Jeff Howitt spent nearly a decade outside of Michigan traveling with the Renaissance Fair, living in Phoenix, essentially becoming, to use his own word, a "hobo." Sometime in 2005, he caught wind of what some of his old friends were up to back in Detroit, and the thought struck him: He had to get back to the city before he missed out on anything else. Detroit didn't realize just how much he was missed, though, until his return. Since he's been back, he's helmed three wildly successful music festivals, started a psychedelic desert-wind Americana band, launched a label-production company and essentially pulled together a seemingly disparate batch of local bands that had no idea that, together, they were about to become part of a movement and a new chapter the significance of which remains to be seen in Detroit rock 'n' roll history.
That label-production company-collective, Loco Gnosis, is about to add two more titles to its ever-increasing catalogue an EP by psychedelic surf-popsters the Oscillating Fan Club, and the debut long-player by the joyously heavy and enthusiastic Wildcatting. (Full disclosure: My own bands, Pink Eye and Red China, have been involved with Loco Gnosis.)
On Aug. 10, Wildcatting and the Oscillating Fan Club celebrate their dual CD releases with a local show. Howitt's aforementioned band of space rangers, Duende!, along with Mas! and I Crime will also be on the bill.
It's interesting how an artist's output is often directly representative of an artists's personality. Sit down with label head Howitt, Wildcatting's Brandon Moss, and Oscillating Fan Club's Ray Thompson, and it's readily apparent how their personalities dovetail neatly with their respective projects. Howitt often waxes philosophical, and, as someone who's thought long and hard, he's reached the conclusion that what's important is where they are and what they're doing now. Thompson speaks in sly asides and observances, both practical and dryly ironic, while Moss spills over with positive exuberance and a youthful charm tempered with a kind of worldly intelligence.
Sitting down for beers and a chat with the three guys, I knew the conversation would cover lots of ground. Once they got riffing, the topics ranged from music to pain thresholds to early Mesopotamian brain surgery and cultural imperialism, from urban decay, Iggy and Bowie, of course, back to ... MySpace. (But these days all conversations end up at or on MySpace, don't they?)
Metro Times: So, let's talk about Loco Gnosis, and this show on Aug. 10.
Howitt: Well, every time we play or put on a show, it's mainly about sharing the glory. You know, everybody's a badass. And if you throw a party, you get all the badass people together. And then the whole "We're the best band on the bill tonight" attitude becomes worthless. It's like, "Get in line, dude!" When everybody's throwing down together, there are no headliners.
Moss: Right. You've got this conglomeration of everyone and it's really loose people starting other bands, playing on each other's albums. ... It doesn't feel competitive anymore. Playing with bands now, it feels like you can't wait till they're on your team.
Thompson: It's probably always been that way, somewhere, but right now, it's something we're all involved in. There's still competition, but it's friendly competition. We're all such fans of each other's music.
MT: So it's like a collective in a way, but much wider than that? There are always more people, more bands being reined in?
Howitt: Yeah. Like on an umbrella, it's just one of the 12 prongs with people doing crazy cool stuff together. You just hold up your end, and you do what's relevant and put it out there. Every band, too, is really diverse. I mean, there are some Tom Waits-type things. Or garage things, but that's a bit of a latent term. ... I mean, "garage rock" that's like 20 years after the fact. All this time later, you put perspective on it. You say, "Detroit garage rock" and it's like a reset button. That's at least how I saw that. When you need to go that primitive, you just know that things have gotten too washed-out and standardized and out-of-hand. When you have to hit the reset button, the garage rock button, then everybody starts over again. There are like 20 different styles among us. If you wrote down 20 bands among all of us who hang out together, every single band is different. That's part of what makes it cool 'cause it's like, it still is a little competitive, but it's also like, "I wanna throw down for my buddies, I don't wanna sit there and milk it. I wanna throw down and give you a kickass show." It's the joy of being part of such a diverse, powerful thing.
Thompson: In New York, in the late '70s, you had all these bands Blondie, the Ramones, Talking Heads, Television ... None of them were really anything alike, but there was definitely an inextricable link there. Maybe it's just the bond of time and place, and being part of the same exciting thing.
(At this point, the Defying the Law Bike Club rides by the window of the Emory on Woodward Avenue.)
Moss: See? This is what I'm talking about the spirit! We're in one of the worst economic times ever, and it's only getting worse. But people are just like "Fuck it! I'm gonna have fun one way or another!" And it's not via going out and buying shit. It's being achieved by creating things.
Howitt: Right. And using what you have and realizing what you have, instead of chasing the carrot or keeping up with the Joneses. It's sorta like, "This is what I have, and I can do what I want today" as opposed to "I don't have what I want. I gotta get my flat-screen TV or I'm not gonna be happy."
MT: Well, that's always kinda been the Detroit ethic, right? You find weird shit in funky thrift stores or whatever, and then it's like, "Hey, we can use this! We can use what's already here to make something entirely new."
Moss: That's totally what it is. We're kind of in a shell of a city a former arsenal of democracy that's now just dying slowly. ... When you have this almost destructive ethic, there's a lot you can make from it. That's why I think we're all flourishing so much, and that's what's so human about it. What's more human than creating and being with other humans, doing things? The whole community spirit, the whole zeitgeist ... everyone seems to be psyched about how things are going right now. And it only builds upon itself. But it won't last forever, so you don't wanna sit around and analyze it too much. You just wanna roll with it.
Howitt: Right, we don't need to mythologize it while it unfolds. 'Cause if you're eulogizing it, well, guess what?
MT: It's dead.
Thompson: So how many records has Loco Gnosis put out this year?
Howitt: I think six. And documenting this scene is what's important. Because things go on and all of a sudden, it's gonna be 10, 20 years later and people are gonna discover these records. Or we're gonna listen back to them and be like. "Look what we were into!" Loco Gnosis is not just a label; it's like an archive, you know? I want that stuff to be there, just the way this stuff needs to be out. At www.locognosis.com, on our homepage, you can find downloads and electronic press kits that include two songs, photos and a little bio. So, anytime someone wants a press kit, just go to that page and it's all there.
Thompson: And if we can do well with these Detroit showcases, we can then start booking our bands in other cities. Like, once a month, we could have a little Detroit show in a different city.
Howitt: I had this friend e-mail me, and he was like, "Do you think the city's ever gonna be able to come back?" And I responded that, everybody's doing something. It's wild. There are so many kickass bands right now. Seriously. I would like to take Detroit town-to-town sorta like "OK, you pick 50 bands. Then I'll bring you 50 Detroit bands that will kick your ass!"
Friday, Aug. 10, at the Bohemian National Home, 3009 Tillman St., Detroit; 313-737-6606.
Mike Ross is a freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]