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|More from Brian Smith|
Sonically Speaking (9/29/2010)
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In a bed, under a Union Jack coverlet, Sights drummer Mike Trombley, keyboardist Bobby Emmett and singer-guitarist Eddie Baranek are writhing nearly naked between the sheets.
They’re in the small, “Keith Moon”-themed bedroom of Siren singer Muffy Kroha’s Indian Village home, and the Metro Times photo shoot finally begins because the band has its lube on — beer, Cabernet and Irish whiskey course through their young veins.
The irony of Moon isn’t lost on the trio. For them, the Union Jack image is a gag on — and a bit of a nod to — the Who, circa Happy Jack.
The home’s decor is an explosion of color; a solicitous valentine to Marc Bolan-era glam, ’60s mod and futuristic ’70s kitsch, such that at any moment you could picture a fuzzy-slipper-and-bikini-clad Raquel Welch (circa Bedazzled) step from a closet, arms akimbo, tits heaving. This backdrop, particularly the Moon tribute room, befits the Sights well allegorically; here’s a band that creates a confection of psychedelia, pop, blue-eyed soul and Merseybeat-spiked blues — a winning salvo of hooks, color and heart — that they can call all their own.
Their new Jim Diamond-produced, self-titled record sees its American release this week on well-funded major-indie Scratchie/New Line. It’s the Sights third full-length and their best yet — and their pivotal loss-of-innocence record. Their own Help, if you will, only without so many Lennon regrets. The band is incontestably Detroit’s finest rock ’n’ roll band at the moment.
Suddenly the ruddy-cheeked singer leaps off the bed onto the floor and back again, and hits repeat, like some manic windup doll. (On one hurdle he rates himself: “That was a C-minus Iggy! … I hate Iggy.”) He screeches and shouts, gyrates and occasionally grabs a layabout acoustic guitar with which he becomes a human jukebox, challenging anyone to stump him on a Flying Burrito Brothers tune, or the Clone Defects or even the Gories.
“No, no, c’mon, name any Beatles tune,” he shouts, and he’ll “play it,” which he does, but just the first 30 seconds before slyly shifting keys into a Stones or Band ditty. His voice, as lit as he is, hovers in a winning tenor that in others has been known to summon sexual tension in little girls; melancholic and distorted, it’s almost like Lennon’s. Emmett drops photo duty and chimes in on a perfect harmony, only to stop midway through to ask rhetorically, “Why can’t that happen live?”
Baranek sets the guitar on the floor, takes a flyer back onto the single-sized bed and mimes Metallica: “And now I lay me down … over Trombley’s big cock.” Trombley screams: “Focus, fo-cuuuus!”
Then Trombley disappears. In minutes he returns to bed flush-faced in a fluffy crimson halter-top thingy, looking very Dolls-esque — Valley of the Dolls or the New York Dolls, take your pick. Emmett steps on glass from a shattered bottle that tumbled from the nightstand. Baranek licks Trombley’s face. There’s farting noises. The goofs go on for a few hours.
It’s becoming apparent that the photographer might not get a usable shot of the trio. The usually dignified 27-year-old Trombley rolls his eyes, a frustration he masks with laughs. “They’re so early 20s,” he cracks, shaking his head. “And I’m so mid-to-late 20s.”
Minutes later, the singer is seated in front of a dressing table mirror in Kroha’s elaborate shoe and make-up room, and with the graceless poise of ex-strippers in cosmetology school, Trombley and Emmett carefully apply makeup to his face. As his features are colorized with light cherry blush and reflective lip gloss, Baranek quickly takes on an androgynous mien — which he of course plays up — and the homoerotic references take flight. When the singer suddenly becomes self-conscious, which he often does when he’s the center of attention, he up and leaves the room. The juxtaposition of this scene is telling. Here’s a trio that can outmuscle anyone live, a band that understands why the Who were so much more rock ’n’ roll in attitude than, say, Mötley Crüe; they have the gutsy larger-than-life persona, but it’s balanced with humor, balanced with acumen.
