Words by Sean Moeller, Illustration by Johnnie Cluney, Photos by Jesse Codling
Forget all that you know about the other hardest working bands in show business. They are simply the others. They are those who, upon the send-off for another half-a-year tour, would wish a skeptical, "Bon Voyage," to Michiganites The High Strung and secretly think in the backs of their minds that what was being undertaken was will-breaking high comedy, sure to destruct a band of strong men. But they are all lazy calves in equal comparison. The High Strung wear the cuff links. Singer/guitarist Josh Malerman, bassist Chad Stocker and drummer Derek Berk may one day usurp all of the power of the cockroach and take the place as the life form that is believed to be resilient through all instances. They keep coming back, to the dive bars and the libraries, year after year. They bend their bodies into their van - decorated with the colors and stripes of something the Baltimore Orioles would have trademarked and marketed back when Rick Dempsey was the clown prince of the rain delay. They are the chamberlains of the sovereign kingdom where working one's ass off is a form of nobility and the basis for the heaviest and most decorative coat of arms.
Their tours, over the last four years have been endless, the mile markers blurred into one vertical sign that says, "Infinity, minus one." These three have maxed out a durable touring truck, putting over 250,000 miles on it and put just under 200,000 on their current vehicle. The aforementioned truck was left ceremoniously at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio. At 2:30 a.m., on the band's way to New York, they caravanned with the new van in-tow and drove the truck up the front steps of the museum, where Kurt Cobain's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" sweater hangs, and parked it, abandoning it in hopes that it was at its ideal final resting point. They made a plaque that they put in a coffee can full of cement so it would have the look of a display, making it clear that "this was a rock and roll vehicle."
"They towed it, but there was some press," Stocker said. "If you Google it, you'll find some stories. We tried to take pictures, but none of them turned out. It did happen though."
The act that The High Strung brings with them to the big cities and the tiny towns with one gas station and a dank watering hole is, at its base value, how the art of the traveling rock and roll show is supposed to be. The way they do it shares the same purist vision baseball in the daytime and under a sky does. It's the same as hand-churned vanilla iced cream and chalkboards in classrooms. It's opening presents on Christmas morning and holding the door for women and the elderly. This is rock and roll that you see out of the hungry and those doing it with the unshakable impulse to give something of themselves every single night until they die, in hopes that they shant be forgotten as quickly as an e-mail or a smoke ring. They're barnstormers. They arrive in their own beat-up, weary beyond reason way determined to earn their money or at least make some money the next time through. They fret and stew over a show gone wrong or a lackluster outing. Just picture them sitting around in their white, Elvis-y uniforms - with black stars splashing on the side of their legs and upper torsos as seams, languishing over a poor reception or a shaky set. They do it because they want you to want them. They need you to need them. And it shouldn't even be in your head to dispute the validity that what they do for you is worth the asking price. With the 2003 release of These Are Good Times and the 2005 release of Moxie Bravo, The High Strung have seemed to promise the kind of indie rock that glows with sincerity and bedevils anyone clumsily reaching to claim that the band works with any particular strategy in mind. The songs are flooded with characters that Malerman - who often sounds like Placebo's Brian Molko when he sings in his intoxicatingly heliumed way -- injects with delicious life that is anything but prosaic. It's what comes not from the heart of a rock and roller, but from the pen of a Pulitzer Prize winning prose writer. Stocker and Berk are integral parts to making it all fly straight and are virtuosos at their individual instruments, but at the end of the night, it's the people populating these slightly everything songs that make all the difference in the world. They contribute the impetus for lyrics that give you a sneaking suspicion that you're among the company of domesticated wolves and it's just a matter of time before they snap and they're no longer just gorgeous poetry, but the creatures they were born to be - wild and bearing their teeth. It makes all this work that they're putting in mean something more meaningful and lasting than dead trucks and atlases that have seen better days.
h4. The Daytrotter interview:
*First of all, this last tour you were on was long as all hell. How do you deal with it? Are there coping mechanisms? Is the van running better? You were sputtering at 30 miles an hour when you came to see us. Describe the character of your van.*
Chad Stocker: This particular tour we just finished was three months. We've slowed our touring schedule down a bit in the last year, but for the last four years before this one, we've been on a non-stop, yes, we are homeless, endless tour of the country (and Canada for two weeks once). After that kinda schedule, you either break up or you figure it out. We spend a good deal reading (newspapers, fiction, biographies, sometimes magazines, but not usually). Now-a-days, we have the computer where one of us can watch a DVD with headphones, and these types of things act as "private" time. And for the most part, it works. As for the van, she's doing great. The air conditioner worked all summer long. No big problems. She's really turned into a touring beast, our old truck would be proud of this one.
