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!"
Malerman and Berk were 27, Stocker 25 when they started, not exactly young compared to most rock 'n' roll band's timelines. "We're older, but we were never young. Most bands who start at 21, they're done by 27," Malerman says. "Starting older helped so much. This way there was never a sense of, 'Oh, we're too old for this now.'"
"But now I'm older and not such a nervous wreck," Malerman adds with a scoff disguised as a sigh. Perhaps a song in the band's catalog, "Rimbaud/Rambo" — a funny little juxtaposition of the high-strung drunken poet who quit at 19, and the fictional but unruffled ass-kicker — explains a lot.
Malerman shakes his head, irked. "The High Strung, I hate that name now, I do. So does Derek. I feel like we thought it was funny to be nervous wrecks when we were younger."
It's hard to tell if Malerman's nervous at all these days. This is the songwriter, who, after all, sees most Strung albums as musical novels and wrote the outline for '06's Moxie Bravo on the walls, ceiling and roof of the band's tour van, while in motion. They really only spent time "back home" in 2010 after adding Palmer, catching up with themselves, and beginning to build toward what became o' Imposible.
Josh Malerman has incredible energy — matched only by his speedy wit — as if something's coming straight at him. It's energy for living and creating that could very well stem from the day he was born.
The story goes that Mom was in labor, disoriented, thinking she'd plopped down in the washroom. But she was in an elevator. Dad, having just pressed "lobby," stopped the ride because of her screams. Dad helped deliver Josh.
Malerman's mom was an artist. She painted in the family basement, portraits of skinless men, while Dad ("a little like Larry David") was an accountant ("how unpoetic is that?") though he was also a Nazi hunter and has the trophies to prove it. His parents and two brothers, who Malerman describes as "saintly," fostered the boy's literary gifts; he'd write his first book at 6 — something about a dog being sent via spaceship as an Earth diplomat on a mission to Mars.
Malerman wanted into life. And whatever Malerman has now he earned; this isn't about any "luck you got." He just signed on with a literary agent and he has just wrapped a collection of suspense-macabre stories while still waiting for word from publishing companies on his post-apocalyptic horror character-study BirdBox. It takes years and years to perfect your craft to be a novelist, just as it does to be a great songwriter. But to do both? Is Malerman burning out?
"That moment of feeling burned out hasn't even come yet. So, let's say I'm an author. OK. And, I get a book deal at 36; that's young. Still. This is the beginning of a career, right? You've been doing it for 12 years, are you burnt out? No!"
The Shameless TV series certainly brought a financial boost, and real attention to the band, two big reasons to stay in the game, at the very least. Malerman says they were "incredibly broke" before their theme song slot and that "it'd be dishonest not to say it's changed our lives. Still, finding a five-dollar bill on the sidewalk would also have changed our lives." Though Malerman is the songwriter, the publishing money has been split evenly between the original three bros. "How in hell's heaven, after living on the road for seven years and looking the cavity of creation in the face together, could one possibly deserve more money than the others? I say that's grounds for kidnapping."
(The band had struck a lesser pot of song-placement gold once before when "Standing at the Door of Self Discovery" — from their 2009 album Ode to the Inverse of the Dude — sound-tracked the trailer for Will Ferrell's Everything Must Go.)
The Internet has instilled a capricious form of attention-deficit disorder into the hipster class of music listener; blog buzz doesn't last. MP3-bolstered blurbs sway you into liking some brand-new band of 22-year-olds from Portland because they sound like some other sanctified indie-rock icon. But the High Strung guys have such a rich story, with miles of rambunctious rock shows behind them that Shameless fans must feel (if they're digging back) like they've stumbled upon a trove of lost novels. A band that isn't shouting, "Hey, look at us!" but more nodding, like, "Well, yeah, we've been here. Where've you been?"
The thing about Malerman and company now is that they're able to see themselves, not in terms of early wrinkles and baggy eyes from sleepless tours or those fourth shots of whiskey. The characters, and their voices, are now well-established. That's what being in a band for a long time means, something a hastily pieced together "project," whose members are all in lots of other shared bands, will never have. You can't fake camaraderie, you can't fake the personal and musical cues, and you can't fake playing off each other. It's often that intangible difference between "merely good" and "fucking great."
More, Stocker says things are different now and that they've stabilized as people, living somewhat simple lives in Detroit.
