Release the hounds

The Hounds Below, and how Jason Stollsteimer can't stop talking about them

Release the hounds
Doug Coombe

The Hounds Below play the Loving Touch on Oct. 6 with the Hand Grenades, Passalacqua (DJ set) and Phantasmagoria (DJ set), 22634 Woodward Ave., Ferndale; 248-546-3644.

The problem that the Hounds Below have faced since the band's birth a couple of years ago is not an uncommon one for a group containing musicians of a certain prominence at a certain stage in their careers. In fact, it's to be expected. Singer and guitarist Jason Stollsteimer, you see, was the frontman with the Von Bondies, the garage rockers who, for a while back in the early-to-mid 2000s, had some chart success around the world. The Von Bondies headlined big shows in cities like London (where this writer saw them) and played well up the bill at festivals like Lollapalooza and Reading. As the focal point, Stollsteimer became a bona fide star, no matter how hard he might struggle against the concept. Damn, he even made international news when he took a punch from Jack White during an altercation at the Magic Stick.

By early 2009, with the global interest in garage rock at a low ebb, the Von Bondies ceased to be, and the Hounds Below came to be (although Stollsteimer went through a number of lineup changes before settling on the current group). The thing is, in interviews or during photo and video shoots, writers, photographers and directors want to focus on the "name" singer and, for the most part, largely ignore the other three guys. Nothing new. Just ask David Bowie how easy it was to get Tin Machine seen as a real band. How many people were able to see past Paul McCartney in Wings? Past David Grohl in the Foo Fighters? "Noel Gallagher and his High Flying Birds"?

Not that Stollsteimer is Bowie or Macca, or even David Grohl or Noel Gallagher, but you get the idea. 

For the record, the other three members of the Hounds Below are Griffin Bastian (drums), Mathew Hofman (bass) and Skye Thrasher (guitar), and, after sitting with the four men for 90 minutes at the Ferndale park where the guys have recorded their recent music videos, it is very obvious that this is very much a band. 

Stollsteimer, now 34, is the leader; that much is clear even if he doesn't want it that way, but all four guys are integral to both the sound of the group and the nonmusical tasks necessary to keep it running. 

It wasn't always that way though. As the Von Bondies were winding down in 2009, Stollsteimer played a show as Jason & the Hounds Below at the Magic Stick with a band that included Ben Collins of Lightning Love on guitar, Ben Luckett of the Readies on drums, and Molly Jean Schoen of, among others, the Decks, on bass. That band put out a self-titled EP that same year, officially the Hounds Below's first release.

"We did one show and learned a bunch of covers," says Stollsteimer. "There was a comic book that a fan had drawn, and that's where I got the name from. I was a superhero with no superpowers, but the dogs had powers."

As to the end of the Von Bondies, he says, "I was sick of not hearing myself sing and just having loud guitars in the Von Bondies. It didn't matter what I sounded like singing – the guitars were so loud and the drums were the focal point of the band live. Everything was just high energy. I wanted to have a band where the music and the vocals mattered, not just how fast, how hard or how energetic we could play." 

Former Von Bondie Marcie Bolen concurs, telling the Metro Times' Bill Holdship during a Silverghost interview in 2008 that "I had enough trouble playing and just singing in unison in the Von Bondies. I could never hear myself onstage and when I hear myself on tape, I was always like, 'Omigod, I sound terrible!' ... In many ways, leaving them is kind of like a breakup. It's my past and I'm glad I did what I did. I have no regrets or anything. It was a great thing for me. I had lots of fun. But it just got to the point where I wanted to do my own thing."

The "local supergroup" version of the Hounds Below couldn't, and didn't, last long.

"Everybody had something going on, be it Lightning Love or something else," Stollsteimer says. "They were helping me out along the way. Everybody always had one foot out the door to go do their own thing. Even if this band had succeeded, they would have still been out the door. So I'm glad it didn't succeed early. I tell people now that the band started when this lineup came together."

