"THERE'S NO FAKERY IN our shows. No amp kicking. No poses. We just play rock & roll," says front man-guitarist Jason Stollsteimer minutes before his band, the Von Bondies, take the stage to testify at October's Ain't No Picnic emo-rock fest in Irvine.
That proud creed epitomizes the stripped-to-the-bone aesthetic of Motor City's latest thrill merchants, a quartet of roots-inspired howlers whose fortunes have lately risen above those of other garage-minded rockers from their hometown. The Von Bondies kicked up a lotta excitement in the U.K., where they recently swung by for a tour and an appearance at the Reading Festival, and got props from NME for their "awesome, primal boogie."
But Orange County is a long way from Albion, the Von Bondies' dark brew of blues and psych-garage rock ill-suited to sunny environs, and their timing rotten (festival headliners Blonde Redhead have just launched into a concurrent set). The threadbare crowd eyeballs them with suspicion as they tear into "It Came From Japan," a rumbling cut from their 2001 debut, Lack of Communication, that excoriates to a crescendo of fuzz guitars, "Put away your cigarettes/ And your high-class attitude."
Hiding behind long bangs of various shades &mdash blond (Stollsteimer), flame-red (guitarist Marcie Bolen), brown (bassist Carrie Smith) and jet-black (drummer Don Blum) &mdash the Von Bondies look as good onstage as they sound. Their pale front man has the word choirboy engraved on his belt buckle, but his tortured howl suggests an exorcism is in progress. While he invokes crushed hearts, night trains and shallow graves, Blum lays exquisite punishment on the drums, and Smith and Bolen shimmy tight, pillars of haughty composure.
Heels start shaking, hips twitch out of control. The crowd huddles closer, hypnotized. They're not the only ones under the spell: Sire/Warner Records has pledged muscle behind the Von Bondies, extending them a chance to follow in the footsteps of that other breakout Detroit band, with whom they share an equal division of labor between the sexes and &mdash well, more.
Jack White of the White Stripes produced the Von Bondies' first record, released on Sympathy for the Record Industry, and gave them a leg up as his opening act last fall. The break helped, though these days the Von Bondies are eager to point out that they are emancipated from illustrious tutelage. "We didn't want to be known as the White Stripes' little-brother band," says Stollsteimer. "We had to do our own thing.
"So we kept touring on our own, and we always sold out shows, even though we had no money behind us. Every time an awesome review would come out, the labels assumed we were already signed." Restlessly touring Europe and the homeland, they slept on friends' couches and went into debt to keep their act on the road.
The industry bigwigs came courting, but "We had really bad luck," says guitarist Marcie Bolen. "When [Def Jam Records founder] Rick Rubin flew us to L.A. for a label showcase, we had to audition in a room in front of executives, and we totally bombed. When we're put on the spot like that, we clam up."
Now that the bashful foursome don't have to worry about hustling for a record deal anymore, they're itchy to record a follow-up to Lack of Communication. Their debut specialized in bruised-heart laments delivered with brutal conviction. "The songs are about heartbreak &mdash but they're not cheesy, they're mean," Stollsteimer says. He wrote them, but some credit must be given to the women who put the whammy on him: "Cass and Henry" is an extended frisson about "the girl who made me wear my heart on the sleeve"; "No Sugar Mama," featuring Jack White banging piano, is a kiss-off to a girlfriend who keeps buying gifts to make up for her cheatin' ways; and "Cryin'" rides along bluesy grooves like a vintage Mustang set aflame in a fit of brokenhearted fury.
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THE VON BONDIES LAYER crude blues licks and surf guitars atop soulful rhythms, seemingly intent on rousing the ghost of a vintage Detroit in which Motown's finest and psychedelia ruled the airwaves. But Stollsteimer insists the band's approach is spontaneous and inspired by nothing as much as the rotting glamour of his city's pawnshop-lined drags. "We don't know where the music comes from. We're self-taught. We're blues-based, but I don't listen to the blues."
This much, however, has been clearly established: The band got its start at a Cramps gig, where Stollsteimer and Bolen witnessed opening act Guitar Wolf in action. The Japanese punkabilly terrors struck awe in the two teenagers' hearts and encouraged them to pick up instruments. The proto-outfit skronked its way through a few years of basement gigs, perfecting a sound that made up for tentative guitar chops with a fired-up rhythm section. They lucked into the current formula when Stollsteimer relinquished his bass desires and took up singing duties. Once Smith and Blum joined, and the initial moniker, Baby Killers, was chucked, the Von Bondies were on their way.
The band recently wrapped up a whirl around the Midwest and South with an appearance at New York's CMJ music fest, and they'd like to have their next record out by spring. The ambitions are greater this time around. "We get labeled 'Detroit garage rock' all the time, but we want to transcend that," says Bolen.
"I always wanted to have string arrangements, but there was no money for that on our first record," adds Stollsteimer. "For the new one, I wrote a song that'll have piano, violin, cello and singing. But it's still gonna be rock & roll, I swear!"