Listen to Highly Suspect's song "Lydia," and you hear crunching guitar riffs, the bass guitar's heartbeat rhythm, the snap of the snare as singer/guitarist Johnny Stevens croons and growls through the lyrics. "I can't fucking breathe, much less believe the truth," he screams. The anguish in his voice is clear as the song steers toward its closing exhaustion.
The Brooklyn rock trio's hit single from their debut album, Mister Asylum, peaked at No. 4 and has earned the band plenty of attention from rock radio around the country. It's a far cry from the trio's early days of playing covers as a reggae band in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. But, hey, people change and grow as people and musicians. Far removed from the beaches of their youth, the band is touring and will perform at the Neighborhood Theatre on Aug. 17.
"It's been a long road," Stevens says by phone from "a dark closet in Rhode Island." "It's not like your song is on the radio and you're suddenly in pools and Mercedes. We have a very long road ahead of us, as well. You have to work and grind. It's nice that people are noticing what we're doing after all these years."
Highly Suspect's sound — a heavy-handed fusion of bluesy, alt-rock — is one that developed after the trio moved to New York City. The change of scenery and just growth as people inspired their new sonic direction.
"It's not like we moved to New York and said, 'We're in New York, so now we have to sound like this.' We moved to New York and my life changed," Stevens says. "I was hanging out with different crowds and doing different things and finding myself in different situations. Those situations led to these songs because I always write about things that happen in my life. I wasn't hanging out in the sun on beaches anymore. I was living in the New York nightlife."
The result is music that could quickly be compared to artists like Royal Blood, Kings of Leon and Lenny Kravitz. The band's songs are driven by the introspection of Stevens. He views all of the songs equally, saying that they're all based on his experiences so each has a special meaning for him — though he knows some will resonate with listeners more than others.
Stevens says he's had hesitations about writing personal lyrics, but at the same time, he's proud to share part of himself with fans of the band. He knows that people might be able to relate to what he writes, perhaps they are going through something similar, or they will in the future.
While he's human and says it's tough to let it out sometimes, one thing is for certain. "It's far greater to play your own music than to play cover songs," he says. "Cover songs are cool, but you don't feel like a real band when you're playing covers. It's night and day."
While playing in a cover band might seem like an easier road in some respects, Stevens says the band — he along with twin brothers Ryan (drums) and Rich Meyer (bass) — learned a lot in those early days.
"You learn crowd control and how to engage with your audience and how to make a set dynamic so the show isn't boring," he says. "We learned what it's like to play in front of three people who aren't paying attention because they're watching the hockey game instead. And we learned how to turn those heads around. You keep trying until people start to listen. You can sense the mood in the room and you can alter it — for better or worse — and that's a crazy thing, to have that power."
Debut albums so often are an accumulation of songs written over the years that bands often fear the sophomore slump. While that's true for Mister Asylum — two songs were written with the album in mind — Highly Suspect worked to put together a cohesive album that lived up to the album title. The trio is also looking forward to the challenge of its sophomore album, as much as fearing it.
"It's a shame, but I feel like a lot of people in the industry and even fans want to see somebody, not necessarily fail, but say, 'I told you so. I knew you couldn't repeat that.' The second album is always going to be critical. We have to bring it better than we did the first time. It'll be interesting to see where the love and hate line falls."