Volebeats - Below the radar or: Keep a secret
A relatively affluent inner-ring suburb, Huntington Woods seems to blithely ignore the notion of Metro Detroit as a wasteland of post-industrial blight. The houses here, generous old brick edifices mostly, sit well back from the shaded streets. They're carefully kept up, some of them even elegant. By local standards, the Oakes place is modest. Comfortable but well worn. It's dim inside, even on a perfectly sunny afternoon. Turn right at the kitchen and duck down the stairs. Another right, into the cool, musty dark. Down a short, narrow hall, an aisle really. On the right, the concrete block interior wall; on the left, the stacked detritus of the decades of a family's storage. The laundry room ahead. The Oakes brothers -- Al, Brian, and Jeff -- grew up in this house, and here, sometime in 1986, the Volebeats were born. In this laundry room. Matt Smith played lead guitar. In the liner notes to the 1999 reissue of Ain't No Joke, the Volebeats' first LP, Smith described the scene: "It was summer, we were bored with everything, and Jeff Oakes' invitation to bang out some tunes on a bunch of broken down, beat-up instruments seemed like a good idea. Soon we were meeting in his basement a few times a week." That first lineup consisted of three singing and songwriting guitarists (Terry Rohm, Al Oakes, and Smith), plus Brian Oakes on upright bass and Jeff Oakes, who sang and "handled most of the percussion." "Ain't No Joke was released in 1989 on Relapse Records, a small Michigan label," Smith wrote in the reissue notes. "It immediately sank into total obscurity, of course, but we were too busy making music to ponder any notions of success or failure. We just moved on to the next bunch of arguments that would result in the next Volebeats record." Four albums, an EP, various seven-inches and compilation cuts, countless personnel changes, and more than a decade later, the Volebeats are still meeting in this basement a few times a week, still too busy making music to give much thought to success or failure. * * * The latest addition to the Volebeats catalog is Mosquito Spiral, released in May on Detroit label Third Gear Records. It follows the latest subtraction from the Volebeats lineup: Longtime rhythm guitarist and songwriter Robert McCreedy departed after the album was recorded, and has since been replaced by John Nash, who joins Jeff Oakes, Matt Smith, bassist Russell Ledford, and drummer Scott Michalski in the band's current incarnation. "It has a stability it didn't have before," Smith says. On Mosquito Spiral, the Volebeats sound has a glow it didn't have before. "I'm surprised at how cheerful it is," Smith concurs, then laughs. "The other records are all so miserable. This one's a little less miserable." That, of course, is Smith's brand of humor. Though he's the most forthright conversationalist of the Volebeats, Smith projects a kind of lazy cool that, coupled with his appearance -- stringy blond hair, mustache and goatee, faded denim jacket and ripped jeans, Rolling Stones t-shirt from the Steel Wheels tour -- gives him an uncanny resemblance to the Muppets bassist Floyd Pepper. Like Floyd, Smith favors the word "groovy." Mosquito Spiral positively leaps from the speakers, riding tight harmonies and the glitter and wink of 12-string guitars. Starting with Oakes & McCreedy's smoothly melodic "Radio Flyer", the album's dozen tracks proudly wave a flag for the classic pop that inspired it. "I can't overemphasize the fact that we grew up on CKLW," Smith says. "All through the '60s and '70s, it broadcast across Canada from Windsor [just south and east of Detroit], and it was the guiding light of pop music culture then. You'd turn on the radio and hear Gordon Lightfoot next to Alice Cooper next to the Carpenters next to T-Rex, and then all the R&B and Motown stuff. Our whole perspective on music comes from that." On the new album, those influences are easy to spot: Oakes makes like Roy Orbison on "First Love Never Dies", an obscure cover he likely learned from the Walker Brothers, while Smith's "I Just Want Someone To Love (For The Summer)" is a ringer for the Beach Boys (as its title plainly reveals). Another highlight from Smith's pen, "I Don't Want To Cry Tonight", swells with cascading vocal harmonies. Mosquito Spiral is not just a solid, energetic, eminently enjoyable pop record, but something of a surprise coming from the Volebeats, whose prior album was the moody and mostly instrumental Solitude (Safe House, 1999). "We had all these instrumentals, and we wanted to do something different," Smith says of the thinking that spawned Solitude. At the time, the Volebeats had just returned from a tour in support of their 1997 release Sky And The Ocean, an album the band members say seemed doomed by difficulties with Safe House, a small operation based in Vermont that was then their record label. In response to what they perceived as the label's inability to place the album in stores, the Volebeats decided to make a record for themselves, disregarding any concerns for its commercial potential. "We sensed in advance that this record was going to have trouble reaching a wider audience," Smith says. "So we thought, 'Well, let's make something that'll maybe end up in the hands of Stanley Kubrick.' We needed