- Doug Coombe
- The High Strung (clockwise from top left): Derek Berk, Josh Malerman, Mark Owen, Stephen Palmer, and Chad Stocker.
There's a quiet riot softly raging within us all, as the High Strung see it. Or at least that phrase Quiet Riots is effective enough in summing up the local five-piece rock band's collective frame of mind as it enters 2019. It fits so well that they chose it for the title of their eighth studio album, out this week on New Fortune Records.
"The 'riot' is what keeps you writing songs all these years," says singer, guitarist, and novelist Josh Malerman. "It's a fuel, or whatever, to keep making albums all these years, to keep me writing books all these years."
Malerman's name might be familiar to avid readers by now, as well as any Netflix subscriber. The streaming service premiered the movie adaptation of his 2014 thriller Bird Box on Dec. 21, a substantial Hollywood-style production starring Sandra Bullock as Malorie, a mother who blindfolds herself and her two children while fleeing a monster that will drive them mad if they see it. The story apparently resonated with millions, breaking Netflix records. According to a statement released by the company, more than 45 million, or almost one-third of the company's 137.1 million subscriber base, watched the film within the first week of its release.
Thus: Quiet Riots.
Even as the High Strung has added to its membership (with three guitarists up-front now, and surplus harmonies), the band's overall sound has wound up growing more spacious and softer — or at least unafraid to be softer. The band can still kick things up into louder modes and more rambunctious tempos, but there's something a lot more textured and atmospheric tempering the edges of Quiet Riots. As the band's members have gotten older (let's just say "on the other side of 35") and as they've grown together (not only as friends, but as musicians and collaborators), they've heightened their attention to the necessity of balancing dynamics.
And while the High Strung's story is still ongoing, it's currently bookended by one of its guitarists, Mark Owen. The singer-songwriter was there at the start, back in 2000, when longtime pals Malerman, Derek Berk, Chad Stocker, and Jason Berkowitz officially formed the group while they were based in Brooklyn, New York. They resettled back in metro Detroit in 2003, but Owen would leave the band about a year or so later, just as it finished recording an album with Jim Diamond that featured a song called "The Luck You Got." That tune got a second life after 2011, when it became the theme song for Showtime's TV comedy, Shameless.
It was sometime in 2015 when Owen got back in touch with Malerman, revealing that he had plenty of song ideas ready to be rendered. "With Owen returning to the band, there was something very Fountain-of-Youth-ish about that for us," Malerman says. "We put out our last record (I, Anybody) back in 2014, and it wasn't like we were sputtering out or anything, but lives started happening: Some of us had kids, and I had the book deal stuff. It wasn't a willful ignoring of (the band), but for us it was the longest stretch we ever had between albums."
As Berk puts it, the High Strung is "a life-long project" for every member. It's a story about a band's bond becoming something that's as tender as it is tenacious. It's the story about Owen's return after 12 years away. And the band's latest album is about two lyricists finally reuniting and bouncing ideas off each other again, as the band (which also features lead guitarist Stephen Palmer) soundtracks the melody-slung deciphering of the "quiet riots of the mind."
"It's a great feeling to come back and say, 'This is where I belong,'" says Owen. He still vividly recalls 15 years ago, the "odyssey-like" tours with his former bandmates, as well as those wild formative years when they were stuffed into a Brooklyn loft for all-night rehearsals.
"We didn't really have a home base, then, we just had each other," he says. "You experience everything with three other people; you're attached to them in a lot of ways. And I maybe lost a sense of myself, which I discovered was missing when I left the band. I liked myself with the band, and I realized that after I left. And coming back, you see the guys are both the same and have also each changed quite a bit. But I only wanted (to be in a band) again if it was with them."
- Doug Coombe
- The High Strung perform at the SXSW festival in 2005.
The High Strung was always doing its own thing. It was a "Detroit band" that wasn't here for the "garage explosion" of the White Stripes' days, and they moved back too late to catch on to any of that hysteria. They were outside the trend of that time period. Where most of those so-called garage rock bands were reviving the Kinks and Sonics-styled lo-fi grit and gusto, the High Strung instead leaned more toward its own meld of fervent, aerodynamic three-minute ballads that infused nuance into the arrangements and poetic storytelling into the lyrics, all the while being keen on finding some kind of middle ground between Guided By Voices and the Who. The band's name was, at first, a reference to the "higher" register of Malerman and Owen's vocals, as well as a tendency, in the earliest days, for the band members to sling their guitar straps much higher over their shoulders than the rest of the millennial post-punk disciples they often found themselves in league with.
