Kicking Against the Pricks
If you played six degrees of separation with the current Detroit
If you played six degrees of separation with the current Detroitrock scene, it would be a quick game. And if you played with theVon Bondies–it would be a lightning round.
Forexample: It’s another gray December afternoon at Miller’s Bar, aworkaday joint in the Detroit suburb of Dearborn, where I’m meetingJason Stollsteimer, the Von Bondies’ lead singer, songwriter, andguitarist. Stollsteimer hasn’t been out in public since his notoriousscuffle with ex-pal Jack White six days ago, during which his face gotpunched purple (White was later charged with aggravated assault). So,why this bar for a reemergence? The grub, of course. Nothing gets aDetroit rocker out of the house faster than a Miller’s burger. And thisbeing Detroit, the game of connect the bands quickly begins. In frontof me in line is Ben Swank, ace drummer for local garage punks theSoledad Brothers and White’s former roommate. He also connects with theVon Bondies, since they’ve played on record together, and there’s ablues stomper on the Von Bondies’ new album that’s punningly titled”Been Swank.”
This is just one tiny example of the hundreds of ways theVon Bondies have been tasked with outrunning their hometown’s shadow.”The success of the Detroit scene has been a total gift and a totalcurse,” says Stollsteimer, 25, his chin-length brown hair draped, asusual, over his right eye (today, his hair covers a deep-red blotch onthe white of that eye, as well as the slight puffiness of his leanface). Stollsteimer is a confident dude, but at the moment, he’scautiously edgy-local news crews have been parked outside his house.
But despite the tense feelings, he’s chatty about the MotorCity scene. “In the early days, when we were playing with the WhiteStripes and people didn’t like them because they didn’t have a bassplayer, we were the band they liked,” says Stollsteimer. “I was playinga lot with Jack and learning from him. Everything sounded so raw, andwe were more similar. But over the last few years, I’ve come up with myown thing.”
“We tell people when they book our shows not to say’Detroit-based,'” he continues, “not because we’re not proud of it, butbecause if you associate with it too closely, you never grow out ofit.”
Thefacts: The Von Bondies are Stollsteimer and Marcie Bolen (rhythmguitar, vocals), 25; Carrie Smith (bass, vocals), 25; and Don Blum(drums), 31. Their major-label debut, Pawn Shoppe Heart (Sire),is a massive-sounding garage-punk/pop-rock hybrid, produced by formerModern Lover and Talking Head Jerry Harrison. Massive like early-U2massive. The single “C’mon C’mon” distills all that’s great about theband-sharp guitar riffs; primal, swinging rhythm; and irresistiblywailing boy-girl vocals. “Not That Social,” sung by Smith, may be thebest single Elastica never recorded. Most of all, the album finallyreveals the Von Bondies as more than the scene’s little brother/sisterband.
Stollsteimer and Bolen met as 19-year-olds at Dearborn’sHenry Ford Community College. He was a would-be teacher fromblue-collar Ypsilanti (the birthplace of Iggy Pop). She was fromworking-class South-gate. “We were the only people who looked like us,”he says. “Marcie was a rockabilly chick. I dressed like the Strokesdress now [laughs]. The school is mostly Arab-American and black, so westuck out.”
An early bonding moment came in 1998 at a Pontiacchurch/rock club, where the two friends saw lunatic Japanese punksGuitar Wolf open for the Cramps. “I was so blown away by GuitarWolf-they were so insane and entertaining, even though I had no ideawhat they were singing about!” says Stollsteimer. “And then the Crampscame on, and there was this huge voodoo sex charge. That night, Marcieand I went home, got drunk, and started a band. I had no idea how toplay guitar. I had never sang. [I'd grown up] listening to OtisRedding, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, and the Animals, blues records. But mymusic collection at that time was Nation of Ulysses, Brainiac, andMinor Threat.”
Theband they formed was the Baby Killers-remembered mostly for theirfaux-shock moniker. “We only had four songs,” recalls Stollsteimer,grinning. “And they were all instrumental.” After recruiting scene vetBlum, the band evolved into the Von Bondies. “When Don joined,” saysStollsteimer, “I said, ‘No hi-hat.’ I wanted it to be more tribal, morelike the Gories [early-'90s Detroit garage rockers led by theDirtbombs' Mick Collins].” When the band’s bassist left, they addedUniversity of Michigan physics student Carrie Smith, whom Stollsteimerknew from childhood and whom Blum knew from his Ypsi basement-punk days(Smith played guitar in teen hardcore wonders the Fags).
“It wasn’t like the Strokes, where all of a sudden, you’refamous,” says Smith. “Things don’t happen that way in Detroit. There’sno record industry here. You just play and play. And we had the goodfortune to be associated with the White Stripes.” That association hada little to do with White having dated Bolen and having beenStollsteimer’s ad hoc guitar mentor. The band ended up being includedon the influential White-produced 2001 Sympathetic Sounds of Detroit compilation.
Like the Detroit Cobras and the White Stripes before them,the Von Bondies agreed to record an album for Long Beach,California-based label Sympathy for the Record Industry. Of course, thecatch was that Smith had never played bass before. Also, Stollsteimerhad just gone through yet another breakup with his high schoolsweetheart and current wife, Andrea. “We’d broken up four or fivetimes,” he says of his relationship with Andrea. “And I never wrote,ever. When we started the Baby Killers, I was drinking every night.Writing got rid of that. I became so overtaken by wanting to write, Igave up drinking. I was writing because I was depressed, and it made mefeel better.”
