The new year is off to an auspicious start for the High Strung and one of their novelist singers. Quiet Riots, the Detroit indie rock royalty’s eighth studio album, is on the cusp of release, prefaced by a DIY video for energetic lead single “If You Wanna Roll”. In conjunction with that, the recently released film adaptation of singer-songwriter Josh Malerman’s debut novel Bird Box is all the rage, with the Internet going mad over the Sandra Bullock-starring apocalyptic horror narrative.
The jubilant “If You Wanna Roll” bears all the hallmarks the High Strung has cultivated over their nearly two decades together. Led by Malerman’s inimitable higher register vocals, it swirls with Chad Stocker’s rumbling bass and waves of roiling guitar interplay from Malerman, Stephen Palmer, and Mark Owen. As Derek Berk’s drums pound relentlessly, light keyboard twinkling periodically pops up to lend a whimsical air. It has that breezily romantic sense of breaking free and escaping with your partner into the sunset, carried by the band’s indefinable charm and self-assured panache. As with a lot of their tunes, it’s joyfully anachronistic, which isn’t to say it sounds as if it belongs to a past era but exists in a side pocket of time altogether.
The accompanying video features the 45-inch single having all manner of objects appear in or pass through its hole. Decidedly quirky, it’s firmly in line with the band’s idiosyncratic aesthetic.
Apart from prepping Quiet Riots‘ release, Malerman has been watching the success of Bird Box spread like wildfire. The Netflix film adaptation of his 2014 novel debuted on the streaming service on 21 December. Seven days later, Netflix announced more than 45 million accounts had streamed the film, setting a record for the first week of one of the service’s originals.
For those not in the know, the film and its source material detail the collapse of society as mysterious entities arrive on Earth, inducing suicidal madness in those unfortunate enough to so much as glimpse them. The structure alternates between two time periods. The first details the apocalypse’s early days, while the other takes place five years into the cataclysm as Bullock’s Malorie makes a harrowing effort to float a rowboat downriver to a possible sanctuary, accompanied by two children, all of whom are blindfolded to preclude them from gazing upon the clandestine creatures.
Malerman took some time to speak with PopMatters about the High Strung’s new album and video and his reaction to Bird Box‘s public reception.
Tell me about the germination and inspiration for the “If You Wanna Roll”.
You ever hear that Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash version of “Girl From the North Country”? I realize this sounds ridiculous, but I first saw the song like that. I was singing it much lower and playing it on the organ, and it was a lot slower, to boot. But, as things go (certainly with bands), it picked up speed, lifted a key or two, and started to feel more like “us”. The words are self-explanatory, but I do see it as a song about hopping on the ride together. The narrator seems to be saying, “Look, whatever you do, even if you leave, do it with me. If we’re gonna hide? Let’s hide together. But whatever we do, let’s both of us roll.”
How’d the concept for the video come about, and how long did it take to shoot and come together?
We did it in a day. It was electrifying fun. I can’t remember if it was my idea or my girl Allison (Laakko)’s idea, but whoever said, “Let’s cram as much as we can through the hole of a 45-inch wins the day. You’d be surprised how many things fit through a baby record! We filmed it in a flurry and I edited it that night and, presto, we have one of my favorite videos the High Strung has yet to do.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but Quiet Riots is the band’s first album since fellow vocalist-guitarist/founding member Mark Owen rejoined the band. What’s it been like having him back and sharing vocal duties?
It’s been wonderful. He’s been a complete shot in the arm. Because here he’s coming to us with the energy of someone who hasn’t made a proper studio album in some 12 years. In a way Mark has been the fountain of youth for this band. And for me, to have an artistic soul-mate back in the lineup, to have a fella who brings songs to the table, a songwriter who I trust/adore/look up to. It’s been electric.
How do you balance being a fiction author with fronting such a well-known and regarded indie rock band?
Well, it’s a juggling act to be sure. It’s not easy stepping from one artistic sphere to the next. You kinda gotta wiggle your way in and out of both. It’s not even easy leaping form a novel to a short story, let alone a novel to an album. That said, it’s something I’ve gotten very good at. Even on the drive to practice I know how to get myself into a musical space, usually having just left a writing session at home. The key is to find the time. A mantra I try to live by is there is enough time in the day. So long as you do a little bit of your book and a little bit of your album every day, both projects get done a lot sooner than you would’ve thought heading into them.
As a horror author, what scares you, and how does that fuel your writing?
A lot scares me. I’ve been blessed with a certain arrested development that keeps me, to this day, afraid of the dark, of demons, of ghosts, of creaking homes and distant voices. The side of me that, late at night, rushed up the stairs to my bedroom as a kid, that side is still totally intact. And the second an idea chills me? I jot it down. But the truth is, in music and in writing novels, it’s all how you do it, right? If we told each other the plots for our all-time favorite books, well, some of them would sound flat or even, gasp, boring. But they’re our favorites for what went into them. So I try very hard to maintain that fear I feel at the head of every project through to the end.