Derek Berk: I've never had a problem dealing with a long tour until I picked up a
girlfriend. Now it's a bit difficult to be away for so long. I'm on the
phone constantly which is good and bad. Sometimes I feel like I'm floating
in space -- not here or there. I can't touch my lady but I can hear her
voice which is kind of like tour-ture for both the good bits and bad. You
can have the fight but not the sweet make up make out. The bus is running sweet. Turns out that night we saw you our fuel filter was shot. We had traveled 100,000 miles without replacing it. If you remember it was a Sunday night so no auto joints in western Illinois were open. The next day we went not far from your house, picked up the filter and changed it in ten min. she ran like a dream after that. We voted and got the air conditioner fixed before the tour. It was strictly for our luxury but I have to tell you it was probably the best decision we've made as a band to date. I really makes a diff in yer mood if you can stay cool on a 13 hour drive from Denver to Phoenix. The van did pretty good for us this summer. We got stranded in Oklahoma when our water pump busted and we had to put in our fourth alternator in 2 years in Oakley Kansas (home of Annie Oakley) Other than that. It was smooth sailing for a good 23,000 miles. The odometer reads 316,435 so I can't complain.
*What's with all the libraries on this tour? You're turning into Harry and the Potters. Did you take pointers from them?*
CH: We'd never even heard of them before this summer. Thing about them is that they put on a kids show, right? They sing about Harry Potter. We play a full-on rock and roll show (we don't do nearly as much swearing or drinking though) for them AT the Library. Our songs. THEN, we write a song with them at the end of our set. It turned out really cool. It's a chance for us to play in front of young people, and a chance for someone in Groton, Mass., or Viroqua, Wisc., or Brookings, S.D., to see a touring rock band. Most of all, it's an attempt to get young people to think of the library as a cool place to go, to experience interesting things at.
Josh Malerman: Hadn't heard of these guys until mid-way through this three month circle of the country. Someone told me what they do. Who knows, they might be wonderful, whatever, but I do know that, from their description, they are doing exactly what I told Bill (our personal librarian, the guy who booked it all) I didn't want us to do. MEANING: I didn't want us to turn into THE LIBRARY BAND. One way to insure this is to play the same show you would in a bar. Same songs. Same energy. Same volume. Rather than playing out scenes from a book I'd rather they just read.
DB: Fuck Harry and the Potters! They are a novelty act that is cashing in
on someone else's story. We write our own story and we believe in our own
cartoon! The only point I took from them was their hats right before I
shoved them up there asses and said sit and spin wizard witch bitch posers.
*Have you guys had any good barbeques this summer?*
CS: Yes, our librarian friends in Lehigh County, Pa., had us over for beers, and BBQ, and we jammed out with their kids and had a blast. We did spend a good amount of time hanging with librarians after the shows.
JM: Yes. Reno, Nevada. It was awesome. A pool party no less.
DB: Many good BBQ's. The last one we had was fantastic. It was at the
librarians house after the show at the Lehigh Valley Library in central Pa. They were an awesome family. The dad had a lot of delicious imported
beers. I road Even's, the fourteen-year-old son, quarter pipe badly and
swam in their pool. Since it was in Pa., Shai from The Capitol Years hung out
as well. I have never seen him have so much fun. We watched a scary movie in
the living room after the parents went to bed and the band all fell asleep.
The kids got a kick out of out partying with the rock band.
*Are you guys crushed by WOXY's reported shut down in a week? You were pretty close to that station, weren't you? Were you recording an album of on-air tracks there? If so, has that plan been derailed?*
CS: Well, we did three sessions there. The first was just songs from Moxie Bravo, and maybe from These Are Good Times. The two sessions afterwards, we performed six songs each, for a total of 12 tunes with them. They were all new songs. It was a way for us to hear them. Their engineer, Brian Niesz Ni Niesz, is great. We thought it'd be cool for both parties. To demo our new record live on the air. We get a demo, and they get the only versions of our new songs to date. It's a shame that it's closing down. It's a shame that no huge rock and roll star doesn't come in and just buy up the station and keep it going. So much for counter-cultural philanthropy.
JM: It makes me sad and makes me wonder if there was something we could have done to help. A benefit? More PR somehow? Maybe we couldn't have helped in a big way, but I feel a sense of guilt for not having done enough. Mike over there is truly amazing. The thing they had will not be that replaceable.
*Josh, can you explain in more detail how you think Lewis Carroll influences your lyrics? I feel like you've taken the lyrics on these new songs to a different caliber than those in the past. Do you feel the same way? It's almost as if they're still playful...but darkly playful, like you're playing with domesticated wolves or something. Does that make any sense? They appear somewhat safe, but they could snap at any second.*
JM: Well, here's to hoping the magazines review the third record the same way! I've never thought about it in these terms exactly. Maybe what you're hearing is, in the older songs, the characters are near to snapping, but in the newer ones they already have. I'm not sure why I'm so into the character sketch. I guess it let's me get inside someone's head that doesn't have to literally be my own. In SEEMS IT'S ONE THING the girl is an overacheiver, which I adore and relate to. But she also seems very aloof as goes explaining how she gets her shit done. Would I be like that if I'd built what she built? Ummmm... probably not. Would I like to be more like her? Yes. Some days. And for 3 minutes a night... I can be.
