Indie rock band the High Strung dusts off ‘lost’ 20-year-old record

Oct 27, 2021 at 1:00 am
click to enlarge The High Strung circa 2002. - Courtesy photo
Courtesy photo
The High Strung circa 2002.

One of the few payoffs of the early days of the pandemic was that it gave many musicians an opportunity to go through their archives to see what treasures they might find. High Strung bassist Chad Stocker was doing that when he came across HannaH, or the Whale, a largely forgotten LP the band had recorded themselves way back in 2002, before its 2003 debut album These Are Good Times.

It's a fucking great album. Short and sweet. Ten tight stylistically varied songs in under 30 minutes. Yet it got lost in the wake of the release of their "proper" studio album, TAGT, due to not having a record deal at the time and the band's famously relentless touring.

The biggest revelation of the album is what an amazing band The High Strung were from the start. Much like Josh Malerman, the band's prolific frontman and (author of books like Bird Box, which was made into a movie by Netflix), the band itself is madly inventive.

The songs are full of hooks, a wide range of great guitar sounds, classic rock references, and catchy sing-a-longs. The lyrics have all the hallmarks of High Strung songs to follow — full of wild imagination and alternately poignant and funny, all backed by one of the best rock rhythm sections. Drummer Derek Berk keeps things tight until a break, bridge, or chorus calls him to drop an energetic Keith Moon-style blast, while Stocker sounds like a Revolver-era Paul McCartney threatening to run off the rails.

Stocker came across enough High Strung outtakes in his vault dive to lead to two upcoming odds and sods collections, Oohs and Ahs and Ooze and Oz. There are also plans to release a recent ongoing project titled Southfield consisting of Malerman on bass, Stocker on drums, and Owen on guitar.

On top of that, the band has also been recording a new High Strung album in Malerman's living room. For this record, the current five-member lineup of Berk, Malerman, Stocker, guitarist/vocalist Mark Owen (who left the band after the first album and rejoined in 2016), and guitarist wünderkind Stephen Palmer (who joined in 2011) has been joined by original member Jason Berkowitz. Berkowitz rejoining the band was a direct result of the excavation of HannaH. Essentially, the original band is back together with the "new" guy (who's been around for a decade).

We chatted with Malerman via email to get the scoop on HannaH and a good dose of his inspiring and fun creative philosophy.

Metro Times: So HannaH was recorded after your first two EPs but before the band's first LP, right?

Josh Malerman: After we did the EPs Soap (2001) and Sure as Hell (2002) in New York, we scheduled a session with Jim Diamond in Detroit. It would be our first "studio" album (that) we didn't record ourselves. Thing was, we had some weeks off before heading in. We'd already made a 4-track demo of These Are Good Times in its entirety and we'd been touring so we were practiced [and] ready for the album. And just like in sports, how sometimes you can be too prepared — you can lose the feel ... there's a sweet spot in all this, and it's up to you to find it — we weren't about to practice those songs anymore, but we had to do... something.

Our friend Jeff Risk's mom was out of town and he said we could play and make music at her house, and so we set up all our gear in her dining room, our TEAC 80-8 [reel-to-reel] machine on the dining room table, the drums and wires and all over the carpet. Mark and I had some song ideas rolling around and so we'd finish writing one, teach the band, and we'd either record it right then or the next day, but mostly we recorded each song moments after Derek learned it in full.

Once we hit five songs we could kinda see the far side of an album, right? Another five and we'd be there, something like that. So, what began as five guys who didn't really wanna sit still quickly became five guys pressing to make an entire unplanned album, just weeks before going into the studio to record another. HannaH is that album. It's named after Derek's niece.

This is a dining room album, one could say. I wonder if there's a section for those at record stores. "BASEMENT ALBUMS." "GARAGE ALBUMS." "FRIEND'S MOM'S DINING ROOM ALBUMS."

MT: Why Brooklyn? The Detroit scene was finally blowing up after being ignored for years.

Malerman: We really started playing together in East Lansing, at Michigan State, around 1994-1998 or so. Derek moved to New York around 1996, and Mark and I started recording feverishly on a 4-track alone, still in Michigan. We'd give ourselves "phantom deadlines," i.e. "This album has to be done by April 4." For what? There was no label, of course. No band even. So for who?

Well, the way we saw it, if we didn't give ourselves these deadlines, and if we didn't meet them, there would be no real hammer coming down, insisting we finish an album and start thinking of another. Would we get anything done if we didn't make ourselves do it? So we recorded. A lot.

But eventually we wanted drums on those songs, and adventure called, and so in 1998 we moved to New York City, to be with Derek. That's where Jason Berkowitz and Chad Stocker joined up. So, while all this amazingness was going on in Detroit, we were in Lansing and New York and really had no idea about it until some of the records being made around here made their way out there. I used to feel like we missed out on something here, and I suppose we did, but at the same time, what we discovered out there was wonderful, our own world, outside the circumference of a scene really, dynamics and lessons and work ethic and joy and passion that propel us to this day.

