The Von Bondies
Interview with Jason Stollsteimer
by Alexander Laurence
The Noise Pop music festival took place during the last weekend in February 2003. No local bands in San Francisco are much about pure rock and roll though. That's why Noise Pop had to look to Detroit to deliver some punch. There has been an underground musical movement which erupted from Detroit, Michigan, (that had nothing to do with Eminem) with bands such as the White Stripes, The Dirtbombs, Soledad Brothers, and the Von Bondies all following the muse in the high energy, minimalist punk rock. San Francisco knows this with all its emo combovers and shoegazers that hang at Popscene every Thursday. Noise Pop knew it had to bring the Von Bondies to save the day and inject some rocking blood into the dirty streets of the Tenderloin. It came from Detroit!
The Von Bondies are Jason Stollsteimer (vocals/guitar), Marcie Bolen (guitar/vocals), Carrie Smith (bass/vocals), Don Blum (drums), and originally formed in 1999. It didn't take long for Jason and company to take over the city. After Jason started tuning his first guitar, in came Jack White to produce their first record, Lack Of Communication (2000). This record changed the world. The band embarked on their first European tour towards the end of 2001, opening for their friends the White Stripes. They recorded a few sessions for John Peel's BBC radio show, which are still highly regarded. Soon they had a large following in the UK and were headlining tours themselves. The whole time their record was difficult to obtain. They became a curiosity in the United States. In 2002, they were signed to Sire Records. I caught them at the height of their ability and poised for a new revolution in rock. Please let Jason speak for himself, and let me excuse myself. I was lucky to talk to him before a sold out sold at Great American, the first jaunt on another sold out tour.
AL: Have you played Great American before?
Jason: Yeah. About two years ago on our only tour with The White Stripes. We have played here and we have played Bimbo's. It was cool. Great American is better than Bimbo's. It's hard to get into a show there. Great American has more grittiness to it. I could imagine the MC5 playing here.
AL: You have a lot of friends and family coming to the show tonight.
Jason: Carrie, our bass player, was born in California. Her dad lives out here. I moved out of my parents' house immediately when I was eighteen. I always lived in Ypsilanti or Detroit. I have a bunch of friends who live out here. I have never lived out here in California. I get lost. I am very overwhelmed by how people look and dress.
AL: I am from Los Angeles, but I have lived in New York City off and on since 1995.
Jason: If you are from New York, LA, or London (those are the three big places that I have been to) you couldn't accept living anyplace else. You couldn't handle Detroit. There's two bars. You would freak out. Right now, you are probably bored of San Francisco because you have been here a week. My friends go: "New York is so boring." And I say "Are you crazy? You have infinite choices. Bands always come to New York." There are options. You are spoiled.
AL: What were some of the jobs that Von Bondies had to make life better?
Jason: I worked graveyard shift at a bowling alley. Carrie was a student. She got a degree in physics. Don is a writer. He is a journalist and he writes short stories. He is very shy about showing his stories to people. We don't have a lot of opportunities in Detroit. You could be the greatest writer in the world and live in Kansas and you could be dead in the water. There's no way to get out. That's why people dream about moving to LA or New York, or even San Francisco, because that's where things happen.
AL: Some people in those cities could be hanging on to a dream.
Jason: It's delusional. Growing up in the Midwest made us very much the opposite. We are very non-delusional. We know that nothing last forever. We know that there are always scenes and groups. You are never the greatest band in the world. People always say "The greatest thing since...." None of that matters because twenty years from now do you want to be remembered for being a good band, or a one-hit wonder, or do you want to be remembered for being a joke, like ska? Ska was huge about five or six years ago. It came back with bands like Suicide Machines and No Doubt. Many of those bands are now seen as a joke. No Doubt may be the only band that made it out of there. Skanking? What were you thinking? My friends can look back and scratch their heads. Nobody will look back at The Cramps or Radiohead in twenty years and say "What were you thinking?" Radiohead had something special. Or The Pixies. Does anyone go back and say "We were stupid for listening to The Pixies." That stuff is classic.
AL: The Stooges weren't the most talented group, but everyone who has went back to the first few records can find something meaningful.
Jason: To tell a story is the biggest thing for me in music. If you are not telling a story you shouldn't be on stage. You either trying to change the world or you are trying to explain your life. You should be up there telling stories, whether it's fact or fiction. You shouldn't be up there with some catchy phrase. To us, that's not what music is about. We have met a bunch of people in the past two years where that is all they are about.
