“Racism sucks, homophobia sucks, and our president is a giant piece of shit”.
These were the words confidently spoken by the lead singer of Highly Suspect, Johnny Stevens. As he finished the sentence, the crowd roared in approval. Chicago’s House of Blues was sold out for the second night in a row on November 18th, and every person in attendance screamed in agreement. The trio met this incredible wave of noise with a tune that perfectly complimented Johnny’s fiery statement, “Viper Strike”. “Viper Strike” is a song that attacks bigotry in every form, from racism to homophobia. The band has stated in interviews that parts of the song are direct references to Donald Trump, and that is very evident upon listening to the song. It is also evident from comments on the song’s youtube video that there are many right-leaning fans of Highly Suspect that believe that such an “obviously partisan” song should not exist and that the band should not involve itself in politics. In order to understand why this is not possible, it is vital to understand where they come from.
Highly Suspect was formed in 2009 in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. They form a trio made up of twin brothers Rich and Ryan Meyers, and their friend Johnny Stevens. Their first studio album, Mister Asylum was released on July 17, 2015. The album was nominated for Best Rock Album at the Grammys, and the song “Lydia” was also nominated for Best Rock Song. A year later the band released their second and latest studio album, “The Boy Who Cried Wolf”, on November 18, 2016. Two of the songs reached the Billboard US Mainstream Rock Songs chart, these were “My Name Is Human” and “Little One” at number 1 and number 2 respectively. Although the band has only officially released these two albums, there is a treasure trove of hard-to-find songs on youtube from their early days that any self-proclaimed Highly Suspect fan needs to be aware of.
It seems like a crime to only be able to pick out a few songs to talk about, but there are several that doubtlessly left enormous impacts on everyone in attendance at the House of Blues. The theater at House of Blues is located on the second floor of a decidedly vintage-looking building, and there were a few times during the night that it seemed the entire floor was about to collapse. One of the times the floor seemed especially likely to fall through was the finale of the song “Bloodfeather”. “You grab the gun, I’ll take the wheel, fuck the world my love is real, fuck the world my love is real, fuck the world my love is real”. As the last “fuck the world” was screamed by every single person in the theater, they all jumped at the exact same time. “Bloodfeather” is a Highly Suspect song that is only done real justice when belted at the top of one’s lungs while headbanging to every riff in the song. “Lydia” is a song that everyone who goes to a Highly Suspect will know, no matter how little that person has listened to the rest of their collection.
Their performance of “Lydia” at the Grammys was what introduced many to the band, and it remains their most well-known song. However, seeing it performed live is an experience that blows the studio version out of the water. Watching Johnny stop the song, stick his cigarette in between one of the tuners of his guitar, reassuring everyone it’s ok to shout “I can’t fucking breathe” as loud as they can, and then starting the song again is an incredible moment to be a part of. “My Name Is Human” is the next song that everyone knows from them, and it is again a completely different monster to witness live. The familiar, rambling guitar seems to extend for as long as the band desires, with long, lyric-less stretches being a time for the band to improvise whatever they feel like doing
The question has still not been answered, why would it be so impossible for Highly Suspect to be silent on politics or other controversial subjects? Don’t they want to be as broadly appealable as possible, be easily consumed by as wide of an audience as they can muster? Well, no. That’s just not who they are. Highly Suspect is a band that really does not give a shit what people think of them. They drink and smoke on stage constantly, with a blatant disregard for any sort moderation. Impromptu drum and guitar solos are commonplace, sometimes lasting for tens of minutes. Johnny Stevens is the man that most fathers would be terrified of to see their daughters bring home. He is covered from neck to toe in elaborate tattoos, and has a sense of style that could only be described as “punkish”. Beyond the cosmetics of the group and their public image, they operate in a way that does not seem to fit in with the rest of music in today’s world.
That is the motto of Highly Suspect. It stands for “My Crew Is Dope”. When Johnny explained this in the House of Blues, he said it stood for the qualities that the band preaches, peace, love, and equality. For many of their fans, Highly Suspect is an escape from the bullshit of everyday life, a life where bigots can exist without repercussion. A life where sometimes, those bigots are elected president. So the next time a Youtube comment asks “Why don’t they just stick to music without the politics and controversy?”, well, they can’t. It’s just who they are.