"Built in real time..."
A roundtable discussion, over brunch, concerning the latest flares of energy in the local music community...
Wake up and smell the coffee...
photos by Amy Palomar
There’s something in the air and it’s not the burnt sausage.
I’m having brunch with eight Detroit bands. It doesn’t take long for the White Stripes’ name to come up, but, still, we quickly raise our bloody mary’s in some audacious, but necessary, impromptu séance. It’s 2011. …And though we admit at the onset that it’s ludicrous, especially with the internet fluctuating buzz bands on kaleidoscope conveyor belts, to think any writer or magazine can incontrovertibly say, yes – this is it, or even a kind of an “it” – we still can’t deny a certain energy in the air. And, hey, as one musician shrugs, there’s an old cliché that rock n roll is saved every 10 years or so.
So…A dozen musicians from seven different bands cluster in the kitchen of singer/songwriter Jesse Shepherd Bates, (who, himself, leads or contributes to four other bands), and we all sleepily congregate and converse throughout the Woodbridge duplex, steadily yawning and stretching as the quick and casual catching up refracts any likely scenario where these bands would be anxiously tuning themselves up to trade sets on a loud stage. But it’s 11:30 AM, …not PM and instead of swilling Genuine Draft, we’re sipping organic fair trade coffee.
And of course, we’re scarfing Bates’ renowned waffles. Eventually, Frank Woodman (fire-topped dad rocker) saunters in swathed in a purple fuzzy bathrobe, with donuts, with drummer Max Daley in tow. Bates’ kitchen has become tantamount to the local rock scene’s underground Sunday diner. Usual attendees include band members from The Satin Peaches, The Kickstand Band, Deadbeat Beat, The Ashleys, Phantasmagoria and the HandGrenades. And breakfast usually leads to soundboarding ideas and inevitable collaborations.
“I think people are tired of not being friends…” Deadbeat Beat singer/guitarist Alex Glendenning posits.
The occasion: Pewter Cub, Fur, Lightning Love, Woodman, The Kickstand Band, The Ashleys, The Deadbeat Beat, The Satin Peaches, The HandGrenades, Phantasmagoria and Jesse & the Gnome are playing the Lager House April 6th.
Ostensibly, it’s for Bates’ 24th birthday, but essentially, (and, from my begrudged “press” angle, irresistible to proclaim) it’s a spectacular exhibit, a sample, a showcase, not just of the current local rock lightning rods, but their unique sensibility.
Paring back competitiveness, Pewter Cub’s singer/guitarist Regan Patricia Lorie said, and instead incanting: “I wanna be as awesome as they are! …the sincerity and quality of the people in this scene and the music itself automatically eliminates the need for one-upmanship.”
“That’s why they had backlash,” Woodman, a decades-long supporter/attendee of local music, said of days from 10-years’ prior, that of the music-press mangled “garage explosion.” “But,” he looks around the crowded breakfast table, “I could never imagine there being backlash with these bands.”
Bates suggests the “White Stripes-effect” and Deadbeat Beat drummer/singer Maria Nuccilli sardonically feigns a groan, “I was hoping we’d get through this without saying ‘White Stripes.’” Woodman shrugs that there’s no way around it, until I suggest Bates lead us in the séance, since, after all, that band recently officially broke up.
“This whole competitive boom or whatever happened then because the impression was, ‘Oh, shit, people are gonna be paying attention, we’ve got this shot! So, everybody started competing with each other. Then…we figured out: ‘Oh, wait, that’s shot’s probably not gonna happen…so, maybe, let’s just actually support each other and …make a web.”
Woodman: “I think there’s a lot of joy in playing. Lorie: “And we’re all just really digging each other’s bands.” Bates: “…and it’s all just really fun and it’s positive!” Nuccilli: “…and facilitated by waffles…wait, are we being paid in waffles now, for the show?”