For their repertoire, Stollsteimer says, "We dropped every song from our old set list. We now just do the album and a Pixies cover ["Where is My Mind"]. At festivals, we might throw in one old song. We were even going to change the band's name but we voted against it. That first EP has haunted us though, because people expect the Roy Orbison vocals that I was doing then. Still, I think they're usually pleasantly surprised." 

The fun part of sitting with the Hounds Below though is that Stollsteimer will stress again and again that he wants each member to get equal attention, yet the guy can talk. He will happily admit it himself; if you let him, the singer will yammer on for hours. It's part of what makes him so affable, but at times during the interview it's at odds with what he wants to achieve. That's where the writer has to butt in and make sure the other dudes get a turn. 

Matt Hofman is the baby of the band at 21, though you wouldn't know it when talking to him. The talented bassist displays a maturity way beyond his years, despite the fact that he dropped out of Wayne State University to play with this band. 

"I was in college, but I had to stop because we had some good things coming our way," says Hofman. "I was playing in bands around Detroit, like the Kodaks and the Good Things. I was working in Royal Oak, trying to live a normal student's life. A friend of mine gave me a phone call, saying that he knew a guy who was about to go to tour Europe, hit him up on Facebook. I was listening to the Von Bondies since eighth grade and loved them, so I thought it would be a great opportunity for me. I tried out, made it and here I am. So basically social networking helped me."

"Matt reminds me what it was like to be young and fertile," adds Stollsteimer. "Matt is the most energetic person on stage. He has this way of floating on stage. Not like a fairy, but he closes his eyes and loses himself on stage which is what I want, but you can't tell somebody to do that. He jumps around and we randomly run into each other because both of our eyes are closed. It's like when you close your eyes to kiss."

Drummer Griffin Bastian, 29, had been playing around town with electro-rockers the Macpodz.

The aforementioned Ben Collins of the original Hounds gave him the tip that Stollsteimer was looking for musicians. "That was right around the time that the Macpodz were taking a break. So it was good timing. I was going to go to school and do freelance and session work on the side. I enrolled and everything, and I almost paid for my classes but didn't. I couldn't have asked for better timing."

And then there's Skye Thrasher (and yes, that is his real name). The 29-year-old guitarist was living in a trailer in Grand Junction, about 30 miles west of Kalamazoo, when he joined up with the Hounds. 

"I was playing in a couple of bands on the west side of the state," says Thrasher. "I was in Ohio with one of them, and one of my buddies said that he knew this guy Jason who was looking for a guitar player and they want to do a lot of touring. He gave me Jason's number. I got home, got on the YouTube and watched a video of the Hounds at Spaceland in LA, playing 'Crawling Back to You.' That's what led me to want to try out, the fact that it wasn't necessarily rock 'n' roll, it was more laid back, more in the Pixies vibe, and I hadn't done anything like that so I was intrigued. I usually like dirty rock. One of the bands I was playing in was named Bastard Train. Trailer park rock. I did live in a trailer in Grand Junction, the trailer park, and meth, capital of the world. When you wake up and there's blood in the bathtub and meth in the sink, you know you had a party."

Quite. And if that's not enough debauchery for you, here's a little anecdote for the ladies. "One time in New York, it was a hot sweaty night and we'd been doing some drinking," says Hofman. "You rent a hotel room and can only have two beds to save on money. Jason and Griff share a bed, and Skye and I share a bed. We get there and are kinda drunk, we get naked down to our underwear, and we woke up back to back in the morning. I remember trying to move but I couldn't. There was this rough noise as our backs came apart. The temperature had cooled down in the night and all that sweat had solidified."

Mmmmm. Band members really don't get any closer than that. It takes a special sort of bro-ship to be OK with the memory of your combined sweat morphing you into a sort of Siamese musical duo. These guys are close, and that "all for one" mentality transfers over to the songwriting.

