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Nothin' But The Truth From The Von Bondies

The Von Bondies' Jason Stollsteimer is so upfront it makes you wonder what he's hiding.

He's at the Molotov nightclub in Hamburg, Germany's seedy red-light district, talking to me over the phone. For the past two weeks the Von Bondies have been touring Europe, selling out shows across the UK as they watched the undeniably mind-blowing single "C'mon, C'mon" — off their new album Pawn Shoppe Heart — soar to #11 on the UK charts. He's been doing about eight interviews a day and it shows.

Not because he's tired or jaded; because he's got it down. The singer/songwriter/guitarist knows how to operate smoothly as the media pelt him with inquiries. Witty and high-strung, he talks fast, giving off the impression he has no qualms about exposing himself to the world. But in reality, he knows he's saying just enough to avoid saying it all. He's learned the hard way about the media's tendency to rearrange your words — you got to be careful or you might get a nasty shiner courtesy of Jack White (something Stollsteimer's publicist said the artist couldn't talk about "for legal reasons").

"I have really protected myself from saying certain things now, 'cause getting misquoted is really bad — it has ruined some friendships," he sighed.

When Stollsteimer talks, you want to listen, even while he gracefully skips over intentional gaps in his stories — he leaves you wanting more. Just like the Von Bondies' phenomenal rock 'n' roll songs.

"I have a problem when I'm on tour," Stollsteimer said. "I'm with the same three people, so when I do interviews I talk a lot, 'cause I'm missing talking to people. But it's not good — it drives my label crazy. They just want me to say: 'Buy the record March 9, it's great, we're rock stars.' I'm not good at that stuff."

He likes being himself — and he's proud that he doesn't pretend to be anything but. He knows his honesty makes him unique, so he's quick to admit he started writing songs — which would end up on the Detroit's foursome's debut album, 2001's Lack of Communication (Sympathy for the Record Industry) — simply because of a high-school heartbreak, nothing more.

He claims he didn't even get into music until his early 20s, just picked up the guitar one day for its healing power. "I was depressed," he said. "She broke up with me, it was my fault. I was a stupid kid, so from 19 to 21 I basically drank and started playing guitar, because it was the only thing that made me feel any better."

A Heart on the Mend

But a lot has changed since his high-school girlfriend first squashed his heart — for one, she became his wife. For two, Sire Records founder Seymour Stein (known for signing Madonna, The Ramones, the Flamin' Groovies, Talking Heads, Richard Hell and the Voidoids and The Saints, among many others) signed the Von Bondies into an arrangement that actually doesn't feel "major" at all. "Is it a major label?" Stollsteimer asks rhetorically. "We've been getting record deal offers for the last two and a half years — all the major labels we were talking to wanted us to change in some way. Seymour didn't want us to change; he said, 'Do what you guys are doing — just do it on my label.'

"He re-launched the label, he said, based on seeing us live, which is the biggest compliment we got ever — I mean, Seymour Stein," he continued in disbelief. "He has a good ear for music, and hopefully he still has it."

Listen to Pawn Shoppe Heart, and it's certain he does. It doesn't abandon the heated, swaggering rock 'n' roll feel of Lack of Communication; it improves on it. Like restoring a classic Caddy, the new album buffs out what's always been there and shows off the band — guitarist Marcie Bolen, bassist Carrie Smith, drummer Don Blum and Stollsteimer — at its best. The new record reveals sheer, intense rock 'n' roll power, the sort that fits no mold and heeds no trend. With standout heart and soul, the Von Bondies' sound feels like an old friend you just met.

By coincidence, swears Stollsteimer, the Von Bondies ended up choosing ex-Talking Head Jerry Harrison to produce their major-label debut. Harrison, also of the Modern Lovers fame, was one of many producers to approach the band after a gig at L.A.'s Troubadour, but was the only one to dig the Von Bondies just the way they were. "Seven or eight producers came to the show to meet with us and talk to us about them producing the record," Stollsteimer said. "We're from the Midwest, so we don't know what the hell's going on, who's a good producer, who's a bad one. So all these producers we were meeting were like, 'oh, I've worked with Beck, I've worked with this person, I can make you sound as good as this — I know what you guys want.' I got depressed, I don't want to be told what we should sound like — we know what we should sound like.

"And then Jerry Harrison came up — I had no idea he was in Talking Heads, which was nice because it made it sincere and honest — and he didn't say he was in Talking Heads, he said, 'I just saw your show and I thought it was amazing. It was inspirational seeing you guys play, you guys have so much energy, and I would love to work with you guys. I've never worked with a band like you. I've never done a real rock 'n' roll band who sings from the heart.'"