Asked what they get (and what they give each other) in their ricocheting roles of performing and supporting each other’s live shows… Nuccilli: “I think… ‘I need to write songs as good as Allison’ (of Kickstand Band).” Woodman: “The youthful energy helps…it changes the songwriting. I think everybody tries to get crazy too. I think we all want to shine in our own way, that’s not a bad thing, as much as we love each other I think when we play together there’s that air of: I gotta bring my A-game cuz I know they’re gonna bring their’s.”
“We’re really just getting a taste for it,” Phantasmagoria’s Christopher Jarvis said, a few days’ prior, the night before he and counterpart Lianna Vanicelli left for a Midwest tour. “There is definitely an energy. It seems like everyone we’ve met has such a good attitude. It just seems positive. Everyone’s really cool and supportive of each other.” Jarvis, himself, also contributes to a DJ collective, Detroit Produce.
When or how can a scene become more…what's the word...?... movement…? Since the internet having killed the rock star has sobered our dreams of major labels scooping us up, it seems the Ego is likely the persistent/remaining encumbrance to overcome. We have our moments of cattiness, and, sure it can be vitriolic – especially when it’s splayed out by faceless Eat This City posters, often incurred by one band getting attention from, I dunno, say, the local rags around here? (It was in the air when Deastro made Real Detroit’s cover…and I’m not sure yet, but I can guess that it wafted around a bit when Phantasmagoria made Metro Times’ cover for Blowout)... or from something more fickle...
...Or maybe someone at some laptop somewhere doesn’t feel that enough people share in their beliefs that: ’this band sucks’, to the point where they’re compelled to soap-box their blunt, bellicose criticism… This is where the brunchers shrug off Eat This City’s posts as “the Sunday funnies…” “…Crank Shaft…” “…Mary Worth, even.”
Indeed… and I don’t intend for this to sound entirely negative but, We’re still here… and since we are…still here…it’s hard not to think about what happened here (or who used to be here). We, or at least I, and, maybe by organizing/releasing that White Stripes’ Cassette Compilation, that FiveThreeDialTone/Eat This City does too, at least tacitly, still…fixate, in a way…on what this scene is, or what this scene could be…
Here we are, we’re all still here…many of these musicians still under age 30 and if not, then maybe they hadn’t ever gotten into this scene till 06-ish…thus, renewed energy. The new class, if you will (though, now... not all that new, in a patronizing way, anymore).
All we have, then, is history to look back on; the ‘Garage Explosion’ –the off-setting moment where all these characters (bands) gathered, an intricate ensemble of performers on a boomlit stage with its fabricated sitting room, swilling the brandy of rock n roll in front of fake windows showing painted backdrops of stormy nights …it was a riveting drama, a theatre that helped many find an identity – and then, in classic whodunit fashion, the lights went out, a shot was heard and the White Stripes were off to England, then off to MTV…
It’s like the murder weapon never got dusted for prints or ever even removed from the stage…and music journalists, guilty as charged, were meandering around like some cockamamie, ad-hoc Columbo or Poirot, trying to find out “who did it…” or even who…or what…died? If at all?
Glendenning recalls an article he recently read about how ‘the internet has killed regional hits/regional singles.’ Nuccilli counters, that, if anything, ‘the internet hasn’t, it’s been commercial radio and that happened a long time ago.’
Nuccilli: “I feel like the internet can sort of bring it back, but instead of it being regional hits, it’s like different hits for different sub-scenes. In mainstream radio world there usually aren’t regional hits. I feel like it’s sort of human nature to have certain things that appeal to certain types, so, having regional hits or specific hits or specific things that you like and appreciate…it’s just gonna happen…cuz that’s what people are like!” (She sings the last few words with a rising sing-songey melody fitting for some Sesame Street sketch).
I suggest that their activity has had a small hand in shaping community culture. Those of us essentially outside-of-the-music have reacted to your burgeoning activity: Jon Mosher’s ‘Modern Music’ (Fridays, WDET) often commits considerable chunks of his playlists to local bands, as does Ann Delisi’s 'Essential Music' (Saturdays, WDET)…and me, 95% of what I listen to, in the car, in my headphones – is LOCAL music… 95% of what I write about is local music and it keeps me unfailingly busy.
