To those indie purists out there who break out the knives and scream “sellout!” every time their favorite band jumps ship from the tiny but well-meaning indie label to the huge corporate behemoth that is the major label, here’s a little snapshot for you. Contrary to the purist’s belief, such bands don’t always make the immediate leap from mac-and-cheese to caviar once they’ve signed on the dotted line. In fact, very few do.
Just ask Don Blum, drummer for Detroit’s latest major label find, the Von Bondies. Sure, they’ve moved on from Sympathy for the Music Industry, the indie that issued their down n’ dirty debut album Lack of Communication, in order to sign with Seymour Stein’s revamped Sire imprint. That puts them, for the time being anyway, under the charge of Warner Music, a company that, despite the best efforts of downloading pirate scum, still has some bucks to throw around. But lest you think that this new home has propelled the Von Bondies (Blum, singer/guitarist/songwriter Jason Stollsteimer, bassist Carrie Smith and guitarist Marcie Bolen) into the glitzy world of chalets and personal trainers, Blum informs us that the band, in the midst of a short American tour, is camped out at a relatively modest Travelodge in El Paso, having scarfed back some Mexican food just prior to doing a round of press. And they’re moving from station to station not in one of those big-ass, shiny tour buses, but in a van and a temperamental trailer.
“Just as we were getting outside of Dallas, the transmission fell apart and we had to get a Ryder truck,” laments Blum. “We’re touring in a moving van now. So it’s not tour buses and Ritz hotels, but it is more comfortable than before.”
Indeed, while the digs may be a tad more accommodating than past tours where the VBs would rely on the kindness (and floors) of strangers, the other obvious advantage to signing with a major label is the money said label will put behind you to promote the Almighty Product. In this case, Sire’s backing a winner—the band’s latest, Pawn Shoppe Heart, is an absolute giddy garage delight, with Stollsteimer’s Eric Burdon-esque howl driving home a dozen solid tales of love, lust and woe, framed by the Keith Moon-styled fury of the thrashing Blum and the sexy sneering backing vocals of Smith and Bolen. While Communication, produced by legendary Detroit knob-twiddler and Dirtbomb Jim Diamond and White Stripes mainman Jack White, was a fast and furious affair, with the band doing the bulk of the recording at Diamond’s Ghetto Recorders in a matter of days, Pawn Shoppe Heart received the benefits of a heftier budget, no huge time constraints, a bigger studio, and a “name” producer—Jerry Harrison, ex-Talking Head and Modern Lover, and the man behind the board for acts as un-garage-y as Live and Crash Test Dummies. And while those aforementioned indie purists may have initially blanched at the pairing, the band is rightfully tickled pink with the outcome: the guitars crunch, the drums whomp and the spit in the vocals remains intact.
“I mean, it was fun,” says Blum about the Communication sessions, “but it was very rushed. We had to do it in a few days, and at the time I was working and Carrie was in school so it just felt kind of hectic. As a result, the record doesn’t sound as—I don’t want to say ’polished,’ but it doesn’t sound like what we might’ve expected. But I’m proud of that record. I like it a lot. When we went and recorded with Jerry in Sausalito, we had a lot more time, and a really big studio with all these different mikes on everything. There was no pressure as far as time goes—we could go in there, relax and work on getting the sounds in our heads onto tape.”
And while Blum is aware of the “horror stories” involving bands who sign to majors only to be bled dry of whatever personality they had to begin with, he maintains that Stein’s crew is, as cliché as it may sound, all about the music. Other labels were sniffing around the VBs, thanks in part to the buzz created by their debut and a work ethic that involved incessant touring, and some of those labels offered hefty upfront quid. Still, there’s often a price you have to pay for such “support,” and often that price involves surrendering creative control. Not the case with Sire, asserts Blum.
“The number one thing was that Seymour said he liked us as a band—he wasn’t saying ’I see where you could go.’ He appreciated what we were doing and signed us for who we were. Going with a label that had so many legendary bands on it (The Ramones, Talking Heads and the Pretenders to name a few), we were comfortable that they were going to let us do what we wanted to do. That was more important than getting a ton of money.”
But if the rapturous radio response to the album’s first single “C’mon, C’mon” is any indication, bulging bags of cash may be in the cards. And the band hasn’t been lacking for publicity, though the recent spate of it might not have been to their liking. To recap for those of you who’ve been incarcerated over the last few months—Stollsteimer and former producer/friend Jack White had a dust up in mid-December at Detroit nightspot The Magic Stick. Stollsteimer, by all accounts, was at the receiving end of a flurry of punches and saliva from Mr. White, who later went on to say it was about defending honor or some such thing. Perhaps White was displeased with certain comments made by Stollsteimer about his production work on Communication. The whole tizzy subsided just weeks ago with White pleading guilty to assault, receiving a “sentence” of a few anger management classes and fines totaling $700 or so.
As for any lingering fallout from the fracas, Blum says he hasn’t encountered anything yet. “It’s hard for me to gauge the reaction to it,” he admits, without displaying the slightest bit of dismay over being asked yet again about the incident. “So far a lot of people I’ve talked to say they’re fans of both bands and it hasn’t affected them too much. I view rock n’ roll as being about a lot of different things, including conflicts and feuds—kind of like hip-hop. I think it’s all interesting but I don’t take it too seriously.”
He laughs, removed from the short-lived media circus, safely ensconced in the creature comforts of El Paso’s Travelodge. “I’m pretty cut off from everything.”