MT: Was this originally intended to be an LP for release or was it an unfinished work in progress?

Malerman: So, we definitely finished it, but we had no plans for it. It's clear to me now what happened to HannaH: she was organically swept aside by a series of events. First, we recorded our first studio album only weeks later, These Are Good Times. Then we toured for TAGT. Then we toured more for TAGT. And a label [Tee Pee Records] put it out and we had great press and so... who's thinking of HannaH at that point?

It feels to me, with HannaH, we left ourselves a present. She makes more sense to me now, even in the scope of modern music, than she did back then. You know how some people say "people weren't ready" for this or that album? Well, I don't think we were ready for our own album. Yeah, HannaH is a present we left ourselves, and greedily opened recently.

MT: I love how the record is short and sweet — ten songs in under a half-hour. There are two songs that are under two minutes!

Malerman: And that's just what I mean! Even the length felt weird to me back then. But now? Who cares? Under 30 minutes sounds fun. I think the musical world is so much more elastic these days. There are no rules. And if there are? Break 'em and nobody cares. In fact, we all want different, from style to sound to album length. And the less it fits into preconceived standards, the better.

MT: Did pandemic boredom lead to the record getting pulled out of the archives and released?

Malerman: Yeah, that's about it right there. Some people were going through old photos, and Chad went through old recordings. He wrote us one day: "When's the last time you guys listened to HannaH?" And so began a series of drunk nights where I was writing Mark and he was writing me, and we were all writing each other, all excited about this album.

One of the magical things here is that one of the founding members of the band, Berko [Berkowitz], is now back in the band because of how much time we all spent discussing HannaH and what we could do with it and how to do it. I mean, real magic went down. Couple that with working with Park the Van Records again and working with [producer] Zach Shipps, and that message of Chad's has really been amazing for us.

MT: Is Jason Berkowitz on HannaH?

Malerman: He sure is. He's on TAGT, too. And he had a major hand in how "The Luck You Got" [which became the theme song to Showtime's Shameless] turned out. He played on it, too. Berko's played an enormous role in the High Strung's story, but he isn't quite as well known for obvious reasons: He left the band and moved to L.A. around 2003.

In the early days he was something of a coach for the rest of us. He has truly incredible innate rhythm (the best dancer I've ever met), and he'd work with us on our rhythm, our playing, our touch. I have a lot of Ed Wood in me. One take? Sounds great.

But Berko instilled more patience. Try it again. It's for eternity. He also did wonders for me in terms of the stage show, how to be up there, how to exude the joy of it even on days when you're feeling out of joint. And now? Now, after weeks of working on bringing HannaH back, we've recorded a new album with him. This one would be in the "LIVING ROOM ALBUMS" section of the record store, as we recorded it in mine and [fianceé] Allison [Laakko]'s living room. Zach Shipps is producing.

MT: One of the things I love about this record is that the High Strung seems fully formed right out of the gate with your first recordings. Was it that effortless or was there some serious woodshedding prior to all of this?

Malerman: So, anything I've ever done, I've never seen as a "demo" or a "rough draft." Even the first time through is a performance. Aside from the time we intentionally demoed These Are Good Times, I've felt that every take, every page, is the take.

I've just never looked at any of it with a mindset of "I'm learning now, but one day I'll do this for real." Fuck it. Release the learning curve. Out of the gates, there's always been a sense of: This is official. So, yeah, Mark and I recorded dozens of songs prior to the formation of the High Strung, and I suppose one might call those tapes the learning curve, right? But even those are special and just sound like smaller, younger albums now.

Chad's always been a bit ahead of us on that front. And Derek and Berko were better musicians than Mark and I. So combine all that: two songs-first thinkers with three great musicians, and it came together fast in New York. But I will say, in hindsight, it's right around [the EPs] Soap and Sure as Hell — it's really HannaH — where we found an identity, one we relate to, still.

MT: What's it like listening to and releasing this record 20 years later?

Malerman: I wasn't expecting it to be this good. There are a couple things at play here.

One, the internet has sorta erased the idea of "obscure," in a sense. A band or a song you used to have to dig for is a click away now and millions of people know about it. That's nice. It feels like genres and labels and even release dates don't mean what they used to. Space and time are different online. I think HannaH and the story behind HannaH make a lot of sense in this modern atmosphere. She just... resonates more now than she would've in '02.

[And two], I've long felt like this is all one glorious day, this entire artistic life, broken up by spells of sleeping, all centered around songs and books and jokes and relationships and meeting those "phantom deadlines" if for nobody else by ourselves and finding, therein, purpose, and good old-fashioned fun.

HannaH (or the Whale) is available Friday, Oct. 29.

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