[heard]Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum is a towering pyramid of cement and glass jutting out of the Lake Erie shoreline, a testament to both modern music and modern architecture.
An artist must wait 25 years after their first album release to be allowed to penetrate its glittering walls and join the ranks of the Beatles, the Stones, Dylan, Hendrix and Janis. If you’re as optimistic as retro rockers the High Strung, however, you can just leave your old tour bus at the entrance after hours.
“We donated it,” said the band\’s guitarist and vocalist, Josh Malerman. “So we put it out front. I wrote them a letter, that was, I think, on the windshield, but [drummer and vocalist, Derek Berk] made a plaque, like behind plexiglass, on a stand, with like a cement base, that made it look like a real exhibit for anyone that might have came through.”
Their new bus waited around the corner with the engine running while Berk drove the old one up the steps leading to the Hall of Fame. “That was my master planning, because I knew that he’d probably be the only one that had the balls to actually put it right up to the door,” said Malerman.
This guerilla addition to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s collection fits the High Strung well for two reasons: the band’s brand of heady, yet hook-filled, garage rock would not seem out of place on a bill with ‘60s favorites and hall inductees the Who or the Kinks, and any vehicle that could carry said band through the majority of four continuous years of touring deserves to be enshrined somehow.
The group, from Brooklyn-via-Detroit, is composed of Malerman, Berk and bassist and vocalist, Chad Stocker, and has an on-the-road lifestyle that spills into their music. In fact, Malerman, the band’s principal songwriter, has made a rule he applies to his songs. “The rules are no songs about the road, no songs about how shitty the music industry is and no ironic covers,” he said. “If you cover a song, do it because you love it.”
But all the personal rules in the world can’t affect interpretation by your listeners, or even your own bandmates, as was the case with “On Your Feet” from the High Strung’s 2005 LP Moxie Bravo. “It’s…a story about a traveler or something, you know, who’s kind of like an outlaw almost,” said Stocker. He noted that it’s pretty similar to a “being on tour” song.
The first four songs on Moxie Bravo sound like a band tweaking something that isn’t broken, following the formula established on the High Strung’s previous full-length, These Are Good Times: guitars ringing, buzzing or jangling; bass coated in fuzz with Stocker’s fingers taking pentatonic flights of fancy up and down the neck; Berk absolutely punishing his kit and Malerman’s double-tracked vocals telling quirky three-minute narratives backed by Beatle-esque harmonies. The songs are immediately catchy and frenetic, even high-strung at times.
Then comes “N Over C.” All the elements from the previous song are present, but this one feels spacious. It’s not quite the white R&B of the Zombies’, “Time of the Season,” but it is somewhere close by. And in one final psychedelic flourish at the 2:10 mark, the band forms a vocal round on the phrase “If your love should ever stop growing” (with Berk and Stocker echoing “love,” “ever” and “growing”) wrapped in a knotty guitar line.
“We’ve had a lot of prettier songs in our knapsack over the years, but then for some reason with [“N Over C”] we were able to do a pretty one that still moves,” said Malerman.
Like so many under-the-radar bands, appreciation for the High Strung increases exponentially by seeing the band play live. It reassures the talent of the individual members: Malerman’s inimitable upper-register vocals are in no way forced, Stocker really can play the bass that fast and Berk does pour every ounce of his body (and perspiration) into drumming.
The live setting also gives the band some room to dig around within their own songs and expand upon the recorded versions. At Mac’s Bar in Lansing on Dec. 3, the caterwaul of an interlude in “Rah Rah Rah!” became a massive wave of noise, with Malerman wandering into the crowd and using a chair as a riser as he conducted the song’s climax. Rah, rah, rah indeed!
Catching the High Strung at Mac’s is akin to spotting wild creatures in their natural habitat. Now imagine this scrappy herd setting up shop at your district library. Though it may seem like the least rock ‘n’ roll idea ever, the High Strung did just that in the summer of 2005 — 34 times.
It was all the work of “maverick” librarian Bill Harmer, who had previously held a show at his library with former High Strung tour-mates, The Brian Jonestown Massacre. When the band’s label suggested Malerman read the outline he had written for Moxie Bravo for children, they hooked him up with Harmer.
“That actually happened, I went and talked to the kids about it,” Malerman said. “Months later, [Harmer] said, ‘Hey, let’s do this again, but let’s do it with the whole band…’ and then he laid out his whole plan, us playing full volume, and the whole thing. He went to some convention, I don’t know what it’s called, but…he asked the libraries in Michigan and he got 34 takers.”
Given Malerman’s songwriting method, the High Strung was made for a tour of libraries. “For me, a lot of times when I’m writing a song or a batch of songs, I’m like, ‘Oh, I want this to be as good as…’ and I’ll think in books; I want this to be as good as Tender Is the Night, I want this to be as good as Stephen King,” he said. “I really do, I think about it, it’s like I relate more to the author as artist than the rocker as artist, I just do…the thing I get from authors is different, because a lot of the songs are character sketches and stuff.”
Harmer’s intent for the library tour was to reshape the way kids see their local library. This being so, the average crowd at the shows wasn’t the standard rock concert set. “It was fun because you got the feeling, you could tell that it was the first time any of [the kids] had seen loud rock music, especially so close, you know, they’ve never experienced it before, a lot of them.” Berk said. “We made sure to ask at every show how many of them it was their first rock show, and for most of them it was. Or they had seen Green Day. For some reason a lot of them had seen Green Day.”
On Mar. 13, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum will welcome new inductees Black Sabbath, Blondie, Miles Davis, Lynryd Skynyrd and the Sex Pistols. And while Ozzy is mumbling through his acceptance speech and Johnny Rotten (or John Lydon?) is refusing to answer questions from the press, the original High Strung tour bus will probably be sitting in some Ohio landfill, an unappreciated gift ahead of its time. Meanwhile, its current counterpart is still rumbling around, planting the seeds of rock ‘n’ roll, from district libraries to dive bars and beyond.
The High Strung will play at Mac\’s Bar in Lansing on Thursday, Feb. 16 – check out the venue\’s Web site, www.macsbar.com, for more details.

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