Exploring Charleston's Music Scene with Luke Mitchell of THE HIGH DIVERS

Photo by Sean Money + Elizabeth Fay

Maybe Charleston’s just got it. The lovable southern city has been a bastion for several key indie artists over the last half-decade. By facilitating the prosperity of fan favorites like Shovels & Rope, SUSTO, Brave Baby, She Returns from War, Human Resources, and The Artisanals, the town has rightfully assumed its role as a regional hotbed for homegrown music. The charming lowcountry staple even managed to kidnap the Seattle-formed Band of Horses – seemingly for the foreseeable future. But regarding the absence of industry focus toward the city, bands have some gripe. Paradoxically, Luke Mitchell (lead vocals, guitar) of the High Divers surmises that “that’s the cool thing about Charleston: everybody’s really involved in the best way, and they’re all really supportive.” The rank-and-file legion of local musicians have unabashedly adopted their roles as industry reserves, breeding a movement borne by an authenticity that surpasses the profit motives of oversized labels.

The High Divers are a quintessential case study of such a rare and fascinating communal undergirding. Their latest album, Chicora, features a patchwork of musical strains that have been passed around the Charleston area like a joint in a rowhouse at a 1960s Haight-Ashbury high school party. And it works. Actually, it sounds great. “We experimented a little bit on this record. Mostly just because Corey (Campbell of SUSTO – guitar, keys, backing vocals) left his synth and some keyboards over at our house.” But Mitchell’s explanation is really just lackadaisical modesty at its best. Songs like “Making Me Want You,” with its eclectic synth bit and deep, booming drumbeat were not composed by happenstance. Chicora also features masterful tracks that show off The High Divers’ tasteful guitar riffs like “Weighing On My Mind.” Meanwhile, “Never Let You Down” is an ode to love, ringing out like a moonlight tryst in the sweet, summer dawn before the placid Folly Beach shoreline. The Charlestonian community manifesto is reflected within The High Divers’ network and core membership: Mitchell is old friends with Johnny Delaware (The Artisanals). He delivered a solo album with Wolfgang Zimmerman, local producing legend. He was roommates with Corey Campbell and Jenna Desmond (also of SUSTO). Hell, he’s even married to his own keyboardist (Mary Alice Mitchell, vocals, keyboard). And though I’m little more than an Atlantan outsider, Mitchell welcomed me with open arms during our interview, delivering his patent sincerity and imparting didactic scope into The High Divers’ work as a product of the new music mecca that is Charleston, South Carolina.

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RT: “My first interview I did was actually with Johnny Delaware [of The Artisanals].”

LM: “Ohhh yeah. I know that guy.” (Laughs.)

RT: “He had some good things to say about you guys. He also made a comment about the lack of industry attention that Charleston gets. Do you feel the same way? Maybe like the artists there aren’t getting the full attention they deserve?”

LM: “Yeah, I definitely think that’s probably the worst part about the music scene of Charleston. It’s that there’s really no infrastructure there to help people out. Johnny and I met back in Austin, Texas a long time ago, and that was kind of something that Austin had, but it didn’t have the other aspects of the music scene. Like the music wasn’t very good, to us. And I feel like Charleston is kind of thriving right now in creativity with all different kinds of bands, and DJs, and just… really creative people that just aren’t getting the exposure that they could if they lived in Nashville or Austin or New York. So I definitely feel like the infrastructure could be a lot better around Charleston. I think there’s a lot of potential that’s kinda untapped right now.”

RT: “The amount of bands coming out of [Charleston] is pretty impressive. I heard that you knew members from SUSTO and Brave Baby. Could you tell me a little more about how it was growing up around [people like that] and the music scene in Charleston?”

