their skin," Wizard says. "It's about trying to accept what happens in life and learning to be okay with that."
Podcasts. To stay inspired during his dog walks, Wizard would listen to podcasts and jot down lines that resonated with him. "Sometimes someone words something the right way, and you’re like, 'That’s how I feel!'" he explains. Scattered throughout 27 Miles Underwater are stray thoughts from skateboarder interviews on The Nine Club, true crime talk on Disgraceland, and conspiracy theory musings on Tin Foil Hat.
A legendary alt-rock producer. Prior to 27 Miles Underwater, Higher Power had never worked with an outside producer. Enter Roadrunner, which hooked the band up with studio veteran Gil Norton, the producer behind alternative classics like Foo Fighters' The Colour and the Shape and Pixies' Doolittle. "We needed someone to help us figure out what it takes to be a band on that level," Wizard says. "The biggest] thing he brought to us was song structure. He'd be like, 'Why isn't this the chorus? It's so catchy — why are you only playing it once?'"
Norton encouraged the ambitions of Higher Power; as the band continues to promote and tour behind the new album, they'll see if the masses catch on, too. "I want to be a band that can play heavy music," Wizard says. "But I also want to be a band that can be on the radio, like the bands I looked up to."