AL: Do you play special shows in the UK with pop stars?
Jason: Famous people do come to our shows I guess. But to people in Michigan, famous people are like: "Hey the guy from Jackass showed up to our show once. Holy Shit!" We freaked out. Random people like Tim Robbins came once. It was just because we were with the White Stripes. I think that Jello Biafra came to check out us out. They heard that we were good.
AL: What is Detroit really like? Can you describe it to people who have never really to the Midwest, other than on a connecting flight? Why are there a bunch of rock and roll bands on one hand and then there's a bunch of people who are into rap music and hiphop? There's not many writers from there.
Jason: They all leave. Detroit isn't very good for Rock. It's good for Rhythm and Blues or just Blues. For us, Rock Music means bands like Kiss. We are not like that. We see ourselves as being Rock and Roll. There's tons of Rock and Roll bands in Detroit. I have never seen a show at Cobo Hall. Nobody in Detroit likes a band like Kiss. But all the white trash people in the suburbs love Kiss. A few of my friends are into Kiss. It's a joke though. I don't think that they like the music. They are into the dolls and stuff. All that is just entertainment. Rock is populist music for the masses. Rock and Roll is not. A lot of kids want to be part of Rock and Roll because it's cool. A lot of people want to do Rock so they can yell a lot.
AL: Are you looking to connect with a specific crowd?
Jason: No. Before we started the album, Lack of Communication, we had no goals. The songs on this album are about my life. It's about no one else in the band. The next album is going to be about my life too. I wasn't writing for anyone else. I did it because it made me feel better than drinking every night. After doing this record I cut down on drinking quite a lot. It was my release. Musically, it's my solo record. Nobody else has written a song yet.
AL: How did you get together with the other members of the band? You had another bass player at one point?
Jason: She moved to New York to go to Columbia. She was in the band for eight months. Carrie joined two months before we recorded the album. I showed her all the bass lines. I am a bass player originally. I write all the songs on bass guitar.
AL: Did you play in other bands before this?
Jason: I did another band called The Baby Killers. That was mine and Marcie's first band ever. I was in a punk band. "Sound of Terror" was a Baby Killers song. Don Blum has been in about twenty bands. He plays like he's been in a hundred bands. He's one of the best drummers. In England, he was voted one of the top ten drummers of the year. He doesn't use a hi-hat or cymbals. Carrie was in a band called The Fags. It was a riot girl punk band. It was her first band. It was two-chord punk. Not even three chords. As The Baby Killers we used to drink ourselves asleep. Our drummer would pass out while playing. We were wild and into partying. We have toned it down. We save all our energy for the live show. When I get drunk I am louder at a party than I would be onstage.
AL: I saw Carrie and Marcie join The Datsuns onstage to sing a song recently.
Jason: The Datsuns opened up for us all over England and Europe. Carrie and Marcie recorded some stuff with The Datsuns in the studio. The Datsuns used to come onstage with us every night. They played with us. That was sixty shows. Nobody knew who The Datsuns were then, but now everyone knows who they are. What was weird is that we had done two tours where the opening band for us had these huge record deals, and we had nothing, not even a record in the store in some countries. But we sold out all the shows. And the opening band hadn't released a record. It was sort of flattering, but then we thought, why don't we have a record deal? Everyone thought we were signed.
AL: So the deal with Long Gone John and Sympathy was a one record deal?
Jason: Yeah. When we put out the record I knew that when he put out the record: that's it. He might sell a million copies. When he puts it out there, don't expect anything. We might have sold one hundred thousand copies and we would never see a dollar. I understood that. He doesn't own the record. He is renting it from us. It wasn't really in stores.
AL: When I was at that CMJ show, I was walking around the balcony I saw Seymour Stein from Sire Records go past me. I thought he had died?
Jason: He signed us. He flew out to Amsterdam to see us and The Datsuns. It was either to see us or The Datsuns. All these people from V2 came to see The Datsuns eight months ago. The place was sold out. All the label people left. Twenty people from the label went downstairs to have drinks with The Datsuns while we were onstage. Seymour decided to stay up with us and watch. Every review of that show said that we blew them off the stage. Only if they would have stayed and watched. But they didn't know who we were. They probably thought that The Datsuns were the only band playing. They are label people. Their job is to make money. Seymour's job is discover talent. He is out to make billions of dollars. When he signed The Ramones, nobody thought they would have made a dollar or sold any records.
