Ready, steady. Pop.
High Strung have paid their dues in full-and it's payoff time!
Published: May 9, 2012
On the new High Strung album, ?Posible o' Imposible?, on a power-pop track called "The Luck You Got," guitarist and frontman Josh Malerman sings "What is this feeling you're so sure of?"
The question, in fact, may well refer to the band's nationwide fanbase, which, after years of struggle, is finally burgeoning. It could tell of the curious YouTubers logging on to hear the theme for Showtime series Shameless, and to find out who plays it.
It could tell of how songwriter Malerman, who's also a fiction writer, is inches from his first major book deal with a publisher. It could tell of how guitarist Stephen Palmer, the shredder who made his mark with bands such as Back in Spades, joined the band two years ago, rounding out the High Strung to a quartet, something bassist Chad Stocker deems a "proper rock band" — one that's about "to pop."
In truth, even as a trio, the High Strung was always a proper rock band — a band that has been profiled in everything from Vanity Fair to NPR's This American Life — even if you only considered the countless eat-shit, scar-creating gigs they've done across the continent for no money and in front of nobody but a bartender. All the last-call alleyway vomiting, the Christmas Eves in Des Moines dive bars and the humiliating stares of random Rust Belt folk.
In fact, the band has too many war stories of the road to recite them all, but a few merit some mention, if only to show a band that can laugh at itself. Like the time when, after four straight years on the road, they turned the death of their tour van into a modestly self-aggrandizing ceremony by bequeathing it to (well, that is, they abandoned it in front of) the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland — with a carefully worded letter of donation. The van actually died that very day. (Sometimes, timing is everything.)
A year later, they exclusively toured public libraries around the Great Lakes — an idea that dovetailed well with Malerman's lit leanings. (Talk about your alternative programming!) The band's charming noise and sweet, spinning-top style melodies complemented the erudite aura of those quiet, dusty shelves surprisingly well.
The library tour turned heads as far south as Cuba. In 2008, the trio was invited to perform at a library inside the U.S. Military Base at Guantanamo Bay. Yes, Guantanamo Bay.
"That fit right in with everything else that's happened in our careers," Malerman says. "By that I mean it was completely unexpected, strange and barely resembled anything a young man envisions for himself when he joins a band."
The Strung were the black-sheep of Detroit's garage rock explosion. Their sound was keyed-up and clattery, sure, but it burst forth with grimed-up Brit-pop, not that of Solomon Burke or Flat Duo Jets. It didn't scuff like denim, didn't have that same clang or tough, R&B-rooted sneer. From the beginning, the band's songs mixed heart with a kind of literary bent, and by comparison to the garage-ist strains then, the trio was halfway geeky in sound, quirky even, and you could sing along to the songs. The High Strung were outsiders to a scene of outsiders.
The Strung's sound always had punk rock punch too, especially live, and Malerman's airy vocals, along with the rhythm section's versatile grooves, sweetened that into something poppier — and more cerebral. It's telling that they were inspired by a band like the Minutemen — a "punk" band in its own right that never fit into its own scene. The Strung never settled into any one specific sound or scene — they had to create them.
So it makes sense that they started the band, officially, in New York. Stocker, who's the youngest, had just finished college here, while drummer Derek Berk and Malerman had already split for the Big Apple. The pair waited there for Stocker in what was already a bubble of post-punk revivalism (the year of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, the Liars, the Strokes).
That was in 2001, more than 1,200 shows ago. They've been together longer than the Beatles. Add the seven albums to that and you've got a real career.
All in their mid-30s now, Malmerman, Stocker and Berk grew up together in West Bloomfield, were high school pals, and have been friends for a quarter-century. They hung out between their respective universities (Michigan State and Central). Berk and Stocker were the lifelong musicians; Malerman was a writer who eventually picked up guitar and singing in his sophomore year at State. It was only natural that the trio play music together. And then Detroit really became their home away from the road. They might have coalesced musically in New York, but this band was, pardon the clichés, born on the road.
"I can't believe that I'm even talking about it," Berk says with a laugh, "that there are 'old days.' Like, 'Oh, back in the old days.' I guess we were young still, and maybe foolish. But, we decided. We decided this is what we're going to do. This is how we were gonna live our lives. This is our life's work." You can hear the dedication in Berk's voice, that great plunge that took the band from the edge of college into an odyssey.
A beautiful drone-rocker on Imposible?, "Human" — which won't escape your head — has the verse: "Still in our prime / A hundred times alive!"
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