Back in the Moon room, Baranek relates a yarn involving record mogul Rick Rubin, the star-making producer and founder of Def Jam records (he gave rise to the Beastie Boys, Run DMC, Public Enemy, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and single-handedly resurrected Johnny Cash’s career). In 2003, the hirsute Rubin flew the Sights out to showcase at West Hollywood’s notorious Troubadour club. Rubin was actively pursuing the band, often sending his minion out to spend time with them.
Baranek fashions a bedsheet turban on his head, crosses his arms over his shirtless, hairless chest, smirks and does a droll impersonation of Rubin with keen observational insight. Chin up and with a stone-faced expression, he slowly and gracefully moves his small frame sideways across the Moon room floor.
“Rick Rubin floated in on his hair and beard like Samson,” he says of the exec’s Troubadour entrance. Then he drops his voice to mock the producer’s careful, self-important timbre, and says, “‘My naaame iiiiis Rick Ruuubin. And I’m [here Baranek launches into a note-perfect, a cappella chorus of the traditional “Angels We Have Heard on High”] Glooo-oooo-oooo-oooo-oooo-reee-a.”
“I don’t trust myself with anyone,” Baranek continues, now seated on the bed. “If they told me I was sweet — I wouldn’t have believed them.” He explains how Rubin wanted to meet with him privately. “And then he tried to separate us and I thought that was low. I met up that night with Tony from the Muggs, my old friend, instead. I’d rather hang out with him.”
The Sights informed Rubin, the story goes, that “we don’t do showcases. We don’t care about you or your label.”
“It’s band or nothing,” Baranek adds, emphatically.
It’s that fuck-you attitude that’s kept the band anchored in town probably longer than they should’ve been, and might keep them from ever hanging a gold or platinum album on their walls.
As, band fan James Iha — the ex-Smashing Pumpkins/Perfect Circle guitarist and co-head of the Sights’ U.S. label, Scratchie — says, “I thought, ‘They’ve got to be signed,’ when I saw them open for the Datsuns. I didn’t think we’d get them.”
The heart of the Sights is its main songwriter, Baranek. To understand him is to see him unleash. Once he’s oiled, when the tender moments fall away, he’s as he is on stage, the exhibitionist child, powered by the promise of transformation, milking the spirit of Steve Marriott, Faces’ Rod and young Keith Richards — not with calculated cops, but by an earnest love and deference to the music. He’s a musical mythologist who absorbed his lessons well.
And Baranek is a superstar, not in the fame, fortune and model-boffing sense, but in a self-effacing charismatic sense; his charm is from subtle and intangible things that inevitably draw others to him. And there’s such satyr-like joy in his antics and in his beam that it’s hard not to just go along with him, even if he’s bitching a blue streak about the current state of rock ’n’ roll, or pulling an absurd prank that Keith Moon didn’t already do 40 years ago. His energy is strong right now, as is the band’s — their “career” timing couldn’t be better — and it fuels Baranek’s knee-jerk cynicism toward the music biz (he chants derisively throughout the photo shoot: “We’re trying to move units, it’s all about selling rec-cords”), his hometown musical elders (“Coz Canler: straight from L.A. in his sweet L.A. vest”), and his own insecurities about his songwriting, physical appearance and musical knowledge.
Baranek, who lives at home with his parents and has a steady girlfriend, has worked hard, suffered even, for the music, and after three albums (including 1999’s Are You Green?; 2002’s Got What We Want) he’s seen a slew of key band members either quit or get fired (original bassist Mark Leahey, drummer Dave Shettler, drummer Eugene Strobe, keyboardist Nate Cavalieri, bassist Matt Hatch and others), losses that would’ve killed other bands. Trombley was actually the first Sights drummer — for seven months in 1998; he rejoined a year ago. The 22-year-old Emmett came aboard in summer 2003.
If Baranek never scales rock star heights it’s because he’s too smart, too unwilling to kiss record-biz ass, and he won’t sell out. He can spot an agenda-advancing huckster a mile off. He’s been known to lampoon label execs in their presence and not return their calls. His response to courting Capitol records was, simply, “Nah.”
“We didn’t really want to be on a major label because we see what happens to the bands,” he says.
