Canadian snakin'

Nov 16, 2005 at 12:00 am

Sometimes, rock ’n’ roll can speak volumes without playing a single note.  When the members of Toronto’s Deadly Snakes ambled up to the poolside hipsters at Las Vegas Grind in 1999, it was like the Rolling Stones had come to rumble with Herman’s Hermits. The lean and hungry soul-punks weren’t invited to play the annual go-go-booted garage summit; they were just slumming between gigs — passing through Sin City on their way to someplace darker.

When they jumped into the casino pool basted in weeks of beer and axle grease, it had the effect of the Baby Ruth bar in Caddyshack. The fashion show was, quite suddenly, over.

Five years and four albums later, the Deadly Snakes are still on their way to someplace darker — and infinitely more seductive. While many of their garage-style counterparts have been content to dwell in three-chord purgatory, the band’s latest release, Porcella, finds them mining elegant, banged-up, high-risk turf. Along with the band’s staple thunderous R&B and ragged soul, there’s a grim, storytelling beauty to Porcella. Something that is conjured not so much from the immediacy of the groin, but from the constant surging tides of emotional memory.

“It kind of came naturally,” says singer-organist-multi-instrumentalist Age of Danger (formerly known as Max Danger). “It wasn’t supposed to be ‘Let’s get out of this garage ghetto,’ it was just supposed to be ‘Let’s make the record that we want to make.’”

Danger, 27, is speaking by phone from the van as the band wheels out of Toronto for a month-long tour that will put them in Detroit’s Magic Stick on Nov. 16. Like Ohio’s Greenhornes, and Mississippi’s the Preacher’s Kids, the Deadly Snakes have always had a loving home in Detroit among their contemporaries. This, however, hasn’t always translated into blockbuster crowds — which is a shame. A pet band among those in the know, the Snakes deliver the kind of marrow-rattling live show that Detroiters like to gorge on. The bummer is that, since younger audiences know little of the Snakes’ charms, only the rock ’n’ roll elite of Detroit tends to go to their shows — a condition that Danger hopes will be conquered this time around.

“I think that only people from Detroit really know what’s going on there,” he says. “I always feel like such a Canadian when I go there. We have friends in Detroit but, if you go through on the wrong day, nobody’s going to be at the show because they’re all on tour.”

There’s good reason why the Deadly Snakes command respect in Rock City. Young, brash and oozing sex appeal, they sprang onto the indie rock scene with horn section blazing as the new millennium dawned. Attracting the attention of Memphis soul-punk master cylinder Greg Cartwright (the Oblivions, the Reigning Sound, the Compulsive Gamblers and, recently, the Detroit Cobras) he produced the band’s first album, then joined their ranks for the second.

“By the time we started touring the second record, we had our own ideas about what we wanted to do,” Danger says. “They weren’t so different from his, but when he joined, it was kind of like we were there to back him in a way. It was unspoken but, essentially, that’s what the feeling was. We’re a band; we didn’t need to be a backing band. He didn’t need a band to compete with, either. He just needed to front his own band, which he does now — and it’s the best thing he does.”

And Porcella may be the best thing the Snakes have done. Snakes vocalist Andre Ethier (formerly Andre St. Clair) has one of the most panty-moistening bellows in rock. Supremely masculine and aggressively soulful, it’s the perfect complement to Danger’s impressive ability to channel Faine Jade one minute and Iggy the next.

Danger produced the album, which, though it contains nods to the Snakes of yore, is clearly a departure for the band — a “bigger step,” as he calls it.

“We all kind of worked it out together,” Danger says. “It was six guys playing music, all contributing equally. There was a lot of switching up of instruments and stuff. We were really open with using whatever the songs required — acoustic guitar, toy piano, a Mellotron, strings.”

He also confirms that the sweat- and beer-soaked live show remains just that. “The only thing that’s different is that we do more switching up onstage,” he says. “We’ve got some acoustic guitars that we’ll pull out once in a while. But it’s still pretty energetic. The record is a bit melancholy, but we’ve managed to translate those songs into something really good live. It really works.”

After nine years together with surprisingly few member changes, no handouts (save a Hives tour here and there) and a solid stable of quality recordings under their belts, the Deadly Snakes can saunter proudly through the rubble as garage is sloppily devoured by the ravenous, fickle jaws of the mainstream. These guys are in for the long race.

“Don’t get caught up in the idea that you’re gonna be famous or sell records, because you’re not,” Danger says. “And, if you want to, you’re definitely not.”


Wednesday, Nov. 16, at the Magic Stick, 4120 Woodward Ave., Detroit: 313-833-9700. With the Come Ons.

Wendy Case is a freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]