The High Strung
To Be or Not to Be
by Kevin J. Elliott

That a band’s existence and identity is equal to its productivity and the hours it clocks is something that Josh Malerman believes in deeply. For the better part of a decade, Detroit’s High Strung, led by Malerman’s knack for pop hooks and clever wordplay, have been plugging away at that elusive dream of rock & roll relevance. In a perfect world, and in accordance to that theory, The High Strung should be a household name with hits galore and spoken of with the same reverence reserved for Guided by Voices and Pavement. Whether or not you’re a fan or if you’ve adored one or all five of the group’s endlessly creative albums, the fact remains that The High Strung still toil in indie obscurity. This simply should not be the case. After all, most indie start-ups barely get off the ground before givin in after a few years of disinterest. But like clockwork, The High Strung appear every 18 months with a new batch of instantly catchy songs, an infectious live show, and enough boundless enthusiasm that’s it impossible not to become enamored. Judging by my conversation with Malerman, The High Strung are in it for the long haul, not likely to take a sabbatical any time soon as that would spell the death of the band.

Proof of that vitality comes with their latest release, the ebullient ¿Posible o’ Imposible? It’s an album which truly magnifies the distinguishing qualities found in the band’s repertoire. Here the band is larger than life, in an imagined position where all of those nagging issues about “toiling” are irrelevant and they’re free to live out those rock & roll fantasies. Of course, it wouldn’t be a High Strung album without the cadre of characters that inhabit Malerman’s songs. From the “Big Game Hunter” to the “Giant,” these characters tend to share the same hopes and dreams. Yes, there are huge philosophical questions and quandaries that seem too big for something as trivial as a rock band. But somewhere between the glory pop of Sloan and the idiosyncratic nature of your favorite Elephant Six band exist The High Strung, and for them, their band could be your life.

This will be your fifth record under the name High Strung. What’s usually the impetus to get started on a new record?

Josh Malerman: Think about bands from the ’60s, where every six months they were expected to make a record. As soon as they were done with one, they would get started on the next. Maybe that same structure goes for giant bands, more popular bands, now. So where does the motivation come to make that next record? For us, the moment we stop making music, the band doesn’t exist anymore. I would feel very strange if we hadn’t made an album in three years. For me, the albums verify the existence of the band. There’s no monetary motivation for us, but I don’t want too much time to pass. There is overkill to it, when you start getting into identity being defined by productivity. But for us, the pace is about an album a year. I think that does a good job for our identity, reminding us we are artists. It’s also to smile about as a band, an accomplishment. It shows we are growing and still developing. The only way you know that is with an album.

Were there any specific inspirations for ¿Posible o’ Imposible?

JM: Listening back, there are some unified themes to it that weren’t intentional, but I think came about subconsciously. It’s all about living in extraordinary times. It’s about thinking bigger than you are, idealizing yourself as a super version of yourself. I don’t know if that’s from feeling low or down on myself when I was writing, but I know that about once a year I write a batch of songs and with these I didn’t find the themes until I looked back over the songs. When you’re working and writing all the time, it’s hard to pinpoint what the motivation is for what comes next.

You’ve reached the decade mark as The High Strung. What do you credit to your longevity as a band? What’s the secret?

JM: It really helps that we have all been best friends since we were 11 years old. We already went through the nitpicky stuff back in middle school, and touring so much in the past brought us even closer. All three of us—now we have a fourth member—respect and revere our songs and rock & roll so much that any of us would feel shameful to give up and walk away from it.

Detroit has had a lot of ups and downs since you started the band. What’s the environment like there currently? Is it still a productive place to function as a band?

JM: The Detroit music scene is intense. Every night of the week there’s something to do or go see. You start to look around and the whole week is packed with bands to go see. You want that. It’s good to be surrounded by that. It keeps you sharp and inspires you. But there’s also the big city element of trying to make a name for yourself and that’s hard.

It must have been 2003 when I first saw the band play in Dayton. At that time you were in a huge bus, with girlfriends and a merry prankster sort of aura. Is touring still a madcap adventure for the band? Do you still have as an intense of a tour schedule as you did back then?

JM: We haven’t toured for two years now, but that wasn’t some communal decision. We toured like absolute maniacs for six or seven years. I don’t know exactly what happened. We wrote a new album and created a show for it, and the time it took to put that all together took longer than expected. If you were to ask me back then, “How does it feel that you’re not going to be on the road for two years?” I would have been completely scared. I would have thought that we were throwing everything away that we accomplished. I would have thought that we were lazy. But none of that happened. In those two years, we’ve got a lot of work done here. Good things are happening. We don’t tour nearly as much as we used to, but our band is just as frenetic in a different way. It’s here, instead of everywhere.

I think touring had a lot to do with your identity. You were playing everywhere and eventually started doing library shows and then Guantanamo Bay. What was your first reaction to being asked to play Guantanamo Bay? What was that experience like?

JM: I was nervous to go there. I just thought it was a prison, on the Cuban border, with armed guards and sharks. Our drummer Derek, who’s a natural adventurer, said this would be the greatest gig in the world. It was so nuts. We flew down loaded with Marines. It was like the Three Stooges going to Guantanamo Bay. We had German Shepherds smelling our bags and our gear. There’s a little city on the bay that was built in the ’50s, and at 0700 we had to get on a boat to cross the bay and play over there. It was one of the greatest experiences we ever had.

Being in a band for more than a decade you’ve accomplished quite a bit and have a healthy catalog of records. Is there anything you want to do as The High Strung that you haven’t achieved yet? It can be tangible or intangible.

JM: This is going to sound goofy, but as far as a tangible goal, I’ve always wanted to play a late night talk show. It eats at me that we haven’t. My introduction to bands was through those types of those shows. To have that moment would really mean a lot for us. Also we’ve never been to Europe, which is absurd. Those two things are huge for me. An intangible is making the absolute apex record we were meant to make. I don’t think any of our albums have fallen short, at least in my eyes, but I feel there’s that one particular record that we haven’t made yet. I suppose that’s a lofty artistic goal.

Given the heft of your catalog, are you constantly thinking about the next record? Any sense of where you’ll go from here?

JM: I don’t and let me tell you why. If I were to start writing the next album today, it would take months to finish, and then we’d need to learn it, and then record it. There’s no question that I’m not thinking about it, but I want to relish this one first. Even just spiritually, these songs don’t want to leave us yet.