The Von Bondies: Raw Human Emotions—Really Cute Phrases

Stollsteimer’s manner isn’t fakery. It’s as if he’s plumbed right into a new understanding of what it means to leave something behind or what is gained by a little hell-raising. December, as we can all agree, was a long time ago. We’ve already completed our sentences with winter and taken spring for a three-month ride through its misty, natal blossoming. But a night out at the Magic Stick in Detroit, Michigan—12 days before the stockings that hung by chimneys with care were filled by St. Nicholas—has remained the most vital and recognizable peg on The Von Bondies’ lifeline. It’s also the rusty nail upon which they find themselves backing over every time they’re asked to talk about their music. It’s still so alive that their publicist, out of the Sire Records office, has to preempt each interview with a tetanus-shot statement along the lines of, “By the way, no member of the band will answer any questions about Jack White.”

You aren’t to ask about the beating singer Jason Stollsteimer intercepted out of the pernicious hands of thunder that hang on the ends of the White Stripes’ Middle Earthian front man’s arms. No way can you bother the band about how long Stollsteimer’s right eye stayed roughly the size of an ostrich egg holding twins, or even how much time passed before the deepest bruises hid themselves. What this scud missile forbade was a chance to question bassist Carrie Smith about what could have possibly helped the fortune of the band’s superbly perturbed major-label debut more than a feud and fuss with the Motor City’s man of the moment.

Now the stuff of legend—Stollsteimer’s grossly swollen mug appeared in countless issues of New Musical Express—White caught the Bondies’ singer with at least seven blows to the right eye. The two had been trading low blows in print for some time, and finally dirtied their hands as Stollsteimer got the worst of it and White was charged with aggravated assault.

For all you can say about the merits of the Bondies’ music alone—and man, are there merits in Stollsteimer’s songwriting—the Bondies were awarded more good out of the pissing match with their former mentor and producer than a billion press releases or a million-dollar marketing budget ever could have ever garnered. They are the misfits of Michigan, the band that is getting acclaim when they had previously been a teensy little skid mark in a city now fat with bands tripping triggers.

Granted, maybe I wouldn’t want to talk about the whupping I was handed or how it was reportedly a direct result of some ungracious remarks I made about White and his contributions to the album he worked on with me. I might rather talk flower arrangements or bridal showers with a wedding planner than remark on my failings as a brawler. But for good or ill, I’d suddenly be in Rolling Stone, and they’d do a feature story about me—in amazing, sparkly color, I might add—in CMJ. It could be worse. The Von Bondies could be like their good, hometown friends The Waxwings, makers of some of the most exuberantly delectable pop songs of the last half century (no kidding), who are still playing seedy clubs and paying for convenience-store food in pennies, like a five-year-old with an allowance.

But they aren’t. They’re known, they’re loud, and they have Mr. White and a dozen short-span rock ’n’ roll explosions to thank for their new visibility. It’s because Stollsteimer does this thing with simplicity that most people can’t. He takes those universal feelings that typically get spirited with curse words and pitifully analogized—nostalgically, at least—as hell, and coats them with a sophistication that gives them a new sheen. It’s a veneer that just blankets the bloody mess that is minutes from seeping through to the other side of the quilt. He smartens up the dime-store emotions of jealousy, regret, and longing to the point where they take on the imposter qualities of a blue M&M. Below the shell, it’s still just an oval of chocolate, like the original colors had—but, God, did those new blue ones taste better and look sharper when they were first introduced. But Stollsteimer’s manner isn’t fakery. It’s as if he’s plumbed right into a new understanding of what it means to leave something behind or what is gained by a little hell-raising.

“Jason’s not going to start writing about world politics or kids starving in Ethiopia,” Smith said. “But he’s very in tune with raw human emotions. He’s really good at putting them into really cute phrases. He sums them up perfectly.

“If you met him, I don’t know if you would think [he had the ability to think like that]. He likes to joke around a lot. We call it jackassery. There’s a lot of jackassery that goes on. When he does interviews, sometimes he’ll say something and we’ll be like, ‘Jason, we didn’t know you had it in ya.’” Stollsteimer gets right to the nuts and bolts of a matter with simple lines of clarity that make you feel like an ignoramus for not having thought the same thing long before. It’s not complicated, how he thinks and writes; it’s just unusual. He can talk about youth and make it seem like a fancy new reality that has never been discussed in such open terms. He can sing, “No you really haven’t lived life yet/you really haven’t life yet/if you ain’t got no regrets,” as he does in “No Regrets,” and almost completely convince a listener that he popularized the very definition of the idea. To put it less simply (but more literarily), if Stollsteimer were the clue-giver on the game show $10,000 Pyramid, he’d never get buzzed for using any of the off-limit hints because he wouldn’t need them to win.

Pawn Shoppe Heart is a record that commissions the pulse for reinforcements, needing the extra veins to assist along all of the excitement in its travel. It’s as close to a Von Bondies live show as the band could get this time around. It’s energized by all the zap that fills a cattle prod and it’s branded with an urgent, ever-present howl that bounces off dark corners and gets more real as the hour grows later.

“It’s kind of what we pride ourselves in being: a live band,” Smith said. “It feels more gratifying playing a show night after night than it does recording an album. Jason, as a singer, loves to mix around with the words. We change songs a lot and, just by virtue of playing every night, I’ve been a lot better bass player.”

Detroit bands have had a fair amount of critical success in the last five years, with the Stripes leading the battalion of garage rockers. On the fringes are Brendan Benson, Whirlwind Heat, and The Waxwings looking to grab a piece of their own as the city continues, as it has since White Blood Cells, to provide the nest and nurture for scruffy bands ready to be off the verge.

“We get asked that a lot,” Smith said about the newfound popularity of Detroit. “And it’s really made me start to think about it a little more. With New York, Los Angeles, and London, there’s just so much of the music industry based there, [that] so many bands are too worried about making a hit record and that makes the music suffer. We don’t have that in Detroit. We wanted to do it just because we wanted to do it. We wanted to make genuine, honest music. I don’t know why all of a sudden it became such a target. It definitely changes how things are. Detroit has changed.” The city and the band have changed at the hands of improvement and digression along the way.

“Not long ago, we were happy to get paid 50 dollars for playing a show in a bar just down our street,” Smith remembered. “At shows, I’d be selling merch before the show and Jason would be getting our money afterward. He’d have to haggle if they didn’t want to pay us. Things are better. I’m really happy I don’t have to carry my equipment anymore.”

At the time of this interview, The Von Bondies were booked for the full slate of Lollapalooza dates this summer, in what looked to be the rebirth of the summer festival. Smith said she’d already packed all of the sunscreen she can carry and is prepared to give her aching knees as many universal machine workouts in hotel exercise rooms as she can.

“We’ve done all the festivals in the U.K., but we’ve never done one over here,” she said. “We did one traveling festival in the U.K., but all the shows were inside clubs. I have a pretty good idea of what to expect. It will be nice because I won’t have to spend every day with the same three people and crew.”

Doing that can make for a long tour, as Smith has noticed a morphing of the band members into one singular super body.

“We’re all very different, but the more we’re together, the more similar we’re getting,” she said. “We’re all four mutating into a big, mutated, monster person. The more I’m with them, the more I learn. I’m picking up good habits and probably bad habits, as well.”

Now, if they’d only pick more fights. They could live off of their likenesses and the puffy, tough-band mystique that would accompany them. But, then again, who wants to talk about shit like that all the time? It couldn’t possibly benefit anyone.

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