Friday, April 10, 2009

This Whole Town Could All Burn Down: The Hard Lessons - (part 1 of 3) - playing tonight, 4/10 at Blind Pig

(tonight, with Office, Ezra Furman and the Harpoons)

(photo: Roman Titus)

So then..., Motorcityrocks scooped another Hard Lessons interview, which you can (should) read here (dig it)

In the meantime...I stayed up one night, gullet scorched with coffee and eyes bloodshot from artificial light...and spun together this sprawling disertation born from an afternoon sit down with Hard Lessons singer/guitarist Augie Visocchi, over granola-spackled smoothies...What I pieced together inevitably ended up dealing heavily with Detroit - the usual raps like fans, scenester-ism and the sound and style of their new record, Arms Forest. But with our respective fathers both negatively affected by their long-held auto industry jobs and the fact that the album's title is inspired by a burnt-down vestige of former living quarters in the heart of midtown Detroit - it started to become more human, opening up the overlooked devistations of our ever-crumbling world, be it the economy, the auto industry or the record industry.

So, here's a three-part series over a span of Friday's. The first 2 parts cover the interview. The 3rd features a record review for Arms Forest.

Let Detroit Die?: A conversation with Augie Visocchi from the Hard Lessons Part 1
(words: milo)

Every band starts out as a local.
You play first of three on a Thursday night. You pass out fliers to your own show. And you make change at your own merch booth. It’s the inevitable primordial soup for any of the greats since the birth of scenes. It goes back to Dylan scurrying through Greenwich Village, to Television playing to a dozen people at CBGB’s, to the White Stripes playing a half-filled bar down a dim, smoke-plumed avenue in Detroit at the turn of the century. You get older, and write more songs; the rest of the country starts listening to you, then the rest of the world starts listening to you. You start touring your ass off and the bags under your eyes match the bags you end up begrudgingly living out of during 3 month van-enclosed campaigns and 2-week respites in the suburbs you once called, and-still-technically-do call, "home."

But then, that scene you once called "home" starts to look at you sideways. I’m a little brother. And, most of my friends are older than me. So I know the feeling of getting that well-meaning-yet-condescending look, that knowing look, or that possessive sort of pat on the shoulder. That inexplicable expectation of entitled gratitude.

I walk into the home of Augie and Korin-Louise Visocchi – the guitarist and keyboardist, respectively, of Detroit-based duo The Hard Lessons – knowing that I’m either going to cartwheel my way around these eggshells, or I’m going to open up the wounds and slather in the lemon juice. Greeted by the wiry-bearded Augie, I settled into the interview trying to quiet the voice in the back of my head aggrandizing my unique position for framing this fast-rising rock/indie-pop duo with a full-length record, Arms Forest, (due out this month on Ann Arbor MI-based Quack!Media), because…well, hell…I was at their very first show in 2003, when they valiantly, almost whimsically, threw some songs together in their dorm room on the campus of Michigan State University and entered a talent show. They won first prize.

After that, they hit up all the Detroit clubs and were on the road down to Florida for a self-financed tour by Christmas. A full length was out the next year; Gasoline was a raw, garage-and-blues smattering of grinding beer-gurgled windmills combined with smoky and sultry ballads of Korin’s soulful, devastating vocals. An EP, Wise Up, that amped up the synths, the jukey/dancey grooves and featured a more acoustic, softer side – came out in 06. Their reputation for being one of the most amazing live bands around spread quickly through the city (and soon after, the country). They were sheer fun; heroic and celebratory – a true rock show – explosive as a then-trio (with drummer Christophe Zajac Denek, aka "The Anvil") with their edgy-yet-affable nature, their leave-nothing-on-the-stage exertions and their down to earth grins that shined offstage. I was at all these shows – a lot of us here in Detroit were…well, I don’t mean "us" to sound so expansive – just…ya know…"the scene." And now, we all have our own takes on their 2nd full-length and 4th major release.

