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The first time this writer saw Lightning Love play, it was a drab October evening at Hamtramck's Belmont rock venue. Headlining were the ultimately forgettable Griefs. On a different night and in a different city, this kind of evening would've been a total wash. But this is Detroit, and so blessed are we with musicality that opening bands often save a show.
Enter Lightning Love — featuring the exuberance of front-gal/keyboardist Leah Diehl, her drummer-brother Aaron and guitarist Ben Collins — who proved competent at playing unashamedly catchy pop music that night.
Don't be fooled, though; this isn't another case of faceless twee pop. No way. There's a depth in the band's lyrics that gives this band a brand of pop edge that's unmistakably Detroit. Nevertheless, their devotion to melody (remember that?), the singer's super-sweet voice and her very tinkly keyboard style confirms that Lightning Love is most definitely a pop band.
When Metro Times caught up with Leah on the phone, she was in Florida at a conference for her day job, where she'd been indulging in the open bar all day. Hence, the ensuing conversation was as free-flowing as the alcohol in Kissimmee. Yet, one gets the impression that this likable young woman doesn't need to oil up to open up.
Indeed, she's shocked that anybody cares about her music at all, especially considering the band's rather humble start. "Originally, I made some demos on a really shitty 4-track machine and a lot of people made fun of them because of how badly they were recorded," she says. "But I thought the songs were still pretty good. I got asked to play two shows and my brother said he'd back me up. He played guitar. I played keyboards. And we had a drum machine. The very first show that we ever played, the drum machine totally crapped out! It was very embarrassing. We tried to play it cool but the truth was it just killed us. We then got asked to play again about six months later, so my brother moved to drums and I called in my friend Ben [Collins, formerly of Minor Planets], who took over on guitar. That was almost 18 months ago. The thing is I always wanted to be in a band but I didn't expect it to happen."
Of course, with the notoriously unpredictable world of music, it helps to have pals in "high places," and Lightning Love's guardian angel was a Von Bondie. The lead Von Bondie, to be exact.
"This is one of the weirdest things because people think that I must've sucked his dick or something," she confesses, "but the truth is that — before I was in Lightning Love — Jason [Stollsteimer] was shopping around for a keyboard player. He was on MySpace and found my profile. He wrote to me and said he liked my songs. He never asked me to join the band. He just liked my music. I was totally star-struck because I'd never even talked to anybody in a band before. Ever since then, he's kept in touch. I think he legitimately likes our music." The band recently supported the Von Bondies in Ann Arbor. "At this point now, where we're a listenable band, he's taking us along a little bit for the ride, which is really very cool."
Despite Stollsteimer's help, Leah is keen to distance herself from Detroit's now-notorious and quickly fading "garage rock" scene.
"I didn't think about the scene at all when I was writing the music," she says. "I wasn't thinking about anybody or anything, just the songs. I don't want to say 'we don't fit in' to that because I don't want to sound arrogant. We don't feel like we're above everyone. But there aren't many bands [in Detroit] that are female-fronted. And if they are, the girl isn't writing the songs. We've made a ton of friends now and pop seems to be becoming a thing around [the city].
"There's a huge garage rock phenomenon that did happen, yet I think the White Stripes were a pop band. I think people interpret it differently. Like, the White Stripes made it just because they were 'garage rock.' No, the White Stripes made it because they had catchy songs. That's what I think anyway. They're not Paul McCartney-worthy songs, but they stick with you."
Lightning Love's debut album, November Birthday, was released earlier this year. Although obviously self-produced, the record perfectly showcases the band's adoration of perky, pure pop material. Leah, at least, is quite happy with it.
"We recorded it five times, and the last time we decided to just say 'fuck the studio.' I'm normally very shy. If an engineer thought that something was a good take, I'd just agree because I was worried about time, money and interfering. I don't know much about engineering and recording at all, so I didn't know what to ask for. Then we ended up recording the album in my brother's basement and in my bedroom. Ben is studying to become a sound engineer at U of M so he's a magician with his laptop. He can make things sound very nice. I'm as happy as I could be with it, but I do want our next album to sound better. It was a great learning experience, though."
Although excited to be playing the Blowout, this won't be Lightning Love's first appearance at the fest. "We played last year but got booked at the very, very last minute," she says. "We played a Thursday slot at 9.30 at Kelly's Bar. There's not a stage there; you play on the floor. But there were lots of people and it was very cool. This year, hopefully, we'll have T-shirts [to sell], and we have some different versions of our songs that we'd like to do."
As for the rest of the fest? "I'll be checking out Millions of Brazilians, of course," she begins her mental list. "I'd like to take the whole weekend off. I've never seen the Detroit Cobras, for instance. I'm from Ypsilanti, so I see bands at the Elbow Room and the Blind Pig if it's $5 to get in. When the Cobras play and it's a $15 admission, I give it a pass. It's part of the Detroit scene, though, and I feel like it's a necessity [to experience], whether I like the music or not.
"The Blowout is so awesome, though. It's the middle of winter — it's awful weather, yet there are so many people moving around. It's not like South by Southwest where there are some big bands and some small bands. For the most part, this is all small bands and it's a really exciting opportunity for everyone. It's very innocent. I'm just so overwhelmed because this is all I ever wanted to do. I just never did it before. Then when it happened I was like, oh my God. I'm always still surprised when people tell me that they like my band. I will play any show, any time, wherever. I'll even sing in your garage."
Before we left Leah to the open bar, we asked of the rumours suggesting she's part of the Lazersharkz.com blog team, a website that has become notorious for blogging about local bloggers, in part thanks to the air of mystery surrounding the site. The singer is suitably coy, though. "I may have been affiliated with it," she whispers, "but I got kicked out. Once you get exposed, you're not allowed to write for the site anymore. I'm not allowed to say which shark I was, either. That's top-secret information!" She pauses. "Actually, I don't know what you're talking about."
Saturday, March 7, at the Belmont, 10215 Joseph Campau St., Hamtramck; 313-871-1966. With Friendly Foes, SMOKE and Leaf Erickson.
Brett Callwood is a music critic for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.