Something else Harrison said helps dispel widespread assumptions about the Von Bondies: "'I was told you guys were a garage rock band, but you guys are way better than a garage band,'" Stollsteimer said, quoting Harrison.

"It's funny, 'cause we aren't a garage band, but everyone thinks we are, 'cause we're from Detroit — it's cute," he laughed. "It's all right; we've grown to say, 'OK, sure, if it gets people to come see the show then, OK, I guess we're a garage band.'"

Since they grew up in the heart of Motor City — not far from garage pioneers/proto-punks MC5 and The Stooges' hometown of Ann Arbor, Mich. — such assumptions certainly aren't outrageous. But with Stollsteimer having been exposed to a lot of soul and '50s rock as a child — which is quite apparent in his impassioned vibrato wails — it makes sense that the Von Bondies diverged from the classic garage approach that surrounded them.

"I was a normal kid," he said. "I loved soul music and old Little Richard rock 'n' roll; not The Beatles or the Rolling Stones. I liked the stuff before them — I never got into that whole '60s, '70s thing; I was into the '50s."

Digging Their Diamond From the Rough

In April, the band spent four weeks working with Harrison at several studios in Sausalito, Calif., where Harrison, who Stollsteimer called a "musical psychiatrist," captured the raw bombast of their live set — something the first album lacked. "Sonically you can't hear the drums or my vocals as well (on Lack of Communication)," Stollsteimer said. "And Don's an amazing drummer and it's really not showing. On the new record, you hear those drums? They're huge. And I got more confident singing where I could sing louder and with more confidence — it was the first time it really came through strong."

The fist-pumping "C'mon, C'mon" is a simple yet inescapably engaging track, featuring spine-tingling, '80s-tinged breakdowns highlighted by echo-drenched vocals you can't help but be sucked in by. Hastily written at the last minute, it took even less time to become the band's new hit. "We had finished our record early and we had two days left. They were like, 'Why don't you write some B-sides?' One night I was in the studio really late and it was just me and this assistant engineer, basically a 19-year-old kid that knows nothing, and I was like, 'Just hit record.'"

The minimal, upbeat "Not That Social" has Smith's sweet, sneering coos on lead and an infectious, repetitive bass line, sounding more like an industrial beat than a chord, anchoring the song in back. "It's very new-wavy, kind of Blondie, Breeders-esque," Stollsteimer said. The dark, penetrating "Been Swank" is an ode to pal and Soledad Brother drummer Ben Swank, about his rough upbringing. "He didn't have exactly the most five-star childhood," Stollsteimer said, "and that's the reason that they're nice to people, because they didn't have everything, so they're more genuine."

Broken Promises & Open Minds

If Lack of Communication is about a broken heart, Pawn Shoppe Heart is about an open one. While glimpses of heartache linger on the new record, its songs stem more from personal change, growth and triumph than small-town, anguished bedroom confessions. "The first record was written while I was in Detroit, writing about a very small place, so my views on things were very small and isolated," explained Stollsteimer. "The new record is much more open-minded lyrically. They weren't about a girl this time; it was about my actual life.

"I realized there's more to life than just some silly girl that I might not see again who I ended up marrying," he added with a laugh. "But at the time I was writing Pawn Shoppe Heart, I was like, 'I'm gonna get on with my life,' but then she came back. Actually I probably went back and begged."

Previously set to marry another man, Stollsteimer's wife broke off her engagement to be with him. Her first engagement ring ended up in a pawn shop, and pawn shops — oddly enough — are where Stollsteimer sought out her second. "They poured out this whole box of rings and I looked at them and I was like, 'These are all engagement rings?' And they were like, 'Yeah.' So these are all broken-off engagements? I got really depressed and thought, I don't want to buy one here, that's a bad start.' So I wrote [the title track] about that and what happened between her and her ex fiancé."

Though his reunion with his future wife impacted Pawn Shoppe Heart, it was the band's growth in popularity and subsequent ability to travel that had the biggest effect. "[The new album] was written while touring the world; each song was written in a different country, it seems, and each has a different feel to it," Stollsteimer explained. "It sounds so cheesy — I pick up vibes from places I go and from people I meet, and I write about it. The feeling of the song is based off of that person or that place I've been to.

"But the lyrics are a whole other thing — I don't even know how to explain that, but they're normally true stories to me," he continued. "You know how your friend might tell a different story than you about what happened the night before? It's my version of the story."

And even if he prefers to leave out a few things, his story is still a good one. And the best part? It's just begun. — Jenny Tatone [Monday, March 8, 2004]

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