Howling for the holidays

If it's almost Christmas, then that means it must be Howling Diablos time. The band's legendary holiday blowouts are possibly only rivaled by the pre-flight bashes thrown by Santa's reindeer (hey, there's a reason why Rudolph's red-nosed!). Much like the Diablos' own fan base, the celebration's been gaining momentum for years, outgrowing two private homes and Hamtramck's Attic Bar, before finally graduating to the Magic Bag in Ferndale this year.

This 2008 shindig will not only find the Diablos reuniting old gangs from the past to reminisce about the earlier days of a Detroit institution, the group will also be celebrating the release of its new Xmas in Jail EP. The disc includes two songs from the Diablos' earliest incarnation 14 years ago as well as a pair of newly recorded present-day tracks. The vintage tracks were originally featured on an ancient local charity album, Christmas in Detroit, and are now joined by a hot-blooded, live funk makeover of the title track and a howling cover of Clarence Carter's "Back Door Santa," a song suggested to Diablos' frontman Martin "Tino" Gross by his fiancee Linda Lexy.

It's been a good several years for Gross. Things have been on the upswing for both him and the band ever since Fat Possum Records founder Matthew Johnson offered him an opportunity to produce blues legend R.L. Burnside's Darker Blues EP in 2003. Gross had been recommended to Johnson by Kenny Olsen and Jimmy Bones — both members of Kid Rock's band at the time — when they met the label head backstage at a Kid Rock show. It would be Gross' first production on a project other than his own material.

"I then ended up doing two R.L. Burnside records, and then they just kept me going," Gross says today. "I then did two for Little Freddie King. Then I did one for Charles Caldwell. And I got to work on the Nathaniel Mayer comeback record, which was just an incredible experience. I kept rolling with it and found a niche doing the blues thing by putting my spin on it."

Working with the blues actually marked a return to his earliest roots. Growing up in northwest Detroit, Gross became enamored with drums when he was just 12 years old, and due to family and friend connections, he was soon playing with such serious blues cats as John Lee Hooker, Big Walter Horton and Doctor Ross (aka the Harmonica Boss).

"I remember one day, my dad came over to my mom's house [his parents had split], and Eddie Burns and Joe Hunter [of the Funk Brothers] happened to be at the house, rehearsing. They're my dad's age and they told him, 'Mr. Gross, your son is a hellfire drummer.' My dad was like, 'How did my son get in with these kind of guys?'" Gross chuckles.

But it was rough neighborhood to grow up in during the late '60s and early '70s, one hard hit by drugs — and Gross has the war stories to prove it. He remembers playing with some guys who were fresh from a drug store burglary and shooting up in front of him. They asked if they could stow their booty at his house for a couple of weeks.

"Coming from my family situation and that neighborhood, music kind of saved me in a lot of ways," he says. "It gave me something to do and something to think about. A lot of my buddies — my homies, as it were — they weren't playing music and now they're dead or in jail."

His older brother Neil worked at the legendary Grande Ballroom during that era, and the older sibling became his entrée to a new world of music that might've been otherwise inaccessible to an underage youth. Gross fondly recalls seeing the Stooges in their prime, while remembering emphatically that the MC5's live show blew all other comers away, and that included even the Who. "My memories of Wayne Kramer are of him hanging suspended in the air half the show, with his legs out," Gross remembers. "Somehow, that guy was airborne all the time."

Soon after, Gross would go on to become a house drummer for the Blind Pig club in Ann Arbor, appearing on several albums when the club owners started a Blind Pig record label. And then in the early '80s, Gross joined the Urbations, where he first met and formed a lasting friendship with his Howling Diablos co-conspirator, saxophonist Johnny Evans.

Bringing the Grande connection full circle, the Urbations were managed by former MC5 handler John Sinclair. Gross remembers how, before disembarking at a gas station while on tour with the Urbations, Sinclair would line up joints and Zingers on the dashboard for easy consumption. "He'd pull out his false teeth, put them up in the visor and go, 'Let's roll!'" Gross laughs.

The Urbations were also where Gross finally emerged from behind the drumkit after saxophonist-leader David Swain — who happened to be a guitar collector — put a guitar in the drummer's hands. Discovering a real aptitude for the instrument, Gross couldn't put it down and soon began writing little songs, which, with Evans' encouragement, would become the seeds of the Diablos, which formed immediately after the Urbations finally broke up. The group's first-ever live show was at the Michigan Gallery in 1994, as part of an art opening for Gary Grimshaw's Grande Ballroom posters. Yet another connection.

Luck seemed to be with him, and a few years later, he had a Pulp Fiction-like near-death experience at Detroit's Union Street club, when a crackhead robbed the bar, which he was playing. At one point, the gunman fired a couple of point-blank shots into a wooden waiter's stand behind which Gross was hiding. The oak partition miraculously veered the shots into the wall instead of Gross' head. The only thing missing from the scene was Samuel Jackson and John Travolta.

"I've always felt like God, Jesus, or an angel came down and said, 'It's not his time. He's got work to do,'" Gross says of the incident. "That just made me really bear down on my music and kind of put a fire under my ass, like, 'Shit, that coulda been it!'"

While the incident propelled Gross to make the Howling Diablos' 1997 debut, Green Bottle, it would be another seven years before they'd be able to follow it up with the bluesy Car Wash. And that album may have never been recorded had the Fat Possum opportunity not come up. It afforded Gross the opportunity to create a home studio — a place where he could work on the Howling Diablos material without racking up huge bills.

"Prior to that, we were working in other studios, and it's just so costly, it just kills you," he says. "We were basically driven out of the studio thing because of the cost." Unless you have some corporate hook-up with a major label picking up the tab, you can't really afford those joints."

These days, Gross works on Howling Diablos between his production projects. He recently recorded and released an album by R.L. Burnside's guitarist, Kenny Brown, entitled Meet You in the Bottom, on his own Funky D label. And he's already halfway done recording a new Diablos album, which will include three tracks featuring sacred steel player Calvin Cooke.

"There's a bit more of the funk this time," he promises. "That's always there in our live show. There will be a few surprises. But many of the new tracks are really funky in the same way that Green Bottle was."

He feels much freer to be working the way he currently is. That's one of the reasons he takes issue with the tone of the recently released Detroit music documentary, A Detroit Thing, which features plenty of mid-'90s footage of the Diablos, as well as Kid Rock, posing what he views as a now-antiquated duality.

"It's a 'Who-can-get-signed' kind of a movie," Gross says. "We're way bigger than that. To me, that just minimizes what musicians do. If you get signed, that's great. If you don't, though, figure out another way to get your music out there to the people. It's funny because the times have changed so much that the old biz angle of 'Who can get signed?' is almost ancient.

"I wouldn't change a thing about my life," he continues. "I got a nice little family. I have a dog. I have a studio. I have a super band. And I get to play music. Every day, I wake up thinking there's something new around the corner. It's almost like, hey, we haven't even gotten started yet!"

CD release and holiday party on Friday, Dec. 19, at the Magic Bag, 22920 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 248-544-3030. With Matt Ostin Band and Oscillating Fanclub.

Chris Parker writes about music for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]
Scroll to read more Michigan Music articles

Join Detroit Metro Times Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.