The 34-year-old singer, guitarist, and songwriter Ryan Higgs must be sick to death of the constant comparisons he gets to Paul Westerberg, although Higgs is happy with the association and declares without hesitation that The Replacements were a seminal influence on his year-old outfit, The High School Assembly.
THSA’s self-titled 2006 debut e.p. manages to hark to Westerberg’s tattered grace without resorting to outright mimicry. The Replacements wrote pop songs in punk drag, and that’s the vibe THSA listeners get from songs like “Sicks of You” and “Unapologetic.” Higgs also considers Billy Corgan a fountainhead of inspiration, but luckily there’s less of the former Smashing Pumpkins frontman’s gleeful scab-picking and more of Westerberg’s sweet yearning for redemption. When singing, Higgs sounds as if he’s holding out for hope even when dangling at the end of his rope. Rounded out by Jon Carney and Tim Hood on guitars, Robert Miller on keyboards, Voigt’s Taylor Craig Mills on bass, and Austin Green from The February Chorus on drums, The High School Assembly has convened with a big, sloppy heart and an angry, cynical mind. The combination is arresting.
“We call our songs ‘chain-smoking pop’,” said Higgs, himself an unrepentant tobacco puffer. “Music helps me blow off steam. I’ve still got a lot of anger toward the world as I get older, but I love the Fort Worth music scene. During the time we dropped out [of the scene], it’s gotten less competitive and more supportive. It feels like a real revival.”
The “drop-out” this High Schooler is referring to are the silent years between 1997 and 2005, when he and a couple of his current band mates avoided the stage and studio entirely. Higgs’ former band, Yellabelly, was formed in 1994 and generated a decent fan base. But, Higgs confesses, a medical diagnosis he received of anxiety disorder — and too much partying — ended the band’s upward trajectory. THSA’s frontman now takes medicine to control the panic attacks that once compromised his ability to perform full sets.
Alongside fellow ex-Yellabelly member Carney, Higgs has emerged from eight years of post-college, responsible adult jobs to realize he was once more leaning toward, not pulling away from, the crazy schedules and sheer uncertainty of a musician’s life. Not an easy choice for individuals within spitting distance of the big 4-0, but both Higgs and Carney are fully aware of their position. “It’s no fun living as a broke artist,” Higgs said. But it’s probably even worse living as a musician with a skull full of material that you can’t express. Higgs, who co-owns The Chat Room Pub with Brandin Lea (Flickerstick, The February Chorus), just couldn’t stay away from the stage.
In the long interval between Yellabelly and The High School Assembly, Carney, who’s known Higgs since they were both toddlers, switched from bass to guitar. He’s not so much self-deprecating as self-canceling when he says, “I don’t know what you measure a musician’s talent by, but I don’t consider myself [a musician]. I know a few chords. I can get by. But there are some amazing players in Fort Worth. I consider this band a success just because of the friends we’ve made and because I’ve had a helluva time playing with people like [Higgs].”
And Higgs is on fire right now, as The High School Assembly prepares to release a long-postponed full-length c.d. sometime in the fall. Higgs calls one of his biggest recent inspirations “the great heartbreak,” a breakup last year with a woman about whom he declines to surrender details. “I finally had a reason to write again,” he said, noting that he can’t help but stumble into the well-trod love-song territory again and again.
But because rock ’n’ roll, a term Higgs proudly invokes as frequently as “catchy pop” to describe his band, is composed of a few simple chords endlessly reconfigured over the past six decades, imitation is a constant danger. Carney relates a great story in which the band worked for a month to perfect a song they were all totally pumped about — only to realize that they “had ripped off a Flickerstick melody in a big way.” Naturally, they dumped it.
Higgs insists that The High School Assembly isn’t planning a career too far into the future, even though they seem completely capable of riding a Replacements-ish late-’80s punk-pop resurgence á la those white-hot senior citizens, Green Day. At the moment, Higgs and his band aren’t focusing on the Big Time. “I was born in Fort Worth, and I’m gonna die here,” Higgs said. “We were all looking for something we didn’t have in our lives, and right now, we’ve found it.”