High anxiety

Jul 22, 2009 at 12:00 am

Many bands have become known over the years for nonstop touring, but the High Strung has taken that sort of work ethic to a whole new level. They've spent most of the last four years on the road. No mean feat for an indie band with no tour support. 

So audiences all over the country — many of whom have seen the High Strung perform in, of all places, public libraries — are now familiar with the group's winning ruckus, an energized hybrid of indie punk and prog-rock, or, perhaps better, an often fast, hard-leaning rock 'n' roll style mixed with bits of '60s pop and soul.   

On their latest release, Ode to the Inverse of the Dude, however, the trio has changed the approach somewhat; there's a more layered sound via more meticulous production. The High Strung's previous three albums were all recorded the same — live, in Detroit, with Jim Diamond behind the board at his now world-famous Ghetto Records studio. But after eight years together, and more than 1,600 shows, not to mention the three lifelong friendships here ... well, to use their own words, why not "fuck shit up a little bit," both stylistically and sonically? 

Singer-guitarist Josh Malerman actually seemed a bit anxious about the changes when he recently met up to chat. You see, the band  — which is rounded out by drummer Derek Berk and bassist Chad Stocker — has definitely enlivened its characteristic whirly indie-rock into a more atmospheric, echoing prog-pop sound this time out. The lyrics are also a lot more internalized and personal. As a result, the group's frontman and main songwriter is pondering exactly what these changes will mean for the band, what local "hipsters" will think ... and whether or not they should give a damn. "I don't know how much longer I can hang onto us being nervous wrecks," he thinks out loud.

For their part, Stocker and Berk, the rhythm section, are excited about getting stretched, so to speak, sonically. "I personally wanted to know what it would be like to have a hands-on producer," says Berk, the most talkative High Strunger onstage, where he's sometimes Dean Martin to Malerman's Sinatra. 

The "hands-on" producer he's referring to is David Newfeld, best known for his work with Broken Social Scene and Los Campesinos. The band traveled to Toronto and worked nearly half a year to complete this latest effort. The trio spent most of that time in a lamp-lit Toronto church, working late days and nights into early mornings.

"We took five months off from the road," Malerman says. "We haven't done that before. I mean, ever." 

"Josh was very skeptical about the whole thing at first," Berk says. "We didn't have anything recorded the first three days, so Josh was very worried we were never going to finish anything. Chad loved it, though."

 "Well, I was just a pawn in [the producer's] game," Stocker jokes. "But, yes, I did love it. I was always for the experimentation." 

So, imagine a band that never stops — whose body of work pulses with fast-running, hard-leaning, jangly indie rock and which is used to recording live in a spurt of days — handing its artistic destiny over to a methodical Canuck who loves multiple takes, multiple tracks, and hours of chopping, splicing and compiling. It could've been a horror story, indeed. 

"Well, [producer Newfeld] was frustrating at times," says Stocker, whose bass playing draws as much from Motown great James Jamerson as it does from the Allman Brothers' late Berry Oakley. "But so has every person who's ever had an important role in what the three of us do. But he helped us make a great album at the end of the day. It's maybe my favorite. Definitely in the top two."

"Josh didn't know how a new producer would translate to us," Berk adds. "But Chad and I were always interested in doing a different kind of record. I guess the big difference between us and Josh, though, is that for this one, Josh was writing songs that are more personal as opposed to [his past] character studies of other people." His approach to songwriting was always the same in the past, until Ode, when lyrics became somewhat more psychoanalytical in nature. 

"I hate the term 'personal' album," says Malerman, who's also the author of nine unpublished horror novels. "One gets the idea of, like, it's going to be about 'Oh, the pain in my heart!' Or it's gonna be a break-up album. 'Personal' also often means dark observations on existence, which this album is not at all." 

He says he wanted the songs to be blatantly titled, so they'd read almost like photo captions. "The opening song is called 'Standing at the Doors of Self Discovery,' he explains. "And there's also a song called 'Guilt is How I'm Built.' Only a Jew could have written that song!" He laughs. But he suggests that such personal reflection can transcend just the writer's experience ... and that's what inevitably draws in a listener. "Look at all this stuff," he suggests of the songs and the lyric, "and you can find yourself in them." 

Indeed, subtly blended in with Ode's rousing trumpet blurts, shimmying drums and echoing feedback are confessional lyrics that reference bed-wetting on one song and getting philosophical about a lover in another. And on "Again," one of his most stunning and energizing pop ballads to date, Malerman's characteristic high-toned wail lunges over bass and drum, asking, even pleading: "When does that window everybody talks about come around?"

The thirtysomething men of High Strung have known each other since before they could drive, growing up together in West Bloomfield. They've lived almost entirely off the band for years. Stocker teaches bass part time at the School of Rock in Rochester. Berk occasionally offers himself up as a studio drummer. (They've logged so many miles on the road, in fact, that when their tour van died several years ago, they "donated" it to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland ... well, they at least left the thing at the building's entrance with a note on its windshield.) 

Berk's mother even frequently refers to him as "my son, the rock star.'" He laughs. "'Mom, I'm not a rock star!' We're not rock stars by any means." Nevertheless, this is their job.

Now that the album's done and ready to drop on the band's own Park The Van label, it's time to hit the road. In fact, the trio is set to perform at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, on July 30, for U.S. soldiers and staff. Workers at the infamous American prison facility contacted the band, whose past public library tours suggest quirkiness when it comes to road life, offering them a similarly — if even more so — unconventional venue. 

These best pals are at home on the road. They alleviate their frustration — with the biz, with the difficulties of finding an audience, etc. — by reassuring each other and reaching realizations about life while on those seemingly endless miles of freeway. 

"'Wait, we're touring America!'" Malerman says, alluding to one of those realizations. "We actually all live off our band. And we're all quite happy with what we're doing." He shrugs, "That's pretty fucking good, man. These are some golden days going on right now. So we try not to lose sight of that.

"This is our lives," he concludes. "And if we don't believe in ourselves, then we don't exist. We're all we've got."

The High Strung's CD release show is Friday, July 24, at the Berkley Front, 3087 12 Mile Rd., Berkley; 248-547-3331. With Matt Jones and the Wrong Numbers.

Jeff Milo writes about music for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]