Chances Are That Crowds Will Grow
"It was right to leave...(?)"
Interview with the Von Bondies:
photo: Jim Newberry
It doesn't always have to be about the same ol’ drama with Jason Stollsteimer.
Sometimes it can be about imitation crab meat. Or about the Pussycat Dolls. Or, just maybe, dreaming up tour finales where he wrestles with his longtime friend and other remaining original Von Bondies member, drummer Don Blum, in sumo belts. Or it can be all of this…swirling around in a blurred 2 ½ hour conversation inside a humble rectangular Thai restaurant in the oh-so-quaint downtown of Stollsteimer's hometown of Plymouth, MI.
"I told Don after the last record [Pawn Shoppe Heart, that] every record's our last record," said Stollsteimer, with Blum seated to his right. "Because anything can happen. If Don's gone, I'm gone. At this point, I can't do it all myself. We need each other…to piss each other off…"
Blum nods slowly, "…We survived this next round…"
A soft voice grows in volume from behind us, as the waitress walks up with the bill, "What kind of music do you guys play?"
"It's hard to explain," Stollsteimer quickly responds. "Do you have a CD player?"
I offer the waitress my promo copy of the band's latest Love Hate and Then There's You and she takes it to the back to play a few songs. After she reveals her tastes drift toward Pussycat Dolls, Stollsteimer quickly jokes that he hopes she doesn't throw it in the deep fryer with the crab meat. The music starts booming through ceiling speakers and Stollsteimer admits, "I never tell her what I do for a living – I've been coming here for 3 years now. 'Why you never working at 3pm?' Oh, I'm working! I'm working right now – writing a song about you, spicy!"
Then a pause… "What were we saying?"
I say, "Sumo wrestling…"
"Oh yeah. Every record's our last record – we have to think that way or else we can't keep going…"
The waitress returns, "Do you guys sell a lot?"
"My cape is in the car," Stollsteimer bats back, deadpanned, "My cape and gold teeth. No, no! You see how big I tip…"
Well then… So, how about a new kind of drama. A change of pace. Since every time the singer/guitarist or his band (born from the booming "garage days" of Detroit) gets mentioned, especially around here, a specific kind of drama squeaks in the back of our minds, like sneakers on marble in the a suddenly-fallen-silent auditorium…(ya know, that punching "incident" for which, Stollsteimer said, "the band suffered for something that happened to me"). No, we can move on to new drama – something more suit-and-tie-ish, something less gossipy, less localized – like, contract negotiations!
video: "Pale Bride"
Through 2004-2005, the Von Bondies were riding high on the success of their tight, explosive single "C'mon C'mon," a summer anthem for its time – garnering them an opening slot for Sonic Youth and Iggy Pop. They toured the world, playing 1,200 seaters, fielding numerous offers to feature their songs in commercials and soundtracks and wound up hanging out at a Hollywood party with Paris Hilton (albeit the only one they ever attended). And then…at least from our perspective, they stopped.
"The most common question," says Stollsteimer, "is: why did you take off that much time? You got to the biggest point of your career and then you stopped…The band (at that point, with guitarist Marcie Bolan, bassist Carrie Smith) would have broken up instantly if we woulda' kept going much longer. It was a good thing that we took a break. Music has changed. We got out right before garage rock died. We left at a high point, instead of a low point."
"Got out," yes, so it seemed…but now they're back…
The Von Bondies released their breakout record, Pawn Shoppe Heart on Sire Records – which placed them in the stern and eerie Warner Bros family. "At one point we turned in [Love, Hate] and Warner Bros. said "No." They said, "There's some good album tracks," but, "We want you to work with these songwriters." (This is mid 2005). "I went in with a guy who was really nice and I brought songs that were done that they were going to 'fix'…against my will." Hence, on Love Hate's cover, Stollsteimer is pictured at a typewriter, toiling away on his own work while a gun is held to his head – (by Blum) – symbolizing Warner Bros' exasperating demands.
