Ko Ko Puffs

I’m With the Brand, Man
(or You Are What You Bleat)

If you don’t run in marketing circles, you may not be hip to just how deeply brand marketing has infiltrated our consumer culture. Yeah, yeah, Sprite is a brand. But it’s also all of the associated behaviors, attributes and characteristics of the people that consume Sprite (or at least the people the Coca Cola company would like to consume Sprite).

What the hell am I talking about?!

Bear with me. When someone gets really behind a brand, takes all the proper cues from the marketeers, they morph into what marketing nudniks call brand evangelists. People who will drive their friends, family and chat room buddies absolutely nuts blathering on about how great the new Xbox is, for example.

This can work for ill (i.e. How many entitled, recently minted consumers does it take to fill up the road with gas-hogging SUVs?). Or it can work for good.

Detroit’s rock ‘n’ roll scene is a perfect example of the latter.

People will go to the ends of the earth (or at least Australia) to spread the gospel of the new Detroit sound as exemplified in press and persona by such bands as the White Stripes, the Dirtbombs, the Detroit Cobras, the Von Bondies, the Sights, The Go, the Come Ons, as well as many other bands whose name begins with “the.”

Shit, music fans have known what the business boys took years to figure out. What I’m preaching about today, people, is inadvertent brand evangelism. Living the life. This is the story of people, separated by an ocean, longing to spread the deceptively simple gospel of rock ‘n’ roll. Listen…

Shimmy-Shimmy Ko Ko-Bot
(Or, Whadda Buncha Knockouts!)

“I was working the merch table during one of the White Stripes' trips to England,” says Ko Shih, she of garage-pop-rock-hyphenate-genre trio Ko and the Knockouts. “And someone came up to me and bought Sympathetic Sounds of Detroit. I said, Hey, my band’s on there, Ko & the Knockouts.” And they were all, like, ‘Ahhh, I have to get your autograph!’ I was like, ‘Ahhhh, no!’”

This from a woman who once had to explain to a visiting travel journalist from the London Evening Standard that perhaps it wasn’t so unusual that the head of Detroit’s tourism bureau had no idea where the Magic Stick and the Gold Dollar were located. She also played host to a visiting BBC radio team in town to document the Detroit garage rock “scene” (as in, they crashed out at her place, and she gave them the guided tour of the city). “I was, like, their captive interviewer! I was really happy how that turned out, though.”

These are all appropriate experiences for someone who, at one point a couple years ago, was a sort of den mother for Detroit’s downtown rock ‘n’ roll scene, presiding over the fun from her post behind the Garden Bowl bar. But lest you think that Shih is merely host and ambassador, you should know that, particularly lately, she’s been practicing what she preaches.

“Things just happen. Me working at the Garden Bowl was one of those things,” says Shih. “Then I had the idea that Jack White come in and play Dylan’s Nashville Skyline solo. He said, ‘That sounds good, but I don’t want to play that record.’”

And so was born the Sunday night living room sessions that saw Shih hosting everything from Jack White playing solo as John Gillis, to Mark Craven of They Come in Threes doing likewise (well, er, as himself, not as John Gillis) to the occasional one-off recombinant band culled together for shits ’n’ giggles.

“Every Sunday people would come to see people they knew or knew of doing stuff musically that they normally wouldn’t do.”

So how did Shih make the leap from patron to player?

“Well, I played piano since I was 5, but of course as soon as I got old enough, I stopped,” Shih says.

“But someone told the Come Ons that I played piano and they needed an organ player. And Steve Shaw (of the Detroit Cobras) was looking for a bass player for the Breakdowns. He said, ‘You’re going to play bass. Go buy a bass.’”

Shih continues, “It’s kinda weird that I ended up in a band, ’cause it was always more of a spectator sport for me,”

When the Breakdowns dissolved, Shih didn’t have much time to contemplate the next move. Sympathy for the Record Industry’s label head Long Gone John specifically requested Ko record a track for the Sympathetic Sounds of Detroit compilation. The result was “Black and Blue,” a revenge fantasy that would make Holly Golightly proud.

“After the compilation came out I started thinking about what I wanted to do. I knew that I’ve always wanted to work with Eddie (Baranek, of the Sights) ’cause he’s so, so talented.”

The lineup firmly in place, Shih, Baranek, Jeff Klein and associates (a multicultural law firm masquerading as a rock band?) have, on their debut, self-titled rekkid, created nothing short of an infectious combination of raw rock, charming pop and rollicking rhythm. It is no small achievement to transcend initial impressions (i.e. Oh, goodie, another garage rock record…). But here it is.

Breakup and love songs delivered in Shih’s bittersweetly scratchy voice, often with harmony and vocal counterpoint provided by Baranek, over a bed of solid rhythm and riff. It’s not so much the sound of he-said/she-said that they embody, but rather the sound of a (boy)friend who’s got his (girl)friend back.

Shih opines about her and Baranek’s approach to making their particular ruckus: “There are two kinds of songwriting: the ‘paint a picture/poetic songs’ — and They Come in Threes do this kind really well — that create a feeling or an atmosphere; and then there are the ‘Here’s my story songs.’ I always wanted to write the ‘paint a picture’ songs — I’ve even tried to, but it doesn’t work. I’m a ‘here’s my story’ writer. I can’t write a song about anything but what’s on my mind at the time.

“I really thought the band would be a lot poppier. I was just astounded at how rock it is!”

Makes sense for someone who’s made an art form from letting the story unfold and keeping an eye on the personal details. Ko and the Knockouts celebrate the release of their debut record with a show at Record Time in Roseville on Friday, March 15 and a full-on CD release party at (where else?) Detroit’s Magic Stick the following night. (That’s Saturday — pay attention!)

Dutch Treat
(or, I’ll Show You Yours If You Show Me Mine)

In Netherlands’ north country lies the cozy-yet-bustling, old-world-yet-uber-modern city of Groningen, population 175,000. (Think Ann Arbor with a serious case of charm, an open-air market in the town square, a raunchy red-light district, mossy canals and herds of bicycles in the town’s central business district.)

Do not, I repeat, do not type in www.grunnenrocks.com (That’s the standard porn disclaimer.)

Grunnen Rocks (Grunnen is the locals-only nickname of Groningen) is a labor of love perpetrated by Evert Niekamp, rock ’n’ roll evangelist extraordinaire. By day he’s a programmer of a database-driven Web site: after hours he uses that technology for the forces of good, compiling reams of minutiae about indie-rock, punk and garage-rock bands into one easy-to-parse Web site. Better still, he’s got a thing for Detroit (specifically Mick Collins). Of the more than 500 bands on the site, only the Dirtbombs have their own spot in the site’s main navigation. (Though, as Niekamp says, “I have to admit the Gories still are my all-time faves. But somehow it doesn’t make sense to give that good spot to a defunct band when you’re able to promote a band you can still get to see play live in a club.”

If you’re active in a very specific part of the Detroit rock ’n’ roll landscape (i.e. the Midtown Magic Stick/former Gold Dollar now-Lager House crowd), you’ve probably got your own personal “musical history.” This fact makes this Web site somewhat creepy in a voyeuristic way (that is, in an upright, nonporno way). So why not waste an otherwise perfectly good lunch hour hyperlinking around your own backyard via the magic of the Net?

Oy, I could go on and on for days, but that’s just the brand evangelizer in me talking.

So why do I get all worked up about this junk?

Because, little Johnny, somewhere in America a radio station is playing “Sussudio” by Phil Collins when the kids down the street are making a much finer racket.

Chris Handyside writes about music for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]
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