Life in the Fezhouse

Once the four shadowy figures on the stage quit messing about with amplifiers, a pump organ, a glockenspiel, banjos, French horns, trumpets, guitars, drums and the mysterious, iconographic monolith known as the theremin and start playing, they become Fez, one of the most awesome, terrifyingly beautiful and humorous rock quartets to come from the Detroit area in many years. From carnival music to punk rock to jazzy balladry worthy of Chet Baker and Paul Desmond, to the tawdry elegance of T-Rex and the Brechtian theatrical presence of Tom Waits, Fez is all about the sounds. And it spews these sounds out upon the crowd in a visionary mix of energy, humor, brashness and a certain ravaged grace.

"It's about writing songs about cripples and other stuff you know," quips Dean Olkowski, Fez's chief songwriter and frontman. There isn't a hint of irony in his voice. Offstage, Olkowski, Melinda Clynes, Matt Mapes and Jim Morningstar are affable, down-to-earth, funny and nothing like the out-of-control, manic bunch they become onstage.

"I had played in various bands and just got tired of hearing and writing songs for a basic rock quartet that were always about the same thing," says Olkowski.

"I wanted to find some way of telling different stories, love and hate stories in songs, and I needed a new way to do it. So I acquired a pump organ, started writing with it instead of a guitar. I bought some more instruments, made a four-track demo and it turned out pretty good. I put an ad in the newspapers and got a few metal heads and weeded them out. Finally, Jim and Matt responded. A few weeks later we were recording our album."

"We're married, Dean and I," Clynes says with a wry smile; "I was automatically recruited."

They all bust up &emdash; they each know that it is Clynes, beating away on that mighty, unwieldy, shambolic pump organ &emdash; with proper classical posture &emdash; that's at the dirty root of the Fez sound.

"I played piano for eight years and sucked the entire time. Dean got the pump organ and started trying to convince me to try keyboards again. What can I say; I got sucked in," she says.

Mapes and Morningstar, veterans of the local rock and jazz scenes, are more pragmatic; they answered the ad, heard the demo and were knocked out. The two accomplished musicians were up to a challenge. "I thought the tape was better than anything I had heard locally in a long time," says Mapes. "I knew there was room for me as a musician in a band like this, not just being in a rhythm section."

"I thought I could use all kinds of energy and be creative as a drummer," says Morningstar. "I wanted to try stuff and hooking up with Dean seemed the way to do it."

It is clear &emdash; instrumentation aside &emdash; that Fez's is no ordinary way to approach rock 'n' roll. The band is devastatingly original. The music and live show come across as completely out there and, yet, they are rock 'n' roll. "It's just our way of playing punk rock; it's simple, direct and full of emotion," says Olkowski.

"We know that it is always a moment away from falling apart," says Olkowski. "In a live setting, we never know what will happen and that moment always happens and we just go with it."

"You get addicted to that sort of energy," says Morningstar.

Live, Olkowski's energy is sometimes frightening, fronting a band that knows just when to allow the songs to carry him or let him fall off the edge into the abyss of his emotions; on record they become something wholly other.

Elixir, Fez's 10-song debut, is a dizzying, heady exploration of all things dark and divine. The record is a meld of musical elements that echo eras gone by &emdash; from Hank Williams to Perez Prado and Louis Jordan, to the New York Dolls and the Pogues. The songs are peopled with the beautiful, the damned, the freakish-mawkish types of folks who ramble about endlessly looking for a better way, an easier way. Elixir reveals the subtler side of Fez's explorations and moves inside territory only hinted at in live shows.

"The songs pretty much are feelings about love in a variety of ways and other strange situations that occur in life," says Olkowski.

"They aren't necessarily autobiographical ... they just tell stories. But the band makes them real, makes them come home and be brought to life. We just make them work together. ..." "And then they become something done by Fez, something we just do instinctively," interjects Clynes.

After having seen and heard them, you have to agree. Fez is a trip through the fun house with the lights off. Its music is scary and exhilarating, with a laugh, scream or tear every second. But there are spaces of quiet when what is about to come just never seems to and taxes your imagination and involves it in a way that other music rarely does. In this age of pop disposability, it's a blessing to have the sort of music that links past to present to future in traditions from musical to literary to theatrical.

And it's a hell of a thing to hear and see made happen. Thom Jurek is a music writer living and working in Ann Arbor. E-mail [email protected]. follows his own loopy

Scroll to read more Michigan Music articles


Join Detroit Metro Times Newsletters

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