California Rocker about ‘Quite Riots’: ‘The songs are enlightening and tackle compelling subjects. The variety of music the album puts out there is refreshing. The tracks range in style from folk anthems like “Hope Explodes” to the Flaming Lips-y opener “Riots Of The Mind,” to groovy warning rocker “Eavesdropped Upon Again” — and a lot in between.’.
Sweet Sweet Music talked to Mark Owen, one of the singer-songwriter-guitarists in The High Strung.
When was the last time you thought ‘I just wrote a hit!’?
We think this all the time! But, of course, we may have a different definition of what a hit is than most people. When we write or record a good one, we say “That’s a hit,” you know, or “That’s a masterpiece!” I think that what we mean is that this is a really good one that we’re proud of and that we wish those that would get it would have a chance to hear it. When you hear a band that isn’t necessarily a huge band and they play a song that is so good that it should be up there with the great ones and known and played out of car speakers and requested by fans to DJs years from now, then we say that’s a hit. Who cares if only a handful of people (or fewer) also think it’s a hit?
I think that sometimes we may write a song that we think is potentially more accessible to a larger audience than others, but that’s no more a hit to us than some good one that’s kind of weird or small or prickly or niche or whatever.
At some point in the writing or fleshing out of the songs on our new album, we thought “This is a hit!” or “This is a killer one” about every single one. Also, you may not know what to think of a song when you write it, but the parts that the band brings to it, the rehearsing of it, or recording of it makes it a hit. There all hits in my mind.
With every song you write, are you still learning to become an even better songwriter?
Yes. I learn from Josh every time we write together, or when he sends a voicemail or plays for me something he came up with, or when I hear a great change or melody or lyric or whatever in the world. Songwriting is something that you can keep getting better at. You can write a song today that you couldn’t write yesterday because you’re learning constantly— if you keep doing it. It is always trial and error, and you have to get comfortable with sour chords and corny ideas, with dead ends and missed paths on the way to something good.
I want to get better at all facets of my songwriting, and the next song gives me the opportunity to do this.
Recording music. What’s all the fun about?
Well, in some ways it’s very fun, and in other ways, it’s not so much fun and can be frustrating. Our band has recently had two different types of recording experiences. The first is recording songs at a “real” recording studio with a big mixing board and good mics and rooms meant to be recorded in. We did this recently with Jim Diamond (who also recorded four other THS albums, the first in 2002) at Tempermill Studios in Ferndale, Michigan. We went in with the songs that are on Quiet Riots more or less written. And we had lots of fun getting them onto tape, focusing on the different sounds, and effects, and parts, and how they come together, but there’s also some pressure because of the time and money concerns—you’re paying for studio time, etc.—and it can be wearing on nerves to try to get something down that you really won’t be able to change or try once more once you are done in the studio.
The second type of recording experience is the one we are engaged in now.
We’re recording our next one (which has the working title of Southfield) not in an official studio with hourly costs for expensive mics and machines and all that, but in a basement with a few old mics and a laptop, and writing the song, working out the parts, a few seconds before you hit record. As of today, we don’t have lyrics for 80% of the songs, but they have spirit and spontaneity in the form they’re in now. We go in the basement and put down (at least the basic tracks) of a song that did not exist yesterday. This is a different kind of fun and a different kind of challenge.
As a band, we like both experiences, and it feels right to go from one to the other and back again, from a studio with songs prepared and an engineer and all that to the DIY basement with just the desire to make something and the bare essentials to do it.
As an artist, you chose to show your emotions to the world. Is it always comfortable to do so?
No, it’s not always comfortable. I’m able to do it by tricking myself a bit. I try to get it down and out of me before I am able to suppress it or stifle it, and, of course, there are ways of relaxing inhibitions. Even if it’s just a bit that’s real, that is sparked by real feeling, that’s enough to provide the roux for the song. I try to only go there briefly and not dwell there. Finishing it (whether alone or with Josh) is kind of like enhancing or filling out that initial, emotional bit, but in a more tactical or architecturally-minded way. Then singing on it is like covering it in a way. You trust in the truth of the emotions that went into the writing of it, and you try to find a way towards that source, but since you can never really return to it, you end up expressing something else altogether, something akin to it, similar but not identical.
Showing your emotions to the word is a necessary by-product of writing something good and real and performing it in a genuine and powerful way.
Which 5 records, that everybody forgot about, would define ‘our time’ on earth?
I don’t necessarily know about ones “that everybody forgot about” or that “define ‘our time,’” but here are five songs (in no particular order) that define my time (which, I guess, at this moment, is the mid-60s to mid-70s!):
Ted Lucas, “It’s So Easy”(Ted Lucas)
The Grateful Dead, “Viola Lee Blues” (Noah Lewis)
James and Bobby Purifoy, “I’m Your Puppet”(Penn/Oldham)
Neil Young, “Don’t Be Denied” (Neil Young)
The Stone Poneys, “Different Drum” (Mike Nesmith)
Check out the LA Weekly interview with Josh Malerman.