"I have really strong root ideas and sometimes I need to hear a section of it hammered out and played as a whole over and over again, just so I can mumble off melodies," Stollsteimer says. "No matter how good the music sounds, if it doesn't inspire me to write lyrics and melody, I can't do it. There are some good riffs we've thrown out, just because I couldn't think of anything. Matt's the first to start playing along, then Skye comes in. Sometimes I tell them to save a part, don't show the hand. Griffin is a really quick study. He's not happy with his drum part for a long time though. He'll write something that I like, but he's just trying stuff. I basically organize what they throw into the picture. They don't know what I'm singing. I don't write lyrics sometimes for months. ... Thom Yorke [of Radiohead] doesn't have lyrics for his songs at first. I know what the melodies are 100 percent though."

The Hounds Below are already on the receiving end of some hefty national attention. Very early in the band's life, they made an appearance on Last Call with Carson Daly after one of the producers, a Michigan native and Hounds fan, used his power for the good of a band. Just before that, the band was a hit at last year's South by Southwest.

But plenty of bands have had high hopes from an early surge. How does Stollsteimer expect to make lightning strike twice?

"I think the big thing is knowing that there is an audience for all different types of music, as dubstep and screamo and hardcore country and dub-folk has proved," the singer says. "No matter what kind of music it is, there's an audience so you don't have to worry about that. It's just being the best you can in that genre, and realizing what your shortcomings are. Hopefully there are very few. Knowing what your limits are at that point, and knowing what things you want to become your strong points. Here, there are very few weak points in the band. We have to go tour, and most bands don't want to go on tour anymore. These guys do, thank God. I think having everybody on the same page is important. If somebody's goal was to play Saturday Night Live, they'd be out of the band because it's probably not going to fucking happen. It's not something that you can work towards – it either happens or it doesn't. I've had people in the band who have said sentences like, 'I want to headline Lollapalooza.' That guy has lofty expectations. I want a band that's realistic, yet has a common goal. I think that's the sanest way to go about it. There are a lot of bitter, great musicians out there that have failed because they might have been aiming for Led Zeppelin status but it's fucking 2012. Led Zeppelin status doesn't exist anymore. Nobody has a private jet full of girls having sex with fish."

As Hofman points out, YouTube pretty much is the new MTV. Many users visit the site for the primary purpose of checking out bands, either through live footage or with the band's latest music video. The downside to that is there is simply so much footage on there, much of it shot using a damned cellphone, that it's difficult to find the good stuff. The upside, besides being able to find pretty much anything if you dig long enough, is that band's don't have to compromise their vision to get on there. In his past life, Stollsteimer had to do a little compromising.

 "The Von Bondies did CD:UK [a now-defunct British teen music show] where you don't get to play live at all, but I had to sing live," the singer says. "So the music was perfect, but my vocals were not. I was so nervous. Our managers said that it was a big deal, and we were No. 8 in the UK at the time with 'C'mon C'mon.' I hated that. I felt like I was selling out. Or at least, what I thought was selling out."

And besides selling out there's crap to put up with. Like "meet and greets."

"Meet and greets were sometimes weird," he says. "You have radio winners who have won the award of meeting us, but they were often literally calling about something else. 'I don't know your band, but do you know if Dave Matthews tickets are still available?' One out of every hundred people you meet at a meet and greet is like that. I like meeting kids after the show that have been to the show. I don't like people who ask for autographs before the show and don't come to the show. Then you see them on eBay. Boston was the place. These two guys would ask for autographs, they'd never come in, and a week later we'd see the picture that we signed, an 8-by-10, on eBay. The last thing I signed something for them, I wrote 'not for eBay' on it, and I saw it on eBay. That was the 'suck it up' time."

The Hounds Below are, by their own account, in the midst of a creative whirlwind. The debut album, You Light Me Up in the Dark, is about to drop, and the band already has songs written for the next record. They can't, or don't want to, stop working, and Stollsteimer says that the sound is constantly evolving. 

