Winston Hightower travels to the end of Ohio and returns with new album

In the summer of 2017, Winston Hightower was ready for a change. Things in Columbus seemed a little too easy, too static.

“I just felt fed up with Columbus, because I felt like there were a lot of life things I did not know or understand. I felt like I didn’t have to work that hard to get anything,” Hightower said recently in an interview Downtown. “I essentially wanted to grow up.” 

When the person he was seeing moved to Cleveland, it seemed like the right time to mix things up, so Hightower, who was born and raised in Clintonville, decided to go along. Soon he got his forklift license and took a job hauling materials at vinyl pressing plant Gotta Groove Records. Hightower worked the 3 p.m. to 1 a.m. shift, and when he got home, he worked on songs for a new record — the follow-up to his 2017 cassette release on Superdreamer Records, Exploration Date, a collection of in-the-red, jangle-pop songs. (Hightower also plays in Columbus hardcore act Minority Threat.)

For his Cleveland-born material, Hightower wanted to raise the bar in terms of fidelity and tone. “I was living on the east side of Cleveland. It’s this old jazz area, all rundown. I was listening to a lot of Gil Scott-Heron and a lot of Sun Ra, and I was watching videos of them talking about mixing,” said Hightower, who took the lessons to heart. “I was like, ‘I should make sure this is the most “adult” album I have’ — something I could show someone and not be embarrassed by how poorly mixed it is.”

As he recorded late at night, the songs began to reflect his enervated mood and still surroundings. “The songs aren’t rock songs because my partner [was often] sleeping. It’s like 2 in the morning. So I’d have to write really slow songs that were chill. And the amount of energy I had was very low because I’d just worked a 10-hour shift,” he said. 

When Hightower looked out the window of his apartment in an old warehouse, all he saw was the darkened water of Lake Erie. “Wow, I’m at the end of Ohio,” he thought. The idea sparked a melody on his guitar, which he runs through a Sea Machine effects pedal that gives his instrument a wobbly, underwater sound. Sometimes Hightower even runs his drums through the pedal.

“I’d play [the melody], look at the water and try to think of lyrics and vibe out, and I literally couldn’t. My mind would just be blank any time I started playing it. … It would erase my brain, but in a good way. I was just tranced by it,” said Hightower, who eventually decided to leave the song lyric-less and let it evoke the glazed-over feeling.

Instrumental closing track “The End of Ohio” became the namesake for the new Winston Hytwr album, which is available on Bandcamp and will soon be out on cassette via the Fah-Q Catalog, a tape label Hightower launched while in Cleveland. This year will be the label’s biggest so far, with forthcoming cassettes from the Girl in Times New Viking (Beth Murphy of TNV, naturally), Minority Threat, Twompsax, Bench and a split from Kneeling in Piss (Future Nuns’ Alex Mussawir) and Jigsaw Six (Nick Schuld).

By the summer of 2018, Cleveland was wearing down Hightower, especially since he was still tending bar in Columbus on weekends, then driving back north for his weekday warehouse job. “I did that all year,” he said. “It drove me crazy. I almost lost my mind.” 

Hightower returned home to Columbus and now performs live as Hytwr with bassist Bryant Strayer, guitarist Vince Smigiel and drummer Scott Hagelgans. (Smigiel and Hagelgans also both play in Wharm, which released its self-titled debut on the Catalog in 2017; Hightower said he and Strayer may end up playing in Wharm, too.)

Hightower doesn’t regret his time in Cleveland. But he doesn’t miss it, either. “I was like, ‘Easy Street is lame. I wanna go where it’s rough!’ And then I was like, ‘Why would I ever think this? Why did struggling seem like a good idea?’” he said, chuckling at the thought. “I’d rather live in Columbus and have sanity.”