As banal as it sounds, it could be make-or-break time for the Sights. They’ve done their leg work; extended American and European tours and festival shows, played a New Musical Express (Got What We Want made NME’s Top 50 of 2002 list) awards show, and received critical accolades, particularly overseas. Their hard-won touring rep lands them to-kill-for opening slots on tours (they just returned from a three-week, nearly sold-out stint with the Kills, and in days they head out on a run with the Donnas).
And New Line Records, a part of Time-Warner Company, is hoping the Sights do for them what Creed did for Wind-Up records; they want to break the band. The label needs a breakout band to be a force.
The Sights are pop-star ready, sure — loud, sincere, alluring with smooth skin, good hair, high cheekbones and swimmer’s builds, in suit jackets and floppy fringe. But livelihood in rock ’n’ roll hinges on whether or not the kids get it.
The Sights’ whole scene could be lazily interpreted as Kings of Leon booze, chick and yayo cliché if not for the hyper-intelligence of the band members themselves; their stop-at-nothing spectacular, sometimes tumbledown, live shows; and their seemingly well-mothered sensitivity toward women. Baranek and Emmett often dedicate songs to their mothers at local shows; on the road they’re committed to their significant others.
Before the four-hour photo session ends, the 5-foot-6-inch Baranek half-glibly sums up his life as a rock ’n’ roll front man thus far: “All I have is my girlfriend getting mad at me and no money.”
They’re the words of a slightly conflicted young man.
The next day the Sights arrive on the set of their video shoot a good 45 minutes late. In the Crystal Ballroom, inside the Masonic Temple, they’re shooting a clip for the Sights first single, “Circus,” a three-minute, we-deserve-the-airwaves belter that subtly skewers rock ’n’ roll’s overrated Bright Young Things, and Baranek’s loathing with bands that tour, get home and write their next record about being on tour.
Baranek had made a night of it after the previous afternoon’s photo shoot. He got on stage with All Night Push to sing a rousing rendition of “Suzy Q,” then headed across town and jumped on stage with his pals, the Hard Lessons. He’s suffering a hangover and sports a marble-sized knob on his head born of an unfortunate run-in with a pole. He hasn’t slept much and his eyes are bleary.
The 20-odd-person film crew, headed by director-producer Anthony Garth — who’s shot videos for the White Stripes, the Detroit Cobras and others — mills about. The crew’s stylist goes on a hunt for Visine to pacify the crimson in Baranek’s eyes. There are a few curious onlookers and Emmett’s girlfriend, Jaclyn, stands close by. The ballroom’s ornate, Italian Renaissance motif, its antique chandeliers, arched ceilings and wood floors enhance the band’s decadent and messy elegance well.
Garth wrote the clip’s treatment; he and Baranek go back a few years and the singer lets Garth just do “what he does.” Garth says the video is “gonna be Kubrick-esque, a performance video with bicycles, stills and subtle effects.” He also gave the Sights a friendly fee, saying the label’s getting an $80,000 video for $8,000.
The guitar-and-Hammond driven “Circus” booms through PA speakers, and the band, framed by the Super 35mm lens, simulates a live show, the members quickly settling into their roles. Guitar-wielding Baranek, kohl-eyed, with tousled, high-forehead Jesus hair, hits the “on” switch and flies into his shuffle-kick-strut and swift up-and-back guitar half-cock, with not a trace of a hangover. He works the camera with an intuition that’s part burlesque; half self-send-up, half self-belief.
On massive twin Hammond B3 organs, Emmett’s black neck-length Hugo-ad-ready coif swishes forward and back; on accents, his arms swing in giant half windmills, a move he describes as “Emmett out-Emersoning Emerson.”
Seated at his low-center-of-gravity drum kit, Trombley is an aesthetically correct portrait, straight-backed with a short blond shag and smartly trimmed facial hair, wearing jeans, a black V-neck sweater over a button-collar shirt. He pounds along with Ringo grace.
During a break, Baranek talks of how much he adores his girlfriend, Sarah Bissa, and how their relationship has been up-and-down for years, adding that she keeps him grounded. “We started going out when we graduated high school in June ’99. Shit, I broke the band up once ’cause I was obsessed with her. We’ve been on and off. Been on for about the last three years, though, pretty solid.
