"I like to think that the band started the day I came home and my girlfriend informed me she was a lesbian," says Valentine, recalling Christmas 1995. "It was then that I started writing a lot of the songs that we're doing now."
The first few songs unleashed on the unsuspecting general public were "I Lost Control of My Rock & Roll," "Gay Bar," "Tiny Little Men" and a handful of others that have become staples of the Detroit band's live show. The tunes, lyrically and musically, inhabit a surreal, paranoid corner of smart arena rock, and here's where rock crit cliché takes over for a second, where (as the band concedes to be fairly accurate) Devo meets Black Sabbath.
It was the breakup's psychic energy that prompted Valentine and drummer-producer Martin M to make a tape documenting these songs before Valentine went off to take his place among the pantheon of Eliot, Gaidica and Roker. That tape made the rounds with M, who, after playing it for a select few appreciative ears, managed to drum up a trio of co-conspirators to play one or two one-off shows.
Thus begins another Detroit rock 'n' roll myth, one that has borne much rock fruit in the ensuing two years, with Wildbunch audiences growing more consistent and the band receiving well-deserved attention from critics, peers and rockers alike.
The first shows, at the now-defunct Zoot's Coffee and the ever-funky Old Miami, were recorded and became a live eight-track-only release. After three weeks in Starkville, Valentine gave up his weatherman dreams and headed back to Detroit. "Along the way, I called these guys and told them I was coming back and basically got the band together."
"And it was the happiest day of our lives," adds M.
Two years later, on the eve of the Wildbunch's first trip as a band to the left coast, to record at A&M studios, Valentine is more than a little worried about the psychic toll of flying with a head cold. As a matter of fact, he's obsessing.
Gathered around the kitchen table inside the band's Troy bunker-rehearsal space-recording studio, the other members of the group -- drummer M; the guitar-slinging Rock 'n' Roll Indian; his ax counterpoint, Surge Joebot, and the group's "quiet one," bassist Disco (missing is Wildbunch keyboard associate Macro Duplicato) -- are easing Valentine's reservations over a couple of Canada's finest brews.
If it's true that being in a rock band is about belonging to a gang, then Detroit's Wildbunch is the rock equivalent of a duty-bound pack of Wild West outlaws who've spent the last 25 years on Mars and are now returning to right the musical wrongs of us puny Earth creatures. Their lyrical fascination with sci-fi and disturbing adventures of the mind (listen to the dreamlike narrative of "Tiny Little Men" and you'll get the idea) suggest that they are demons sent to make our booties quake to a post-apocalyptic new-wave beat. It is break dancing meets Spinal Tap.
What sets the Wildbunch apart, in the set-to-burst fertile Detroit music scene, is that the group doesn't belong to any particular scene or cliquish subgroup. The Bunch has succeeded by steadfastly staying true to Valentine's (and now the rest of the band's) distinct, unabashed, personal rock vision.
"The best thing about playing around here in the beginning was that everyone hated us and we won them all over and the audiences slowly started catching on," says rhythm guitarist the Rock & Roll Indian (whose stage move of choice is the very rock Gene Simmons leg kick).
"We didn't preconfigure something that would mesh with Detroit. But that's the beauty of Detroit. You have so many people so impassioned in what they're doing and supporting each other, but every band in Detroit that's worth mentioning is just so different," elaborates M, whose stage presence is nothing if not the very real world embodiment of the Muppets' Animal.
"The thing that's shared is just this passion for music," he continues.
"We weren't trying to get accepted by any particular crowd; we just went into it and they liked us," says R&R I.
The Wildbunch shares one common thread with the current Detroit scene, though: these guys are all avid music freaks, buffs and aficionados inspired by diverse sounds found hidden in forgotten grooves of precious vinyl. They're omnivorous consumers and digesters of pop culture, whose fascination with sci-fi, cinema and late-night television is as moving an influence on their music as any of their record collections, and even more apparent.
A conversation with the Wildbunch can range from Nick Drake and Leadbelly, to assassinations, conspiracy theories, drugs, sex, the devil ... to Joebot (who on stage resembles the unnerving combination of '70s porn star and state trooper) relating tales of the political implications of the Zanzibarian bat-winged sex dwarf.
"To describe the show or the music, you're always going to think of some cliché," says R&R I. "Everybody says, 'What do you sound like? What are you into?' And when you try to describe it, there's nothing you can say. It's rock 'n' roll."
"The one thing is that we're not phenomenally boring," says Valentine.
"We are B-movie rock 'n' roll," adds M.
"Several years ago, I played around Ann Arbor in a Bantam Rooster-type duo as the Wildbunch, which became a full band (not the current one)," says Valentine.
"One of the reasons this band works and that one didn't is in that band I was flanked by a chemistry grad student and an anthropology grad student. In this band I'm flanked by guys who do landscaping. It doesn't take much to figure out which one is more rock 'n' roll."
Onstage the Wildbunch manages to seamlessly mix decadence and reckless abandon with five-acting-as-one-discipline in order to properly carry the rock day. It helps that Valentine's stage persona and energy most resemble Hunter S. Thompson working out at a Duran Duran concert (he is known for his stage calisthenics, a rock habit he formed spontaneously at one of Rob Tyner's last concerts). In short, the Wildbunch has the brains, the cojones and the energy to hold it all together.
"We do have some sort of Spinal Tap quality to us," says Valentine.
"I wanted to emulate (Tap's posturing, devil-sign-flashing bassist) Derek Smalls as much as possible onstage. I've kind of moved away from that," he says.
"But in that realm," notes M, "we do manage to have a good time all the time."
With three EPs under its belt (among them the rockilicious Ballade of MC Sucka DJ), the Wildbunch seems on its determined way to fulfilling the rock 'n' roll fantasy of touring the world on a jet plane. All the band needs now is an anthem which, according to M, "is almost ready; we just need to get ahold of a cannon." Chris Handyside is a freelance writer for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]