The High Strung: Quick Studies

high-strung480When it comes to choosing band names, Josh Malerman couldn’t have settled on a better one than the High Strung. Five minutes alone with the nervous, jittery 31-year-old and it’s pretty obvious why. The High Strung frontman’s thoughts are delivered in such a rapid-fire, increasingly squeaky voice that he starts to sound like one of those chipmunk-chattering South Park kids. But then again, it’s not like he doesn’t have a lot to say—and he particularly enjoys talking about books.

“I’m writing right now,” says Malerman. “I’m almost done with my sixth novel.” His latest work is titled Bring Me The Map and is about “a boy who actually witnesses his father sleeping with another woman and what he decides to do about it. But it’s more absurd than it sounds; there are monsters and stuff in it, too.” His previous tome, Decorum At The Deathbed, concerned a corpse that disappears from a family tomb. Before that, Bird-Box revolved around a mother and her monstrosity of a child.

The Detroit-based Malerman has been compulsively penning novels with, as of yet, no real bites from the publishing world. But there’s hope, he swears. His first book, Wendy (the tale of two hapless twentysomethings who visit the sinister brothel of a “sex witch”) is currently being shopped around by a literary agent.

“I must have contacted 1,500 different agents, and I am not kidding,” says Malerman. “I was an animal about it. I got 13 or 14 favorable responses, saying, ‘Send us something.’ But most of them said, ‘We want to know your sales numbers before we start working together.’ So it was the same conundrum our band was running through: ‘Yes, we want to book you, but we’re not gonna book you unless you’ve played here before.’ The whole entertainment industry is like that. You can’t get an agent unless you’ve been published, but you can’t get published unless you have an agent.”

It’s enough to drive a high-strung guy completely insane. Malerman fell in love with horror novels after plowing through all the Faulkner and Hemingway classics in high school, then discovered Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which led him to Stephen King, Shirley Jackson and Richard Matheson. “And I’ve been on a straight horror kick ever since,” he says. “And from there came several novels and just a mountain of songs.”

The kinetic spark that Malerman infuses into simple conversation also provides the crackling current coursing through his three-minute sonic romps with drummer Derek Berk and bassist Chad Stocker. With ADD-giddy glee, the High Strung’s third album, Get The Guests (Park The Van), bounds through chiming spine-tinglers such as “Gravedigger,” “The Curator,” “Maybe You’re Coming Down With It” and the sneeringly literate “Rimbaud/Rambo.” The lyrics are fun, Edward Lear-ish nonsense delivered in Malerman’s angelic voice, and the music lies somewhere between the punky folk of early Violent Femmes and the pleasant-valley-Sunday pop of the British Invasion. Naturally, one of the High Strung’s career highlights was last year’s tour of public libraries, which was documented by NPR’s This American Life. Malerman loved the strange juxtaposition so much (“full-on, full-volume rock shows at libraries!”), the trio is embarking on more such performances this summer. Is it tough being an intelligent, well-read rocker in today’s knuckleheaded “This Is Why I’m Hot” world?

“I think there is a conflict,” says Malerman. “I mean, our songs aren’t about William Faulkner. They’re not these literate things that hit you over the head, like, ‘Oh, look! This song’s about the dictionary!’” He pauses for a second to reconsider. “That sounds good, actually. But when you turn on the radio, you hear, ‘Are you gonna be my girl?’ and you’re like, ‘Aw, come on. It doesn’t have to be literate, per se, but surely we can do better than this.’ There’s a way to do it where your songs are as smart as 2007, but you still have the spirit of Buddy Holly or ‘Rock Around The Clock.’ So I know in my heart that the High Strung is a rock band. But I feel like sometimes we’re too brainy for the rock crowd and too bombastic and crazy for the more literate crowd.”

Still, Malerman thinks he’s got the lovable-eccentric market cornered, until he learns that decadent 19th-century poet Baudelaire used to dye his hair green and walk his pet lobster on a bejeweled leash. “Jesus Christ!” he marvels. “Every great writer lived the rocker lifestyle, it seems. But if there’s a guy who did that in history, you know what? I’m just not trying hard enough.”

—Tom Lanham