Jason Stollsteimer is one of those well known Michigan music cats where the myth, i.e. a rock star jerk who's difficult to work with in and out of the studio, an egomaniac, a mean street brawler who publicly 'disagreed' with former White Striper Jack White, far outshines the reality. In fact, the reality is much less exciting and far less surprising than many of us have been led to believe by the Detroit media machine. Catch him on a good day, and you may have wound up believing Josef Stalin to be a misunderstood, happy-go-lucky fellow, who happened upon unfortunate circumstances. But if you know him personally, or have ever met Jason, I'll venture a guess you found him to be the same way I did: disarmingly charming.
He dresses like one would expect a successful lead singer to dress, with white cuffs, a jacket with rolled sleeves, tight rock pants, and shoes that would make Jim Morrison green with furious envy. But the rock star fashion cloaks an intriguing and charismatic personality. I found him to be forthright, honest, friendly, and most surprisingly, humble, even in the face of some difficult and endlessly tiresome questions. Imagine remaining calm,You don't often see that in this industry, not in this age of douchebags who mistakenly believe they've 'arrived' after playing one show at the Hayloft. But here's a Plymouth/Canton kid, who obtained national success, toured the world, yet found his way back to his home state just to start the process over on his own terms.
After spending a few hours with him, I believe what people have either missed, refused to acknowledge, or just plain ignored out of spite, is Jason's precise discipline. In seconds, he can make difficult choices most of us would agonize over for weeks. He can recognize whether a musician's personality, whether it be synchronous or grating, will help complete a single, record, or tour. He has a consistent vision for his creative work, and either you're a copacetic fit, or you aren't. In fact, watching him interact with the restaurant staff, the other patrons sitting nearby who recognized him from The Von, it reminded me of the television promos currently running for the movie 'Limitless'. Because Jason can truly see, not only the larger picture, but the necessary moves two steps ahead. The different parts of the machine must be able to work congruently or what's the point ?
We spent the better part of a Royal Oak afternoon, dining and discussing the life and times of a musician who is nothing less than 'Pure Detroit'.
We spent the better part of a Royal Oak afternoon, dining and discussing the life and times of a musician who is nothing less than 'Pure Detroit'.
Let's start with Paris.
It sounds crazy, but The Von Bondies have gone to Paris eleven times and I've personally still never seen the Eiffel Tower.
You've been to Paris eleven times and have never taken the time to visit the Eiffel Tower ?
No, It was about playing the music I was writing at that time in my life. That's it. No other reason.
How's your relationship currently with the media ?
A lot of band's careers have been ruined by the media. Now with blogs, who knows what anything is doing. It was obvious that a bad article in Rolling Stone in the 1980's killed your band.
It's like the wild west now.
Now, it's like the wild west. But, it's people with pellet guns, not actual bullets. Blogs aren't real. Not in the same way as Rolling Stone. (Back in the day) they only had few major music magazines. If one of the major music magazines said something bad, you were dead. Nowadays, there are thousands of blogs, so they're bee-bees. They have no impact, not in the same way. But a hundred of those blogs equals a bullet. That's the difference. And together they're meaningful, but not as obvious of an impact as the large music magazines back in the day.
Compare the work you're doing now with what you achieved with The Von Bondies.
The Von Bondies were effortless. When I was young (pre 17), I grew up disliking blues. I grew up disliking garage rock. I grew up disliking guitars. I liked Pavement when I was a kid. I liked The Make Up. I liked Fugazi because of their vocal styles. I liked Minor Threat's cover of 'Stepping Stone', though I didn't even know it was a Monkees song, because I didn't really care about 60's music. I was not a big sixties rock fan, but I liked Motown. I wasn't a big fan of psychedelic. Growing up, I had a very small minded idea of what music was because I didn't play music until I was nineteen. I didn't really care. It wasn't part of my life before that. I went to shows, but it was mostly shows with my friend's ska or emo band. Bondies and what I do with The Hounds Below, is I know what I want now. Back then, I didn't know how to tune my guitar very well. I could only play three chords, and that's the best I could come up with. I was young and I was energetic. I was very angry at the world, like every teen is. That's why emo and hardcore music is so popular lately. That's today's rock and roll. It's not my cup of tea, but I get it.
