If there's one main reason why Detroit has consistently produced excellent, challenging and often off-the-wall music throughout the decades — especially when it's noted that other cities shine brightly for a short time before burning out (think: New York in the '70s, L.A. in the '80s, Seattle in the '90s) — it's that we've never rested on our laurels. Garage rock exploded, yes, but Detroiters would've never allowed their city to turn into a museum or a mecca for past glories. A hype machine, Detroit is not. (And those who try to change that fact don't understand that they're helping to ruin the essence of Detroit-bred music.)
And something genuinely exciting is happening again right now — that is, a scene consisting of vibrant, gloriously idealistic and frighteningly talented young musicians who refuse to take the easy route of jumping on any indie or garage bandwagon, but instead look for ways to create something new. In most cases, these bands have little in common aside from local geography and their desire to be individual and eclectic. Groups like Javelins, Prussia, Deastro, Wildcatting and Lightning Love have been leading the way. And we can now add the Juliets to any such list.
Frontman Jeremy Freer, formerly of the band Freer (well, duh), is an example of that aforementioned dynamism. He enjoys old music (or music from the past, if you prefer), but he aims to casually pay homage rather than to emulate. The Juliets — completed by Kaylan Mitchell (cello), Sarah Myers (violin) and Scott Masson (drums) — aren't your typical rock 'n' roll band. The instruments involved in creating their music surely attest to that. Freer recently explained how the band came to be.
"Freer [the band] broke up at the end of last year," he begins, "and I had known Kaylan from around town. I knew she played the cello and I had heard her play. She used to be in a band called Canada. Anyway, she ended up at my house with some people one night — we were just drinking wine and talking — and I grabbed her and asked her if she'd be interested in playing with me. I played her a couple of songs and she liked them. So we got together a couple of days later and it clicked right away.
"Kaylan knew a violin player, Sarah, from school. They'd both studied strings together at Eastern Michigan University. All we needed was a drummer and we had a few people in mind. I also play guitar in a band called Office, and Scott [Masson from that band] just offered to do it. I've known him for years and I couldn't think of a better person to do it because he knows me better than anyone, especially musically."
When pushed to describe the sound, Freer simply calls it chamber pop, a term often used in sentences that include such bands as the Decemberists, Belle & Sebastian and Anthony & the Johnsons — that is, bands heavily into '60s baroque pop.
"I'd just say that it's classical pop with some Paolo Conte [a crusty old Italian singer and pianist] thrown into the mix," Freer says. "I think there's probably some Pixies in there too. Anyway, people have told me that it's 'chamber pop.' I don't really know." He laughs.
Whatever the genre, the Juliets are naturally orchestral, thanks to the cello and violin, two instruments not automatically associated with rock 'n' roll, unless you're Electric Light Orchestra. For Freer, though, the Juliets are simply a means for him to explore his more refined musical interests.
"Kaylan is an honorary member of the Silent Years, but we're all in a position where we didn't have a band that we were focusing on," he explains. "And I always wanted to work with strings. In fact, that's always been a dream of mine. But I didn't want to use strings as background instruments. I wanted them as the main focus of the songs, using them to drive the music along. We had no intentions of lightening up. We wanted to make heavy music and a heavy record using strings. We thought about adding a lot of people to the mix, but instead decided to simply use the limitations of the piano, the violin and the cello. We wanted to see how we could fill it up with just those things."
Speaking of limitations, one wonders if the band might not be held back by the downer of naming itself after a tragic Shakespearian heroine.
Freer doesn't think so. "Actually, the name has nothing to do with Shakespeare," he says. "We were kicking around a bunch of ideas and I was reading T.S. Eliot ... and the word 'Juliets' just stuck out to me. We were going to call ourselves just Juliets at first — but we later added the 'the' because it reminds me of an old Motown girl group name. I just like the way it sounds."
The Juliets may help to exemplify modern Detroit rock 'n' roll, but Freer is reluctant to admit that he's part of any one or big scene. "For me, music is something that you just write," he says, "and if other people have something in common with it, then that's cool. But the attitude of a 'scene' can potentially kill individuality. I think that friction can be healthy in music. It keeps people fresh.
"That said, though, I definitely think that there's a more melodic thing going on [in Detroit] right now, and more interesting arrangements for the music. People are pursuing that attitude, so I definitely think that there's a new scene as far as people embracing power in the music instead of just power in the amps. There's a new group of people coming out, and Detroit has a lot to offer."
Freer continues: "My only beef with that whole garage rock scene was that I felt like the Motown legacy got ignored and it was focusing completely on the Iggy Pop side of things. The Motown legacy was much more musical, in a sense — a lot more melodic. And all of those guys, like the Funk Brothers, have had an insane influence on me, having listened to them since I was a kid."
Ironically enough, the Juliets — who have a debut album recorded and due probably in October — are playing a show this weekend with some of the city's most famous garage rockers, the Von Bondies. Freer appreciates the funny side of this arrangement, but he also insists that he's looking forward to the show.
"That's why I try not to make any blanket statements," he laughs. "I played with them when I was in Freer and got to know Jason [Stollsteimer] quite well. I just think the Von Bondies are cool because they've been open to the new slew of bands that have been coming in. They're all really good people and we're excited about the show. We might do an instrumental piece on that night, just to keep things interesting.
"We are finishing off a record right now — it'll probably be out in October — but in the winter, we're planning on putting out an EP of just classical music, all instrumental pieces. We might play one of those things at the Von Bondies show. But for the most part, we'll be playing songs off the new record."
The Juliets? Just think of them as a group of young musicians determined to challenge your preconceptions of what Detroit rock 'n' roll is all about.
Brett Callwood is a music critic for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]
Friday, Aug. 28, at the Magic Stick, 4120 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-7665. With the Von Bondies.