The band has recorded and released eight full-lengths, along with a few EPs. "I don't know if we've ever achieved whatever kind of 'sound' it's supposed to be," Berk says. "We just keep making records, trying to find the right one. (Quiet Riots) feels like the right one for right now, you know? Then we'll make another one and see what happens."
This kind of zen-level disposition can take years to develop. Either that, or it takes the right mix of friends.
"I like how this one sounds. And I don't feel pressured to always have 'rock'-like songs, or super high-energy songs anymore," Berk says. "Maybe we did before. But I think with all the different personalities, all the harmonies... we're actually all playing less."
Stocker's bass parts throughout the first three records were complex threads that showcased the assiduous efforts you might expect from a lead guitarist. That came from a four-year stretch of working as a trio, with just Berk and Malerman, as they charted an almost nonstop tour zigzagging across the nation with only brief sporadic breaks in-between. "But I feel more like a member of a 'rhythm section' now," Stocker says. "Before, more than occasionally, it would be us (as a trio) just going nuts."
But even though there are more components — bass, drums, guitars, and lots of harmonies — the newest songs are arranged in such a way that there's surprising breathing room. Nothing is over-cluttered.
"Without having gone and made a soft album, we (instead) naturally grew into (Quiet Riots)," Malerman says. "I won't say, 'I'm proud of us not making a soft album,' or anything... let's make the next one like that!"
Thanks to Shameless, lots of people went out and listened to "The Luck You Got" online. But that doesn't mean there are now rigid expectations for the band to have its next release conform to that same sound and style. "We just have never experienced pressure in that way," says Malerman. The only pressure he admits to feeling is when he and Owen put their heads together to figure out what the next record might be missing, and to figure it out, like a puzzle or a game, how to complete it so that it feels just right.
Even if there aren't expectations, there's still the desire for an audience. "We have a hunger, still, to reach more people and to show them what we sound like now," Owen says. "The band has such a body of work from over the last 15 years — that doesn't go away. I'm here as much promoting the previous seven albums as I am promoting this new one."
"That's one of the beautiful things about being in the position we're in," Malerman says. "The title track from our 2012 album could come out today, and what would the difference be, really? We're not feeling any pressure from a heyday because there never was a 'heyday' for us. It's just been phases that, to me, have been equal throughout. We were in New York as a five-piece, then we became a four-piece, then we had that manic stretch as a three-piece, then we had Stephen join (in 2010), and there was a stretch after (2014's) I, Anybody where we weren't sure what exactly was going on... and now, here we are with Quiet Riots."
It's one thing to say you're going to be in it for the long haul, but the High Strung have the miles logged to back that up. It helps that the band's constituents each bring something new and refreshing — be it the flare of Palmer's solos, the dynamics of Stocker and Berk's rhythms, and the lyrics of Owen and Malerman.
"There's a song on the new album called 'When I Lay My Egg' that sort of tells the story of our creative lives," Owen says. "It seems like it's very future-facing, and it's about optimism and productivity... It's 'everything's about to happen,' rather than 'hey, look at all the things that have happened.'"
When they perform at the UFO Factory to celebrate Quiet Riots, they'll be joined by Ohio Wild, the spacey-folk duo of Allison Laakko and Jim Byrne, as well as the Ypsilanti-based shoegaze alt-rock quartet Minihorse. Soul-pop singer Ronny Tibbs is a co-headliner for the night, who is also celebrating the release of a new album, titled Lone Fry.
Stocker said that the High Strung's next album is already in the works, benefiting from a particularly amenable new rehearsal space. But the band won't be a primary concern for its members. Berk and Palmer have little ones at home, and Malerman is gearing up to release a new book in April. But still, Stocker says, "I feel like we're going to be around each other more than just a few hours a week at a band practice, here. I feel like it's going to get a little looser."
Malerman says the High Strung has treated every day, and every phase, with equal importance. Because it's all part of "the whole story," he says. "I hope what we're having now is only some sort of midpoint. We have eight albums? I hope we have 16 one day!"
The High Strung will celebrate the record release show for Quiet Riots on Saturday, Jan. 12 at UFO Factory, 2110 Trumbull St., Detroit; ufofactory.com; Doors at 8 p.m.; Tickets are $10.
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