The members of Detroit's The High Strung are creatures of habit: The band's first three records are consistently great and often fuzzy, characterized by a frantic rhythm section and the character-sketching lyrics of singer-guitarist Josh Malerman; this will be its fifth summer of filling the time between gigs by playing daytime shows in libraries, plugged-in and full-volume. But when it came to recording The High Strung's fourth record, Malerman, drummer Derek Berk, and bassist Chad Stocker were looking for a change, so Malerman began writing songs about himself, and Dave Newfeld (Broken Social Scene, Los Campesinos!) was brought in to produce. The record, Ode To The Inverse Of The Dude ("We're in our bad title phase," Malerman says), was released in April, and the band is currently touring behind it, stopping The Black Cat tonight. Malerman spoke to The A.V. Club about getting inside his own head, working with the enigmatic Newfeld, and the band's upcoming show at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base.
The A.V. Club: What makes Ode To The Inverse Of The Dude a "personal" record?
Josh Malerman: I wish there was another word for that other than "personal." I feel like personal implies it's your "breakup album." Or it implies that this is a "dark" abum. But it's not. It's like a celebratory self-examination. It's like, "Wow, I can't believe all these crazy things about myself."
AVC: So it's more about examining your own psyche?
JM: The two of us couldn't sound more pretentious than we sound right now, but I think that's exactly what it is. I'm as fascinated as anyone by the human mind. The writer looks into himself, and some of it's freaky, and some of it's fun, and I would say it's more of Rorschach test than a deep album.
AVC: What were some of the elements of yourself that you wanted to explore?
JM: I'm a pretty prolific artist, and I think I wanted to stamp the fact, for myself, that my main motivation is guilt. I don't know if it's because I'm Jewish—I feel like anybody can feel this way. There's a certain, "Oh, do you write this much for identity's sake?" I don't think so. "Do you write this much for productivity's sake?" I definitely don't think so. "Do you write this much because you feel guilty when you don't?" Yes, that's it. "What are you so guilty about?" I don't know, but that's what it is.
AVC: Is that how the song "Guilt Is How I'm Built" started?
JM: Yeah, there's more than just that one. I feel like "The Lifestyle That Got Away" is sort of like that. It may be as simple as, "Oh, you could have done that, but you made a few decisions in your life." I'm okay with the path that I'm on, but it's fascinating to think, "I could've been a gay guy in Key West. I could be working at an insurance company in Lansing. But somehow this is what's happening."
AVC: Your label, Park The Van, recommended Dave Newfeld to produce Ode. He's a fairly mysterious individual. It's nearly impossible to find out anything about that guy.
JM: I think that's on purpose. I'm not allowed to tell the media where his studio is. Can you believe that? I don't think he has a MySpace page. There's very little information about him. And in hanging out with him—nobody else was around the studio. It wasn't like he had friends he was on the phone with. He was a bit of a loner.
AVC: What was that like to work with?
JM: He's very, very, very hands-on. He had something to say about every chord change, every lyric. That's not to say that things were changed because of that, but he had something to say. My favorite thing about Dave was that he approached it like, "If we're going to do this, then we're all going to do this. It's not like your album, and I'm going to make it sound good."
AVC: Did having him so involved prompt further self-examination?
He perpetuated the thing by being so different than what I was used to. But I would have issues with the process because Dave moves a lot slower than I would move, and he and I would get into arguments. And he would say, "Hey Joshy"—cuz he called me "Joshy"—"doesn't it sound good?" And I'd be like, "Yes. You're right, Dave. It sounds good." And he'd be like, "Well, that's it."
AVC: The new record could also be titled Ode To The Inverse Of The High Strung: Things that are maximal on your previous records—lyrics, basslines, drumming—are minimal, and your usually sparse arrangements are replaced by a lot of overdubbing. Was that intentional?
JM: I remember Derek saying, "If we make another album like we made the last one, I'm going to kill myself." And I was like, "What are you talking about? I love all our albums." And he was like, "No, I do, too, but it's time for us to do something different." I don't know if "intentional" is the right word—we were almost lucky that the label pressed this producer on us, because we were ready to change. And then [Newfeld] made that happen. This guy, there was no question it was going to be different with him.
AVC: Things don't get much different than playing a gig at Gitmo.
JM: Isn't that insane? The guy who books our library tours called us, and he was like, "I got us a couple shows at a library on the military base in Cuba." We were like, "What?" But whatever. We're doing it. We'll go, we'll stay there—I guess we'll have to stay in a hotel—and we'll play a couple library shows. I've never been out of America—we played in Canada, but that's it—so it's exceptionally exciting for me.