Allison Young references Baltimore’s music scene – and the energy there in 07-08 surrounding a Warholian-esque Factory-type scenario via a cluster of turned-on electro punks and noise-rock geeks collaborating inside what they called Wham City – and even hitting the road together to perform epic ‘Round Robin’ performances reeling through 5-6 bands in one night.
So where could we go? I ask… What could we do?
Bates: “I think we’re doing it.”
Michael O’Connor (of Fur): “Right here,” he looks around the table, “this is it.”
Bates: “What I’m trying to do this year and what I think everybody should do is say: ‘Fuck all the rules.’ Everybody’s always talking about: ‘Don’t play more than two shows in a month or people won’t come out…don’t play with the same band twice…you might not make as much money…’ It’s not about that, we’re all at the point where we’ve realized that we need side-jobs or day jobs if we’re gonna consider this, music, as are main non-paying job…it’s not about money. It’s about playing and experiencing each other, not as fans, but as listeners…and being an active listener. I think you should just play all the time.”
Glendenning: “At CBGBs…they used to have bands that would play ‘residencies.’ The Ramones would play for 14 days’ straight, every night…”
Bates: “Why doesn’t that happen?”
O’Connor suggests local psyche-blues quartet Duende’s hosting of ‘Duensday Nights’ at Club Bart as a possible paradigm, where they rotate a different guest band to pair with them on a simple two-band bill. This makes the conversation meander into Woodman asking Pewter Cub guitarist Scott Sanford (who also plays with Duende) for lyrics…as the band Woodman is going to perform Duende songs…at a forthcoming festival called Detroit by Detroit with Detroit bands performing as other Detroit bands…(4/2 - Magic Stick)
And I pause, mid-article…taken aback…what a spectacular expression of family pride that night could be… But, simultaneously, one wonders if this is something like the wave crashing back on itself because,
well, we’re all still here… (maybe only the size of Columbus, OH, but, still...here)
When the internet dictates such empowering-yet-chaotic circumstances to where listener's attention is fickle, success is redefined and often-defied, and no one is going to come sauntering in to your basement with a big check…When the blog epidemic made it thus that every little thing could be celebrated, it fostered a multitude of legitimate niches – niches upon niches under scenes stitched throughout communities inside cities that churn along uncaringly as the world keeps on turning and powers keep on lyin, etc etc…
As Bates suggested, that magical ‘shot’ doesn’t seem to be coming…, so why not celebrate ourselves?
If we’re a niche upon a niche, then we no longer need Spin, Rolling Stone, or even a blog or even a writer to tell us that we’re cool… Allison sees Woodman who sees Ryan (from Fur) who sees Tom (from the Ashleys) and everyone just looks around the room and there’s this eerily encouraging glint in each eye… Like it’s no longer about who’s going to win the ribbon at the science fair…we took over the laboratory and just started mixing all our beakers together…The scene doesn’t have to be a posturing talent show where only one band gets the spotlight per-half-hour to impress everyone else or show everyone else why their better or cooler…no…we tore the curtain down and now everyone can be on stage playing together…or smaller makeshift performances are starting to the side of the stage, or someone’s writing a song in the orchestra pit or someone else is playing acoustic out in the parking lot…
Think about the economics… DIY is one thing, but it is inherently a strung-together existence. Our comparatively humble stash of usable income (gas, new equipment, hotels) means touring is a special kind of updraft a band needs to save-up for and wait patiently to catch and then ride when it comes. Committing oneself, er, one’s band, to that, means the inevitable cycle of staying here (to work here…) and keep saving…to fund your true job…the music… Who has time for Ego?
Competitive urges are all too natural – but they can be channeled in a way that doesn’t feed insecurities or self-doubt or bitterness, it can be channeled into inspiration.
“I want to write songs as good as Allison…” Exactly. “Bring you’re A-game, to match theirs…” Right.
Call it Voltron-theory… unification of our talents in, firstly, a complimentary manner, and secondly, and most importantly, as an entity that can stand, reach, walk-forward, together… a community…a robot made of other robots who can fly and swing a sword… Work against hang-ups, work against potential dissuasions…work against cynicism.
