You’ve probably seen Ben Blackwell around but just didn’t know it. He goes to, like, a million shows. He’s the tall, longhaired, towheaded kid standing near the stage with his jean jacket on and a wide-open stare that sometimes says “What the hell is this shit?” and sometimes says “I’m witnessing the greatest moment in music history — again!” Usually, though, his visage looks to be somewhere in between — taking it all in, digesting the data, readying an opinion that reveals a depth of understanding that belies his rookie looks.
At 20, he’s traveled more of the music world — both literally and figuratively — than people twice his age. That he made his stage debut as a fill-in drummer at the tender age of 15 is auspicious. That he did it in a band backing up Dan and Tracee Miller (Blanche) and his uncle Jack White didn’t hurt either. He was firmly in place as one of two drummers in the Dirtbombs by 17 (thereby single-handedly lowering the mean age of that quintet by three years) and was touring the United States as much as his high school schedule would permit as the merch dude for the White Stripes just as the rest of the world was catching wind of the dynamic duo. Oh, yeah, and he also cut his “industry” teeth filling orders and generally acting as right-hand man for Dave Buick’s zeitgeist-defining Italy Records.
“I owe so much to touring. The White Stripes had me at every single one of their shows from April of 1998 until July of 2000. I got to see some really cool shit with them ... the last Pavement tour, one of Weezer’s first shows after they got back together, Sleater-Kinney, the Gossip, and most importantly, every amazing and terrible White Stripes show you could ever imagine,” says Blackwell of his rock ’n’ roll indoctrination.
Blackwell concedes that although he wasn’t an outcast in school, he clocked more time hanging around with bands in town. “I spent more time with Jack White and Dave Buick than I did with anyone in my graduating class.”
Now, none of the compounded wisdom Blackwell has earned would be worth the ink this rant is printed with if he wasn’t doing something with it.
Being in the right place at the right time is fine, but knowing what to do once you’re there is a whole other ball of wax. Thankfully, with the debut of Cass Records, Blackwell’s putting his money (as well as that of his “silent partners”’) where his mouth is.
The first record is a 7-inch by honorary Detroiters and critics-darling soul-rawkers the Mooney Suzuki. (The A-side is a cover of “Hey Joe.”) The band is the reason Blackwell started his label.
“The first time the Mooney Suzuki played Detroit was May of 1999,” explains Blackwell. “Me and Eddie Baranek from the Sights were the only people who knew about them. Imagine us two towheaded teens standing in the middle of the Stick’s empty dance floor as these bad-asses from New York jumped off the stage and ran out into the emptiness like it was a packed house. It was love at first sight.
“I got to talking to Sam [lead singer] after the show and we just really hit it off, hated the same people, liked using the word ‘douchebag.’”
In December, the Mooney Suzuki’s drummer quit. Typically, Ben e-mailed the singer, making himself available for service on a tour opening for the Donnas. He sojourned to New York City for a weekend of rehearsals only to have geography get in the way. Still, Blackwell had set up a show in Detroit with the band and once again, sitting in on drums provided not only a good time, but a fateful intercession.
“It was one of the happiest moments of my life. It was around that time that I was able to introduce them to Jim Diamond and his Ghetto Recorders studios. They’d decided to record their next album, Electric Sweat, with Jim. They stayed at my house and gave me a CD of shit that they’d never put out. First song, ‘Hey Joe.’ That was it. It was amazing. It would be over a year before I even asked them, but I knew that song had to be my first release. Dreams really do come true — or some cliché like that.”
Blackwell says the record’s already sold about 700 copies, so it’s a success in his vaguely grand plan of balancing records that do well with those for which he “ends up with, like, 700 copies of in my basement.”
Out now is a single by Detroit trio the Cyril Lords (“No More Good Times”/”Where Do Girls Go?”) that will likely keep the ball of wax rolling. (Did I use that pun already? Oh, fuck it.) But the garagey flavor of the first couple records stand in stark contrast to a more diverse lineup of future releases.
Upcoming 7-inchers range from the spooky, living-room country of Blanche (the June release recorded with Brendan Benson and Dave Feeney features “Who’s to Say” and “Superstitious”) and high-pop from the Waxwings (who are also recording with Benson) to records by the Trachtenburg Family Players (I still wanna know how that’s gonna work without the slide show) and Wisconsinites the Mystery Girls. Said roster proves that a handshake and a well-meaning smirk can go a long way in this world.
“We feel good about his vision,” says Dan Miller of Blanche, who will also release their debut full-length later this summer through Cass Records (at least in the United States). “Which is to put out music that he likes, regardless of whether it’s going to fit into a movement (garage, lo-fi, etc.). Did I mention that his mother is very nice and hardworking? You can tell a lot about a person that way, you know.”
“We really trust Ben, and if we decide to do something and he doesn’t get it done, we can go to his house and find him. We can’t do that with other labels.”
The Waxwings’ Dean Fertita echoes Miller’s notion of trust. And he should know, having just worked to conclude a sticky previous label situation.
“Truthfully, the fact that he wanted to do something with us was exciting. It goes back to the idea that this city is a supportive community that blurs the lines and expands the perception of what Detroit music is supposed to sound like.”
“I just talk to the people I know,” says Blackwell of the elaborate Cass Records A&R process. “Word of mouth helps a lot, but you’ve also got to be able to do the shit work like making phone calls every day, checking up on how stuff is coming along, and keeping my pimp hand strong.”
So how the hell does this (admittedly exceptional) 20-year-old kid get the confidence for all this pimping?
Ironically enough, Blackwell says, “I choose to stay meek and am still excited when I get to work with people I admire.”
It helps that one of Blackwell’s from-a-distance/by-example label mentors is Calvin Johnson of esteemed indie K Records. Johnson started K when he was 20, initially to document a moment, a place, an enthusiasm; that itch that can only be scratched by making records on which people like you can drop a needle.
“I guess that putting out records and running a record label is a natural extension for anyone who’s a huge music fan. It puts you right in the thick of it,” says Blackwell
He also points out that Detroit has a lack of hometown product actually produced in town — with the majority of the current crop of critically praised records from Detroit bands coming out on labels based in Southern California.
But like many of the Garden Bowl Gang, he’s also ambivalent about the whole “Detroit Thing.”
“Detroit is such a weird thing to talk about. I think any band or person who makes too big a deal out of the topic immediately comes off as fake or un-authentic. Yeah, I’ve lived in Detroit all my life. Big deal. As for having the label in Detroit, and picking the ultra-Detroit name of Cass ... my mother’s house happens to be in Detroit. I live in my mother’s house. That’s why the label’s here.”
So, with a “stable” lineup that reads like the table of contents for a future issue of NME, one question arises: What’s Blackwell’s dream record, aside from a release by the re-formed Stooges?
Blackwell says he’s keen to unleash the raw juice of the Vegetarian Cannibals, a knock-around band circa 1992 featuring Tim Rios and the guys who now comprise the band Forge. Anyone got a copy of the tape?
You can learn more about Ben Blackwell and Cass Records at www.cassrecords.com.
Both the Waxwings and Cyril Lords will be performing at the D Pollen indie music and arts festival May 30-31 at the Hastings Street Ballroom (715 E. Milwaukee, Detroit). For info, go to www.dpollen.com.Chris Handyside writes about music for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]