to demonstrate to ourselves that we weren't one-dimensional." They turned the trick with aplomb. Solitude is a mesmerizing collection of reverb-drenched instrumentals and a choice handful of ballads, including a heartbreaking pair by Smith ("Beautiful Night" and "Back In A Minute") that brilliantly filtered his typically evocative pop through the album's sleepy aesthetic. * * * The Volebeats were in the early mix of artists at least tangentially involved with Bloodshot Records, contributing tracks to a pair of Bloodshot collections, Hellbent: Insurgent Country Vol. 2 (1995) and Straight Outta Boone County (1997). The label -- whose co-founder, Rob Miller, was briefly a Vole, serving as drummer for a stint best measured in days -- also released the Volebeats' cover of the Funkadelic freakout "Maggot Brain" as a 7-inch single. Outwardly, everything seemed to be falling into place. Sky And The Ocean, the band's third full-length record and its second for Safe House (following 1994's Up North), garnered critical praise upon its release in 1997, and the band landed a plum slot as Whiskeytown's opening band that summer and fall. But distribution troubles hamstrung the disc's commercial chances, band members allege. "Sky And The Ocean was getting great reviews," Smith recalls. "We were on tour with a band that had a hit. And it didn't make it to the stores. "We did the entire United States with Whiskeytown, and at every show we had people coming up to us going, 'You guys are so great! But I went to 17 different record stores trying to find your new album and couldn't even order it.' And I was like, 'Fabulous.'" Safe House owner and operator James Reynolds says he's reluctant to respond to such tales, but says he spent "thousands of dollars" on the Volebeats albums, expenses that were never recouped. "It [Sky And The Ocean] was available for any retailer who wanted it," Reynolds says. "The sad fact was that there were few, if any, reorders. You have no idea how disappointing it was to me." Lacking the kind of tour-support funding that often comes only with major-label deals, the Volebeats were losing money on the road. So when they were offered a gig opening for the Jayhawks to follow up the Whiskeytown tour, they declined. "That was the point where we were out on week five of the [Whiskeytown] tour already and our records still weren't available," drummer Scott Michalski remembers. "And we were so frustrated with that when we got offered the Jayhawks that we were like, 'We're out here supporting a record that nobody can get their hands on.' It didn't make a whole lot of sense." Reynolds, in hindsight, believes that "the band shot itself in the foot" by turning down the Jayhawks opportunity. "Had they taken that tour, the album might've gotten a second wind," he says. "Instead, they went into hibernation." Or more like woodshedding, actually. "We came home and recorded, basically, three records in the span of a couple weeks," Michalski says. "We just did heavy sessions and ended up recording Solitude, Mosquito Spiral -- tons of material." Meanwhile, the Volebeats' budding relationship with Bloodshot floundered when the band submitted a master tape of "Maggot Brain" that could only be made to fit on a seven-inch at 33 rpm, resulting in the release of a particularly awkward single that plays at 33 on side A and 45 on side B. Unbowed, Bloodshot planned another single with the Volebeats, asking them to contribute McCreedy's tune "Detroit 318" as the flip side to Whiskeytown's "Highway 145." But disagreements between the band members and miscommunication with the label ultimately torpedoed the Volebeats' involvement, and Bloodshot enlisted Neko Case & the Sadies instead. "The business end of the Volebeats has always been weird," Michalski says. "There's no management. It's just a bunch of guys in a basement, churning out hit after hit, and no one's taking care of business." *** While the Volebeats moved to Third Gear Records for Mosquito Spiral, McCreedy has chosen to stick with Safe House for his upcoming solo debut, Streamline, tentatively scheduled for a late-summer release. McCreedy, whose parents owned a record store, was fresh out of high school when he and his pal Jeff Oakes formed their first band, the Frames, in 1981. Five or six years later, McCreedy left the band, but it wasn't long before he'd reunited with Oakes in the Volebeats, who had just released Ain't No Joke. McCreedy was the rhythm guitarist, but he quickly distinguished himself as a songwriter, and the Volebeats ultimately recorded 16 of his songs, including such gems as the title track of Sky And The Ocean and that album's "Two Seconds", the Spectorish "Shannon" on Solitude, and four co-writes with Oakes on Mosquito Spiral. McCreedy quit the Volebeats in 1999. It wasn't the first time he'd done so, and for similar reasons: In 1992, he followed a girlfriend to California for a year; this time and this girlfriend drew him to Minnesota. "I had a number of reasons for leaving the last time," McCreedy says now. He's speaking by phone from Detroit, one of several places he calls home these days. Since leaving Minneapolis in August 2000, he's split time between Michigan, Vermont, and Nashville. In less than two years in Minnesota, he worked in a series of health-food stores, hung