Shit! What was that?" drummer Derek Berk screams into his cell phone.
Don't ask the High Strung how their tour is going. While driving the Chicago loop, a rock hit Berk's windshield, creating a perfectly round hole. There is no tour. There is only life on the road.
"We don't live anywhere," Berk explains. "We gave up our place in New York and have been doing this for something like 19 months now. So it's not like other bands that actually live somewhere and go on tour. I can't tell you how things are going leg by leg."
The High Strung aren't entirely homeless. They have an old school bus that they live in --an old graffiti-covered school bus. Talk about your rock-and-roll lifestyle. Before there was the bus, there was an apartment in Brooklyn. Before there was Brooklyn, there was Detroit, where all the band members grew up, swapped records, and learned to play their instruments. But now there is only a bus, and it looks like that bus will be home for quite awhile yet.
"We'll probably take a break and stop somewhere when it's time to record a new album," Berk says. "The only way we can do this, the only way we can maintain [our lives as musicians] is to not pay rent. We're booked through the end of the year."
Though Berk sounds road-weary, the truth is there is an upside to this peripatetic routine. "There are, like, 10 cities where they think of us as a local band now," he explains. Memphis is one of those towns.
"There's this whole Memphis/New York connection," Berk says. "We met Jack Yarber [Oblivians, Compulsive Gamblers, Tearjerkers] and Nick Ray [Viva l'American Death Ray Music] in New York. And we love Memphis because it's so rock. Memphis is rock, you know? We just got back from Miami, and there is no rock in Miami. It's all shitty dance music. There the music has nothing to do with listening. It's all about shaking your ass and getting laid." After a moment's hesitation, Berk adds, "Well, I guess some of our music is about shaking your ass and getting laid too. But it's different."
Different it is. The High Strung's two-guitar attack, supported by raucous organ, aggressive percussion, and a bass player who isn't afraid to step up and take the lead, gets them lumped in with the whole garage-band scene. Heck, any band that actually plays their own guitars these days gets dubbed "garage." But that's not what the High Strung are about. They are pop revisionists, whether they know it or not. The music is ragged but precise, like something Guided By Voices' Bob Pollard might imagine in a moment of total coherence. It is filled with wickedly repetitive hooks and wry humor. Think Starlight Mints imitating Weezer. But the group's tight four-part harmonies and gift for lurching, drug-addled rhythms beg for a favorable comparison to Revolver-era Beatles.
"The crazy thing," Berk explains, "is that most of the bands people compare us to were never bands that we ever listened to. People say we sound like the Jam or the Buzzcocks. If we do it's untentional because I never listened to it. I don't know. Maybe I missed a lot of good stuff out there, but I also avoided a lot of garbage."
The bands Berk ticks off as influences range from Bon Jovi to Dylan, from the Who to Guns N' Roses. But no matter how hard you strain your ears you won't hear any of those influences on the group's latest (and finest) album, These Are Good Times. It's straight-up Beatles front to back. But it's not a straight imitation. It sounds like the Beatles might sound if John, Paul, George, and Ringo were all in their mid-20s today and had grown up on a steady diet of all those bands Berk claims he never listened to. The songs are lyrically smart and the harmonies are so lovely you just want to strap on the headphones and close your eyes. But the drums -- Ginger Baker now, MC5 later -- won't allow you to do that. They keep you up. They keep you moving.
"Come on, Loretta/Let me put my free hand up your sweater/You know it gets no better/Show a sign of life so I'm sure you can keep it together," the group sings on "Show a Sign of Life," letting all their influences (alleged and otherwise) hang out all over the place.
"It's part pretty and part trashy," Berk says. "And there are interesting lyrics. That's the way I like it."
with The Dynamite Brothers and All Tomorrow's Parties
Young Avenue Deli
Tuesday, September 16th