The result was their 2001 debut, Lack of Communication,coproduced by White (who prerehearsed the band at his house). Laterthat year, they scraped together enough cash from their day jobs(Stollsteimer worked the counter at a downtown Detroit bowling alley)and set off for a tour of England and Europe opening for the WhiteStripes. “Those shows were incredibly important,” says Smith. “We gotso much exposure and press. We wouldn’t have gotten that without theStripes.”
Overtime, the Von Bondies have developed into a blistering live act.Stollsteimer, all gangly limbs in tight, tattered jeans and jacket,channels God-knows-what as he literally pounds his guitar. Behind himsits Blum, a buff, six-foot-one Chinese-American heartthrob, armsflailing. They’re flanked by the inscrutable Smith, and by Bolen, aflame-haired pixie impeccably decked-out in vintage garb who, dependingon the light, can come off as either angel or devil. “A review [called]us [Smith and Bolen] the cool bookends,” says Smith. “That was kind ofappropriate. You have two people going crazy and Marcie and I holdingit up.”
“Yeah, it’s cute guys and cute girls,” says Willy Wilson, alongtime Detroit DJ and concert promoter. “But they’re not up there forcute’s sake; they can play. Seeing them live is like a sucker punch.”
But the Von Bondies have squirmed against their rep as theband that Jack White built. “At some point,” says Smith, “we decidedthat we wanted to do this on our own. We wanted to show that we weren’tjust a baby band of the Stripes.” And in a scene as incestuous asDetroit’s, that ambition has caused eyebrows to raise, especiallypost-fight. “I think there is unbelievable resentment toward, of allpeople, Jason,” says Brian Smith, music editor of local weekly Metro Times.”When you go to clubs and overhear snickers about what a pussy the guyis, you have to wonder if all these people are as fucked up as JackWhite. There is the perception that the Von Bondies didn’t pay theirdues. Well, they’re a good decade younger than your average Detroitgarage band. So [White] helped them out early on. Big deal.”
The fight that launched a thousand blog posts, a stylishmug shot (White natty in a pinstriped suit), and even a FREE JACK WHITEcoffee cup, was over almost before it began. During a set by BrendanBenson and Chris Plum (opening for country rockers Blanche) atDetroit’s Magic Stick, Stollsteimer stood near the stage with his wife,Smith, and Bolen, when White walked up to talk. As White backed the VonBondie up against a speaker, he spit in his face. Then White punchedhim several times, putting Stollsteimer on the ground, before the otherVon Bondies and their friends intervened. They fetched ice and towelsfrom the bar and hustled Stollsteimer down the club’s back stairwell,then to the hospital. White claimed in a police report that he wasacting in self-defense.
Problems had been evident before the fight. On January 18, 2002, Stollsteimer told the German online magazine Gaesteliste.de,”Everybody wants to know, ‘How did it work when Jack White producedyour record.’ I can only say he sat in the studio and made sure wedidn’t kill each other. That’s it.” Then, in December 2002, a bloodiedStollsteimer filed a police complaint claiming that White had come tohis apartment, punched him in the face, and choked him (no charges werefiled). Stollsteimer told the website Indie Rock Resource lastMarch that “[coproducer] Jim [Diamond] didn’t get any credit, and heproduced it as much as Jack, if not more.” White told NME in October that the Von Bondies had “lost their minds” and that Stollsteimer had “gone off the deep end.” Stollsteimer told NME the next month that “we were never happy with the sound of our first record.” According to Metro Times,White also had tussled with other bands-Sights drummer Dave Shettlerfelt the wrath at a local bowling alley, and Dolf of the Datsuns wasreportedly kicked by White. Coincidentally, the White Stripes leaderwill stand trial on March 9, the same day as the Von Bondiesrecord-release show-at the Magic Stick!
“I don’t fight,” says Stollsteimer flatly. “If someone wantsto fight me, I’ll just stare at them. Even when I was a kid, when myolder brother would beat me up, I would just take it. And it wouldinfuriate him.”
Stollsteimer claims he and White haven’t talked for morethan a year. “Not a word,” he says with a dismissive wave of his hand.Ironically, the day after the throw-down the band had a passel ofinterviews and photo shoots set up to promote Pawn Shoppe Heart. They were canceled.
Perhaps to avoid such hometown distractions, the band hadspent a month recording the album in Sausalito, California. They workedwith Harrison to capture the spirit of their live show-as heard on2003’s Raw and Rare (Dim Mak/Intheact)-and then refine it. Theresulting album is a seamless patchwork of ’80s gloss and hooks thatdelivers the visceral crunch of ’70s punk angst and timeless bluespain.
So it’s appropriate that the record was inspired by a placewhere people buy and sell bits and pieces of other people’s past. “Iwent into [a pawnshop], and there’s all these rings from people who hadfallen in love but then fallen out, and it was kind of sad,” he says.”Everything that I write is very factual. And the heartache in thosesongs-even though I’m married to her now, [Andrea] will never live thatdown….”
He stops, grins, and doesn’t say much more. One thing the man does not need is another fight on his hands.