While some of the world’s most beautiful music comes from a dark place of sorrow, loneliness and pain, it doesn’t always have to. The High Strung for example, make beautiful music. They just don’t need to sing the blues.
The Detroit-based three piece, singer/songwriter Josh Malerman, bassist Chad Stocker and drummer Derek Berk, play original rock music combined with sounds of psychedelic and pop. I hear late 60's, 70's rock n roll (think the Dead or the Who) with some Daniel Johnston crooning in the mix. Aside from the music, their personalities are as diverse as their sound.
photo courtesy of cmj, 2009
The boys met each other around the age of 10 in West Bloomfield where they grew up. They were already musicians, except for Josh who didn’t start playing until the late age of 19 (Stocker started out on guitar.) They formed The High Strung in Brooklyn following in the footsteps of Berk in 2000.
Living together in a hedonistic “Shanty-town” for a year, they practiced every day, played in the city and toured a bit until they decided to quit their day jobs, pursue music full time and tour the road as a career.
“When we started out, we were never a band who was going to keep a kind of lifestyle with a ‘do this on the weekend until we get signed’ type thing,” said Berk. “We just decided we were going to do it full time and that’s just how it was going to be. That this was going to be our lives, our career our everything.’”
They were essentially homeless from 2001 to 2004, as they travelled the continent about 300 days a year.
“We were all driven by the excitement of the next show,” said Malerman. “It was the days off that sucked.” Days off meant no pay, no free food, no drinks and no bed to sleep in other than their van.
The band recorded and released five full albums between 2000 and 2002 –at the time this consisted of burning 100 copies and selling them on the road at shows –“Soap,” “Sure as Hell,” “As Is” (a double album) ‘Here Comes the Cheer’ and ‘Hanna.’
In 2004 they decided to work with iconic producer Jim Diamond to record their next three albums “These are Good Times,” Moxie Bravo” and “Get the Guests,” at Ghetto Recorders in Detroit.
“Jim was great, I mean really, really great and he did amazing work,” said Malerman. “But after three albums, we wanted a change. We were like ‘let’s try to make more of a polished album and maybe work with more of a ‘name guy.’”
They decided to record with David Newfeld a well-known producer of recognized bands such as Broken Social Scene and Los Campesinos. They lived in Toronto for five weeks to do their ninth album, “Ode to the Inverse of the Dude,” at Stars and Suns Studios. “Ode” was quoted as ‘an attempt to cast off the garage rock shackles”. But the sophisticated studio experience left them feeling they were in shackles and Newfeld was way more hands on than they wanted.
“I’m not a huge fan of a lot of the bands Dave has produced, but between the band wanting a change and the label saying we got this guy in Canada,” the boys were like, ‘OK let’s do it,’” said Malerman. “I loved what we did with Dave, it sounds great. But the production was to cold, the sound is more chic than how I feel. We would probably sell a million more albums if we were a little more stylish, but I’m not comfortable that way. With Chad he recognized this savant musician. Chad is amazing and is very open musically. David quickly realized he could use him as an instrument. He used kid gloves with me, after I freaked out on him a few times, and he had to be careful because I am the songwriter. He was really hard on Derek. He just looked at the drums as if anyone could do it.”
“Whenever you work with someone else, they always want to make their mark no matter what it is,” said Berk. “I want to have my own style on an album I put my name on, but I’m in the band. It gets annoying when we’re dealing with other engineers or producers and they either don’t care or understand what it is we’re trying to do.”
The flip side of working with Newfeld was the laid back studio hours where they could record at 3am sometimes, if Newfeld felt like it. Other times he would disappear for hours. The band found that that time was a good time to come up with new music. During those awkward hours they wrote three new songs including “Real Stone,” “Bridge,” and “Relaxed.”
The intense experience left them with the desire to record the next album alone, with full creative freedom. A throw-back to the old days when they did everything themselves.
“The Ode album sounds awesome,” said Berk. “And there’s a lot of really great shit on it, but it was really stiff. It wasn’t groovy enough. In music there is vibe and there is technical sound and vibe is everything. I think ten out of ten times the three of us would prefer grooviness over sound. So it was very, very liberating to make the album on our own this time around.”
Maybe it was the opposing forces of liberation and restraint that led to the title of their latest album, ‘Dragon Dicks.’ The title they explain as feeding the ‘dicks’ (the assholes that get in your way) to the Dragons, the ones who dispose of the Dicks. The first song on the album 'Dragon Dicks,' is about just that. They recorded the whole thing in Stocker’s basement.
“It’s not polished,” said Berk. “Most people would consider it low-fi.”
As it turns out, it is collectively the bands favorite recording to date.
“Dragon Dicks is a gem,” said Malerman. “I feel good about it in every way, sonically, musically, in subject matter. I feel like I took an art shower or something. Like I'm reborn.”
To record, Stocker basically locked himself in his basement for two weeks. A 12x15 studio space with equipment bought from money he saved while living with his parents after a breakup with a girl. Aside from recording equipment, the room had a piece of foam for a bed, and no windows.
“It was probably one of the best times of my life,” said Stocker. “At some points I was so out of it I wouldn’t know if it was day or night. The days and nights mixed in with each other. I went outside every now and again; I had to buy more beer.”
A prolific novelist, Malerman's says his lyrics are "weird character sketches" of strange casts. A museum curator, a grave digger, an actress and so on...
“I’ve never been able to write short stories as a writer, but I feel like I can do that in my songs. In Dragon Dicks, things get even weirder (than their previous albums) some of the lyrics are crazy. We’ve always been weirdoes but now we’re singing about weirder things. It’s exciting,” he said.
In line with the far-out lyrics and bigger sound, the band is stretching beyond the tightness of the three piece to incorporate more musicians for tour; two guitar players, a percussionist and possibly someone on keys. They’re also adding theatrical visual elements to the show.
“It was time we did something different,” said Stocker. “There’s going to be more than just the music on stage. A psychedelic circus meets carnival in a way. It has a very collective feel that I appreciate.”
“With ‘Ode,’ we realized that we are able to stretch out without all of a sudden sounding like a totally different band,” said Malerman, something they seem to be good at. “It’s nice to be able to change but maintain some identity. This tour will have a lot more going on. We’ll see how it goes.”
photo by brennan cavanaugh
Tight friendships, pushing the music to higher levels and the ability to change are some of what has kept the band together so long. The life of an artist is never easy, especially without much commercial success. But doesn't daunt the The High Strung. Let it be known, they’re stronger and harder working than ever and are looking forward to their upcoming album.
“We’re better musicians now and we’re also more connected musically,” said Stocker. “I’ll know what Josh or Derek are going to do and it’s not even conscious, we’ll just feel it. It wasn’t like that when we first started.”
“I think that after this many years, the three of us have a very good understanding of what the other one likes what our tastes are and what we think is good,” said Berk. “We’re at a new level of trust. And we’re becoming good at it, after this long.”
photo by brennan cavanaugh
**Look out for The High Strung to kick off their summer tour and ‘Dragon Dicks’ release this May. Venue TBD.