"Big fucking day," says Johnny Stevens, lead singer and guitarist of Highly Suspect, as he takes a drag from an American Spirit on a couch backstage at Chicago's Bottom Lounge. He's talking about the band's show at the venue, which has already drawn dozens to line up outside in the cold four hours before start time. He's also referring to the fact that the night before, Highly Suspect released their second album, The Boy Who Died Wolf, which then sat at Number Two on the iTunes rock chart. "MCID nation is woke!" says Stevens, using his invented acronym for "My Crew Is Dope," which the band uses frequently online to describe its fans. Stevens has "MCID" inked across his knuckles; other tattoos include a giant bird on his neck and a sai martial-arts weapon on the left side of his face.
The release marks the culmination of a decade of hard work for Highly Suspect – featuring Stevens and twin brothers Rich and Ryan Meyer on bass and drums, respectively – whose sound is a proud throwback to the muscular, glossed-up sludge of the post-Nirvana mid-Nineties. "We're sitting right next to Metallica on the rock charts right now," says Ryan, beaming.
Highly Suspect grew up on Cape Cod, cutting their teeth in the area's small club scene. After saving $6,000 from playing covers gigs, they moved to Brooklyn, and shared a single studio apartment for years. To cover living costs, Rich (with his bandmates assisting) converted the floor above them into loft spaces, which earned them more carpentry gigs. "That's what paid our rent for so long," says Stevens. "We come from blue-collar backgrounds; building houses and landscaping. Shit like that. The whole being-able-to-support-ourselves-on-music is relatively new." The band released four EPs between 2009 and 2013, before finally catching the attention of Lyor Cohen, the former chief of Warner Music and Def Jam, who says he found them "dangerously honest and beautiful." Cohen signed the band to his label, 300 Entertainment, and made it the label's first rock act (300's hip-hop heavy roster includes Young Thug and Migos). "I see us as a great alternative to what's already out there," says Stevens. "We all like hip-hop, we all like poetry, we all like lyricism." It worked: Last year, the band's boot-stomping "Lydia" became a Top Five rock hit and earned a Grammy nomination.
"The whole being-able-to-support-ourselves-on-music is relatively new." –Johnny Stevens
Since then, Highly Suspect's time on the road has been a non-stop celebration. "For me, it's been the travel and the naked parties," says Stevens, when asked for his highlights. Naked parties? "We have naked parties. And I feel like no one would want to have naked parties with us if we weren't successful. That's a mindblower."
They've also met plenty of heroes. "We were playing Aftershock Fest in Sacramento and Josh Homme walked in on his cell phone and it was like the air stopped," Ryan says. They also met Scott Weiland when they opened for Stone Temple Pilots last year, under less joyous circumstances. "Scott was hurting and it was very visible," Stevens says. "I'll just put it this way, none of us were surprised [when he died]. I had a couple interactions with him and they were very distant. Like you feel like you're talking to someone who's not really there."
To shake up their sound for their second album, they headed to Bogota, Colombia – an idea that started out as a joke with their producer Joel Hamilton, who spends time in South America. But the band got on board as a way to escape the distractions (and, perhaps, naked parties) of New York and L.A. They rented out a studio surrounded by 20-foot walls "across the street from a hardcore ghetto, just shanties up a hill," says Ryan. Adds Stevens, "There was an element of danger down there that was kind of exhilarating."
That danger is evident in the grungy, dark arrangements on the new album. Some songs are politically charged: "Guns don't kill people / White people kill black people with guns," Stevens howls in "Viper Strike." Other tracks are more personal: "Chicago" is a piano ballad about Stevens' rocky relationship with his longtime girlfriend, in which he asks himself, "Why am I fucking up so bad? … When am I ever gonna learn?" "Every single word of that song is true," says Stevens. The band wrote the roaring "For Billy" in Bogota after receiving the news that a close friend had committed suicide. "I cried for a whole day," Stevens says. "We had the song laid down the next day within a couple of hours. It's sad, but we wanted to put together an anthem. This dude was a wild man."
"In the rock world, everything is just a [fictional] story," Stevens adds. "Everything the fuck they're singing about is not true. There's moments when I'm writing where I'm like, 'Whoa, I'm so transparent right now. What of myself do I reserve?'"