Danny Kroha looks like nothing so much as a giant bird. He's got the fast-paced strut down, the angular features, the compact and wiry frame, the particular way he holds his head to one side while listening. And it doesn't hurt that he preens so well.
On a brisk Friday afternoon in January, Kroha's sporting a cravat and smart, vintage threads while sitting on the living room couch of the first floor of his 100-year-old Hubbard-Richard home. He's well dressed even in the most casual of settings, relentlessly earnest and meticulous in everything he does. Maybe that's what keeps him youthful — he turns 50 this year but easily looks a dozen years younger.
Kroha has spent the vast majority of those 50 years playing in bands in Detroit — the number's 30, if you want to get specific. He remains best known as the singer and rhythm guitarist for influential blues-punk primitivists the Gories, who released three albums and lasted from 1986 until 1992 (though they reformed in 2009 and still play periodic gigs). He's also donned drag for the minimalist, burlesque-y performance art garage trio Demolition Doll Rods, who were around from the early '90s until 2007 (for years, he referred to himself as "Danny Doll Rod.") Kroha also played and sang in the Ramrods, Rocket 455, Skies Above, and I'm probably forgetting a few others. In the last eight years, Kroha has fronted his own dance-party garage bands, first the Readies, and now the Darleans.
And although the Darleans are entirely one of the best retro-styled rock bands going (and their self-titled album for Nero's Neptune from 2013 is the most fun thing to put on while cleaning your house) it's a new turn entirely that has us talking to him. This week, Third Man releases Kroha's very first solo full-length, Angels Watching Over Me. Of the 16 songs, one's an original, the rest all covers of traditional gospel, blues, and folk songs. It's just Kroha and some archaic instruments — mouth harp, diddley bow, a stomping foot, and slide guitar.
How did he get here, from the punk rock boogaloo of "Feral" off Houserockin' to the almost-stern solo rendition of "I Want to Live So God Can Use Me" on Angels Watching Over Me? "His folk stuff, it's pretty much the same thing he's always done, except it's even rawer," Italy Records head David Buick (the first person to release records by the White Stripes) says.
"This feels like the most important thing he's done since the Gories; it feels like he's cracked through something," Ben Blackwell (Third Man's Detroit A&R rep) says. "I told him that while I don't have too much grasp on the old blues, folk, and gospel myself, hearing his interpretations makes me want to hear the original versions, which to me is a really high compliment."
A high compliment indeed.
Kroha is seated next to piles of soul, blues, and garage 45s. He's always been a digger and discoverer, relentlessly looking for the deepest and most fertile root, the truest vine. "I have a very specific taste in garage; I like raw, weird records with unusual lyrics — 'Destination Lonely' by the Huns, 'Rollercoaster,' or any song, by the Thirteenth Floor Elevators, 'We all Love Peanut Butter' by the One Way Streets," he says. "The garage scene can be just as square and stale as any folk scene — which is funny, because garage rock was the folk music of 1960s teenagers.
"The world doesn't need another white guy playing the blues, I can tell you that much! And I don't want to be corny. Part of what I'm doing here is like curating, showing off my taste. I want to bring hillbilly, folk, gospel, and blues all together. I like traditional things, and I like country stuff. I like rustic cabins and the Foxfire books, but of course I didn't come from that environment."
Kroha's environment is here, Detroit. He grew up just inside the city limits, at Eight Mile and Livernois in the Green Acres neighborhood. "All the streets are named after places in England, so you have Canterbury, Norfolk, Stratford, Woodstock, and so on." He grew up on Piccadilly Street. "When my parents moved into that neighborhood in 1964 it was all white up there," he says. "And as you got into the late '60s and early '70s, most of the white people I knew when I was a little kid left, and it became mostly black. It didn't change, like the crime didn't get bad or anything like that — it just was different. I was playing with black kids instead of white kids."
His father was originally employed on the outskirts of the auto industry, working for a company that exported surplus WWII-era truck parts to Europe, where old vehicles left behind by the Allies were still being used for farming and other purposes. When Kroha was 10 years old, his father brought his work home with him, setting up his own business right in the living room. At first, he was packaging up gas filters for individual resale. As the company grew, it moved into commercial space in Ferndale. "He bought a used oven and built his own little assembly line, manufacturing gas filters," Kroha says. "You needed the oven because they were made out of paper, and you glued a metal cap on each end, then baked it. I was there every Saturday and every summer from the age of 12, working."