So he brings his songs back and after an attempted "fix" and "one guy at Sire said the words 'It's not Emo enough.' And…it took about 10 seconds to react to that: I want to be off the label." He clarifies there are no hard feelings with Warner Bros., no, it was just "one guy at Sire stopped our record from coming out…"
It took nearly 3 years to get off Sire after that, costing "a shitload of money" as well as a lot of confusion. Some in the public and the press perceived the band as "shopping around" whatever it was that they were working on next through 2006 – but the truth was they weren't allowed to. They had to fight to get it back, first. Because, labels never want to drop a band with an album already done, Stollsteimer said, because if that band puts the record out with another label (which Von Bondies did, just last week with California-based Majordomo) and it does well, then the original label (Sire, in this scenario) is screwed; they look like a heel and people lose jobs over that…
Love Hate was recorded all over, from California to Connecticut, over the span of a few months, throughout the past 3 years or so. This time around, Blum was able to pen a few tunes, which created inevitable stress, both in progress of the record and in their relationship. "[Don and I] got into a bunch of arguments," said Stollsteimer, "about how this song should go onto the record, how many of my songs, how many of his, it was stressful because at the time (through 06) we didn't even see the record coming out. That, no matter how good our songs were, it didn't matter, they might not see the light of day. So [the opener, "Our Perfect Crime"] the lyrics are "We are the spark / We are the underground" that we were never gonna actually see the light of day – it ended up a very anthemic song; which, I don't think I've had since [debut Lack of Communication's] "It Came From Japan."
"A lot of those songs we collaborated on," said Blum, "…if we had had more time to get used to working with each other I'm sure it wouldn't have been as frustrating..." Writing is one thing, but the duo admit they've always had a chemistry for performance. "We've been friends for a long time, a lot of the time was in a band. It's basically, like, working on a business together…"
The duo met at house shows hosted by Stollsteimer at his Ypsilanti house (in the late 90's). Blum played in the headlining band of line ups that often included 4 other bands. Stollsteimer started up his then-blasé band The Baby Killers for the purpose of being the opener – since none of the other 4 bands wanted to go first.
Stollsteimer, "We were terrible…"
Blum, "They were very entertaining…"
These wild parties included Detroit regulars like Dion Fischer of F'ke Blood and Timmy Vulgar of Human Eye – and the occasional naked hump-happy dude.
Ah, humble beginnings. The noisy mess of The Baby Killers eventually adopted Don as a drummer. They practiced a bit and got really comfortable splurging out bluesy rock rippers and cool swaggered glam/punk inspired rock, eventually changing their name to the Von Bondies. Now, they can pay their bills without having to find a day-job and they get to visit Europe, Japan and California every year. Not bad for a couple of kids playing hot-blooded grimy house parties in Ypsi.
Where were we? Ah yes, sumo wrestling…
The band went through line up shifts. During their late 2007 tour it featured guitarists Alicia Gbur and Matt Lannoo (from Detroit's the Nice Device) and bassist Leann Banks (who plays with The Sirens, and came recommended from Zach Shipps and Jim Diamond). Banks has remained but Gbur and Lannoo returned to focus on their main band. Guitarist Christy Hunt came from Minneapolis to round out the quartet in time for tours in 2008, including a summer performance in Detroit, a Halloween show in Pontiac and now, the band will return February 21 – in Ann Arbor for what is, essentially, an album release-show.
"We didn't want any more drama," said Stollsteimer. "And Chrissy doesn't have any." Specifically, Chrissy doesn't have any "local baggage" with Detroit or Michigan. Indeed, Stollsteimer and Blum agreed, early on in the interview, that the city and the state is seen more as a shelter, a base, a place to regroup – not somewhere to reign supreme in some ticker-tape welcome parade every time they set up a show here…For Stollsteimer, it's always been that way. He admits, "Locally, I was a marked man, four years ago…"
But, back to the line up and the chemistry: "Don has always been the musician in the band. The rest of us (back in 01-03), we were entertainers. We entertained the crowd, where don would have to keep the beat or we would be all over the place. I wouldn't consider myself a guitarist, I'm an entertainer who happens to play guitar and sing. I'm not trained, I don't know anything about chord structures…I never took a guitar lesson. This is my first band, since I was 19 this is all I've done."
"This is the best musical line up," said Stollsteimer of Blum, Banks and Hunt, "and, energy line up. Carrie and Marcie had this thing when they were on stage, they were the cooool, they were very NY to me. They never broke a sweat, kinda staring down the audience. Chrissy and Leann are all about crowd participation, if they don't break a sweat it's not a show."
