Higgins Returns to Jersey City With a Set at Pushing Up The Daisies

Kevin Fish has always been a man out of time. If he’d written and released the last two Higgins albums — the artfully ornate Zs and the gorgeous, sedate Straight A’s — in, say, 1974, he’d have probably earned himself raves in Rolling Stone and set himself up for life. As it is, the market for warm, graceful, understated pop-rock isn’t what it used to be, and Higgins has had to settle for regional notoriety. Guitarist Fish and drummer Brian Kantor used to be semi-regulars in Hudson County, but Higgins shows have become a relative rarity since Fish decamped for Upstate New York a few years ago (the imaginative Kantor continues to hit the skins for a series of outstanding Big Apple singer-songwriters.) That’s why true believers in the living art of song craft should make sure to arrive at the Historic Jersey City and Harsimus Cemetery early on Saturday, May 16: Higgins will be playing the fourth annual Pushing Up The Daisies Festival and fundraiser at 2:40 pm. Fish, Kantor, and three new bandmates join punk rockers Cicada Radio, irascible rapper Vincent, The Owl, dreamy Hey Anna, and other local artists at an all-day event held to raise money for the historic cemetery. It’s like Ghost Of Uncle Joe’s, only without the costumes. We caught up with Kevin Fish and here’s what he had to say.

Any Higgins show is a cause for celebration. What’s the band lineup these days? Who are you bringing to the cemetery with you?

The lineup is Brian Kantor (Drums), myself (Gtr/Vox), Ty Tuschen (Guitar), Evan Duby (Bass) and Daniel Kessler (Keys). Brian and I have been the only two in it since the start, around 2002. We are really excited to be playing with these fine musicians and expect it to be a blast. Brian has played with all these guys in various bands over the past few years. He speaks very highly of them and if Brian believes in them, then I do, too.

It’s been a few years since the release of Straight A’s, which felt like the most realized and most varied Higgins collection yet. Looking back on it, did you accomplish what you wanted to accomplish with that album? What have you been up to since Straight A’s came out? Anything new in the works?

I also felt that Straight A’s was our most expansive and realized record to date. I [wanted] something that represented all the things that I loved about records at the time and I would have to say that we got a lot of that stuff in there. That said, I have a pretty manic relationship with my songs and while engaged in the process of recording, editing and mixing, I go from loving to hating to elation to frustration in quick succession. It always takes me so long to decide if something is done or record worthy.

Since that record came out I have been working in direct [health] care, over the past two years, studying to become an RN. Musically, I did a few tours with The Warm Hair, opening up for Built To Spill, and worked on records with The Warm Hair, Benji Cossa and Marshmallow Coast. Lucky for me those are three of my favorite songwriters. Travis Harrison, Brian, Josh Kaufman and myself have also been slowly compiling recordings for the next Higgins album, and I am happy to say that it is very close to being done.

The material on Straight A’s might be harder to reproduce in performance than the Zs songs were. A song such as “Charly,” the stormy climax of Zs, is an obvious rocker, but “Build It Up” or “Easy Thing” demand a little more from audiences. They don’t grab the listener by the collar; they’re more like gentle breezes. Do these songs get rougher when you play them live? Do you transform them in any way? Or do you trust your audiences to get it?

The Straight A’s stuff was a bit more temperamental live. I am excited to try it with the new band, because it’s a five piece with keys and a better opportunity to cover more ground. I think it will be more effective live. We will be debuting new songs too, which is always the best thing about getting up and running for shows. It’s a win/win, because we don’t get the chance to do Higgins shows all that often and revisiting the back catalog is really fun for us. I think the audience will be in for a dynamic Higgins set, and I trust that they’ll even let us get away with a few of our gentlest breeziest ones.

Your chord vocabulary is wider than that of most independent musicians, and you push your melodies places that wouldn’t occur to most songwriters. Were you jazz trained or classically trained? Or did you get your training from playing along to classic rock records?

I would describe myself as “Jazz-Curious.” I took a brief chunk of guitar lessons when I was a kid and have been working off that info ever since. I mostly learned music from tinkering with a four track and obsessing over albums. I adore chords and what they can do to my brain. I have had periods where I studied theory on my own and have also had a lot of friends and monster talent/mentors through the years such as Josh Kaufman, Brian Kantor, The Freebird, Andy Gonzales and Travis Harrison. All those guys have inspired me tremendously and propelled me to stay engaged in a creative life.

It’s apparent to that you love Steely Dan and the Beach Boys. Was Hawaii by the High Llamas an influence on the last set? “T Or T” in particular?

Yes! Yes! And definitely. Steely Dan’s Can’t Buy a Thrill was my first record. I remember walking around my neighborhood when I was about 5 years old listening to it on a portable 8-track boombox over and over. The Beach Boys are so important. I am especially in love with Van Dyke Parks too. His Discover America record and the Smile stuff they did together kills me. I own all of the High Llamas records and Hawaii is incredible. I can listen to his stuff anytime. Beautifully orchestrated escapism. That is what I’m looking for in the things I write, some indescribable warm, multi-textural feeling. Sean O’Hagan [of the High Llamas] is a master at that. “T or T” was definitely inspired by him.

What about the band name? What does “Higgins” mean to you? Bernard Shaw fans, might think of Henry Higgins, which suits the band’s sound: playful, impish, but upright and classic at the same time.

The name — I honestly can’t remember. I remember thinking it was funny when Brian landed on it. Overly refined and British sounding. I like to tell people now that we are the illegitimate off spring of Bertie Higgins. Yours is better though. ‘enry ‘iggins.

You’ve been involved in Hudson County and Jersey City music for a long time now. You put out the first Higgins record through local imprint Maggadee Records, and you played some legendary sets at Uncle Joe’s. You’ve seen plenty of change. Do you think those changes have been for the better? Where are you living now?

I look back on the Uncle Joe’s and Maggadee days fondly. Higgins was definitely embraced by a lot of great folks when we showed up in Jersey City and Hoboken. Billy Filo and Shaun Towey were totally responsible for bringing me around and playing our music for people. It always feels like home when we play here. I can’t say I know too much about the current scene, but I am really excited to see old friends and hear some of the new bands on the 16th. I am currently living in the Hudson Valley in Rhinebeck, New York. Keeping it Hudson.

Check out our photos from the 2015 Pushing Up the Daisies Festival.

Higgins will play at the Pushing Up The Daisies Festival on Saturday, May 16, at the Historic Jersey City and Harsimus Cemetery, 425 Newark Ave., at 2:40 pm the event starts at 1pm, $10 suggested donation. For more information, visit jerseycitycemetery.org or the JCI Cultural Calendar.

Photo by Andy Nauss

Additional Coverage:

Tris McCall

For the past twenty years, Tris McCall has been preoccupied with the art, music, architecture, politics, and public culture of New Jersey. For the past fifteen, he's been writing and singing about the Garden State wherever and whenever he can. The Trespassers, his first novel, was released in 2012; another not-dissimilar book is on the way. You can read more on his blog trismccall.net.