LM: “Yeah, I mean we live with the members of SUSTO, Corey and Jenna – and they also have their own band that’s called Babe Club that’s fantastic – but yeah, we kind of were a little late to the scene as a band, but I knew all of them personally back before all of this stuff got started. I knew Brave Baby back when “Wylie” was their first name. And I had met Justin Osborne a few times here and there before I moved back to Hilton Head, my hometown. Off and on I would go visit, and I started to get to know everybody. I did a solo album with Wolfgang Zimmerman a long time ago. And we’ve been really good buds for a good while now. And I met Johnny in Texas, like I said, and I convinced him to move to Charleston. He made stuff start to happen on the scene pretty quickly, and everybody fell in love with him because he’s awesome and crazy and an amazing songwriter. So yeah, I’ve known them for a long time. We’re all still really good friends and just really supportive of each other’s bands and whatever creative projects we have going on. You know, that’s the cool thing about Charleston: everybody’s really involved in the best way, and they’re all really supportive. I think that’s what actually makes the scene cool and thrive. I feel like that’s what a lot of the standard scenes actually don’t have. There’s a lot of backstabbing and stuff.”

RT: “I know you guys have toured with some other bands like Motel Radio. Are there any other bands out there outside of the Charleston community that you’re rooting for?”

LM: “Man, there’s tons of ‘em! There’s so many good bands that nobody’s really heard of, or people have heard them, but they haven’t heard them enough. You mentioned Motel Radio – they’re one of our favorites. I think somebody that’s doing it on kind of like a really grassroots scale – kind of what we’re trying to model after – is Hiss Golden Messenger, who’s doing a really good job. One of our friends, Tristen, is amazing. She’s been around for a while but she’s absolutely fantastic. She’s based out of Nashville. Like I said, our roommates, Corey and Jenna, are kind of in the beginnings of their new band, Babe Club. They’re awesome. Our friends DYADO have a really good record coming out. They’re really great. Young Mister, a.k.a. Steven Fiore from Chapel Hill… uh, Sleepwalkers, from Richmond. They’re fantastic. Our buddies in Canada that actually just got us on a showcase that they curated called the Elwins – they’re incredible live. They’re really, really tight.”

RT: “Back to Chicora. Some of the songs on there were in your head for a long time. Was releasing the album more of a fine tuning thing process, or was it all experimenting with new stuff?”

LM: “We experimented a little bit on this record. Mostly just because Corey from SUSTO left his synth and some keyboards over at our house. I feel like this record has a lot more pads and synth-y type things that we don’t normally reach for. It came together pretty quickly, because we had this self-imposed deadline, and then a bunch of crazy stuff happened, so we weren’t able to release it when we planned. So we were kind of just sitting on the record for a long time, getting pretty antsy about releasing it. I wish we would have taken more time on it. But you know, also, sometimes creativity really flows when you know that you have some sort of a deadline. So I’m glad it went the way it did.”

RT: “Next time you sit down to write, do you think you’ll try a new direction and experiment more? Or is this new sound with the synths something that you will merge into your identity?”

LM: “I don’t think we have any rules for ourselves. The most important thing for me is that if a song can just be translated with, you know, just a voice in it and an acoustic guitar, then it’s probably gonna be pretty good. When we’re writing now we think of the live aspect a lot more. When we first started out it was just kinda like, ‘I just want people to hear these songs.’ But now, it’s kinda like, ‘I want people to be able to dance to some of these songs too,’ you know? So that’s definitely something we’re thinking. But we don’t have any rules for ourselves – I mean we always just play what we normally play, and if it ends up different, then that just means we’re having a good time and letting it happen.”

RT: “Speaking of playing live – is there a specific live show that pops into your head where people were really vibing with you guys?”

LM: “Yeah, I mean our local music scene kind of hinges on the Royal American, which is a venue down in Charleston that’s been really supportive of us and everybody around trying to do the original music thing. Shows there have always been incredible. Recently, we played High Water Music Festival in Charleston, that Shovels & Rope curates. That was incredible. That was a big high for us, for sure. I think those stand out as some of our most energetic shows in recent memory.”

RT: “What can you find the other High Divers doing in their free time?”

LM: “I’m usually just freaking out about how our band could be better and get further; Mary Alice is emailing people and hugging Nora, Kevin is ordering food and driving a lot; and Julius is advancing shows, shopping at Trader Joe’s… and sending posters. I wanted to rhyme something at the end, but… sorry.”

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You can check out more of The High Divers, including tour updates here:





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