These days, if you hang around pretty much at any bar in Detroit, you will overhear conversation about how Corktown is changing, and how old haunts are now in jeopardy. Much of this change has undoubtedly been for the better, and has provided local independent musicians with some excellent, and relatively more stable, spaces in which to perform and rehearse. But not everyone is a cheerleader for these developments. And with it comes anxiety over whether proposed "renovations" to your favorite dive on Michigan Avenue are actually code for a wholesale sellout to brunch-gobbling quinoa hordes from Ferndale.
If you want to get a real sense of just how much the area has changed in a short window of time, however, you actually need to travel just south of the main corridor to a strange cluster of buildings on Bagley and 14th, where the Sros Lords were born.
Their namesake is an acronym for Site Rite Optical Studios, one of the many names the Bagley Vision building has assumed over the years. Today, the complex serves mainly as studio space for musicians. But at the height of the Sros Lords' rule over Bagley Vision, the building — which even now presents a confusing juxtaposition of kitschy public art and signs that warn approaching guests that they are on CCTV — the space was not just a place where they practiced, but where they lived, and where some of their most infamous shows took place. All three members of the band met in 2010 within the storied walls of the Bagley building, still held together somehow by a mess of barbed wire and cheap 3-quarter-inch board, many of which were erected by a younger, staple-gun wielding Morgan Blank, the band's guitarist and lead vocalist, during his stay.
Along with Blank, the Sros Lords include Jamie Cherry on drums and Caitlin Ash on keyboards. Their album Rule was recently released and is available for streaming on Spotify and for download on iTunes. On March 23, in commemoration of the "Algonquin worm moon," they will perform at the UFO Factory alongside the Potions and Moonwalks. The event will also feature special Native American art installations and Tarot card readings.
Metro Times met Blank and Cherry at their new rehearsal space in the Russell Industrial Center, where the forces of change were also in evidence. As we sat around swapping stories, a documentarian from Paris snapped pictures of Coors Light bottles. But to Blank, the Sros Lords' new digs remind him of the Bagley days in one crucial respect. "I think the Russell kind of reminds me of Old Detroit because it's [simply] space for money. And what you do in that space is up to you."
I had spoken to some of the Bagley's other former inhabitants, and heard at various time of "the machete incident," or the time a wild dog managed to get inside. In the 1940s, a fire at the National Tent & Awning Co. killed several people in the building. Blank claims that when he first moved in, you could "still see the scorch marks." The building was also home to a series of after-hours venues, and Blank recalls strange and often dangerous people who occupied his apartment prior to moving in.
Between freezing winter nights and raids on their neighbors, the three members honed their sound. They frequently receive comparisons to the Ramones. And while this is perhaps an oversimplification, it's not unfair. In particular, their song "Sniper," which Blank also performed with the Sros Lords' predecessor Badger Badger, contains at least one phrase that is reminiscent of the Queens, N.Y. bunch at their best: "I've gotta clean my gun/I've gotta calibrate my sights/ I've gotta ask my mom/If I can have the car tonight."
The band recently performed at 7 Brothers during the Hamtramck Music Festival. The live mix of fuzz guitar, Roland synthesizer, and drums approached a warm, ear-enveloping wall of sound. Blank has played a maple-bodied '72 Mustang Deluxe for many years, a purchase that I infer is based in part on his earliest musical influences. A Nirvana tattoo on his upper arm presents compelling evidence for this theory. But the band clearly has adventurous taste. Blank also sports a Sun Ra tattoo, while Cherry makes frequent references to more avant-garde post-punk acts such as Pere Ubu.
Blank describes Cherry's drumming as that of a "post-apocalyptic cave person," perhaps one vision of Detroit's future. But whatever the scenario, Cherry seems to approve of the comparison, and even takes it a step further when he describes how he sees his percussive instruments.
"It's almost, like — imagine the caveman club. But on the end of the club, there's a razor blade," he says. These days his drum kit is in better shape than ever. "Usually the cymbals are jagged, dangerous scraps of cymbal," Blank says.
The trio has taken their act on the road several times and can recount the many bizarre locations in which they have performed. When they played Junior's in Chicago, the place was covered in innumerable portraits of Lady Gaga. Cherry and Blank are both especially fond of Mattress Fort in Raleigh, N.C. They also enjoyed playing the now-defunct Ding Dong Lounge on Manhattan's Upper East Side, although Blank offers a dim assessment of the venue and drug-dealing staff members in a somewhat amused tone. "That place was a complete shitter," he says. After touring the country, the band would return to the Bagley building, surviving death-defying drives across icy mountain highways, only to find that the pipes in their room had frozen and burst.
I ask them an admittedly ridiculous question: Which Detroit neighborhood best embodies their band, and their sound? The unanimous verdict was Corktown. But Blank also provides some valuable insight into how occupying that time and place influenced his songwriting.
"Walking to Honey Bee, Donovan's, Lager House if you felt like trying to live it up a little bit," he says. "Before the UFO Club, Casey's, LJ's — just walking down the street, that's actually probably where I wrote most of the songs. Because it's good to sing a song when you're drunk and walking down the street. You can come up with a good song that way."
The songs on Rule cover an interesting range of subjects. "Baby Centipede" was conceived in the bathroom of Blank's apartment at the Bagley, which he describes as "not great." It's the story of an encounter with one of Michigan's most hideous and widely detested household pests. Rather than mercilessly crushing the many-legged creature, Blank decided to let it live. "It was actually beautiful. A baby centipede is adorable. All those little legs that become scary later just look like fuzz. It looked just like a little puppy running around. I think the centipede grew up, and I still didn't crush it. I still love you, baby centipede, wherever you are," he says.
In many respects, the vacuum of resources and authority in Detroit is part of what has allowed bands like the Sros Lords to exist and even thrive. But as spaces like the Bagley are reined in by the forces of redevelopment, artists will likely be pushed out to the margins once again. The Sros Lords share their current space at the Russell. Blank is not overly optimistic about its future. "I love it, but the sad thing is if Dan Gilbert comes through ... " he says.
Along with the chance to witness a captivating live performance, the Sros Lords' upcoming show at UFO presents the audience with a fascinating intersection of the older and newer Corktowns. It is a chance to experience a great band in what is truly their element, in a neighborhood over which they still rule, if only temporarily.
Sros Lords plays with the Potions and Moonwalks on Wednesday, March 23 at the UFO Factory; Doors at 9 p.m.; 2110 Trumbull Ave., Detroit; ufofactory.com; $7.