For me the big difference between The Von
I don't ever need to play music again to pay my bills, to have a house, and have a family. But I still need to play, just because it's in my heart. Maybe I'll do it til I'm 35, or maybe until the day I die. There's 3 or 4 things that I want to achieve still that I haven't achieved before, just to prove that I'm not a one trick pony. To prove to myself, not to anybody else. Now, I'm singing the way I always could've sang, but I was too much of a pussy to try . . During The Von Bondies it was very difficult for me to put my vibrato out there with quiet music. When you're a loud band you don't have to be a good singer. You fuckin' bury yourself in loud guitars and drums. These bands that say 'We've got the world's loudest guitar player', well that probably means that you have a bad singer. Or else, you wouldn't want a loud guitar player because you'd want to hear the singing. There's no point. Black Sabbath was loud but never louder then their singer's vocals, Ozzy had a good voice. He had a crazy weird voice. It was loud rock, but it was never louder than the vocals. Nowadays loud rock and metal bands are so loud, there's basically no vocals. It's like when you see a metal band poster and the name of the band you can't even read it. That's how 'Metal' they are: so metal they don't give a fuck. But then nobody cares who you are.
How do you respond to accusations that you're difficult to work with ?
Oh it's totally true. It's totally true. I am very difficult to work with. Why? Some people in Detroit have an unfound ego or confidence because the city is very rough. It can be hard to get your band heard. Then your car gets broken into and you have this attitude of 'FUCK YOU', but there's no reason for that. In the early days of The Hounds Below we'd play Seattle and have three hundred kids show up. Then we'd play in Michigan and there'd be a hundred. And the people in Seattle literally don't (realize) I was in the Von Bondies. Which is great. Not one interviewer from the early tours mentioned my old band until they realized my last name, which would happen in the middle of the interview. So I would ask them 'do you want to talk about The Von Bondies now?' They replied 'No the reason were doing this interview is because we want to talk about The Hounds Below. And That's all I want. In Michigan, I'll never get a true fair shake at any new band I do. Because I already did a band. I'll never get an unbiased opinion about The Hounds Below without people thinking about The Von Bondies.
So no musician or band can get two shot's in Detroit ?
No, I can't. Because I already had success with one. And I feel very lucky to have had any success in that band. Besides our drummer being extremely sound at his instrument, the rest of us were really pushing what we could get away with technically. There were songs in our set list called 'Song in A' because we never changed keys. Why? Because we weren't good enough. We wanted to know where to go next. We didn't know how! And that's kind of a beautiful thing. The Stooges were like that. Ron Asheton, their guitar player, was really good, but the rest of them were holdin' on by a thread when they probably first started the band. Asheton was amazing, but in the beginning, The Stooges were knuckle-dragging simple. Which to The Von Bondies was badass, but The Stooges didn't do that on purpose. They didn't have an option, that's as good as they were. It would have been crazy for Iggy Pop to go solo years later and do the same thing. That's probably why 'Nightclubbing' was so different. Because you're a one trick pony if you keep writing the same album over and over again. And, if I did garage rock right now instead of what I'm currently doing, I would be ripping people off. Maybe one day I'll have the urge to play dirty rock and roll again, but not right now.
Tell me about the personal nature of the lyrics on 'All My Fault' off the 'new' EP.
All My Fault is a reference to an old keyboard player. There were a bunch of them. No one will ever be able to figure out who exactly it's about because they're locally all in the same boat. They're all amazing songwriters in their own bands and they have all helped us out time and time again. They're all our friends. One of them who stopped playing with us, became very bitter towards our band. He stopped coming to our shows and he stopped being friends with us. He complained about any success of The Hounds Below had. And, it became crutch for him, as two of his band members quit during this time. He said it was 'all my fault'. The song is very simple and to the point. 'You say you're better than me', that's him talking. I never said I was better than you. Just because I'm touring doesn't mean I'm better than any other band. I just believe it's worthwhile to tour and not play in front of fifty friends every night.
