Danny Kroha's blues-punk odyssey comes full circle

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."

"One of the things I love about the Gories is that they really didn't start that band to be a huge working band," the Dirtbombs' longtime "fuzz bassist" Ko Melina says. "They did for the love of the music."

There were hardly any black people, or women, in garage bands in the 1980s. By the time the Gories had finally won local crowds over in the early '90s, after being name-checked by numerous newly famous grunge-rockers and British fans, O'Neill and Kroha had broken up, and the band was on its last legs. After a slightly disappointing third record and a tour to Europe where O'Neill and Kroha had both brought along their respective new flames, the Gories called it quits.

Kroha was despondent over the Gories split, but his new girlfriend Margaret Gomoll played him her own songs and told him they should start a band together, which was going to be called the Demolition Doll Rods. "Her songs were really original. I've never heard anything like them. It was really fun to just ride the Margaret train, to dress up crazy and just have fun for all those years."

"The Doll Rods were great live, but when I first saw them I had no idea what to expect at all," Buick says. "Seeing the Gories totally changed everything — one of the best bands I've ever seen — and I'd moved away to California so I didn't know that Danny was in a new band until the Doll Rods' third song, when I realized that the one chick up there was actually Danny from the Gories."

Kroha and Gomoll broke up after a few years but remained close and kept the band going another dozen years. "We'd sleep together in the van on tour but we never did anything," he says. "We toured constantly, and got pretty successful." Blackwell told Kroha that Jack White first really thought he hit it big when the White Stripes were opening for the Doll Rods.

"When the White Stripes first came out, Margaret and I liked them, and would go see them play, when there were like 10 people there," he says. "I first knew Jack as a fan of mine. It did really catch me off-guard when the White Stripes blew up and got huge. I was really put out. I didn't feel ripped off. Nothing I did was ever that original; I can't fault anyone for being influenced. But I was jealous, yes, when they broke big. I always liked Jack, but I was jealous of the success he had. It took a while to get over it, you know? It kind of discouraged me a bit. But I got over it. And now I have a record on his label."

Kroha's roommate, Todd Albright, a talented acoustic guitarist and recent transplant from Toledo, Ohio, is picking out lines that sound like Mississippi John Hurt in his own room next door. Kroha's pit bull Mimi gnaws at a heavy-duty piece of rawhide, when not begging for attention.

Garage rock dudes, the real ones anyway, have always carried themselves with swagger. You have to — it's part of the schtick.

Perhaps this is part of why, though this record was recorded several years ago, it's taken such a long time to see release. You see, at first, Kroha had little swagger as it relates to this new direction, to becoming Mr. Old-Timey Music Guy. An early stumbling block to finding his way into this material had been technical. "I'd been trying to play along with John Lee Hooker records and it never worked. I didn't know why."

Then Kroha learned about open tunings for the guitar from an interview with Keith Richards. "I started trying out that stuff, and then John Lee Hooker made sense," he explains. "That's that sound, that's Doctor Ross, that's John Lee Hooker." Then he learned that Hasil Adkins had always played in an open D. That was a huge revelation, and got him playing the blues the way it made sense for him.

His first stab at solo blues recording was in 2001, demos recorded with longtime fan, fellow musician, and producer Defever, just to see if he could do it. "I did those solo recordings and just put it away and kept doing the Doll Rods and then, when the Doll Rods stopped, I had started to listen to diddley bow players, and had heard One String Sam, and that blew my mind when I heard it," he says. A diddley bow is a piece of wire strung between two nails. The nails can be stuck to a plank of wood, or simply hung vertically on a front porch. It's often played with an old coffee can to get a slide effect. "I like stuff that's not considered 'real' music, instruments that aren't 'real' instruments — diddley bow, mouth bow, washtub bass, one-string fiddle."

He played this material live about town, but was not sure if it should be released. The recordings were initially made in the unfinished second floor of his house, on a portable four-track by Noah Morrison. "I just played upstairs in that flat with the nice wood floor and the plaster walls, nice 8-foot-tall ceilings, or 9-foot, whatever they are." Kroha was inspired by the simple, clear sound of early field recordings made by Mike Seeger and George Mitchell for labels like Folkways in the 1960s. After getting turned down by Mississippi Records in Portland, Ore., his first choice, he sat on it for months. Finally getting his nerve back, he shared it with Blackwell thinking perhaps it could come out on his small label, Cass. But Blackwell unexpectedly countered that perhaps White would want to issue it on Third Man, proper. This would, of course, mean thousands of more copies being pressed (and likely purchased, given the label's rabid fanbase). "I don't care if it sells five or five million copies; it just has to get released," Blackwell says.

