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Ready for Anything: The High Strung, May 8 at Theo’s Java Club PDF Print E-mail
Music - Feature Stories
Written by Jeff Ignatius   
Tuesday, 05 May 2009 15:47

The High Strung

On the one hand, Josh Malerman -- The High Strung's singer, guitarist, and songwriter -- sounds receptive to new ideas. When I asked whether the band will record an album of library songs -- the on-the-spot compositions generated with the help of the audience at the band's many gigs at public libraries -- he replied that generally the songs are performed once and then disappear.

But then: "We have probably 12 this year," he said. "If we recorded those 12, that's an album. I actually think that's a very good idea. Maybe we will. The more that I talk about this, I really think that we should just do that."

On the other hand, Malerman said he was perfectly happy for the trio to record with the same producer (Jim Diamond) well into old age. When the Detroit group's label suggested a new direction, Malerman said he was skeptical. He recalled that a representative told the band, "You've made three albums with this guy. Time to do something different." That was seconded by the High Strung's drummer and its bassist, but Malerman had to be sold: "I was ready to keep going like we were going until we were 80."

The High Strung will perform a Daytrotter show at Theo's Java Club on Friday, and the band's story suggests that Malerman indulges wacky ideas more than he rejects him. The group left its old tour bus in front of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2004, and it is probably best known, from a 2005 This American Life story, as the band that plays gigs at libraries -- full rock shows missing only booze and profanity.

Given all that, you might choose to discount Malerman's claimed reticence. But he said he didn't think the new producer was a good match.

"When I heard Dave Newfeld's stuff, ... I was sort of like, 'I like it, but ... there's no way this is going to be the right thing for us,'" he said. "I thought that his production was a little too modern and maybe a little too cold to me."

The High Strung's previous records had been unapologetic garage pop, and Malerman compared the texture to Neil Young greens and browns, while some of Newfeld's work -- with bands including Broken Social Scene -- reminded him of Joy Division blacks and whites. But the other members of the band prevailed, and although Ode to the Inverse of the Dude (released in March) is a definite departure, there's nothing cold about it.

The band's horizons have been expanded, with some of the bombastic and lush textures that characterize the Flaming Lips, and an undeniable joy that can't be faked. Malerman said Ode "has a broader scope ... more of a panoramic sound."

In the studio, Malerman said, he knew that live performance of these bigger arrangements would be a challenge, and The High Strung is still working some songs out in the live setting. "We can play six of them really well, and we're still trying to learn the other five," he said. "There's just no question that things are going to be missing," but the band compensates with harmonies and effects.

The thick but light sound of Ode is a good match for lyrics in which Malerman looks inward, lifting them up and making sure that nobody mistakes them for introspective, dour "pain of existence" poems. "This is more of an excitable look within," he said.

While these songs are about himself and a departure from the "character sketch" formula of 2007's Get the Guests, the prospect of baring his soul didn't scare Malerman. "If a dude writes about a bunch of characters, if he finds those characters interesting, essentially he's writing about himself," he said. "You're learning more about him [than the characters]. ... They're both just as revealing."

Malerman said he even toyed with a different sort of personal record. "Part of me wanted to make an album that was like: First song birth, second song childhood, third song parents get divorced, fourth song college, fifth song -- you see what I mean? If we're going to get personal, let's do a fucking biography. ... I love the idea of a song called 'Parents Get Divorced.'" I asked whether there would be a song called "Potty Training," and Malerman threw out "Anal Stage."

He rejected the autobiography idea -- for now, at least -- but the band listened in 2005 when a librarian suggested playing a different venue, and not shows for children. "He wanted a real touring rock band to go in and play real loud, crazy shows in a library," Malerman said. "What he essentially was giving us was a series of all-ages shows across the country."

The band has continued its library shows, now sprinkling them between performances at more traditional venues such as Theo's or bars.

Malerman said the library gigs are both strange and brilliant. "It's an amazingly weird thing to do," he said, "and because of that, you just end up hitting different people than you normally would in cities you would never ordinarily go to. ... The money is good, too, or at least you know you're going to get paid.

"It's a sober show. That's always totally weird. And sometimes -- no joke -- you're playing under the fluorescent lights of a freaking conference room of a library. ... That's awkward and bizarre. But when it goes well, you're talking about 200 to 300 kids -- teenagers, and 20s also. You walk away from that, and you're like, 'Oh my God, we never ever ever would have hit these kids if we weren't playing this venue.'"

Many libraries, of course, have engaged and creative teen librarians who can bring in a big audience for an indie-rock band. And then there was a show in Baltimore on Malerman's birthday, when nobody showed up.

And he said he can spot a bad show waiting to happen: "A librarian would be like, 'We have a band today?' And you're like, 'Oh no!' And that happens a lot -- a lot more than you would think."

Malerman thinks The High Strung's new record is as radical as the library shows, and he said he welcomes the freedom it offers: "It's so bizarre, and such a leap from what we did before, I feel like now we're in a position where we can do anything and it won't be a weird move."

He and bassist Chad Stocker are talking about recording 30 song fragments -- verses or choruses -- and literally cutting the tape and reassembling it into a 30-minute piece.

And he wants to do a live acoustic album of all The High Strung's songs. The band might select the 10 best recordings, or it might release all of them.

"Maybe we will do that tomorrow," Malerman said.

The High Strung will perform at Theo's Java Club on Friday, May 8, at Theo's Java Club (213 17th Street in Rock Island). Quiet Bears and Chrash are also on the bill, and the show starts at 7:30 p.m. Admission is $5.

The High Strung's Daytrotter sessions are available here and here.

For more information on the band, visit

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