Ex-Kids of 88 star Jordan Arts talks bidding wars, bigwigs and breakdowns – and tells Hussein Moses how, with new project HIGH HØØPS, he came out the other side.
When Jordan Arts is in “aeroplane mode”, that means it’s time to get to work. It’s the term the Auckland musician uses to describe his late-night writing sessions, the kind that often run from midnight until five or six in the morning. He switches off and zones in, the same way he did when he was working on the songs from his just-released debut album Seasons On Planet Earth. Credited under his new moniker HIGH HØØPS, it’s his first as a solo artist. “Now that the record’s done,” Arts tells me over a coffee the day after another late night in his home studio, “I feel a little bit more human.”
The studio is set up in the garage of his new flat, a three storey home that overlooks the Manukau Harbour in the quiet back streets of West Auckland suburb Titirangi. He only moved in a week ago, with his girlfriend and another couple, and it’s already proving to be the perfect spot to write. Candles and burnt out incense sticks are the remnants of a night spent piecing together more new music. When the garage door goes up and the sun shines in, the place feels transformed.
Letting the light in on his own life is something Arts has had to work on since the demise of Kids of 88, the hugely successful pop act he formed with his old schoolmate Sam McCarthy, who now makes music as Boyboy. The group crashed onto the local scene in 2009 with ‘My House’, an electro-pop hit that went to number three on the charts and soundtracked an endlessly-repeated ad on former music channel C4. ‘Just A Little Bit’, their second single, won them the awards for Single of the Year and Best Music Video at the 2010 New Zealand Music Awards. “It still gets played at the rugby at halftime,” laughs Arts.
As far as some local critics were concerned though, Kids of 88 were the worst band to come out the country since The Feelers (an honour that now safely belongs to Six60). “This has to be a new low in New Zealand’s susceptibility to years-past-the-use-by-date bandwagon jumping and barrel-scraping from total chancers,” wrote Stevie Kaye in a one-star review of their debut album Sugarpills in Real Groove magazine. “This really is the new dregs-of-hair-metal, isn’t it? All the charm and sonic innovation of Black Eyed Peas’ ‘I Gotta Feeling’ except with, y’know, more date-rapey videos.”
In spite of this poor critical reception, however, the commercial success of ‘My House’ and ‘Just A Little Bit’ still managed to land Arts and McCarthy dead in the middle of a bidding war between just about every major label at the time. The duo was flown to Los Angeles, New York and London to shake hands with label heads and stir up more interest. For one meeting, they dined out in Brooklyn, all expenses paid. “I said to Sam, ‘let’s just choose the most expensive thing on the menu,’” remembers Arts. “It was that type of mentality.”
In London, another label bigwig told them how he had tried to sign Wellington act Fat Freddy’s Drop but they had turned down the offer. “He was like, ‘they wouldn’t do it. We threw x dollars, like take it all, and they were like nah’. I remember thinking that was the most gangsta shit.”
The bidding war for Kids of 88 paid off big time – that is until it fell through. The offer, pulled from the table at the last minute, was said to be worth around $1,000,000 and the band’s manager, Ashley Page, later told NZ Herald that by the time the deal fell apart, it was too late to go crawling back to the other labels. “It was one of those moments where you go from being king of the world to the biggest chump in the room,” he said.
Greed was the real reason the deal went sour, says Arts. “We were just the pawns.” The dark side of the music industry Arts saw in those meetings was something he wanted nothing to do with. The music would always come second in that line of work and the thought didn’t sit right with him. “Creativity was one thing and then the music industry was another,” he says. “You can get a lot of people that believe in it, but at the end of the day if it’s not making anyone money, you may as well sell your mix CD at the Titirangi market.”
The group returned home to Auckland empty-handed but not exactly disappointed. “I think in a way it almost let us off the hook,” says Arts. “I was kind of excited to pay rent for a minute but that was about it.” The two eventually signed with Sony Music Australia, who released Sugarpills, but more complications were on the way. They had spent six months working to put things in place with their A&R guy Jay Dee Springbett, a well-known record executive who appeared as a judge on Australian Idol in 2009. Then they got news that he had been found dead in his Sydney apartment. “We had this thing again where it’s just like, no matter what opportunity we’ve been put in, there’s something not quite right,” remembers Arts. “I still think there’s some weird stuff in the universe where things weren’t meant to happen.”
