Being green

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Just because they’re the White Stripes’ opening act, don’t let any “next Stripes” hype fool you. Judged for their Puritan-like work ethic in constant touring, three absolutely ace studio albums, and their indefinable yet palpable yeah, man brand of charisma, the Greenhornes long ago reached the top rungs of the garage-rock ladder. Not for nothing does the Cincinnati threesome count among their fans one Steven Van Zandt, who has frequently championed them on his Little Steven’s Underground Garage radio show.

Since forming as a quintet in 1998, the band has gone through a number of lineup changes, but the core has always been Craig Fox (vocals, guitars), “Little” Jack Lawrence (bass, vocals) and Patrick Keeler (drums). Not long ago they traveled to Detroit to record their latest record, the East Grand Blues EP, with local pop maverick Brendan Benson. It marks their major label debut, on V2 — also home to Benson and the White Stripes.

Compared to the hi-octane R&B-cum-garage spuzz of 2002’s Dual Mono, the EP has a warmer, more densely layered quality; highlights including the slow, harmony-strewn jangler “I’m Going Away,” slinky Doors-meets-Kinks throbber “At Night,” and the heavy industrial fuzzbomb “Pattern Skies.” In a phone interview last week, Lawrence — who’s by now an honorary Detroiter — said stylistic growth simply came out of wanting “to try something different.”

Metro Times: There’s a really distinctive, lush sonic vibe on this EP. Was that Benson’s input?

Jack Lawrence: We had recorded these songs before, first at Ultrasuede Studios [Cincinnati], where we’d done the other records. We also went down to Nashville and recorded them at the same studio where we did the record with Loretta Lynn [Lawrence and Keeler played on the Jack White-produced Van Lear Rose]. The songs sounded really good, but Brendan wanted to do something with us.

Brendan was really good with vocals for us, just making sure we sang in tune, and he was always into trying to layer more vocals. We did the tracks first, upstairs in his attic, and it was in summer — 100 degrees in that attic — so some of the songs were kind of rushed because we wanted to get out of there. But afterwards, we started getting the overdubs down and Brendan would say, “Try this, try that. ...” He’s got a lot of guitars and stuff, keyboards, in his studio.

MT: It was maybe around the time of Dual Mono and we interviewed Little Steven about his Underground Garage program, and the Greenhornes were one of the first band names out of his mouth. At what point did you sense you’d really picked up some national momentum? His name-checks certainly helped.

Lawrence: Oh, yeah, he’s done a lot — it’s a good feeling to get that. And we just got back this afternoon from Sirius [satellite radio] where we did an interview for his channel with Kid Leo. I think this year has really been the point where we thought maybe something will happen. We’ve been at it so many years, and you get so many promises that don’t ever work out. But this year there’s been the Broken Flowers film, for example. [Jim Jarmusch included the Greenhornes’ “There Is an End” on the sound track.] It’s still hard to tell sometimes. You get to New York, you play, it’s packed and there’s a buzz. Then we get to Buffalo and there’s like 10 people there.

MT: Talk a bit about how this tour with the White Stripes has gone.

Lawrence: It’s been a really nice experience. Usually the theaters are 2,000 or 3,000, although we have played some bigger ones like Red Rocks in Denver, which held about 9,000. We went to Mexico too, which was actually my favorite time on tour.

I was surprised, because playing with the White Stripes, people are coming to see them, so you never know what their reaction will be because 96 percent of them haven’t heard you. You play at 8, and there’s still a lot of empty seats. But in Mexico they went crazy. We did “Lost Woman” [Yardbirds], and both times, in Guadalajara and Mexico City, they all had their hands way up over their heads — I didn’t know if it was just because of the rhythm or what, but they just got crazy.

MT: Mexico has a legacy of garage bands from the ’60s — not everyone there’s a Morrissey fan. Actually the best way to gauge a tour is how you’ve been doing at the merch table.

Lawrence: This time around [laughs] we have beer huggies, we have little Velcro wallets, and we have switchblades. Yeah, we’ve been doing pretty well — an average of 50 CDs each night.

MT: Thinking of the side projects, you played banjo with Blanche, you and Patrick did the Loretta Lynn album with Jack, and the band is on Karen O’s [the Yeah Yeah Yeahs] upcoming solo album, right?

Lawrence: That album should be great. It’s different, some Yeah Yeah Yeahs sound, a kind of doo-wop thing too, a mix. Craig sang on one with her, and we all played on two or three songs.

MT: There’s also this Raconteurs project with Jack and Brendan too?

Lawrence: That’s Patrick, Brendan, Jack and me. It’s just a mix of [everyone’s] sound. Brendan sings, and then they trade off and Jack will sing, then they’ll sing together. We’ve recorded some songs that I think will come out next year some time. We haven’t played yet, but when it comes out we’ll probably tour because we’re pretty excited about playing together.

MT: Given all your Detroit connections, did the city embrace the Greenhornes early on?

Lawrence: Oh, yeah. Probably around 1998 after we started, we got a show with the Hentchmen at this place, the Gold Dollar, and everyone there was in a band. The first few times we were there meeting all the other musicians. Everyone was friendly, Jack was there too, and these bands just kind of took us in. In Cincinnati it was different; in Detroit, people were totally excited.

MT: You could practically call the city your second home.

Lawrence: I think I’m going to be there something like four times next week. Yeah, I know that stretch of highway [between Cincinnati and Detroit] very well now — all the exits, everything.


Sunday, Oct. 2, at the Masonic Temple Theatre, 500 Temple, Detroit; 313-832-2232. With the White Stripes.

Fred Mills is freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected].
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