I settled up to the counter in Augie’s kitchen on a quiet, cloudy afternoon and decided to let the man talk about whatever was on his mind. He coughs intermittently, quashing an inconvenient cold no doubt brought on by the constant huff and hustle of a recent tour through SXSW. He’s not too pale and his face doesn’t look too worn, but you can tell he’s tired…yet at the same time, he’s not about to take a nap. No, indeed. He’s got something to say. It is, it turns out, about Detroit…but in quite a different, more profound, more heartfelt way. A way that connects to the band (currently with drummer Ryan Vandeberg formerly of Hi-Fi Hand Grenades) and their newest album – which, like any new release of theirs has to expect the typical "it sounds so different!" repetitions from critics. (This one, much more so – with it’s edgy dark moments, it’s hard driving but hook-focused swagger. It’s drained of past grimy blues and fuzzed anew with vocal effects and more biting lyrics – it’s not so shoulder-shatteringly shunting, with the typical head-banger garage beats, instead it sets a groove the hips can follow.)

This one, fittingly for the Hard Lessons in the face of their home scene (personified unknowingly by my tape recorder)…means "rebirth."

It starts with a destructive fire at an apartment complex in the heart of Wayne State University’s campus, Forest Arms.

"I think Arms Forest is definitely, to me, it represents Detroit in a lot of ways. I was in Forest Arms one night, inside the fence, in the courtyard. It was about 4 in the morning and Marcus Market is across the street and that light is always on. Here I am, trespassing with some friends and I look up, after imbibing, I saw the back of the wrought iron sign and it said Arms-Forest. To me that was instantly everything about adolescence, about Detroit, about the inner-city, about youth."

Augie, being a former high-school English teacher before the band took complete hold, references "the forest" in literature as representing the place of freedom. The place of mystery and also danger…

"That’s Detroit to me, that’s youth. You can do whatever you want…free from stuff that shouldn’t bind you. That’s how our band operates too – under that sort of Neil Young mentality; nothing has to sound like it sounded before. You don’t have to be confined by your previous work or other people’s expectations or interpretations of your body of work."

And now I start feeling self-conscious. The questions have been light and careful – but now we start going down that specter-filled "scene" road, with the word "expectations." So I prod and reference the lyric from the rhythmic, rustling fist pumper "Sound The Silent Alarm," that subtly stabs, with defiant confidence "We’re not sorry for anything we’ve ever done."

But Augie quickly unveils one of the more conspicuous and poignant themes of Arms Forest – the fall of an empire - Detroit as an Empire, and the bemoaned antipathy from the rest of the world. Indeed – now the conversation quickly belittles any scene-centered rumination. This crumbling-empire-sentiment is enclosed in the opener; "Manoogian Zoo" a sleepy lo-fi ballad that grows and warms into this shimmering, piano-led dream-pop heartbreaker. The opener’s named for the rotating residency (Manoogian Mansion) of Detroit’s elected mayors. (If you hadn’t heard, ours had to resign because he was charged with perjury). Manoogian Mansion (named for an Armenian immigrant and businessman who donated the mansion to the city) becomes, Augie says, an adjective onto itself…for the hubris of the America’s fallen manufacturing Mecca. The lyrics softly slice, "This whole town could all burn down,’ you used to say, before the sirens came…""Everyone talks shit about Detroit. Even people that live in Detroit; ‘oh fuck Detroit, fuck this, fuck that…’ I remember the day Forest Arms burned down. That night – I had frantic emails from my friends and suddenly…the shitty apartment building on the corner of Prentice was…so great, ‘everybody’s gonna miss it.’"

Indeed. Since the duo formed 6 years ago on the campus of MSU, (having since gone through balancing day jobs as teachers with Korin teaching history and the two trying to date while also maintain and tour as a band), there’s been a noticeable bulge of new abandoned ruins in Detroit. With "old" Tiger Stadium half torn down, it now "looks like the Coliseum in Rome." Meanwhile, our former mayor, Kilpatrick, was parodied on the Daily Show for his defiant, tax-payer-costing antics and now the CEO of Detroit-based once-giant General Motors has been cut loose. (Both of our fathers were recently, unceremoniously, cut loose, also, from their auto industry jobs; his temporarily, while mine went into early retirement).

"But this mentality of ‘Let Detroit die…’ I just think It represents a close-minded American perspective. Yeah, ‘let Detroit die…’ Ya know what comes shortly after let-Detroit-die? ‘Let New York die.’ Ya know what comes after let-New-York-die? ‘Let America die.’

To Be Continued:
next week - part 2: "Made To Last"

(Arms Forest - design by Silent Giants)
on tour through April:
Apr 24 2009
The Saint w/ Ezra Furman & The Harpoons Asbury Park, NJ
Apr 25 2009
The Rongovian Embassy Trumansburg, NY
Apr 28 2009
The Kybher Philadelphia, PA

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