Arts had already dreamed up HIGH HØØPS as a side project by the time Kids of 88 released their second album, Modern Love, in 2012. When McCarthy decided to move to Los Angeles and go solo, the band unofficially came to an end. Arts was happy to move on. “The worst case scenario probably would’ve been Kids of 88 working,” he says.
After studying digital design, Arts started freelancing as a video director, working on clips for Broods, MAALA and Matthew Young. Then, in 2015, he got booked to play an event in Los Angeles put on by Red Bull called 30 Days In LA. It was meant to be a second chance at success, but quickly the pressure to do well was proving overwhelming. A new song he was working on wasn’t coming together and he found himself obsessing about what other people would think of it. “I think I just reached this level of self-defeat,” he says. “I just had no more juice left. I was like ‘I can’t make this song sound right. I’m shit. I’m terrible. Why am I even doing music?’ By the time I knew it, I couldn’t find sunshine anymore. It was a freaky place to be because I had used HØØPS as a ray of sunshine through the darkness, but now that had gone. I was stuck watching Jeremy Kyle at midday. I was fucked.”
He got on the flight to LA anyway but was still in a bad headspace after playing the event. “I always thought I was bulletproof,” he explains. “I only identified it after living with it for a month and going ‘it could be that’. It’s like, ‘are we talking about the D word? Depression? No. That’s not me’. But I was already in it.” Behind his struggles was the emotional baggage he was still carrying around after being targeted by critics during his time in Kids of 88. “There were lots of demons to exorcise,” he admits.
Now 30, Arts has learned to keep a level-headed approach when it comes to his career. “I love being older and knowing more shit and I like knowing that whatever comes out of my mouth is going to be the right thing that I mean,” he says. “It’s the same with the music now as well. I can just make it and go ‘yeah, that’s me.’” Over the past year, he’s worked with SWIDT on their Bootleg EP cut ‘Boogie’ and teamed up with Illbaz, Melodownz and Raiza Biza on their High Beams single ‘Red Wine’. “I remember him posting something about almost giving up music entirely and being completely uninspired, but despite that, pushing through the slump and carrying on to make great music,” Illbaz, the group’s producer, tells me. “It inspired me seeing that.”
Arts says he realised he was expecting too much from himself and vowed to stop searching for other people’s approval when it came to his music. “I care about other things,” he says. “I care about people and my mental health and wellbeing, but the songs are just songs.”
Seasons On Planet Earth, released through A Label Called Success which Arts co-owns with Connor Nestor, was initially supposed to come out last year. He felt like there was still more work to do before he put it out into the world, so back he went again into aeroplane mode. Until recently, he kept his music completely to himself – not even his bandmates from side project LEISURE knew what he was working on – but the time eventually came to wrap it up. “It was like, ‘OK, you need to get these songs off your desktop or wherever they’re sitting and to other people,’” he says. “They’re songs I’m really proud of, but it was just time to get them away from me.”
The album is stacked with potential singles – thankfully with none as cringy as Kids of 88’s ‘My House’. It’s easy to see that Arts still has a predilection for shiny pop music, but songs like ‘Steady Rolling’ and ‘People’ are inviting rather than irritating. The record dances between different genres, from ‘70s funk and ‘80s disco, to ‘90s house and R&B. Lyrically, it’s an intimate album inspired by recent experiences with love, lust, heartbreak and indecision. “I was in a relationship where I was like, ‘I don’t know if this is forever. We’ve spent x amount of time together and I should know by now but I don’t know’. There are a few songs in there where I’m trying to have the conversation without actually having the conversation,” he says. It’s also a testament to a lesson learned: creativity before money. “It’s a bit of a fuck you. Like, ‘I got this. I don’t need your briefcase.’”
Next up, Arts will regroup with LEISURE, who were finalists for Album of the Year at last year’s New Zealand Music Awards, for the release of their second album – although he reveals that they’ve got another two records worth of songs already written. A few years ago, the band were on the verge of signing with acclaimed British indie label XL Recordings, but like the Kids of 88 offer, it fell through at the eleventh hour. They’ve just signed a new deal with Nettwerk Records, home to New Zealand songwriter Finn Andrews and his band The Veils.
As for his relationship with his former bandmate, Arts insists they’re still on good terms. “I find a bit of comfort knowing that we’re both doing our 100% versions of ourselves, which we weren’t allowed to early on, so that’s more than I can wish for.”
He pauses to take in the view from his studio. “We’ve got sunlight and we’ve got birds chirping,” he says. “And it’s all good.”
This piece (as well as HIGH HØØPS’ Seasons On Planet Earth) were made possible by NZ On Air.