AL: Will Sire Records re-release your first album?
Jason: No, we don't want them to. I am going to keep that for myself. It's my own record and I personally own it. I might released it on vinyl only.
AL: Have you recorded the new album yet?
Jason: We recorded five songs and we didn't like the way it turned out. We are going to start again. We love the way we played but we didn't like the sound. It was our fault. We didn't have the right amps. It wasn't the right day. Recording our first record took three days and it was just perfect. Everything went right. We did all the songs in a row with live vocals. We tried to do that for this new one. One or two songs were good, but it was no good after that. We recorded all of our stuff at Jim Diamond's of The Dirtbombs. Now we are going to try a new place.
AL: What about Toe Rag Studios or Abbey Road?
Jason: It is very small. I have just heard two records recorded there. Abbey Road is an option. It's not that expensive. You have to find a smart producer who knows how to make everything sound full. Don is a great drummer. But that is buried beneath the guitar sound. We record everything on tape and analog. It takes longer. All the digital stuff can be fixed on a computer.
AL: How do you start writing a song?
Jason: It usually starts at four in the morning. It's pitch black in my room in Detroit. I grab my guitar and play bass lines in the dark. I keep trying things. I go to bed. Then next morning I go to practice. I show the new bass line to Carrie, She plays it and always adds her own little thing to the final product, especially now, since she has been in the band for a while. Then I play along to it on guitar and Don joins in. That is about half of our songs. I will add the vocals the next day. I am very picky about vocals. I don't have vocals for one of our brand new songs. I am terrified because it is one of our best songs. It's our catchiest songs yet. I can't think of anything.
AL: Have you read any books lately?
Jason: I haven't read a book since I was twelve. I can't read. I have one good eye and one bad eye. So when I read it makes my eyes water. I have double vision. I can't focus. I have one contact in all the time. Because of that I can't read. I can spell like there's no tomorrow. When I write lyrics I do it in the dark with my eyes closed. My handwriting is like a twelve year olds. It's horrible. In school I got all As on scantron tests but flunked every homework assignment because I never turned them in. It was embarrassing. I was in community college for four years. I am still a freshman. I had to drop out because I would have roommates who had drug problems and they wouldn't pay the rent, so I had quit school to pay the rent. Around that time I started playing music.
AL: What musician changed your life?
Jason: It was Otis Redding. Everyone I love is dead. Screaming Jay Hawkins died about six years ago. We played with Eric Burden. I wanted to play with him. I would have liked to seen The Sonics. I am a big music fan.
AL: Since I have a copy of the Hipster Handbook, let me ask you a few questions from the Quiz here.
Jason: Let's see if I am hip.
AL: When shopping for a new pair of shoes which brand are you likely to buy?
Jason: Look at my shoes. (He shows me his boots which are worn and falling apart). I have had these five months. I have duct taped them. I am ghetto. I duct tape and marker it. I wear tennis shoes. I wear converse.
AL: Next question. You are more likely to read which magazine: Harper's, Maxim, Redbook, Wallpaper, Italian Maxim?
Jason: Italian Maxim. I have seen that.
AL: Your ideal car is an SUV, a seventies Mustang, a PT Cruiser, a vintage Volkswagen bug, or a Hummer?
Jason: Number two. A Mustang would be cool.
AL: You go to a bar. Which beer to you drink?
Jason: I don't drink beer. Only hard liquor. Only Jagermeister. I am very unhip.
AL: If fans want to come to gigs they should bring a bottle of Jagermeister or Jim Beam and place it on the stage as a gift?
Jason: They do. I wouldn't mind getting free liquor.
AL: Your dream vacation with that special someone would be: Seville, Spain, The Poconos, A Sandals Resort, Paris, France, or Disneyland?
Jason: I like going to Paris but I would pick Spain. We played Madrid. It was actually the worst turnout on the tour. Mogwai headlined over The White Stripes. We played before The White Stripes. There were seven other bands. It was horrible. When we played in Madrid it was the most beautiful night. The city is amazing. There's all these churches. It's good.
AL: Which of the following most closely describes your temperament in social situations: complacent, read to kick some ass, perky, paranoid, or self-deprecating?