Kroha's father was very practical. Kroha was anything but. "I'm very dreamy, you know, my head's in the clouds," he says. They did not always get along. "I always wanted to be an artist, some kind of artist. I was into car designing when I was a kid. Then I wanted to be a DJ for a while. And as I got older more and more into the arts, I wanted to play guitar. I always wanted a guitar. I'd see cheap Japanese guitars in the Sears catalog, or at Cunningham's Drug." But it was always out of the question. "No way, no way was I getting a guitar — it just wasn't in the cards as far as my parents were concerned.
"We belonged to the Detroit Yacht Club; my dad was a sailor," Kroha says. "We had a 30-foot sailboat and we lived on that during the summer. They wanted me to continue on in that life, to be really into skiing, and run a business or whatever, but I just didn't have any interest in following that path, you know. It wasn't really until I went away to college that I really started collecting records, DJed for the college station, and discovered the Velvet Underground."
That was at Fairfield University in Connecticut, where he got his own show on the campus station, WVOF, the Voice of Fairfield. "One cool thing about WVOF is that they had been a station since the mid-'60s. So my buddy and I raided their record library, found records by Love, the MC5, and Them featuring Van Morrison," he says. "That was the first time I'd ever heard 'Baby, Please Don't Go' by Them, and that just like, ripped my fuckin' head off, man, you know?"
Instead of pouring himself into academics at the Jesuit institution, Kroha turned all his energy into discovering the roots of the raw music that drew his obsession. This wasn't as easy to do at the time as it is now.
"I had a Yardbirds record and loved it, thought it was great. I wanted to know who wrote these songs, and on the label it said 'E. McDaniel, M. Morganfield, and C. Burnett.' So I found out about Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, and Bo Diddley. I knew those are the guys I need to pay attention to."
Kroha's college adventure lasted only one year. There was no art program to speak of, and everyone was clamoring to get into business school. "It was yuppieville, you know?" he says. But as soon as he got back to Detroit, he knew he had to be in a band. He started out by singing, fronting a mod band called the Start, with some guys from Madison Heights he'd met at an R.E.M. concert.
"We got a different drummer, and then we changed the name to the Onset and I started getting into more garage stuff," Kroha says, thanks to reissue compilations like Nuggets and its successors Pebbles and Back from the Grave. Kroha was living in his first apartment with his sister Muffy, and working at his father's factory.
Around the time when the Onset started gigging out, mostly in Hamtramck, Kroha met and became fast friends with both Peggy O'Neill and Mick Collins, with whom he'd start the Gories in 1986. O'Neill shared Kroha's taste in vintage clothing, the Monkees, and the Velvet Underground. Plus she was super cute (it wasn't long before they started to date). Collins would come over to hang out and listen to records. He was a font of information about all kinds of music. He was also an autodidact and a little bit out of his mind. He would talk about different bands that he'd dreamed up in his head as if they were real, functioning entities. Kroha instantly got it, and dug it. "He had this great imagination and he knew about all this stuff and I was like, 'I gotta do something with him,'" Kroha says. By then, he was painting houses for a living.
The Gories' creation story is pretty well known, but the gist is that they were listening to a tape of super crappy-sounding, raw rockabilly garage rock when Collins said, "Hey, we could do this, ourselves; these songs are only three chords, at most." They hadn't heard the Cramps and had no context for others playing soulful and primitive takes on '60s garage, but they knew they could do it. Kroha strong-armed O'Neill into drumming; they were both super into Bo Diddley, which meant there were no cymbals in her kit, only tom-toms. Kroha relates that "we started joking about how bad it was going to be because we couldn't really play our instruments, and how we're going to drive people out of the bar, running away screaming," which is pretty much how they went over in Detroit for the first four years they were around, despite the fact that they were injecting incredible energy into the staid and conservative corpse of retro rock.
"The Gories would play, and a lot of people in the audience would think it was a joke," Warren Defever, from the band His Name Is Alive, says. "The drummer didn't have any heads on her bass drum; it was just there to hold one of the two rack toms. They would play a song and be horribly out of tune, then stop, and spend five to 10 minutes tuning and then play another song. And that was equally out of tune; everyone would laugh, including them. It took a while to find an audience that didn't think they were the worst version of the other bands in the scene."