*As a play off of "Missed Easily," when do you guys get down in the dumps? What's it take?*
CS: A bad phone call from the girlfriend. A bad show could set off a number of different feelings. Mostly show stuff can be the edge we fall off on. Sometimes getting the shaft by the label, or something like when we spent 500 bucks on recording music for some cartoon, and then the cartoon creators never got it together. That kinda shit sucks. Or when Dr. Drew personally called us, asked us to make a song for his new show, and then two days later we were replaced by Crystal Method (they said they got Crystal Method to so it for the same price we'd of done it.) Mostly the dumps come from external shit, girlfriends, being tired of fast food, missing family things, etc...
JM: For as much as you don't want to admit it... a bad response from the crowd can really get us down. It's wonderful, in a way, because it proves that the audience and the perfomer are on equal footing as fgoes the end result. But, yes, probably a shitty disinterested reaction from the crowd can fool us into feeling bad.
*What kinds of stories have you collected in your many travels (and I'm not talking about "tour stories" of wild misadventures, I'm talking about stories from people that you may have been haunted or amazed by days, weeks later)?*
CS: This one cat in Tucson, Ariz. He bought Josh and his visiting girlfriend, Katie a hotel room, and then brought the rest of us to his ranch about half hour outside of the city. This guy had an arsenal, a couple of horses that he said he loved more than women. He made me hug his horse. He had once been a bounty hunter, and is probably gonna be after us now that I've given his cover away!
JM: We heard of a guy in western Kansas who kept his dead wife in glass at the finish line of a bush maze you had to pay to enter. This idea was so incredible to me that I was dying for us to get there. But, the highway it's on, it's just not on the way to ANY city we've ever played and we've never had the chance. I wrote a story, THE HEDGES, based entirely off this guy.
DB: I like when we run into people that are working on something in their
town, like an Internet music mag or a bookstore or venue or making awesome
music. That way, as we travel around, we can stop in and check it out and
learn about what's going on all over. Like I know this dude in New Jersey
that bought an old church and is making a massive pipe organ in it and he
has parties and bands play there and he's renovating it with his wife. I like when we stay with an arty family that seems functional, like they
just went for it and it's their little gang or collective. Like the folks
that we had the BBQ with in Pa. Dad's a ceramics teacher and ma's a
librarian. The son is in high school and plays music. The daughter is in
college studying sculpture. This scene gives me hope that a domestic
experience could be possible. There's another family we dig and even had
Thanksgiving with in Charleston, S.C. Similar kind of vibe. Awesome folks.
*What's the beer of choice? What's Pollard's beer of choice?*
CS: My beer of choice is a tie. Miller High Life, Pabst Blue Ribbon, and this beer from Canada, I don't know if you have it over there in Iowa , Labatt Blue. I also enjoy those heavy wheat beers with a little bit of fresh lemon, Bells Brewery in Mich., has one called Oberon. Bob Pollard drinks Miller Lite, and Tequila. (and whatever else you can give him).
JM: JOSH MALERMAN: rum and coke
BOB POLLARD: Miller Lite?
DB: Bob drinks Miller Lite and Tequila, almost exclusively. At least when we
were on tour that's what he drank. Some Guided B Vices nerd in the crowd
in San Francisco told me the date he switched from Bud,but I can't remember.
I don't know if I want to.
*When you were on tour talking music with Bob, how would the discussions go?*
CS: He said to me once, when we were talking about John Cage and Steve Riech, he brought up some other avant garde composer I didn't know about and he said, "Oh man, you gotta come over to your Uncle Bob's house, we'll have a BBQ, I'll spin you records all night..."
JM: It was amazing. Awesome. Talked about Ray Davies. And he told me about a song writing method he's employed that I want to try but don't know if I have the balls to do it yet. It sounds dangerous... it really does.
DB: I was shocked when he knew the words to our songs let alone his own. It
was fun because you get a personal concert. If you tell him that you like
one of his tunes he will start singing it to you right there. He likesa lot
of awesome shit and goes record shopping in every town.
*What did you learn yesterday that you previously didn't know?*
CS: Just came from a funeral, and that maybe the joys of hard drugs really are not worth it.
JM: That I can let my birds out of their cages and they will fly back in on their own.
DB: That a girl I knew from hgh shool is now dating this thuggy dude that
at one time had our friend and former singer beat up for no good reason. I
was like,"She has no idea what an asshole she is getting herself mixed up
*What's got you interested -- intellectually, musically, visually -- these days?*
CS: I'm interested in Irish Steel Cut Oatmeal, cooking in general, yard work, making a compost, what happens in the second season of "Carnivale", Godspeed You Black Emperor, joining an Anti-War Movement, the history of the Ford Escort, Modern Jazz Quartet, having sex with my girlfriend in the back seat of a car (like the old days), and recording our third record.
JM: M. Night Shyamalan. He's haunting me like Phil Spector did Brian Wilson. Also... writing a story about a zoo-keeper completely consumed by thoughts of death and whether or not death is freedom. I don't feel the same as he does, but writing him has got me thinking about a million angles on the subject and is nearly driving me mad.