After hearing all that, Kroha still sat on the material for another year, at which point he brought in Defever again. "I got cold feet 'cause I didn't know if this was good enough to get that big of an audience," Kroha says. "I called up Warren and said, 'I want to rework this album. I need you to listen to it. Tell me what you think.' So he listened and said, 'OK, it's good but a couple songs don't fit.' I told him how I wanted to record some new tracks and stitch 'em in, then, and I told him how I recorded it, and the sounds I was looking for."

"We made a checklist of ideas he had that he hadn't done yet; I have the piece of paper right here, and it reads 'bell, comb, high voice,'" Defever says. "Danny wanted to record a comb through a piece of paper to emulate a kazoo, and also sing in a high voice. And then Blind Mamie Forehand has that song where she sings along to a bell, so Danny wanted to do that, and he also brought a jug and a washboard over too."

"Warren set me up in his loft the same way, got the same kind of sound, recorded some more songs, fit them in with the other ones, and it sounds seamless to me," Kroha says. "It doesn't sound like it was recorded in two different years and two different places."

The celebrated reissue in 1998 of Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music, originally issued in 1952 on Folkways, introduced Kroha to a whole new realm of music that he could sing with confidence: weird, bluesy hillbillies from the 1920s and '30s. The gravel voices of Bascom Lamar Lunsford, Buell Kazee, Dick Justice, and Dock Boggs were a revelation. "I started finding out that there's white guys in the '20s playing rhythm and blues. And I was like, 'Huh, that's interesting.' I felt like there's a history for white people in this too. I don't know if that sounds blunt, but it's true," he says.

"I got into those guys and I started getting into songsters, realizing that I was attracted to songster material, because it wasn't blues. Blues has been done to death. This songster stuff, I already liked it, I just didn't know that's what it was. A songster is more a folk song that has a melody, and it doesn't have the A-A-B pattern of blues. Lead Belly was a songster. Frank Stokes was a songster. They did old-folk songs, popular songs from the 1870s. They did stuff that would be considered country, even, or was also done by country singers because they were just folk songs, songs that were in the canon of blacks and whites. They were just popular songs that everybody did. So I decided to gravitate more toward that material. I'm not a blues man. I never will be a blues man. But, I can feel gospel. I was raised Catholic. I was raised in the church. I wasn't Pentecostal, and we had our little Catholic folky kind of '70s gospel songs that came out of the '60s folk music. But I could relate to and sing gospel songs, because felt it. I can't sing about picking cotton, I don't feel comfortable singing that. I feel confident singing John Henry because I feel the man versus machine thing in that song."

"He's very apprehensive about doing this music, a classic trait that goes through all the great white blues players," Blackwell says. "I was just watching the John Fahey documentary, and Fahey talks about having to create a fake persona, Blind Joe Death, in order to begin to approach roots music. And the White Stripes felt the exact same way, like, 'How can we be two white kids playing the blues? Let's add this strict black and red design element to it, in order to feel like we are even allowed to do this.'"

Another reason why Kroha was reluctant to be known as a folk musician, to have people hear his renditions of these hoary chestnuts, is largely due to the climate for the genre today. It's as if one has to either dress up in a silly vest and pre-distressed fedora like one of those beyond-hokey Mumford & Sons types, or swallow one's pride and go the gentle old-folk's route, appearing on Garrison Keillor so you can sing your song before swapping Dad jokes about duck calls.

"Whenever I think of myself as a folksinger, I always think of that album I've seen in a million different dollar bins, My Son, the Folk Singer by Allan Sherman. Because I feel like, 'How can I even do this? It's such a cliché.' But I'm not singing corny 'Americana' songs, so I feel pretty good about that," he says.

"It's more common now that people can play open-tune blues and folk stuff well. But back in the '80s, when I first started getting into this, nobody really did that. There was nobody playing open-tuning blues. It was like a lost art, a total mystery. It's not so much of a mystery anymore."

Danny Kroha plays a record release party at 8 p.m. on March 8 at the Old Town Tavern; 122 W. Liberty Street, Ann Arbor; 734-662-9291; oldtownaa.com. Todd Albright opens; no cover.

About The Author

Mike McGonigal

Metro Times music editor Mike McGonigal has written about music since 1984, when he started the fanzine Chemical Imbalance at age sixteen with money saved from mowing lawns in Florida. He's since written for Spin, Pitchfork, the Village VOICE and Artforum. He's been a museum guard, a financial reporter, a bicycle...
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