"It's getting more tomorrow than yesterday," he says. "I feel like our new songs are dark while still being extremely poppy, which is what I love. I feel like our music is dark, with a really strong pop hook underneath. That's how I look at life. I'm a pretty goofy guy, but I'm sinister at times. When I look at the backdrop of a beautiful sunset, I think of something the opposite of that. I watch True Blood a lot."

Even on the debut album itself, the sound and style ducks and dives and shifts gears around the central idea that guitar-driven rock music doesn't have to be played at 1,000 mph at top volume with feedback and shouty vocals layered on top. Subtlety is more than OK, and melody is always welcome. There are hints of the Arcade Fire in there, despite the fact that there are only four people in the Hounds Below. The band knows how to be lush and emotional, but it is not at all afraid of the word pop. Stollsteimer has found his footing as a vocalist. No longer the screaming garage guy from the Bondies days or the Roy Orbison-like crooner from the early Hounds period, he now seems comfortable singing, in his own voice, and allowing the natural passion he feels for the varied songs to shine.

"I don't think it sticks to one genre," says Hofman. "We're writing what blows out of us right now."

Despite their success, the Von Bondies only recorded three albums, and the final one didn't get properly released. He's hungry for more and expects it this time.

"With this lineup, I think that these guys are in it for the long haul and we're all work horses when it comes to the idea of being in a band. We're not just here to party and get laid. If that happens it'd be awesome. My fiancée would be happy if that happened more often."

If they're not here to party and get laid, what are they here for? Maybe to be a family, as Hofman explains it.

"Jason's the poppa, the big daddy, of the group, but we all take care of business," says Hofman. "We all do something on the side which has something to do with the business  of the music. So not everything is in Jason's hands. He has a lot of the connections, but we're doing a lot of the work that needs to be done. We all do our fair share."

"Name one person besides Chris Martin in Coldplay," says Stollsteimer. "How can you not? They're one of the biggest bands in the world. I didn't want to be in a band where you only knew one person. We would get photos taken and these guys were out of focus. I'm the only one in focus and I look the worst. A photo shoot or a video shoot is a good example. They're going to shoot how they want to, and the end product we don't have much control over. Let's say the director tells these three to dress all in black and me to dress in hot pink. I'm going to stand out. We represent our city and state. We're all from Michigan, though I can't say Detroit. There's the whole Michigan pride thing, and we're part of that now. With the Von Bondies, I never felt that way. I always pretended we were an American band, not a Michigan band, for fear of getting lumped into the garage rock scene."

If hard work can get the band members equal recognition, then they have nothing to worry about. 

"I'm thinking the new record will be done by summer time next year, so we'll have it out around the same time next year," says Stollsteimer, implicitly saying that the disc about to be released is already the old one, in the band's eyes. "If we have a month off, I'll get in the studio and at least get rough demos down immediately. We made two videos so far, and we're doing two more in one weekend. I've never done that. It's a big deal, although they're not going to get on TV any more. People that are inspired by our music to make videos are just as inspiring to us."

Stollsteimer is visibly excited about the pending release of You Light Me Up in the Dark and the requisite party.

"The Hand Grenades are opening, only one band," he says. "We'll have Passalacqua then Phantasmagoria DJ-ing. The Loving Touch has a full stage as of two months ago, and they've hosted most of my favorite band's CD release shows now, including Fawn. They've just bought a new PA. They do one show a week, so it's a great place to play because it's not overplayed. The Hand Grenades are the best vocal band in Detroit. They're like the Strokes with three-part harmonies."

Stollsteimer, whose humility will perhaps be surprising to some, can't resist big-ing up his boys one more time.

"You're only as good as the worst member of your band," the singer said before we wrapped up. "Which would technically be me now, on guitar. That's a good thing. I'm the worst musician in the band, guitar-wise, I mean I can sing, but that's awesome. I feel like we're leaps and bounds ahead of other bands I've been in, in that regard."

And that's just about that. We all shuffle out of the park, the four members of the Hounds Below filling the width of the sidewalk, almost arm-in-arm like a freaky Ferndale version of the Monkees.

Brett Callwood writes City Slang for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]

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