Based in Seattle, the four-member alternative/pop/rock band New Heights has recently been gaining momentum since their formation in 2005. Two members of the group, lead vocalist Travis Graham and guitarist Chris Kwak are at the San Diego Asian Film Festival to participate in a panel with Joseph Vincent, Just Kidding Films, and Toestah about their experiences in the music industry and their views on Asian American representation in media.
Just last September, the group released their latest album titled Something to Believe In. It was originally was meant to be their last release together as a band, until they got an unexpected career boost -- partially prompted to the new fan base they've acquired performing at the popular 2011 International Secret Agents concert. They are currently on tour with Clara C, traveling all over the United States.
Travis Graham and Chris Kwak of New Heights talk with APA about the origins of the band, their newest album, and the "new heights" they hope to reach by the end of the year.
Interview with Travis Graham and Chris Kwak
2011 San Diego Asian Film Festival
Interviewed by Mai Nguyen
Camera by Henry Chen
Video edit by Brian Lam
Asia Pacific Arts: Let's start from the beginning. How did you guys come together to form New Heights?
Travis Graham: Chris and I had a mutual friend. We were in the same high school, and we played at this fundraiser night. I played solo, and Chris played with his friends, and from there I was like "Oh, these guys are really good."
Chris Kwak: We were really young. We were like 17.
Travis: Right out of high school.
Chris: I don't think we knew at the time that what we would be doing this six years later. When we started, it was a very organic process. I think a lot of bands start later, whether they're in their mid 20s or 30s, so they feel this pressure, like they have this short window. But for us, we were so young that it felt very natural.
APA: How has your musical style changed or developed since then?
Chris: It's constantly evolving. I think the way we sounded six years ago is completely different than the way we sound now. We're always listening to new music, so that's always kind of changing the way we write and the way we kind of hear music that we want to produce.
[Also, the way we write music] has been changing a lot. In previous years, Travis would write and then I would write, and then we would show each other what we had. But in the past two years, we've been doing a lot of co-writing and collaborating with other people. That's kind of worked for us.
APA: Your song lyrics are really positive and uplifting. Where do you draw inspiration for your music?
Travis: For a while, we were writing some very inspiring songs. We were pursuing the Christian market for a long time, and then we decided "Let's just write music that's inspiring to everyone." We're big fans of the Switchfoot guys, who do that.
Chris: Even though we're pushing more general market now, we didn't change the way we write completely. Because we're still heavily involved in church back home, it does have a big influence -- whether we try to or not -- in the way we write.
APA: How did you get involved with ISA [the International Secret Agents concert]?
Travis: The fact that we even got on [the roster] is amazing. It's a real blessing to be a part of that community, and I think that's probably the biggest thing I took away from it. It's all about community and the movement. Far East Movement guys and Wong Fu -- they're very adamant about pushing Asian Americans.
Chris: They're really all about family. We got on last minute for ISA Seattle, and we went into the Seattle show thinking this would be the only time we'd connect with them and play. We went in there thinking it was going to be the one shot we had, so let's do the best we can. But then naturally, we connected with everyone there, and for some reason or another, Far East Movement seemed to take a liking to us. For us, they are just huge role models. We think what they do is amazing, so for them to kind of, in one way or another, take us under their wing and bring us onto the tour for the year, was really humbling.
APA: Recently, you guys released a teaser of "Nightmare" featuring Brian Joo. How did you come to collaborate with an overseas pop star?
Travis: Well our manager Steve, Chris' brother, actually brought [Brian Joo] from Korea to do this US tour, and he was like "Oh, you should check out New Heights." So Brian watched our video "Peaches," and after that, he tweeted us and said, "Can't wait to meet you guys." Just through that, we ended up asking if he could do a track with us. Since then, we've all gotten really close, and we and still talk and text each other like almost every night. [laughs] We hope to do more things with him. But yeah, it's kind of been crazy.
APA: "Nightmare" has a bit of a darker edge to it in comparison to your other songs.
Chris: I think everyone who hears it thinks we're talking about a girl. [laughs] I think it's cause the lyrics are "I don't wanna forgive / I don't wanna relive / I don't wanna dream this nightmare with you." It's one of those songs that sound very pop, very energetic, but the lyrics are very dark. For us, we wrote it about the music industry. We feel like it's been a pretty tough six years for us. We've been through so much with the industry, with failed promises and whatnot, so we were like, "Let's take this song, and write it about the industry."
A lot of people are going to [interpret] it as a relationship, which is fine 'cause we want to make sure that we write stuff that other people can relate to, but for us, we wrote it with our thoughts on the industry.
APA: What sort of message did you want to convey with your new album, Something to Believe In?
Travis: Well, I think it stems from last November. Chris and I had a talk, and we were on the verge of disbanding. Just calling it quits 'cause we've been doing this a long time. Chris was like, "Why don't we give it one last push and see what'll happen in 2011?" So, we actually had this song, "Something to Believe In," and the title kind of fit for the whole record. Since we've tried and tried, and nothing has cropped up until now. I think the album just means so much to us as this was [potentially] our last thing. This is what we believe in. This is who we are.
Chris: The record was initially titled something else, but in the last month before we started printing everything, I called Travis and said, "Hey, I think we should really consider titling it this." It just seemed to fit better with what we were going for, the direction that we're moving in, and our thoughts on the past few years.
APA: You've been gaining more and more popularity with each new song. What "new heights" would you like to reach by the end of the year?
Chris: It's been a crazy year, in the sense that we've only been pushing YouTube and social media for about a year now, and we've met so many good people and good friends like Clara and Jennifer. Even the Wong Fu guys, Far East Movement, Ryan, Kev, David Choi, and everyone; they've been really good to us. But this year has been tough, because we feel that all our friends have been doing social media and YouTube for 5-6 years, so they have already built this empire. But for us, having only pushed social media and YouTube for a year, we're trying to catch up to them. And in that sense, we've had to set the bar a little higher on our end. We went from having 0 subscribers to 10,000. We went from 1,000 Facebook likes to 5,000. So we've been steadily, in a healthy way, growing a lot. But in our minds, there are certain numbers we want to hit.
Travis: We're just gonna continue pushing as hard as we can. But as far as the end of the year for New Heights, we've kind of been on this wave lately. We feel like the sky is the limit, so I don't know. We'd like to go to Asia [laughs]. We've toured around the US a lot, but we'd definitely like to go to Asia. I guess that's a goal.
For more information, go to New Heights' official website, YouTube page or Facebook.