out in guitar shops, and wrote a lot of songs. In fact, he says, the day job spurred his songwriting. "I got a lot material for songs, because a lot of sick people come in to health-food stores," McCreedy says. "A lot of people come in as a last-ditch effort, and there's a lot of sadness that goes along with that." He added these new songs to the hefty backlog of material he'd accumulated from his Volebeats days, and, reveling in his newfound creative freedom, set about to record them. "As I was four-tracking, I was using a lot of children's toys instead of other instruments," McCreedy says. "And the tapes I was using were starting to stretch, so I'd get these really weird sounds coming through. Then I'd vary the speeds and do a lot of dubbing and over-dubbing, so the stuff I sent to Mike sounded warbly and weird." "Mike" would be Mike Daly, the former Whiskeytown guitarist McCreedy enlisted to produce Streamline. Bolstered by a cast of studio musicians Daly recruited, McCreedy began recording the album over two weeks in New York in early 2000, with additional work done at the beginning of this year. Contributing harmony vocals on a handful of tracks was Laura Cantrell, who covered his Volebeats song "Two Seconds" on her album Not The Tremblin' Kind. McCreedy plans to tour under his own name once the album is released. "It thrills me," he says. "I don't really know how to put it into words, because I've never done a solo record before. It's definitely a creative leap, and it's exciting. It's my baby." * * * Back on the patio, Jeff Oakes wants to discuss Mosquito Spiral, track by track. But when he excuses himself for a moment and disappears inside, the rest of the guys decide they've had enough talking. There's a batch of as-yet unrecorded songs they want to play, and soon they're off to the basement. Michalski sits at his drum kit in the corner, beneath a string of plastic owls that glow in several garish colors when lit from within. A grinning cow's head is painted on one wall; past gig posters dot the others. Smith perches on a stool, tuning his guitar, a 1972 Gibson Les Paul gold top. Overhead, a fairly impressive beer can collection lines a ledge that runs the length of an exposed air duct. A couple old Christmas wreaths are piled nearby. Everywhere there are battered instrument cases. "Every time we play, we leave our stuff out, and every time when we come back, Jeff has put it all away," Smith says. "I can't understand it, man." Apparently still, after 15 years, oblivious to the fact that this room serves a dual purpose as both Volebeats practice space and the laundry room of Oakes' parents' house, Smith reclines on his stool. Leaning against the washing machine, he inadvertently kicks another stool. This one had been propping the dryer door shut, and the door falls open with a metallic clang. Nash, the band's newest member and -- with his sunglasses perched atop a vaguely mod haircut -- its most fashion-conscious, is seated in front of a plywood cactus that seems swiped from the prop closet of a junior high drama club. He absently strums his Guild acoustic. Oakes is busy rigging a makeshift shade over the single bare bulb that illumines the room. The shade appears to be fashioned from string, manila cardstock, and a speaker cone. Oakes and Smith bicker briefly over what song to play. Smith wins, and the Volebeats slide into a tune called "World's Looking Lonely". Stoop-shouldered at the microphone, hands jammed in his pockets, Oakes sings the lead vocal. It's about a girl -- what else? Next up is a song Oakes and Smith wrote with Ryan Adams. With Smith's harmony vocals shadowing Oakes' lead, they beg an unseen heartbreaker: "Am I the only one that sold out at your invitation?" "We're probably going to do more writing with Ryan," Smith says. "We wrote in motel rooms and soundchecks when we were on the road with them. We'll get together with him at some point and bang out some tunes." The Volebeats play eight more songs in rapid succession. The least remarkable of these are modest but pleasurable pop songs. Several are much more than that, though, especially "This Girl", a riff-rocker that Oakes sings in falsetto, and "Time Travel": "I don't mean to travel through time/It just happens when I open my eyes," Smith sighs with palpable ache. Even without bassist Ledford, who is absent on this day, the band builds a measured but relentless groove; the tension is finally released with Smith's cathartic closing solo. Outside, the long wait for spring has ended and Michigan has exploded in green. The air buzzes and echoes with kids shouting, birds chirping, and dogs barking: the sounds of a neighborhood finally released from winter. But the Volebeats hear the call of that dank basement, and after that, the recording studio. They're so eager to get to work on this material, their next album, that they don't want to tour behind the one they've just released. "We've got the new record [written]," Smith says. "We're ready to go in and record it as soon as the money and who's putting it out [are determined]. We're ready to go in tomorrow." A Minneapolis native now residing in Chicago, Anders Smith-Lindall cheers his beloved Twins and Cubs with equal passion. Last summer the two teams combined to reward his blind devotion with nearly 200 losses.