That stability has carried over to the new full-length. In the past, the band had been making albums more in a flurry of nervous activity, involving harried stops back home to Jim Diamond's Ghetto Recorders and banging it out in three or four days. O' Imposible? is different. It's paced, and it breathes more, as if they really took time. And it's anything but burned-out sounding. It's vital and real. It's their best yet, to be sure. You can hear how the group has evolved, particularly in terms of execution and writing. It still features that nervous high-strung energy, but it's harnessed and redirected, arranged and doled out when needed. And there's a real sense — just upon listening — that something is about to pop for the quartet.
"I feel like [?Posible o' Imposible?] as an album, is something that needed to happen," Stocker says. "Because if we would've just made another album the same way we've been making albums, I don't know if the songs would have been there."
All of them, including relative newcomer Palmer, echo those feelings, that there's excited pressure. Malerman says, "something's bubbling between us."
All agree that Palmer has brought another bubbling dimension to the band.
"I was over the moon when Josh called me in late 2009," Palmer says. "Literally, jumping up and down. I'd been a fan for so long and I was just hoping that it would snowball into — y'know — what it has, which is me being in the band for two years, now."
The guitarist had been a Strung fan since 2003, when he was "awakened" by the group playing live just outside his bedroom window during an annual Detroit street fair. "I was blown away."
Palmer calls them brothers and joining them felt like coming into the family. And that was definitely a factor for him when he first started rehearsing with them in January of 2010.
Now, Palmer says, "When we get in a van, an 11-hour drive feels like just two hours — we're laughing the entire time."
"But," he adds, "I'm in a different position than the guys, having a family, that's a heavy thing. But, hopefully I can ride off into the sunset with these guys as long as I can." Palmer marked one year of fatherhood last month with son Arthur.
Others have lives beyond the group: Stocker, for example, plays and records with his non-Strung musical pursuit, a psychedelic noise-pop band called the Mythics. Malerman, meanwhile, continues to write. Berk works when the work is here — he's a studio painter and set-dresser for a variety of productions that enjoy Michigan's dwindling film tax incentives.
The drummer was working on the Sam Raimi-directed Disney reboot of The Wizard of Oz, but that was back in late November. "We'll see. It will come around again. But, I mean, hey, three years ago, I didn't even have this job, so, nothing lasts forever," Berk says. He pauses, and then he adds, "Except for the band, but, nothing else lasts forever."
Stocker, meanwhile, is blunt about begrudging the dishes he'll be washing at his day job the next morning — it's one thing, among many, that spurs him to continue pursuing music, performing it, recording it.
This band has experimented a lot within the rock song format: jangly pop songs, firestorm freakouts, lo-fi tumblers and even Beatle droning. O' Imposible? is sure of itself, the instrumental elements sound synchronized, sparking a newfound confidence. No longer nervous or roaming, it's focused, now.
"At home," as Stocker put it.
Or, as Malerman sees it, a transformation: "While [2006's] Moxie Bravo was a boy, [2007's] Get the Guests' became a man. [2010's] Dragon Dicks was a transvestite, for sure!
"But o' Imposible? is graceful, pretty, leggy, strong-willed, smarter than I am."
The singer recalls rehearsals for the album as being "colorful. Palmer trying out strange solos, Derek accenting parts that didn't exist until a certain fill declared they did; a hail storm of Chad's bass notes. I felt great. It felt like we'd already caught the thing in a net in Palmer's basement. Putting it to tape was just lifting the net."
What's "highly unknowable," as Berk says is if o' Imposible? can be like a "new book" not just another chapter.
Berk calls the band their "life's work together," something for the ages, but he can't help wondering how things might have been different. He echoes Malerman in acknowledging there'd be no way they'd have had patience for each other had they hit the road at 21. He wonders, too, what impact Palmer might've had if he'd joined the Strung when he was initially invited, back in '06, during Moxie Bravo? How would o' Imposible? have sounded if this were their first time working with Jim Diamond, instead of their fourth?
Stocker says time tells, while new songs like "On Your Way Up" swagger but preach patience: "Good News coming in the mail / You're not quite there but breathe / Right on time, there's good fortune at your door." The Strung needed that breath. In the middle of that same song, right at the bridge, it stops, Palmer roars his Gretch upward like some overworked motorboat engine, until the ripples peter out and Malerman's voice soothes over silence to bring it back: "Alright, here we go ... not yet!" Anticipation builds in those four seconds. "Not yet ... O-K!" And it all crashes in again, drum, bass, guitar, voice.
Upticks in YouTube views and a flare of downloads for "Luck You Got" are one thing, but when all four of them look at this new record, they each say they feel something else, something different, it's that thing about popping. Malerman says he's anxious to reach that next level of band success while still maintaining integrity and without sacrificing their signature quirks.
"You just start wondering," Berk says.
Jeff Milo is a freelance writer. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.