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Motor City Madness

Jack White was mistaken when he penned the liner notes for his Sympathetic Sounds of Detroit compilation CD in 2000. ”No suit from L.A. or New York is going to fly out to Detroit to check out a band and hand out business cards,“ he wrote.

Two years after making that proclamation, White was on Spin magazine‘s October cover. The other bands on the comp are faring pretty well, too. The Detroit Cobras have a song on the Jackass soundtrack. The Dirtbombs are touring Australia with one of that country’s top bands, You Am I. The Von Bondies signed to Sire for a rumored $1 million, and Whirlwind Heat signed to White‘s own Third Man label, which is distributed by V2 stateside and XL abroad. In fact, just about all of the bands on this Rosetta stone of a compilation have been approached by major labels eager for a listen to the albums they have in the works.

”Every time a Detroit band comes to L.A., add another zero,“ says Jennifer Tefft, the Spaceland booker who gave the first L.A. shows to many from the 313 area code. Band guarantees have increased, and so, of course, have ticket prices.

In the wake of this hype, Detroit rock bands are mulling how to leverage the heat without being burnt like so many Seattle bands were in the grunge boom and bust of the ’90s. While the liner notes on the Sympathetic Sounds CD proved to be prematurely pessimistic, the artwork is perhaps more accurate: On the cover is a picture of a major crossroads in downtown Motor City.

”All the bands owe something in part to Jack and to the Sympathetic Sounds record, because they‘ve been so supportive of the Detroit scene,“ says Ko Shih of Ko and the Knockouts. Shih was resting up in the apartment she shares with White Stripes drummer Meg White after a West Coast tour. By ”the scene,“ she means the two dozen or so bands on the incestuous hipster core of Detroit’s indie subculture. Though these bands have been labeled ”new garage“ for their ‘60s-inspired stomping sound, the scene also encompasses the slowcore Slumber Party, the orchestral Outrageous Cherry and the clever, Satanic disco-punk band Electric Six. The bands don’t all sound alike, though many liberally employ Hammonds and Farfisas. But there is a common feel to the soulful struggle they all embody.

Like any metropolitan band scene, this one‘s members band-hop and bed-hop, hold day jobs, worship vinyl, and go to one another’s shows. ”Welcome to the Detroit musicians‘ Christmas party!“ someone joked last year at a Detroit Cobras--Electric Six show at the Magic Stick, the Motor City’s equivalent of Spaceland. Almost everyone in the audience was in a band -- including Jack White, whose fierce loyalty to hometown talent has helped that small scene gain big fame.

After Ko and the Knockouts recorded a song for the Sympathetic Sounds compilation, Long Gone John, owner of the Sympathy for the Record Industry label, asked the band to record a full-length, which he released earlier this year. When the group played a series of sold-out West Coast shows with the Dirtbombs and the Detroit Cobras last October, Shih was surprised to see fans mouthing the words to their ‘60s-inspired power pop and ballads. They were third on the bill.

”When we were in L.A., I saw fliers for other bands, and I realized that 99 percent of those bands, no one goes to see them -- not because they’re bad, but because they don‘t have the press. I don’t completely understand why all of us get it instead of, for instance, the Santa Monica bands.“

Britain‘s NME magazine put Jack White at the top of its 2002 Cool List. Detroiters hold three of the top 10 positions on that chart. John Peel, the BBC’s new-music bellwether, gives generous airtime to bands from the 313. To the Brits, Detroit is America‘s Liverpool -- or at least its Manchester. a

They don’t call it Detroit Rock City for nothing. Before the port city was synonymous with car manufacturing and the torching of empty buildings, it was known for music. ”Detroit is a musical graveyard,“ says Eugene Strobe, guitarist for the pop-psychedelic band the Witches, who‘ve just released their fourth album, On Parade, on L.A.’s Fall of Rome label. We‘re walking around the torn-down remains of Fortune Records, where John Lee Hooker once recorded. All over Detroit are ruins -- not just graffiti-scarred ghetto buildings, but industrial palaces erected by car companies, left to rot when that industry imploded. You can’t escape the sadness of thinking how glorious it must have been. But you also feel the mischievous abandon in having so many derelict playgrounds.

The bands on Detroit‘s current indie scene draw as much from Holland-Dozier-Holland pop and Fortune Records blues as they do from the proto-punk of the MC5 and the Stooges.