So here we are, with Love, Hate and Then There's You. An extremely tight, hard-hitting, skyscraper-rattling record of big-booming beats, gristly guttural guitar hooks and roaring vocals – all wound up nicely in blends of power-pop and flavors of surf rock (whilst unavoidably tinged with the slightest hints of glammy/garage-rock).
The pain and the gutsy deliver is fitting of that regrettable cliché of "pure passion," with each song going for the jugular in terms of potential live explosiveness. But these songs are more biting than before, darker, brooding-even – it gets your head bobbing and your shoulders rattling with the most irresistible melodies and arresting rhythms then it punches you with square-off-ish lyrical taunts like "Better not fuck with us, whose sorry…" or "You've been talking all this shit, I think it's time for you to quit."
"When I write lyrics," said Stollsteimer, "they just come out. It was therapeutic. I didn't even know what they were about…[but] I find out later, it's like I take a little bit closer look at things. Because of what's happened in the past, it made us who we are now. It made us actually stronger. Most bands would have broken up after that…easily. Most bands break up over the stupidest shit. I think we've lasted longer than most bands that have had 1/10 as many problems. Sometimes bands should break up, but [Love Hate] is our best record. People like Lack of Communication because it's raw and it's straight forward. But, we'd only been a band for like 6 months. For us, it was the most pure record cuz we didn't know what we were doing. But this is our best attempt at making a real record."
So, with these fierce lyrics, is this an angry record?
"Frustrated," Stollsteimer says, quickly, pointedly. "It took us forever to get the record out."
Blum reminds me that I had suggested earlier, that he'd probably already listened back to the record 100 times by now. "I haven't really listened to it, because some of it reminds me of the stresses of working on some of the stuff."
Yes, there's frustration and anger in the songs, Stollsteimer admits. "They're supposed to be uplifting though – it's supposed to be about specific struggle. Not everything's perfect. There is a struggle, there's a constant struggle.
For me and Don, to pay our bills for the last 4 years without having a job has been a struggle…for all of us…everything comes through on the record. We know what's ahead of us. We know that we're going to be on tour for all of February, March and April. Our goal is to be on tour until October."
Indeed. Festival season is coming up in Europe (through July and August). And next month is SXSW in Austin TX. "That's how Majordomo found us," Stollsteimer reveals, "they came to one of our 2 shows (in 2008 – at SXSW). It was the Outdoor Annex one…how big…800?" He pauses to look at Blum, who nods. "It was huge.
It was packed and there was a line outside of people trying to get in."
Two ambitious representatives from Majordomo were stuck outside, peering in…The California-based label has 2 other artists currently on its roster. (Earlier in the interview, Stollsteimer announced that the Von Bondies, while on Majordomo, were just added to 11 radio stations' main rotations. "That's just as much as we got when we were on the major, and they [Sire] were spending millions of dollars…[Majordomo] are human. There's no suits!")
Back at that SXSW show last year, "The fact that we were a band that wasn’t signed, but everyone thought was…we were still legally on Warner Bros. but had a bigger crowd than all the hipster bands…with no record out in 4 years. We didn’t expect that. There was no press leading up to it, but after we did a bunch ‘cuz it was like…’Cinderella Story’ or some crap. And we got a bunch of record labels after that, asking us, a lot of them were scared off because they didn’t want to deal with the red tape.”
I ask them how they feel about last year’s press runs framing them with that “Cinderella Story-crap…”
“Well,” says Stollsteimer, “it’s true.” But adds, “It wasn’t a comeback. We kinda got confused and lost but, I think it was funny that…I’m not jaded at all, I don’t know if…I don’t think Don is about the whole thing. We know how we got where we are now.
Now comes nearly a year’s worth of touring, touting singles of anthemic avowals of being “the spark” and “the underground” and wielding choruses that chant “…don’t care anymore!”
“We know where we stand,” Stollsteimer said. “We don’t really care what everybody else thinks. We know that, especially after the tours we did last, people are dying for some kind of life.” He shakes his head at the overly arty and cutesy state of indie-pop or the esoteric dribble of prog-rock. “We wanted to say something that somebody could actually relate to. I know we did what we wanted to do, but you don’t realize it until after. We don’t pursue that. We’re not breaking any new ground or anything but for us, personally, we definitely did. It doesn’t matter what anybody else says…”
Feb. 21 - Blind Pig (with Lightning Love, Nico Vega)
Von Bondies Myspace