‘Anger’s an easy emotion’: working-class punks High Vis find hardcore’s vulnerable side

Going to therapy helped the London hardcore band unpack their traumatic upbringings and make one of the year’s best albums. Frontman Graham Sayle discusses grief and kicking unhealthy coping mechanisms

Hardcore punk began as an American answer to a British art form. Angrier, snarlier, more visceral: what the Brits had done, bands from California and New York did bigger and with fewer frills. Graham Sayle is a longtime hardcore devotee. Originally from Merseyside, he grew up watching American bands, or British bands emulating American styles. Now, he merges this trans-continental fandom with his own roots in High Vis, a band that offers a new, distinctly British vision of hardcore.

On their second album, Blending, High Vis imbue hardcore with elements of Madchester and gothy post-punk as Sayle explores, in his distinctly Merseyside accent, the complexities of north-west working-class identity. It’s an album that’s starkly honest about the pain, trauma and anger Sayle still feels about his upbringing. Offering a disarmingly nuanced take on hardcore, a genre originally built on pure, youthful rage, it feels like a blueprint for bands that will come after, and is already one of the most hyped UK punk records of the year, both at home and in the US. “In hardcore you can hide behind just shouting, ’cause anger’s an easy emotion to go to,” he says over Zoom. But while recording Blending, he adds, “I’d end up trying to be more tuneful – or more vulnerable, I guess is the term. It’s super liberating.”

High Vis’s video for Fever Dream.

Sayle grew up in New Brighton, a formerly affluent seaside town on the Wirral. He describes it as “a pretty strangled place”. “The managed decline of that area is so visible. When I was [a kid], you can’t really see it, you just fuck around in all these abandoned places.” His brother, who is five years older, has cerebral palsy and is autistic, and was badly bullied; his uncle, a former shipyard worker and active union member, died of asbestosis a few years ago. After his funeral, Sayle wrote 0151, one of Blending’s standouts, on which he spits: “We’re destitute and we’re demoralised / Our suffering disguised as pride.”

The rest of the band come from similar backgrounds. Bassist Rob Moss grew up in rural Lancashire, son of a welder and grandson of a blacksmith; drummer Edward “Ski” Harper is a black cab driver from the East End. (The band is completed by guitarists Martin MacNamara and Rob Hammeren.) Blending is as much of an outlet for the rest of the group as for Sayle: on Join Hands, written by Harper about his own upbringing, Sayle sings, “Our days are all cut short.”

“My best mate was killed when I was 20 or 21 – on his way home from work, just smashed over the head with a piece of wood to rob his bike,” Sayle says. “And in our circle of friends, over the past couple of years there’ve been a lot of people who have committed suicide either actively or passively, through drugs or whatever.”

Heavy grief … High Vis.
Heavy grief … High Vis. Photograph: James Edson

The presence of that grief is heavy on Blending. It feeds, in Sayle’s lyrics, both a hopelessness and a resolve to live a meaningful life. Reckoning with past trauma has been relatively new for him. “The violence and brutality of growing up [was] kind of normalised,” he says. Upon moving to London when he was 19, he “realised a lot of people haven’t had that”.

He sings about those feelings – of having to bury too many of your own, and of becoming immune to the pain of it – on Trauma Bonds, which encapsulates the potent disenfranchisement of Blending: “I’ve known this lot for too many years / We’re not driven by hate, we’re just slaves to fear / And are we still lucky to be here?” he sings.

“You never grieve, ’cause it’s fucking hard to engage with those emotions,” Sayle says. Instead, he found unhealthy ways to cope. “I used to drink too much, and I’d fly off the handle really bad. I’d shut people out. I’d always have one foot out the door.”

It intensified during lockdown, when he hunkered down at his parents’ home, “drinking and fucking doing nothing.” Harper had just begun training to become a counsellor, and he encouraged Sayle to begin therapy for himself: “If Ski didn’t push me towards doing it, I probably would have just carried on getting bladdered.”

Sayle says that therapy has “helped me to no end”, giving him a new, more loving outlook towards himself and his upbringing. He’s not the only one – Sayle says that the five band members are constantly having conversations about therapy and trauma, acting as a support network to each other. High Vis channel that new expressiveness into Blending, which offers profound belief in their ability to transcend the pain they’ve felt across their lives. 0151 ends with Sayle repeating: “We’re still here.”

It’s a frank moment of self-belief from a band that, by even existing, has beaten the odds. “Nothing’s been given to us, there’s no safety net. Everything’s been off our own back. We all have to work, this is an extra-curricular activity,” says Sayle. “Having five different human beings with each their own baggage and ego in a band is pretty fucking mental. But when it works, it’s the coolest thing in the world.”

• Blending is released by Dais on 30 September

• In the UK, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 and the domestic abuse helpline is 0808 2000 247. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is on 13 11 14 and the national family violence counselling service is on 1800 737 732. In the US, the suicide prevention lifeline is 1-800-273-8255 and the domestic violence hotline is 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). Other international helplines can be found via www.befrienders.org.

Mia Hughes

The GuardianTramp

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