The Von Bondies' Jason Stollsteimer
Published Jan 29, 2009Five years can mean a lifetime in the world is music. In 2004, Detroit's the Von Bondies released their second LP, Pawn Shoppe Heart during the world's love affair with Detroit's garage scene. Released on Sire Records and co-produced by the ex- Modern Lovers and Talking Head member Jerry Harrison, the album gained strong reviews from Spin and Pitchfork while producing the now semi-classic single (and theme to Emmy-nominated series Rescue Me) "C'mon C'mon." Half a decade later, the Von Bondies are ready to release their follow-up, Love, Hate and Then There's You, minus their major label record deal and half of their line-up. This third album is bursting with hooky, smart and sleek plasticine rock'n'roll, finding the Von Bondies back at square one, demanding to re-build a fan base while re-inventing a garage rock sound that peaked and burned during their hold-off.
Exclaim! caught main Bondie Jason Stollsteimer in the midst of a haircut to discuss his band's five year lay-off, the departure of band members and his $120,000 Detroit mansion.
After a five year lay off, does it feel good to be busy, doing interviews and getting haircuts?
No, haircuts are the most important element. It was our own fault, we got to a point of touring the world, where we were doing the biggest venues we've ever did and then we quit. And that was before the downfall of the genre we come from, with bands like the Strokes and the Vines. Half of those people aren't even playing anymore, but we got out before that happened. We toured for three years and we built it up from an indie label to a major, now we're back to an indie, which is better. Honestly, we needed those years off. It took us three years to get our record [Love, Hate and Then There's You] back from Warner Brothers.
We asked to be dropped off the label, they wouldn't drop us. They weren't going to release the record and they weren't going to give it to someone else. If you drop a band and a competitor label releases that record and it sells a millions copies, you lose your job. We recorded the record and turned it in three years ago and they said, "no, it has a lot of great album tracks but no single. We need you to go back in." And at that point I was like, "really?" And keep in mind [lead off single] "Pale Bride" was one of the songs that was the immediate single from all of the labels as soon as we got off Warner. So I went back in and recorded some more and turned it in. And the one guy we were dealing with from Sire said, "I just don't hear a single." And I was like, "what do you want to hear?" And he said, "well, to be honest with you, it's just not emo enough." And my exact words were, "I want off the label today, I wanna be dropped." And they wouldn't do it.
What do you think Sire expected from your band when they signed you?
The guy who signed us was Seymour Stein, but by the time we were doing our second record he was not involved. I think if he would have known, he would not have been happy what was happening. And ironically, the guy who was handling us, two weeks after we finally got off the label, he was let go.
Did you ever consider just releasing the album online even though Warner wouldn't give you the rights?
I thought about it but honestly, compared to the records we've done in the past, it was our best to date. I know that every band says that but is honestly is. And it was all my own effort and all my own money and time, more so than any other record. I had to give it a try. I put up three or four songs up on MySpace and we got 11,000 plays in that week but I took it down immediately. And that was three years ago, and those were B-sides.
How did the album end up being released by Majordomo Records?
We played South by Southwest last year and we were just about to get off Warner Brothers but we weren't allowed to talk to any other label until we were off it. So we were promoted as a Warner Brothers band, which kinda screwed us. So, since nobody basically buys records anymore and record labels don't give out records deals like they used to, we were looking for a distribution deal. So, we played five shows there in four days and for two of the shows, guys from Shout! Factory [Majordomo's parent company] and Capitol Records and some other labels came out to see us and the bands that played before us and after us were 'it' bands at the time, but they didn't have half of the crowd we did. We didn't even have a public relations person or anything. We had no CD out for four years and us and the Lemonheads had the two biggest crowds at the Annex for those two days. There was a line around the corner trying to get it and it dissipated as soon as we went on stage. We saw a video of it and we were like, "we didn't even know if anyone even cared about us anymore."
When did you start recording the album?
We started in 2006, we recorded in Connecticut, Chicago, Malibu, L.A. and Detroit. We did two songs in every studio and we finished our last songs five months ago.
How many songs did you record with Butch Walker (Avril Lavigne, Pink, Hot Hot Heat)?
We did three songs in Malibu with Butch Walker.
Did you produce the rest?
Well, Butch Walker was the only person who was outright producer. The rest of the guys were a mixture of engineer/producer, but when that happened, I ended up producing. There were some guys that were really good at getting a really good guitar tone but they weren't working on any songs with us. So Butch Walker was the epitome of what I wanted.
So, what did you hear from Butch that made you want to work with him?
Well, that's just it, there's nothing, I just met him. I know that he's done a lot of hits but I wasn't looking for him to write any songs, I had all of the songs done. I was looking for someone who can play an instrument and sing, so I could play with him and bounce things off. And with Butch, I had a guitar player who was way better than me that I could have play the other guitar part and I could hear it together. We sat down and he played the parts I wanted him to and he sang the harmonies with me, this is the first record we even had a harmony on.
