By Mark Guarino
A natural conclusion surrounding the glut of new generation Detroit bands over the past two years is that their influences are the usual suspects: Iggy, Bob, Ted and Mitch.
But when the talk is about the Von Bondies — the most talked about new band from the Motor City since the White Stripes — this is not true.
“That’s my parents,” said Von Bondies singer-guitarist-songwriter Jason Stollsteimer. “We don’t come from that background. We are kids from the ‘80s. The MC5, Stooges and Bob Seger had no influence on us. I thought the Stooges were from New York.”
Stollsteimer, 25, is getting a crash course, not just on the Michigan rock, but on life as a rising rock darling. His band is already all the rage in the UK and their major label debut, “Pawn Shoppe Heart” (Sire), was released in the U.S. this week. On top of all that attention, there is the matter of Jack White, once friend, now foe. Like other Michigan rivalries — Eminem versus the Insane Clown Posse, The Supremes versus Diana Ross, Ted Nugent versus Bambi — The White Stripes versus the Von Bondies is receiving a glut of press and adding to Detroit’s reputation as a hard-knuckled town that takes anything and everything seriously.
In Chicago, Billy Corgan sings for Bozo and cheers on the Cubs. In Detroit, it would be difficult to see Jack White even getting out of bed in the daylight.
“You guys have much more of an abundance of people,” said Stollsteimer. “People actually go on vacation to Chicago whereas in Detroit no one comes. We don’t even have breakfast places. You have an abundance of everything whereas in Detroit we don’t have anything. People in big cities are spoiled and don’t spend as much time on their music.”
So explains why it took a scant three years for the Von Bondies to learn their instruments, write their songs, record two albums and get personally signed by industry legend Seymour Stein, the man who gave the Ramones, Talking Heads and Madonna their careers. To Stollsteimer, the reason for the quick rise is due to one thing: boredom.
“In Michigan, when Iggy Pop started singing and (the MC5’s) Rob Tyner started singing and Wayne Kramer started playing guitar and Ted Nugent, Mitch Ryder, Bob Seger — if you asked them why, it wasn’t because they wanted to be rock stars, not because they wanted to get laid, not because they wanted to do drugs. It was because they were bored out of their minds. We’re from the Midwest. There’s not a lot of hope for a future besides working in some automobile factory.”
Growing up in Detroit, Stollsteimer’s father worked as an architect for Chrysler and his mom was a nurse. He dropped out of Washtenaw Community College when he was 19 and picked up a guitar. He didn’t learn it or start singing until he was 21. By then, he had hooked up with guitarist Marcie Bolen and drummer Don Blum. He had known bassist Carrie Smith since they were grade school classmates. They first established themselves as an exciting live act then were taken under the wing of White, who picked one of their songs for a Detroit band compilation CD he put together in 2001. He later took them on tour and co-produced their indie debut, “Lack of Communication” (Sympathy for the Record Industry). The album announced their arrival as a loud and raw new band with an earth rattling rhythm section and lead vocalist who sang with the bloodied angst of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. (Today, Stollsteimer dismisses the label known for breaking the White Stripes, saying there was “no promotion, no publicity.” “Sympathy doesn’t do anything. It’s more of a logo on an album,” he said.)
The band toured nonstop for almost three years and after Stein caught a show in Amsterdam, they were signed on the spot. They had written all the songs but one that would become “Pawn Shoppe Heart” but didn’t have a producer. Their label set up a show at the Troubadour in L.A. and invited interested parties to show up. Although many high profile producers like Rob Schnapf (Beck, the Vines) approached them afterwards, the band decided to go with Jerry Harrison, the former Talking Heads keyboardist-guitarist who launched a second career as a producer (Live, No Doubt). At the time, Stollsteimer had never heard any Talking Heads music and Harrison didn’t identify himself as a Talking Head.
“He was so honest and didn’t have a big ego and it really showed,” Stollsteimer said. “A lot of producers we met, they’d tell you what you should sound like. He didn’t do that at all.”
Before plugging in an instrument, the band spent a week with Harrison at his home studio in Sausalito discussing what they hoped to sound like on record. Harrison recounted war stories about his band days and gave them advice on the pressure ahead. “He said just watching David Byrne handling all the stress he had being the lead singer was really hard,” Stollsteimer said. “He was telling me this before I ever experienced it. We do interviews and for some reason, I do 90 percent of them.”
It would be a stretch to say “Pawn Shoppe Heart” was steeped in any kind of defined Detroit sound. Harrison accents the band’s rollicking rhythm section that packs their short, pop-oriented songs with a mighty wallop. Stollsteimer sounds like Morrissey reborn as a blues screamer. Paired with the spooky backup vocals of Bolen and Smith, his vocals carry a weight well beyond his 25 years. Pop hooks are there from start to finish but unlike most major label debuts, they are played with crudeness and a sexual drive that pointed right over the cliff.
With its release in stores this week, the Von Bondies should be getting press solely on the music. But there’s the nagging matter of Jack White. In December Stollsteimer and White made national headlines when White approached Stollsteimer at the Magic Stick nightclub in Detroit and proceeded to pummel his face with his fists. Across the internet was White’s mugshot as well as pictures of Stollsteimer’s bloodied and bruised face. The state charged White with aggravated assault and he faces one year in jail if convicted. He appeared in court Tuesday of this week, the same day the Von Bondies held a CD release show at, of all places, the Magic Stick.
White filed a police report contending he acted in self-defense. His spokesperson declined to comment for this article.
Stollsteimer, a self-described “pacifist,” said he didn’t know the reasons for White’s attacks. Circulating rumors report the meltdown between both bands is due to the production credits of “Lack of Communication,” White’s former romantic relationship with Bolen and criticisms Stollsteimer has made about the White Stripes in public.
Of the attack, Stollsteimer said he was “attacked from behind.” “It was totally out of the blue. It was a violent thing I didn’t realize was happening to me until I was already on the ground. Sixteen witnesses all say the same thing, even his own roommate. I didn’t even know he was even there. I was holding my wife’s hand at the time.”
Stollsteimer denies competition now exists between both bands. “We don’t relate to them at all. We’re not at all the same band. We don’t play the blues,” he said. “In my eyes, I have no competition with any of these people. Not because we’re better or worse or they’re better or worse, it’s just a totally different kind of music.”