This breezy Sunday afternoon finds Eric Weir on Belle Isle, in the grass between the road and the river. He’s on the south side, between a set of goth kids about to get horizontal on a picnic table and a family of anemic ducks scavenging a discarded bag of Andy Capp’s Hot Fries. Behind him, his car doors stand ajar for open-air enjoyment of “Taxman” (on repeat) as a parade of Sunday drivers hums by. But he’s fixed on the view in front of him: the stand of side-lit buildings of downtown and the Ambassador Bridge, looking too perfect in the spring light. He’s overwhelmed. He’s on a tirade, ranting adoration of the city, and even though it’s way too cold and the water is murky, he’s threatening a swim. He’s tossed off his shades. The goth kids have halted their petting to stare. If it weren’t for heated protestations and the niggling buttons of his shirt he’d be backstroking the Detroit River already. If you’d never met him before, this might be the perfect place to meet Tiny Steps frontman Eric Weir.
But if you meet him in front of his band expect a different impression. He won’t be shooting off his mouth; he’ll be self-aware and slightly hesitant. When the band kicks into their blurry signature of catchy power pop, it might have nearly the same entertainment value as the impromptu aquatics, but it won’t be a one-man show.
And that’s news. When Weir’s high school band, Spindle, split four years ago, he was having some commitment issues. He was licking the wounds from an ill-fated indie deal and doing the messianic guy-with-guitar thing (he sported a beard and everything). The collaborative mindset of being in a band required some “no I in team” rethinking.
“The original idea I had was to do everything by myself and then see what happened,” Weir says. “It stemmed from being disillusioned in playing in a band and having to concede to others, and from trying really hard for a long time only to have to come up with a big goose egg. I thought I never wanted to play with anyone else again. But it turned out I was wrong.”
After a rotating door of collaborators, the formation of the band happened like a Detroit version of “Making the Band”: Four former-members-of gravitated to each other in the microscopic local scene, became tight and decided to take on the world. When Weir was joined by guitarist Michael Cianfarani (who had never played in a band before), drummer Ryan Allen (ex-Red Shirt Brigade) and bassist Courtney Sheedy (The Americans) the band started playing gigs and reduced their moniker from Eric Weir and Tiny Steps to just Tiny Steps. When Sheedy left the band to join aged space rock outfit Outrageous Cherry, they recruited Matt Hatch, who’d recently left the Sights. It’s that quartet — Weir, Cianfarani, Allen and Hatch — that actually became a band, not the Eric Weir Experience.
“When Ryan and Courtney joined, the songwriting expanded into a more collaborative effort,” Cianfarani offers. “Now that Hatch is in the lineup there is a wider range in the songwriting. [Initially] there were tensions that no one really knew how to deal with, but those tensions don’t exist anymore.”
“We’ve got a real active role in each other’s parts because we all hear things that maybe the others wouldn’t have heard,” Weir affirms. “Ryan and Matt really lock in, which is awesome. Courtney’s contribution is well-documented and certainly an important one, and her playing in Outrageous Cherry is great.”
Forget about Outrageous Cherry, let’s talk about that documentation. When Sheedy was in the band, Tiny Steps tracked their flagship recording in Allen’s basements. What surfaced can be heard on a self-titled EP, issued this week on local upstart Rhythmitus.
Allen’s four stick clicks lead off “1-3/3-4,” an opener that surges with sunny harmonies and a saccharine melody. “If there’s anything that I know, it’s things that went on in my past,” Weir sings, in a pitch-perfect, slightly overdriven squall. “And as hard as I hold on now, nothing ever seems to last.” The song, motored by Allen’s hopped-up fills and Cianfarani’s leads, is catchy and succinctly arranged, indicative of every tune that follows. It’s the kind of songwriting that rests on an understanding of Teenage Fanclub and McCartney’s Wings. Does it have anything to do with the majority of their local contemporaries? “Unless Jason Falkner and Paul Westerberg moved to Detroit, then no,” Allen says.
The collection’s gem comes a few songs later, in “Need A Hand,” a tune that begs to be played until it’s worn out. “How can I explain it?” Weir opens, “She moves in so many ways that I can’t contain it.” It’s a lyric that would be pure sap if not for the treatment of aching background harmonies and clever rhythmic accents. The tune is a perfect example of the band sidestepping the sappy pop thing, backing up coy lyrical sentimentality (“If you see her on the street, I wanna say I love her”) with affecting substance.
Weir and Cianfarani live together in a second floor walkup that overlooks Prentis, in a building that they share with an assortment of Cass Corridor boho types, stumbling distance from the nocturnal charms of the Bronx Bar. It’s an area Weir describes as the “one spot in Detroit that you can walk around and not be completely by yourself.
“I guess I’ve always had a big soft spot for this neighborhood because when I first started seeing bands in the city it was at Zoot’s and people were really accepting of a young shit like me coming in and hanging out.” Weir says of the now-defunct Cass Corridor show space. “Now, whenever I walk out my doors I see a surrounding that I’ve really dug since I was 15 or 16.”
Their apartment is a lot like you might imagine, stacks of Dylan and Beatles LPs, acoustic guitars and cold ones in the fridge. For some reason Tiny Steps’ songs make more sense in these rooms, in this neighborhood. If you hand them guitars and ask them to play those songs, they might feign a little resistance, but they can be convinced.
Now note their expressions.
It’s the same spry look that crosses the face of Matt Hatch when he puts on his bass and finds his place on stage; it’s the same expression in Ryan Allen’s smirk from behind the drums. It’s not the air of kids who are testing the waters; it’s the look of kids ready to jump. And we’re not talking about the Detroit River.
Tiny Steps will celebrate the release of their EP on Saturday, May 15, at the Lager House (1254 Michigan Ave., Detroit) with A Thousand Times Yes and Showdown At The Equator. Call 313-961-4668 for info.Nate Cavalieri is a freelance scribe. Send comments to [email protected]