”What has been called ’garage‘ here is actually very different sorts of bands, but they all take pages from different parts of old rock & roll music,“ says Fred Thomas of the band Saturday Looks Good to Me, who recently toured with Saves the Day. Matt Smith, a record producer and guitarist in Outrageous Cherry, cites the city’s history of Southern emigration as its fountain of soul. Lots of Northern industrial cities have bands staving off the cold by making rock that mimics metal-on-metal factory sounds. But few of them glow with the more organic warmth of Southern-bred denizens making that noise.

”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.“

The 313’s garage scene can be clearly divided into before and after the White Stripes left Sympathy for the Record Industry and signed with V2. After that much-buzzed-about deal, inked in November 2001, Detroit record stores and radio stations started receiving calls from A&R folks on the coasts asking who the hot bands were. Sire Records‘ Seymour Stein -- who signed the Ramones, the Dead Boys and Madonna -- made three trips to the city. He grabbed the Von Bondies and seemed extremely interested in two others: the Sights, a Small Faces--meet--Humble Pie foursome with two excellent albums on the Fall of Rome label, and Saturday Looks Good to Me, an ensemble of seven to 10 people who make bubblegum-by-way-of-Motown sounds. Meanwhile, the Electric Six -- a wildly talented band who have been labeled electroclash for their hilarious rockdisco weirdness -- signed with XL, the same Beggars Banquet subsidiary in the U.K. that houses the White Stripes, Badly Drawn Boy and Peaches.

And yet, despite the accolades and the sold-out shows, most Detroit bands say they’re not much better off now than they were a few years ago. ”What it boils down to is money,“ says Pat Pantano, drummer for the Dirtbombs and the Come Ons. ”No one‘s made any money yet.“

Hoping to better their fortunes, some of the bands that got their start on Sympathy are looking elsewhere for their second releases. What was perhaps the best thing to happen to a Detroit band -- getting on a label with impeccable cred -- has turned into a sore spot, because Long Gone John does not give sales reports to the bands. No one would go on record, but there is grumbling among the bands about getting paid for record sales and about the difficulty in reaching Long Gone John.

Long Gone John was uninterested in addressing squabbles, but mentioned that two Detroit bands owe a him overdue records that he has paid for. He also feels that any band that wants to make money needs to tour relentlessly -- something Detroit bands are not always eager to do. ”The missing element with these bands, or any band, is touring,“ he says, attributing the Von Bondies’ success to their grueling road schedule.

Even bands without labels are feeling the pressure of deciding whether to jump to the next level or stay put. The deals, the calls, the press, the rumors -- ”It‘s crazy,“ says Fred Thomas. Though Seymour Stein took him to dinner and remains in touch, Thomas won’t give him the Saturday Looks Good to Me album that‘s in the can. He’s not ruling out a major-label signing in the future, but this particular record is best handled by an indie, he figures: ”A kid who wants to hear the next Strokes won‘t quite get it.“

”If we thought we were gonna be this big, we would have taken precautions,“ says Maribel Restrepo of the Detroit Cobras, who now may face a legal battle for their name (the ex-drummer claims he owns it). ”The worst effect of this hype is that all of a sudden people are thinking about records selling. No one ever thought about asking for numbers before.“

Things will get hairier before they straighten out, because Detroit has not yet produced a Nirvana, a band as successful commercially as they were critically. So far, the White Stripes have not proved to be that band. So the labels are still hunting.

Hardy doesn’t think Detroit will satisfy the music industry‘s mammoth cravings. ”The thing with Nirvana was, it reached everyone -- not just people who loved music, but everyone I hated in high school, too. But I don’t see morons liking bands like the Sights -- they‘re too smart. I don’t see people doing beer bongs to it.“

Hardy plans to throw a curve ball into the Detroit garage movement with two bands he recently signed: the art-damaged Piranhas and the party-animal Clone Defects. ”These records are going to change people‘s ideas about Detroit music,“ Hardy says. ”People think of Detroit as soul-based garage, but this is psycho punk rock, which was always my idea of Detroit bands -- confrontational, great bands.“

And that’s a good thing, a very Detroit thing. Says Eugene Strobe, ”It‘s important that we confuse the outside.“