How different was it to work with someone who is removed from what you are doing musically?
We worked with the guy who did the Interpol record and the Black Rebel Motorcycle Club records and those guys were like recorders, they were a mix between engineer and producer. They were more interested in the sound than the song. Jerry Harrison (producer of Pawn Shoppe Heart) is more of an engineer/ producer; he really cares about the song. But in a different way than Butch. Butch was singing note for note along with me for every single song we were working on. So, I'd say, "here's the chorus, I want to hear it in stereo," so we'd sing it together, he was there to push me in the right direction and to let me know that I was doing good.
Did it give you the urge to want to work with other bands as producer someday?
That would be the next thing I'd want to do after music, to not be an engineer at all but to sit down weeks before a band hits the studio and just do the songs with them. In the studio, you do what you do but I don't know what the single is, I don't know what our best song is. And if you can find someone that you could actually trust, that's an amazing thing.
That said; were there times in the studio that you disagreed with Butch?
No, not at all. If anything, we were trying to one-up each other in a fun way. I'd play him a rhythm guitar part and he'd say "what if you played it like this?" It was the same notes but played in a different way. He can play every instrument but I can't. It was nice to have someone in the room who was competent. The first album was produced by Jim Diamond and the second one was produced by Jerry Harrison and both of those guys are great in the studio for totally different reasons but Butch was the first one to just care about the song.
Can you tell me about the departure of Marcie Bolen (former guitarist) and Carrie Ann Smith (former bassist)?
Well, on the recordings, it's me playing everything, so musically, nothing's changed. Carrie was only supposed to be in the band for six months and she stayed when the band started doing well. Our original bass player [Lauren Wilcox] was supposed to come back and take her spot. So, Carrie was only temporary, which lasted over three and a half years, and I consider Carrie a really close friend. But she quit to go back to school to get her master's degree. And I was planning on taking a year's break and they knew they weren't going into the studio because I was going to do it. So, nobody wants to wait for three and a half years. And Marcie always wanted to do her own band and she likes more keyboard driven stuff. She had a need to go and do her own music and we all agreed that this is fine.
Are you surprised on the buzz surrounding the new album considering it's been five years between records?
We don't know if it's because of drama that's happened in the past or if they thought that we were a good band that never met our potential, we hope it's the latter. When you come back after four years on an indie rather than a major, everyone assumes you got dropped. And it's not true for us. So, a lot of people might look at us as damaged goods. But when our publicist went after interviews, she was surprised that we were getting more offers that the bigger bands that are popular today.
Your song "C'mon C'mon is the theme song to the FX Network series Rescue Me, do you find that you have a different relationship to that song when you perform it now?
No, it wasn't written to be a theme song, if I had written a song specifically for a movie or show, than perhaps. But nowadays, radio stations are closing, the only chance people are going to have to hear music are through other means. Radio still helps, it's still important but you have to license your music. Like, if someone buys a videogame, they're going hear that song a hundred times. It doesn't pay that well but it's the best way promotion your going to get.
What's the generally atmosphere in Detroit right now?
Well, now I live in between Detroit and Ann Arbor. I lived in Detroit for seven years and I just moved out last year. My house got broken into twice in a month; it was in Boston-Edison, just down the street from Barry Gordy's old mansion. It wasn't a mansion, but it was six bedrooms and five bathrooms, a place like that is only $120,000. But now I live in the suburbs where it's extremely safe and boring. For music, from what I can tell, there's a bunch of good bands that have nothing to do with each other, and by that, I mean that there's no scene to build on and there's nothing to package to the world. Right now, there are two bands that I keep talking about; it's up to them to fuck up, basically. They record all of they're own songs and they need a break; I'll hopefully be taking them out of tour at one point this year. One band is called Lightning Love!, they're kinda like Tegan and Sara but if Tegan and Sara's lyrics were disturbing as hell. The music is so happy-go-lucky, but with the most gruesome lyrics about throwing up in an elevator and everyone watching you take a piss because you're drunk in the back alley, but the songs are likes candy. Another band is Billions of Brazilians and they're amazing live but I'm still waiting to hear a good recording.
What are your plans once the album is released?
We're doing South by Southwest and we'll be there for five days again. We got our distribution deal when we were there last year, we were one of the four or five bands that it happened to, so it'll be pretty cool. We'll be hosting MTV Canada Live, which is cool because they still play music. We're excited! Our real tour starts the February 12; we'll be playing London, Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver and Victoria. But in May we'll be doing a 12 or 13 date Canadian tour. I love playing Canada, we get to hear a lot more Bryan Adams. I was walking by a store last tour and all I could hear was "It cuts like a knife!" No, I love Canada. Exclaim! gives us a 5 and then like a 1.5, it's funny!
Well, I give this interview a 5.
Does that mean that the album will get a 1.5?