By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
”Desolation and isolation“ is how Strobe describes life in Detroit. Being off the beaten track allowed its music scene to develop independent of any notions of marketability. ”No one set out to make a band to make it,“ says Jim Diamond, bassist in the greasy garage band the Dirtbombs. ”Not having that attitude has probably paid off for people.“
Diamond is Detroit‘s Phil Spector, recording bands in his home-based studio, Ghetto Recorders. Situated in a former poultry factory in a skeevy neighborhood, Ghetto lives up to its name, smelling of stale pizza, spilled beer and carpet mold. Diamond leaves his ’87 VW Golf unlocked on the street, and this devil-may-care attitude is one of the things his recordings capture.
Detroit‘s isolation isn’t just geographical. There‘s a psychological aspect to it that’s self-imposed. Not only do the rock bands not care about what the outside world thinks of them, they don‘t, for the most part, give a hoot about the city’s huge techno and hip-hop scenes, nor what‘s on commercial radio. An album title of the punk blues band Bantam Rooster sums up the Motor City mentality in three words: Fuck All Y’all.
”People here play as if the last 30 years of American culture never happened,“ says Matt Smith. ”You‘ll try out a guitar player and it’s like he‘s never heard anything since 1972. Because it’s an isolated place, it‘s got a lot of social outcasts going through their lives uninterested in mainstream culture.“ Adds Ko Shih, ”Most of us don’t listen to any music that‘s produced today aside from bands that we know in Detroit.“
The Gories started the crack in Detroit’s dam of welled-up ”new garage“ talent in the late ‘80s. Sometimes described as ”the Cramps if they were black,“ the three-piece was led by Mick Collins, one of the lone black faces on this scene. Dan Kroha also played guitar -- there was no bassist -- and drummer Peg O’Neill beat two toms in a childlike manner, never doing fills. (Sound familiar? ”She was so stripped-down, she made Meg White look like John Bonham,“ says one fan.)
Dan Kroha later formed the Demolition Doll Rods with two strippers, one of whom is blind. ”Dan‘s a transvestite and they all basically play naked,“ says Larry Hardy of In the Red Records, the L.A. label that issued the Rods’ first full-length, produced by Jon Spencer and Mick Collins. Clearly the city had not lost the confrontational freak factor of former Detroiters Iggy Pop, Ted Nugent and Alice Cooper.
Though those two bands retain post-punk cult status (Collins now fronts the Dirtbombs), it was the Go who opened the floodgates. Signing to Sub Pop Records in 1999, they brought an MC5 ”burn it down“ mentality to a rock landscape that was getting too tarted up by arch attitudes and fashion styling.
The Go have always been led by singer Bobby Harlow, but the band‘s passers-through read like a Detroit garage hall of fame: Jack White, Matt Smith, Steve Nawara (now in the Electric Six), Matt Hatch (now in the Sights) and Dave Buick (who runs the indie label Italy Records).
In a fall from grace that might serve as foreshadowing for future events, the Go were embraced by Sub Pop with a splashy debut album --Whatcha Doin’ -- but then given the cold shoulder for reasons the band still don‘t understand. They have since signed with Lizard King, a new label headed by Martin Heath, former president at Arista U.K. The experience taught a lot of Detroit’s already insular musicians that they can‘t ever be too cautious -- even about indie labels.
Enter Sympathy for the Record Industry. The Long Beach indie, with more than 600 titles in its catalog, began issuing records by Detroit bands in 1998, starting with the Detroit Cobras and the White Stripes. The label’s Long Gone John was subsequently turned on to the Von Bondies, the Come Ons, Bantam Rooster, and Ko and the Knockouts. Despite exposing untold numbers of music lovers to Detroit‘s finest, Long Gone John insists, ”Detroit isn’t fucking special.“
Critics don‘t agree. The Strokes broke, making garage music the It genre of the new decade, and the U.K. wet itself anytime anyone from Detroit came to play. John Peel called the White Stripes the most exciting live act since punk and Jimi Hendrix. Detroit bands touring Europe found hordes of fans hailing them as the saviors of rock. Those same bands would come home to Detroit to play half-full clubs.
Several Detroit musicians say it’s not their technical prowess that has rejuvenated rock. ”The garage scene, for me, is based more on ideas than actual playing,“ says Maribel Restrepo of the Detroit Cobras, a band that plays soul covers. ”Our skills may not be up there, but when it comes to ideas, it‘s wider.“ Admits Fred Thomas of Saturday Looks Good to Me, ”I’m a really shitty guitar player, and I know a lot of people who are technically poor. But there‘s so much soul.“