Has your career in music progressed the way you imagined it would ?
When I was first started playing music, I didn't want to be in a band. I didn't want to play shows, I just wanted to hang out with my friends and make noise. It wasn't until I was 24 years old I realized that my life had become playing in a band. When I was 19 or 20 and we went to Europe for the first time, I felt 'this is going to end TOMORROW!' This is totally going to end tomorrow, I want to go back to college, I'm drinking too much, I have no idea where we are. I don't know where Wales is ? I'm in Wales . . I think ? That's what was actually going through my head. I don't know whats going on. Marcie and Don, those two want to be musicians in a band and tour. Carrie, the bass player and I on the other hand were different, Carrie had a masters degree. 'This is just fun!' and for me? My friends talked me into doing that band, because I was hyper and could entertain a crowd. But, I had no guitar or singing ability. I was forced into The Babykillers which turned into The Von Bondies. I had no goal of being a musician, ever, in my life. So I was 24, and 'Oh shit, I don't have a job!' 'I'm the luckiest guy in the fucking world. I'm in a band and I had no intentions of ever picking up a guitar, EVER. Or singing or writing a song. at that time I didn't look up to songwriters, I didn't look up to guitar players, I didn't look up to garage rock guys. I tripped and fell in to this. That's what made me humble. Because at the time I didn't want any of it.
Like when our label sent a limo to pick us up at the airport in 2003, I said 'I'm gonna' take a taxi'. They asked me why ? I told them I didn't want to ride sitting sideways while drinking free whiskey, ha-ha. It was stupid. Then I found out later that the limo cost the band $400 that they took out of our recording budget. But I didn't order the limo. So all the rock star stuff, the buses and fancy hotels? I didn't want any of that. I liked playing music and honestly, connecting with an audience. It sounds cheesy, but that's why I like playing live shows. If somebody is playing a huge stadium there's no connection. Of course every band would like to reach that point, but I'd rather play three nights at a smaller venue then one show at a large one.
How much did you receive in compensation for selling 'C'mon, C'mon' ?
On paper, a lot. But after your lawyer takes 10% and your manager takes 20% and you pay 50% in taxes, you get about 20% of what it was worth. It's not a million dollars. When The Von Bondies got signed, Brian Smith of the Metro Times wrote that the band signed for one million dollars. We didn't get signed for a fucking million dollars!?! I personally got fifty grand. That's it. That's what we got paid when we signed to Warner Brothers. But he wrote that we recieved one million dollars. Within a week half of my acquaintances, not my friends, stopped talking to me. Because of what that media guy put in the paper. At no point did any of us ever get a million dollars. Nobody gets a million dollars. But people I know as well as I know you started asking 'When are you buyin' me a drink ? You're rich!!'. Everybody in the band got fifty grand over the course of four years. Four years. We each made about twelve thousand dollars per year.
But you're not washing dishes either.
No, because I write songs. Record deals are different. I did a few commercials for TV ads outside of being in bands. I write songs for a living and play music because it's what I want to do.
If Jack White walked in here right now . ?
He'd have to leave.
Would it be cordial ?
No. No. No, no. In 2002, he blew a hissy fit and didn't get his way for the first time in his life. I got the out come of that. That's basically what happened. He's the youngest of ten children. His parents are probably in their seventies. His oldest sister could've been his mom in age range. So when you're the youngest of ten, you get your way on everything. I think he's a great musician, amazing songwriter, great guitar player. I simply never liked him on a personal level, even when we were on tour together, which was only for a few weeks. Our shows after those tours were bigger than the shows we did with them, because the Stripes were still small at the time. And they immediately blew up right after we got off tour with them. And we also started doing well, we were selling out The Magic Stick size venues in Boston, with no big support label, and nobody even knew who the White Stripes were on a global scale yet. So we started succeeding without them. But, once they got big, we all got thrown into it. Just like every Swedish band at the time got thrown in with the Hives. 'The Sounds, from Sweden, when they came out sounded nothing like The Hives. But, they got compared to them all the time. It screwed them. But like all good bands they shed the shadows of being from an area with one big band and became their own dominant force.
