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The Higher takes its music to a higher level

On the surface, The Higher appears to be yet another emo-pop band straight from the pages of Alternative Press, complete with perfectly cultivated shaggy hair, vintage clothes and catchy rock designed to capture the hearts of girls who wear checkerboard Vans and unabashedly call themselves “scene.”

However, the Las Vegas-based quintet isn’t content with merely treading well-worn musical territory. With its latest album, “On Fire,” the band has incorporated elements of dance and R&B into its sound.

“We let ourselves write every song that we wanted to write, even if we thought it might be cheesy to some,” said lead singer Seth Trotter. “R&B has influenced our life always, so we just wanted to bring it out.”

The guys even recruited Patrick Stump of Fall Out Boy to produce a dance remix of the song “Pace Yourself,” which was originally featured on their 2005 debut LP “Histrionics.”

“We had recorded what we liked and had an idea, but then after hearing Gym Class Heroes, just knowing how much we liked their beats, we just decided it would be fun to have Patrick make a beat for us,” Trotter said. “So we just sent him what we had, and he constructed the song with my voice and his beats.”

Although another Vegas-based band, Panic! at the Disco, has scored massive commercial success with its popified dance-rock sound, Trotter insisted that The Higher’s blend of rocking riffs and booty-shaking beats is distinctive and more soul and R&B-driven than the likes of Panic.

“They’re great guys, and I really like their CD, but we’re trying to do our own thing,” he said. “We wrote most of the songs for this record before I had even heard Panic! at the Disco’s new record.”

The band formed in 2002 when its members were still in high school. After Trotter met bassist Jason Centeno in choir class, they decided they wanted to perform music, although Trotter wasn’t immediately sure that he wanted to form a rock band.

“I was more into theater and didn’t really discover my voice until later on in high school, when I started doing more public singing and stuff like that,” he said. “After I started doing that, it really clicked for me.”

Along with drummer Pat Harter and guitarist James Mattison, the guys formed a band called September Star in which Trotter sang and played guitar. However, Trotter decided that he just wanted to sing, so he recruited his best friend Tom Oakes to take his place on the axe.

With a new guitarist on board and a new name to match its newfound ambition, The Higher began playing local venues and recorded a five-song demo that caught the attention of Fiddler Records, a starting point for future headliners such as Dashboard Confessional and New Found Glory.

The Higher signed with Fiddler in mid-2003, and its demo was released a couple of months later as the EP “Star is Dead.” Following a nationwide tour with acts such as Silverstein, the band released “Histrionics” in May 2005.

However, The Higher left Fiddler after the record’s release, and the label went bankrupt soon afterward. Mattison also left the band, but Reggie Ragen quickly took his place.

Although the guys fielded offers from a couple of major record labels, they ended up signing with venerable punk/indie label Epitaph last summer.

“We played a show at the Roxy, and a couple of different labels were looking at us,” Trotter said. “Out of the labels there that night, Brett [Gurewitz, Epitaph founder and owner] came up to us and let us know right away that he wanted to sign our band. And when the owner of the label is coming up to you saying, ‘I want you to sign to my label, and I’m stoked about your band, and I’m going to push you guys,’ how can you say no?”

The band also consciously decided to sign with an indie label rather than dive into major-label waters, according to Trotter.

“We felt strongest with an indie label because we felt we wanted to build our band into a career band and not just a one-hit-wonder band,” he said. “We’re not setting ourselves up to just be some hot fling. We’re setting ourselves up to be a band that can be around and will have fans forever.”

The Higher is currently playing on the Epitaph Tour along with labelmates The Matches, I Am Ghost and Escape the Fate. Epitaph’s money and resources have allowed the band to tour in front of larger audiences and in more comfortable conditions than ever before.

“This tour is amazing,” Trotter said. “First time on a bus. Couldn’t ask for more.”

The nationwide tour has also given The Higher a major opportunity to both reconnect with its longtime fans and gain new ones along the way, an important thing for a band that has always prided itself on having a close connection with its fans. In particular, Trotter always seems eager to chat with fans, pose for pictures and even give hugs to the groups of girls who enthusiastically gather to meet with him after every show.

The band hopes to maintain this level of connection with its fanbase no matter how commercially successful it may become.

“We welcome all success, but we’re always going to be real,” Trotter said.

“I feel like our band has always been a band that hangs out with its fans, and any fan of The Higher knows that we’re very personable and down-to-earth, and we like to hang out.”

As for where The Higher plans on going from this point, Trotter is full of nothing but optimism.

“Our musical direction is just up. The Higher is about its name, you know what I mean?” he said. “We’re just trying to get up there and let everyone hear our music.”

The Higher will be playing on the Epitaph Tour through March 17, and its new album “On Fire” hits stores on March 6. For more information, visit www.myspace.com/thehigher.

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