Highwater: Rising to the Top of Oregon’s Alternative Scene

photo taken by Carolyn Taylor
“Left-coast mountain punk-grass” is how Highwater, a Portland- and Eugene-based band, describes its sound. If you’re unfamiliar with that particular genre of music, you’re not alone: Highwater’s tunes are as unique as the men who made them, and they’re spreading their sound all across the state.

The four men of Highwater are Nate “Nate Dawg” Chang, who sings lead vocals and plays guitar and harmonica, Justin “JayJay” Miles, who plays mandolin, banjo and tenor banjo, Rai “Thunder Buck” Wheat, upright bassist and background vocalist, and “Krazy Hands” Kyle Knox, lead guitarist.
Although the band was officially formed about nine months ago, the guys have known each other for years. “Nate and Rai are cousins, and Justin went to high school with Rai in Gresham,” Knox said. “Rai and I didn’t go to school together at all, but I knew him through mutual friends [when] he used to live in Eugene.”

“We’ve been playing together through other projects for probably about a decade – each no more than a few months at best, and they never really got off the ground,” Wheat added. “The ‘acousto’ thing, we’ve only been doing for about nine months; Kyle’s been here for four months.” Highwater’s original lead guitarist, Bobby Bosserman, left the band in May, giving Knox the perfect opportunity to fill his spot.

“I have a lot of respect for Bobby,” Knox said of his predecessor. “He’s going into the military, shipping out [to Iraq] pretty soon so he had to quit… As soon as I heard, I sent Nate a message [saying] ‘I heard you need a guitar player’ and it didn’t take long before I was involved in the band. Rai came down and dropped off a CD for me to listen to and learn the songs. It didn’t take very long – I learned them really quickly.”

Wheat is touted as the only Highwater member with professional musical training; the rest of the band taught themselves how to play their respective instruments. Miles originally played guitar but has picked up the mandolin and banjo within the last few years. Wheat said when he first met Knox, “he was playing trumpet back in middle school and switched to guitar… not only did he teach himself guitar but he had to teach himself left-handed.” Knox had a seizure early on in life that affected the grip in his left hand. While others may have given up, he rose to the challenge by re-stringing his guitar and using a thumb pick. “It was really fun and interesting to watch Kyle grow as a musician,” Wheat added.

The Highwater guys proudly write their own songs, each with its own musical influence. Knox credits Miles for bringing a punk twist to the band’s music, and says Chang is influenced by “Tom Petty, the Rolling Stones, Nirvana – definitely a lot of Kurt Cobain [in the way he sings]. His songwriting’s just very diverse. He’s got songs that are country, songs that are bluegrass – even folky, rock-kinda stuff. When I listened to that CD [...] I heard all these influences that just made sense and I was like, ‘I know how to do that…’ I could hear my part in songs that I hadn’t even played before – it was kinda weird.” Knox added that he is personally influenced by Stevie Ray Vaughan, Eric Clapton and Billy Gibbons from ZZ Top, while Wheat said The Devil Makes Three, Hank Williams III and Wayne “The Train” Hancock all have a major impact on Highwater’s sound. “Those [artists] are all legends to us – they’re the kings of what they do and they have a huge influence on us as far as how we write our music and represent ourselves.”

Highwater’s first official gig was at the Backgrounds Pub in Boring, OR last December. Despite the group’s relative anonymity, they had a surprisingly large turnout. Wheat said the pub “had a max capacity of 150 people. We turned in a six-song demo and asked if we could play there. [...] By the time we started, the door count exceeded 200 people, so it was a lot bigger than we anticipated – there were so many people it was kind of intimidating. The next three shows around the Portland area were like that, too. Once Kyle was in the band, we started hitting up the Eugene area – they really, really loved us at open mic nights at Mulligans, Jimmy Mac’s Overtime Grill, and Diablo’s Downtown Lounge.”

Wheat, as well as the other band members, feels Eugene is much more receptive to Highwater’s unique sound. “As far as acoustic music goes, I feel that Eugene is the mecca [...] Sure, there are folk bands but there’s a bigger feel for it down there than there is up here [in Portland, where] you have heavy metal, punk, indie – all that stuff is big here.” Knox and Wheat both expressed how, despite playing venues alongside punk/metal bands, they’ve acquired a large number of followers from those shows, to which Wheat credits the band’s ability to transcend genre boundaries. “What it comes down to is the language [of the music] and the way you communicate it to the audience” through high-energy songs, for example.

So what’s next for this “left-coast mountain punk-grass” band? Knox said the band will be looking to play more Eugene shows, as well as possibly record more music in October. Highwater hits the stage Saturday, Sept. 11, 9 p.m. at the Axe & Fiddle in Cottage Grove, where they plan on recording the performance for a live album. As always, the guys are excited for the show; Wheat said it’s the payoff after hours of practicing and planning. “We’re rebel music – we want our fans to be drinking and having a good time. If our fans aren’t having a good time, we’re not doing our jobs.”

Check out Highwater’s MySpace for early tracks, or keep up with the guys on their Facebook page.