You have to be sick to death of discussing White ?
People want me to say something negative towards the guy. I'm not saying anything negative towards him, I just don't like the guy. Isn't that OK ? I can dislike somebody, especially for a real reason. People dislike me, though they've never met me, just because they liked him. And I say that to 90% of the local haters out there.
Your sound has evolved considerably.
This new music isn't as brash and I like the smoothness and the wholesomeness of it. I'm singing from the heart instead of from the gut. I feel that I need to dress the part of what I'm singing.
So you've matured from the ripped jeans, garage rock persona.
Well, it's been 13 years since the birth ofThe Von Bondies and I'm happy now. And normally when musician's get happy they write really poppy/sappy songs. I'm still writing sad songs. It's weird, that song 'Cumberland's Crumbling', that song is the only one that gets any play on the indie radio stations across the U.S. In our live show, it's our crowd stopper, because they expect to hear garage rock. When they hear me singing that and they hear how pretty it is, to an extent, people aren't cheering, they are just standing their listening, wondering what is going on, ha-ha.
We have videos of the audience and it's pretty funny, because we want to see their reactions to see when we should put songs in the set. I believe in studying the audience and I sing with my eyes closed, so I can't really watch. I've already done the loud and fast stuff. The Von Bondies had basically ten songs an album, 8 were fast, two were slow. This band is 8 slow songs, two fast songs. I'm just not as angry anymore. It's not on purpose. We realized that most of our songs are structure oriented as opposed to energy oriented.
Do you think that writing and releasing a song like Pale Bride when you did contributed to your divorce ?
What's different ?
I'm confident in my faults. I totally know what is wrong with me. All of us have tons of faults. I know what mine are. I avoid being in situations where they'll come up.
What kind of faults do you posses ?
I've always had anxiety, ever since I was a kid. I was always the class clown in school. I would make jokes when I got nervous. And I never realized that. I've calmed down a little bit. I was awkward. I was six feet tall in seventh grade. I was one of the tallest kid. You go through that awkward stage. I always thought that people would like me more if I made jokes. I realized now that's not important, but I still randomly do it. Class clowns can be some of the most depressed kids. They think that making the world laugh will make them feel better. You run into that with a lot of comedians offstage. A lot of those people seem very depressed when they're not acting, when they're not doing comedy. Same thing for class clowns. And now I have no reason to be sad. I never had girlfriends when i was younger. I have confidence now, to an extent. But there was a long period where I hadn't kissed a girl. I didn't have a girlfriend. I didn't have girlfriends until I was older. Girls probably didn't talk to me because I was such a jackass. Part of the reason I'm so anti-putting-anything-funny-in-the-song. I don't put any schtick. Dick Valentine is hilarious, but I couldn't do that. When I play music it's to get all the feelings out I cant get out in real life.
And now I can do both at the same time. Because I'm surrounded by people that love me, and I love them. Not just my girlfriend, but in general. I've weeded out the leeches, man, and there are a fucking lot of leeches.
And I'm one of 'em!
