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Everyone knows Detroit's a great town for music, no matter what one likes to hear — soul, R&B, hard rock, punk, garage rock, blues, hip-hop, electronic and lots of flavors in between. But what about the Rodney Dangerfield of rock genres, the underappreciated form known as power pop? You know, the stuff with lots of hooks and harmonies, big guitars, soaring melodies, and lyrics celebrating the joys and perils of longing for girls? Detroit may have produced the Romantics. And early on, it was both a home and inspiration to the great Marshall Crenshaw. But past those names, casual observers would be hard-pressed to name many notable pop acts that have emerged from the city.
Detroit does have a flourishing power pop scene, however, even if one has to go looking for it. And this Wednesday through Saturday, there will be a gathering of the tribes, so to speak, at Paycheck's for the 2009 Detroit International Pop Overthrow festival. IPO began as a small Los Angeles festival in 1998, and has since expanded into a series of regional events held across the United States and the UK. This year's local bash marks the second IPO festival in Detroit, with 26 area bands and a handful of out-of-towners kicking out the hooky jams all weekend.
While they're not the "headliners" — there's no such animal at IPO — Chris Richards and the Subtractions are certainly one of the acts to watch at the Detroit festival. The band is the latest project from the Livonia-based singer, guitarist and songwriter who's been a fixture on the area music scene since the late 1980s. Richards has made fine records with other bands, but his new Gangplank album, Sad Sounds of the Summer, may be his best work to date, a top-shelf example of contemporary power pop that offers plenty of tough guitar and rocking rhythm along with glorious melodies and spot-on harmonies from Richards, bassist Todd Holmes and drummer Larry Grodsky.
Richards started playing rock 'n' roll when he was a Churchill High School student in Livonia, teaching himself to play bass and forming a band with some friends that they called the Noel Redding Experience. "I'm not sure I was a huge Jimi Hendrix fan, with the exception of maybe 'Crosstown Traffic,'" Richards recalls with a laugh. "But Noel had the coolest hair! We didn't have any real body to our hair, though, so we didn't come out with the Noel look or anything."
And although hair metal was the order of the day at Churchill in the mid-'80s, the Noel Redding Experience was covering tunes by the Hoodoo Gurus, the Violent Femmes and the Waterboys, as Richards began writing what he cheerfully describes as "moronic two- to three-chord songs."
"We were the only [local] band at that time playing original songs," Richards adds "And they were just God-awful! But I think everyone really respected the fact that we at least wrote our own songs."
By 1986, Richards had moved from bass to guitar and gotten a bit more serious about his music, forming Hippodrome with his brother Kyle Richards on bass, Doyle Dean on drums and Keith Klingensmith on guitar and vocals. The band released a cassette-only EP in 1987, Novelty, recorded by the then-fledgling Dave Feeny, who now runs Tempermill Studios. By the time Hippodrome recorded their first long-player, 1989's Dogbunny, Kyle was out of the band and Todd Holmes had stepped in as their new bassist. (Dogbunny was also one of Detroit's first locally released CDs, which Richards notes just as the format threatens to go the way of the cassette.)
Hippodrome called it quits in 1990, and after Richards and Klingensmith were invited to record some songs for a power-pop compilation, they put together a short-lived studio project, the Phenomenal Cats, who released a six-song EP. Eager to start playing live again, Richards formed the Pantookas with bassist Kenny Quick and drummer Larry Grodsky, boasting a tougher guitar sound and more aggressive approach than the cooler and more streamlined sounds of Hippodrome. The Pantookas cut an album in 1997, Salad, that earned positive press (including a rave in Option) but didn't break out locally. Two years later the band split up.
But if Richards wasn't making a major impact on the Detroit scene yet, someone was clearly listening — the international power pop community is a network that enthusiastically spreads the word about new artists around the globe; in 1994, Richards was included on Hit the Hay, Vol. 1, a compilation assembled by Swedish pop fanatic Jerker Emanuelson, who later released the Phenomenal Cats disc. Since then, Richards has contributed tunes to pop anthologies released in Japan, Spain, Australia and Canada, and he estimates that 70 percent of the physical sales on the new Sad Sounds of the Summer has been overseas. (Richards is less certain about the breakdown of growing sales through digital retailers like iTunes, though, saying "You can't really see the digital stuff — you don't know who's buying it; you just get checks!")
Keeping track of his fan base outside of the country — and outside the English language — is a challenge for him. "The blogosphere seems to be the new thing, especially in Spain," Richards says. "I've been reading, or trying to read, these [music] blogs, and we'll try to translate them but obviously there's no translation tool that gets every single dialect. So you'll get the thing and it'll say, 'Songs spoken from the word of God!' I don't think they meant to say that! [Laughs] There's no way they said this, but there's no way it's negative, either!"
After years of playing with a handful of bands and releasing most of his material through his own Dogbunny label, these days Richards is teamed up with trusted friends he's known for years. Subtractions Holmes and Grodsky are frequent collaborators, and Feeny not only recorded and co-produced Sad Sounds, he released it through his own Gangplank Records imprint.
"The Subtractions complement me better than any band I've ever had," Richards says. "And the reality is that Todd played bass with me in Hippodrome for about five or six years, maybe even longer. And then Larry played drums in the Pantookas, for five or six years. So in combination, I feel like I've played with those guys forever."
With more than two decades under his belt on the Detroit scene, Richards has no illusions about achieving overnight success. But it's clear he still loves playing and recording, and he isn't about to give up anytime soon. Richards displays the effervescent enthusiasm of a true fan when he talks about the bands he loves — from the Kinks, the Who and Elvis Costello to Sloan, the Posies and Teenage Fanclub. He also mentions local faves such as the Singles and the Prime Ministers, both also playing this year's IPO Detroit fest, and the Friendly Foes. And Richards is incapable of disguising how jazzed he is when he mentions that the legendary UK 'zine Bucketful of Brains contacted him for a review copy of Sad Sounds. He's also jazzed about the upcoming IPO gig, saying, "You get these bands that just love, love playing music, and getting them all under one roof is such a great experience to see. Seeing seven or eight pure pop bands together, that's an experience that you're never going to have in this city, except for these four nights."
"When people walk into a bar and you see us — not that we're old guys or anything — but you get the perception of people thinking, 'What are these guys about?'" Richards says. "Especially when we're playing with bands who are kids, maybe 19 or 20. And, really, I'm 40 and I have a 16-year-old daughter — so, yes, these guys are kids! The hipster's kind of scene doesn't quite fit the old guy mentality. And those two groups are now officially not mingling, at least not in Detroit. But sometimes we can convert a room, that's for sure. Because I still think in our heart of hearts that we're a very entertaining trio, and we don't run out of gas. Live, we definitely have to strip the songs down because we can't do those layered guitars; we can't do those layered harmonies. But we make up for it with a punch. And with a combined age of about 125 years between us, I take pride in that!"
Saturday, April 11, as part of the four-day International Pop Overthrow festival at Paycheck's Lounge, 2932 Caniff, Hamtramck; 313-874-0909. Music begins at 7:30 p.m.; $8 cover. For more info and a full band schedule, visit internationalpopoverthrow.com.
Mark Deming is a freelance journalist who writes about music. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.