“When she graduates from Wayne State in late April, I’ll be in Tucson gigging that night,” Baranek adds. “Great boyfriend.”
That segues into grievances about band business, as the Sights are manager-free at the moment, which means Baranek is saddled with such tasks as organizing the band’s merch, overseeing the upcoming American and Euro tours, the overseas record releases and staying on top of the labels to see if they’re communicating with each other. He says he’s stopped writing songs because of it. His fear is that in three months there’ll be a foot-long line of Sights CDs in every used record bin in the country.
Welcome to rock ’n’ roll. But Baranek points out that he’s not bitching, that he’s “really grateful.” But the workload wears on him; it’s his license, he says, to let loose on the town, on stage or on tour. Then he adds, as if to punctuate the sentiment, “We’re ready, man. We’ve got gear. I’ve got enough fucking amps for the party.”
When Baranek talks, it’s more a rattling of images and ideas, neatly packaged with vitriol and comedy. But his every word carries weight, irony or no. He knows this. He rarely finishes a thought before he’s ripping into another. When he senses that you might be losing interest, he’ll kill the sentence, usually with a glib “whatever.” It’s the same when he talks about the band’s new label.
“It’s look out for yourselves. At the same time, New Line is our family. We never sat down long enough with anybody to look at offers. [Scratchie] is the only one we cared to really continue talking to.”
James Iha’s one-of-the-boys unfussy energy is what excited Baranek about Scratchie. “Iha was a big fan, big supporter,” Baranek says. “He’s the guy that phoned us, in spring 2003. We’re on a six-week tour with the Datsuns. Iha comes out to a show and likes what he sees. I’m selling the merch. He meets me at our merch table. He’s like, ‘Wow, I really like your band.’ Comes the next night and buys the shirt, all the albums, buys us shots and drinks all night. He’s like, ‘Hey, man, you know, I got this label.’ We were like, ‘Yeah, we played with one of your bands, the Blank Theory. They were terrible.’
“So about eight months later we actually called him. We were like, ‘Hey, man, you still want to do this deal?’ And they’re like, ‘Fuck yeah. Are you kidding?’”
Iha says he loves the Sights and their inherent attitude, their willingness to work for a career. “We were looking for good bands and singers that are real. The Sights have all that,” he says. “They’re a solid rock band with a built-in fan base. We just want to get the record out there.”
Did he impart wisdom or any mentoring to the young Baranek?
“I don’t think he needs any mentoring; they need the record to be successful. The only mentoring I did was I gave him a Top 10 list of questions to ask asshole managers. That, and I sent him a fuzz pedal.”
Simon Keeler heads Sweet Nothing, a good-sized U.K. indie that’s home to the Sights in Europe. He fell in love with the band and released Got What We Want as well as the new one.
“In 2001, the White Stripes thing happened in the U.K., and it really made people actually get back into real music, not formulaic crap over here,” Keeler says. “We were already distributing the likes of the Dirtbombs, Mick Collins, various other projects. And I think that Jim Diamond actually played me some Sights stuff. Eddie will hate this, but it reminded me of the first Nuggets box set, and it was different to the blues-driven garage howl that people were falling over.”
Got What We Want, according to Keeler, sold about 4,500 copies in Europe, “70-75 percent of those sales in the U.K.”
And The Sights, which came out there in February, has moved about 2,000 copies so far. “That’s without a tour, video or major features in the press,” Keeler says. “And now the mainland Euro press is lapping them up, which will prove better for sales potential in the long run; 2005-2006 is going to be a busy and fruitful time for Edward and Co.”
Back on the set, Garth invites Baranek to take his pick between a girl’s or a boy’s bike. “Ohh, the girl’s bike,” Baranek says. “It has a basket? Oh, perfect. Flowers in the basket? Fuck, yeah.”
A crewmember with a clipboard gives the bicycle a once-over and says, “Are we sure about the flowers?”
“Fuck, yeah,” Baranek says, cutting him off.
The stylist inserts a white flower into the singer’s ear, and applies a quick pat of powder to his face.
Garth asks Baranek when was the last time he rode a bike. Steering shakily, Baranek lifts one hand off the handlebars, makes a quotation mark with two fingers, and says, “Not since the big accident.” The Dylan motorcycle crash. He never misses a beat; much of his existence revolves around embracing and mocking everything about rock ’n’ roll.