No, no. People that are like . this happened two nights ago. I was at a party and talked to this guy for an hour. As soon as he found out I use to be in the Von Bondies he asked me 'How do you become famous?'. And, that was all he talked about. We ended up leaving five minutes after that. But he just kept talking about it 'Do You have a number', 'can you get me signed?'. That's not how it works. You have to be good on your own. It's not about 'who you know'. It's about going out and being in a place where, possibly, someone can see you that will help you. But if you play in one area for the rest of your life, nobody's coming there to find you. You've got to go out there and bump into them by accident. You shouldn't have to force a good product, it should sell itself. You have to go out there, though. Just because you've got the greatest idea for something, and you (keep) it to yourself, you're going to live a bitter life. 'Oh, I had the greatest idea for a "something". If you didn't go and put it out there, that's you're fault. That's how I looked at music for a long time. I feel like I have something that people seem to enjoy enough that it makes me enjoy it even more.
Why not re-sign with Warner Brothers ?
It's funny. We got signed by Sire, which is a subsidiary of Warner Brothers. We got signed by Seymour Stein direct. He isn't a traditional A&R person. He 'discovers' talent. And then that's it. You have to pass things by him from time to time and another A&R guy gets assigned to you. The guy that got assigned to us was great, but even if we sold millions of records, he would never get any credit. Because he didn't 'discover' us. So they don't seem work as hard as if it's their own band they had discovered. So that was from day one, that was 2002. So we put out a record and it sold 200,000 copies, worldwide, which is good for a band that didn't sound like the Foo Fighters. So when we went to do our next record in 2006, that A&R guy was gone and Stein disappeared. A new guy took over Sire. We were one of the smallest bands on the label, but I think we raised enough red flags that somebody else looked at what was going on. So I went in to start recording the next record in 2005, 'Love, Hate, and Then There's You'. Finished it, turned it in. The new guy at SIRE said 'Nooo, there's a lot of good album tracks, but no singles'. So I went back and recorded it again. Another forty grand, fucking crazy shit. This is Warner Brothers money, not mine at this point. Recorded it. He says, 'Ahh I just don't hear a single' That was 2006. 2007 rolls around, I recorded it again. All new songs, not the same songs. There's thirty songs at this point, at least I turned it in and he says 'I just don't hear it, I don't know what to tell you'. The reason why he was saying that was, reason one, in our record deal they had to put that record out no matter what. We had a two record firm, not options. They had to put it out. As soon as they accepted it, it had to come out within a certain amount of months. So, he wasn't accepting it and he had taken over our record contract. The other reason is when I asked him what was wrong with it, his response was 'It's not emo enough'. My response was 'I want off the label then, because we're not an emo band' When Seymore signed us, we were a blues-rock band. Singing non-chorusey songs. We didn't have 'C'mon, C'mon' or anything. So he says 'Well, I'm sorry you feel that way.'
I had just spent three years of my life, went through a divorce with all this stress, and all you have to say is 'You don't sound emo enough'? A week after we got off the label, that guy didn't work there any more and at the time he was the boss of that version of Sire Records.
He ruined three years of my life. In that time the Von Bondies went from selling out 1500 seat venues to not playing any show basically for three fucking years. That guy, in a way, killed the band. I'm not mad they didn't want to put out the record. I'm mad that guy didn't have the balls to tell us for 3 years. And Ironically after that happened we went to another label and some people from Warner Brothers told us 'we really like your new record'. But when we were turning it in over and over again, they never got to hear it because that guy never let anybody hear it. The rest of the label would've put it out. He wouldn't
So you sued Warner Brothers ?
I hired a lawyer to get back my record. To get them to give me back 'Love, Hate, and Then There's You', which, funny enough if I had sold a hundred thousand copies of it, I would never have gotten back how much my lawyer fees were. It was just a matter of principal. I wanted my art back. I don't hate Warner Brothers at all. But if I went back there and it happened again. . . I'd be a fool.
There's a stunning amount of misconceptions about you. If you wanted to make one blanket statement to the the local haters, what is it ?
Well, because some haters exist it helps me write better songs. I write better songs when they deal with issues. If my life was perfect, I don't know what I'd sing about. I would seriously say thank you to all of them. That's it. I just say thanks. Am I going to be inviting any of them to my birthday party? Probably not.
THE HOUNDS BELOW ARE PLAYING THE MAGIC STICK MAY 21st.