Tell me about your writing process in the sense of switching hats from songwriter to novelist. When an idea comes to mind, how do you approach whether to develop it into lyrics or into a short story or novel?
It used to be that a big idea became a novel and a small quip of a concept became a song. Then I started writing short stories and the songwriting output suffered somewhat for that. I’m still juggling all that right now, trying to determine which ideas go where. But having Mark back in the band, someone to write songs with, all the new songs, changes that, too. Him and I will get thrilled by a scenario first, then it’s up to us flesh it out from there. But songs tend to be more nebulous than a book, right? A book kinda sticks to the plot, or perhaps the conceit, even a far-out book, whereas a song can mention the scenario once and bolt into the surreal rather easily from there.
What was it like to see your first published novel adapted into a film, especially one featuring such a prominent cast?
It’s tempting to use the word “surreal”. But nothing will ever be as surreal as the decades I spent fantasizing about such things. In a sense, I lived in a sketch version of this reality for a long time. A living rough draft. And here, now, I’m witnessing the colors and details being filled in in real time. We’re all children of a movie age, anybody born after 1940 really, and so it’s impossible to write a book without seeing it cinematically, right? And while I of course imagined Bird Box as a film, I definitely gave it my all as a book first. I do that with all of them. So rather than “surreal” I’m seeing this experience as a warm, welcome, and amazing next step. Like I’ve stepped onto the fantasy of a floor and have discovered it to be solid footing, after all.
How involved were you in the making process of the Bird Box adaptation?
I wasn’t really. Which is totally fine and has been fine by me from the start. The book was optioned for film before it was published and here it was my first book. Talk about an unknown author, right? So I understood from the start that I had zero “leverage” etc. Now, that said, I’ve been completely welcome throughout the process. Allison and I flew out to LA to meet the producers. Flew to set. Flew to the LA and NYC premieres. Everybody involved, from the actors to the studio, have been incredibly welcoming and I’m forever grateful for it. Also, I’m glad it’s all been in their hands and not mine. Even if I’d directed the movie, starred in it, and wrote the script, it still wouldn’t be the book. So, I’m glad that was all left to Susanne Bier, Sandra Bullock, and Eric Heisserrer. Also, on a related note: I freakin love the movie.
The last few years seem to have seen a resurgence of prestige horror in the mainstream, of the type that is more serious in tone, dread-based, and critically lauded opposed to the immediately preceding schlocky, gore-and-torture, jump scare-focused (e.g. films such as It Follows, The VVitch, Hereditary, A Quiet Place, and the series The Haunting of Hill House). What do you attribute this shift to?
I’ve thought about this quite a bit, as I imagine all of us horror authors in the new crop have, and I wonder if it has something to do with having been raised during the horror boom of the 1980s. There was nothing like walking through the video store horror section and seeing all the unfathomably freaky cover art. Those images were/are lasting, and I attribute a lot of why I hold the genre in such high regard to the movies and books from that era. But also there’s been a shift in the perception of genre. It was only a matter of time before people realized that a brilliant drama could be Trojan-horsed into a theater by way of horror or science fiction. That’s been going on with comedy since the start. All of us in the new crop, we wanna tell stories that touch the bone, but we wanna scare the shit out of you on the way.
What’s been your reaction to the grand public reception the film has received, what with it having the most successful first week of any Netflix original and being omnipresent on social media?
So I was in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula when the movie erupted. I’d hosted a screening in the Detroit area on the 21st, the night it came out, and that (justifiably!) felt like a piqued, enormous event in my life. Two days later, Allison and I drove north, got stuck in a crazy storm — the final 180 miles took six hours — and finally reached her sister’s place. My phone didn’t work on the way up. We got in around 5 a.m., went to sleep, and when we woke, we woke to a phenomenon. Or the tendrils of one, the earliest stages of a sensation. It’s astonishing, in a way, how I happened to be out of town, way out of town, like I almost watched the thing unfold from above, from far away, from outer space. Obviously, I’m thrilled. For everybody involved. From the book end to the movie end and around and round again.
The film has lent itself to a deluge of memes. What do you make of this, and are there any in particular you’re amused by?
I love them. I’ve been sent a few thousand and I’ve tried to check them all out. It’s people having fun with a scary movie. What more could a horror fan for life ask for?
What’s on the horizon, both in your author capacity and for the High Strung?
I’ve got a new book coming out on 23 April, Inspection. And the band is already recording new songs for the album that’ll one day follow Quiet Riots in our cannon. Add in short stories and shows and that’s the gist of it. And, in a way, that’s been the same gist for twenty some years and may that never change, I say.
The 14-track Quiet Riots will be available on online outlets on Tuesday, 15 January, with physical copies coming at a Saturday, 12 January, dual-release show with Ronny Tibbs at the UFO Factory in Detroit.