Jason: I would say both paranoid and self-deprecating. I don't fight. I have been in fights. I have been punched in the face, but I didn't hit back. I stared at them. I think it fucks with someone to hit them. If someone hits me, I just stand back and stare at them. I say "What's the fuck is wrong with you?" I don't think that fighting gets anything done. It makes them look stupid.
AL: You would buy a recording by which artist: Insane Clown Posse, Korn, Wilco, Kool Keith, or The Strokes?
Jason: Wilco. We played with them on a TV show. It was nice. I had never heard of them. They were really good.
AL: Your favorite clothing store is Walgreen's, Salvation Army, Diesel, Hecht's, The Gap?
Jason: I go to Salvation Army, but I went to Diesel today. I got these pants. I buy two pairs of pants a year. Usually I spend about ten dollars. Why did I go to Diesel? Because nothing goes good with boots. My old jeans rip at the knees from jumping around onstage. I will probably rip these tonight.
AL: Do you use computers?
Jason: I used the internet. Our website is shite! As the British say: it's shite! I get emails, "Your website is crap." We don't own it. We finally got hold of it and I don't know how to fix it. There are constant download popups. I did update the tours and I put two new photos. I don't know how to do it. None of my friends know how to do it.
AL: Do you like films?
Jason: Yeah, I am a big John Cusack fan.
AL: You like date movies that star which of the following: Parker Posey, Tom Hanks, Franka Potente, Julia Roberts, or Freddie Prinze jr?
Jason: Oh my god! None of the above. I watched Scooby Doo with my girlfriend and her little sisters.
AL: You sign on the internet using AOL?
AL: You have margarine in your refrigerator?
Jason: I don't know what the fuck that is. I have butter. I think I have some Crisco.
AL: Did the last two movies you saw have explosions in them?
Jason: I saw Old School. It's awesome. Me and Don have seen it twice in the past week. We are dorks. I saw Shanghai Nights. Both of them had explosions, but Shanghai Nights was crap.
AL: Old School is more proof that all directors really want to make a film as good as Animal House.
Jason: I love Animal House. I don't care what people say. John Belushi is a genius. Everyone I love is dead. It sucks.
AL: According to this book the hipster zone in Detroit is Hamtramck. What's that like?
Jason: Marcie just move out of there. It's the Polish neighborhood in Detroit. She lived above an Indian Restaurant and they made her move. They raised the rent. There's nothing there. It's cold. There's two bars. There's no dance clubs. You can't find a 1960s dance club and dress up and listen to The Strokes and The Stripes. There's no places like that. Most bars are a little room filled with one hundred Detroit scenesters who resent all the rest of the bands. In Hamtramck, there's a movie store where you can buy movies for a dollar. It was cheap rents and in Detroit but it wasn't in the danger zone. I live in downtown Detroit. It's in the middle of Detroit. I am the only one in the band who lives in Detroit. Oh, Marcie just moved there as well.
AL: Has Starbucks invaded Detroit yet?
Jason: No. There's a Burger King and a McDonalds, and a KFC. This is something that you have to understand: they do not have shakes at fast food places in Detroit. You can go up to the drive thru and order a chocolate shake, which they have at all those places, and they'll say: "We don't have no shakes, where you from?" They know you are white. They will laugh at you. They know me in my neighborhood. I am the only kid who looks like this. Everyone else is seventy year old black couples. They are the nicest people in the world. These are the people who went to the Motown shows. After all the riots in the 1970s, anybody who had money left town. What was left was poor families. The Mexican part of Detroit is probably the nicest part of town. It's still racially diverse. There's no malls and no money there.
AL: After you finish this new record when should we all expect a real tour of the new material?
Jason: The album should be out sometime after August. We are touring first with The Cramps. We are starting in DC and all of the East Coast, all of the West Coast, and all the way to San Diego. It will be three weeks. We chose to support them. We will be playing two thousand people venues. They have a cult following that has been going to their shows for twenty years. Sometimes cult fans don't like opening bands. You have to win them over. That's how I saw Guitar Wolf, because they opened for The Cramps. We are touring America all next fall when the record comes out. All the songs are written. There's sixteen songs. Eleven will probably be on the record. I don't have a passport right now, so I have to get a new one before we return to Europe.
The website: http://www.vonbondies.com