Trombley and Emmett man their instruments, the song cues and the film rolls. Baranek wheels the vintage girl’s bike in cockeyed figure-eights, flowers in hair and basket, resembling Katharine Ross in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and mouthing “Circus” lyrics with just a hint of embarrassed flush washing over his face.
In a moment, the planet’s gravitational spin pulls the front man and bike down to the wood floor. “I started out Keith Moon but ended up Brian Jones in the swimming pool,” he says, in an I-did-that-on-purpose kind of way, pulling himself up.
Later, New Line insisted Garth delete the bicycle scene. “It was a little too cocky for them,” he says.
Mike Trombley was born on Detroit’s East Side, is the son of a firefighter, and actually attended a fire academy, which he quit after 12 weeks. He began playing in bands at 18, including the Detroit shoe-gaze outfit Glider — with Dean Fertitia, Dominic Romano and Kevin Peyok of the Waxwings — which lasted four years. He first joined the Sights in 1998, lasted seven months, was kicked out and moved to California.
He quit his band in L.A. and returned to Detroit last April to join the Sights. “Yeah, I moved back here for the band,” Trombley says. “And it’s almost depressing when you’re not working and you’re playing music and you have, like, a month off or three weeks off. I know why Detroit is such a hard-drinking city. I think I was always a moderate drinker, but coming back to Detroit and being in this hard-drinking band … I’ve definitely slowed my role, because I can’t keep up with those guys.”
Bobby Emmett grew up in Trenton and Allen Park, then moved to Rochester in high school. His parents wanted the family to get a chance at a better education, “but that didn’t really work out,” he says. Emmett’s parents, who just separated and are living in Alabama, are, Emmett says, not well physically. It’s a sensitive subject he doesn’t want to talk about. “But they support [the Sights], and we’re close.”
Emmett is so gentle and soft-spoken that it’s disarming, and his frightening good looks make him the obvious band pinup. He’s been described as a prodigy by anyone who knows him. He moved out at 18 and worked odd jobs, turning his back on full music scholarships. He came up playing jazz saxophone and classical piano, studied with jazz maestro Harold McKinney and others, but “just kinda burnt out on it. I really started digging the organ and rock when I was 19 or 20. I had a full scholarship to Wayne State and some money to go to Berklee in Boston and other places. I went to Wayne State for two weeks and dropped out. Everyone was mad; they’re like, ‘We gave you the money to do that.’ But I didn’t want to do it.”
He had a small demo studio where he recorded his own stuff and other artists for cash. “I’ve recorded a lot of really shitty hip hop. People who wanted beats. They’d come and pay you 80 bucks a day and they’d get wasted and smoke pot the whole time. But it was such easy work because it was so stupid.”
In 2002, Emmett ran into then-Sights drummer Dave Shettler at Boss Guitars in Ann Arbor. “I played on some piano that I wanted to buy, and Dave was like, ‘Dude, you have to play on the album.’” He went down to Jim Diamond’s studio for the Got What We Want sessions and played on “Everyone’s A Poet” and added a bizarre piano solo to “It’d Be Nice (To Have You Around).”
Six months later, Baranek drunkenly approached him at a club with a proposal to join the band.
“He came up to me and said, ‘Half my band quit, can you do left-hand bass and organ?’ And I was like, ‘Yep.’ And he said, ‘Get your passport, we’re going to Europe.’ So I quit my job at the grocery store and went to Europe. It was great; it was my first time ever on tour and my first time ever on the road. It was so much fun. There were some really big shows, like one outside Rome; it was people as far as you could see. We played the Redding and Leeds festivals in England, which are huge.”
Emmett’s other big show prior to the Sights? He played the Montreux Detroit Jazz Festival at Hart Plaza in 1999, after acing an amateur, live-playoff sax contest. “There were a lot of people, a lot of old people, some young,” he says. “I won a lousy Pepsi leather jacket.”
When the Sights began playing out six years ago, they were the 9 o’clock heroes, attitudinal teens on the outside of a festering garage scene, willing to play on any bill. They were often dismissed as mod-loving, gullible punks, hence their first album title, Are You Green?, which puns Hendrix’s Are You Experienced?