The Detroit cliché was that we could remain big fish in little ponds…but, while I’m not sure the pond itself has grown that much, there, nonetheless, seem to be an increasing amount of fish…
Hey, we “live by the River” too, (just like Strummer)…if we start tailing and flopping over each other maybe we can figure out a way to move as a school of fish, through the channel, to other bodies of water….
Sorry for all the metaphors.
It was an inspiring breakfast.
Anyway… this is nothing new. This is nothing revolutionary. The ever-pursued dream is that, wherever we go, we go together…that there’s not just one golden ticket, but enough golden tickets for everyone to get in…
The idea should be…(as Pewter Cub’s recent album title echoes momentarily in my mind, “the door opened, you got in…”) …forget doors…or as Bates said, fuck the rules… no door, no ticket… we’re already inside. There’s no stage… we’re just here. Plug in and play.
Meanwhile: the Ashleys have “gotten louder,” having added a third amplifier to their two-man garage rock tumble and will be releasing a self-titled debut EP in May. April 6th is also singer/guitarist Tom Bahorski’s birthday.
The Deadbeat Beat have finished an album with producer Matthew Smith to be released on Kommie Kilpatrick drummer Zak Frieling’s cassette label, Gold Tapes. They’re also working on a split 7” single with Ann Arbor’s Secret Twins (recorded with the Kickstand Band singer/guitarist Gordon Smith.) Their guitarist is also starting his own label.
Kickstand Band are currently wrapping up recording their own 7” single to be released later this year. They’re hoping to tour asap.
Fur, likewise, are wrapping up new material and are “talking about doing” a 7” single soon.
“I’m sure I’ve drunkenly yelled this to you before,” Bates interrupts Fur singer Ryan O’Rourke, “but your recordings are like the best-sounding…they sound so fucking crisp.”
Woodman, Frank that is, is currently trading mp3 demos with his son, guitarist Derek (who lives in Ypsilanti) as they piece together material for a forthcoming album of sorts…Papa said he wants to get to the point where he, himself, Derek and daughter/singer Hillary have the same amount of contributed songs circulating through their repertoire. Frank said he hopes to solidify a recording appointment with the budding engineer and Lightning Love guitarist, Ben Collins.
Pewter Cub, also, will have a 7” single out soon, to compliment their EP (released last October), while they look forward to plotting future “mini-tours” with their new brother band, Pink Lightning.
When it’s Bates’ turn to report on his projects, be it The Satin Peaches, the gaping/revolving JSB Squad, and/or Jesse & the Gnome, he twitches initially, realizing the background music (Radiohead’s King of Limbs) has stopped, and he asks Glendenning to play it back again, otherwise he won’t be able to think properly. “(The Satin) Peaches are at a turning point…Gnome are at a turning point…I’m just constantly turning…Satin Peaches are working on a 7” but haven’t figured out how to release it. But,… the band has been going for seven years non-stop…we wanna release the songs, they sound good and really intense. I’m working on a rap project also for some day…
Lightning Love, meanwhile, are wrapping up their 2nd LP. The HandGrenades put out their Three Cheers for the Wonder Years EP –hear them live on WHFR’s Motor Live Drive, 3/31. Phantasmagoria are putting out a single on FiveThreeDialTone this May, with one song from their digital release Spirit plus a new song.
“There’s a lot of possibilities,” Jarvis said, “…when you get all the people together in a community and they just try to do it for themselves.”
“Sound, talent and songwriting ability increase due to wanting to say in such a space with your comrades,” said O’Connor. “By bands getting better and staying motivated, partially by others around them, everything feeds on itself, widens and produces great work.”
Glendenning is bold enough to address the table, asking everyone to admit their own favorite local bands. It goes around…
“All my favorite bands are playing my birthday show,” Bates proclaims.
“Can we all wear birthday hats?” Maria asks.
“Uhh… ‘can we all wear birthday hats?’ –Duh!”