“In ’98, ’99 we were like 17, 18 years old, playing the Magic Stick, opening up for all these bands that’d pay us like $38,” Baranek says.
Dirtbombs drummer and Cass Records owner Ben Blackwell has been pals with Baranek since their mid-teens, and has just released a vinyl-only version of The Sights featuring different songs. He remembers seeing them in 1998 at the Wired Frog, an all-age coffeehouse in Roseville. “They played ‘Trash’ by the New York Dolls, and nobody knew who that band was,” Blackwell says. “Eddie introduced the song, saying, ‘This is a song by the New York Dolls, not that any of you would know who they are. It goes out to all you people from Roseville. It’s called, “Trash.” Even then that’s just so Eddie, with that underhanded jive, but not really being a blatant prick. It’s that sly humor that hits you when you walk away. You go, ‘Wait a minute, what did he just say?’”
“But early on we probably didn’t get a lot of respect from all the old Uncle Rocks,” Baranek says. “And, yeah, we had stickers on our guitars and, yeah, we got some shit in Detroit for it. That did hurt early on. All these people were 17 once too.”
The only real hard knocks Baranek has seen in his 24 years (his birthday just passed) have been band-created. He still lives unapologetically with his parents in the home he grew up in. Dad owns a landscaping business (for which Baranek works on occasion) and Mom is an ex-teacher. He has two older sisters — Kim, who now lives in Oakland, California, took Baranek to his earliest rock shows; and Becky, who’s married, drove Baranek to school listening to “New Order, Depeche Mode, Erasure, Yaz and the Psychedelic Furs.” Baranek says it was his sisters who sent him down the correct musical path. He picked up Kim’s acoustic guitar at 14 and began playing.
The Baranek home, in St. Clair Shores, is suburban pretty, unpretentious, bright and homey. It’s obvious that Baranek is still close with his parents. That he lives at home sparks certain defensiveness: “I don’t want Joe Blow in the scene who lives in Woodbridge with his great wooden floors and with his girlfriend to call me out and be like, ‘You’re not rock ’n’ roll.’ Tough crap, man. My family likes me. I like my family.”
Mom looks at her son with nary a raised brow; she’s fine with rock ’n’ roll under the roof. She’d often make dinner for the band, and sometimes sends care packages on the road with them.
Earlier in the day, she asked her son why he hadn’t shoveled the snow on the sidewalk. Now she’s in the kitchen asking if he’s hungry.
Would she rather her son were in college? “No,” she says, “not at all. This is great, he gets to see the world.” She produces a picture of her son in the first grade with “the bowl cut,” and says, “He was an excellent student, top of his class, dean’s list at Wayne State. He had private education since the age of 3.”
Baranek bailed on college (he majored in American Studies) to do the Sights. “I’m gonna ride [the Sights] and then I’ll get my life together,” Baranek says. “I’ll give it three years. Realistically, one album or two more albums. Then I’ll go back to school. In three years, I would move out either way.”
His pink-walled, upstairs bedroom is a spectacular mess, that of a man with a teen’s visual flair and super-fan’s appetite for music. Historic rock ’n’ roll and soul artifacts, hundreds of singles, albums and tapes; signed Creation and Zombies singles. A collection of Raymond Carver stories sits on the floor atop a stack of English magazines, Mojo and NME.
Here he rattles off his list of life-changing records: the first Nazz record (Todd Rundgren, “a 19-year-old recording, writing and producing”), Stevie Wonder’s Talking Book, The Band’s Music from Big Pink, the self-titled Small Faces, the Jam’s Setting Sun and Sound Affects (two that define his “summer between eighth and ninth grade”), Zombies’ Odyssey and Oracle, Nina Simone’s Pastel Blues, Traffic’s Mr. Fantasy, Neil Young’s Everybody Knows This is Nowhere. He talks about Memphis blues and Edwin Starr and Solomon Burke. He likes Tina Tuner for the “screeching” and digs Ike for his “non-cheesy way of playing clean blues.”
He developed a love affair with Detroit bands in high school, and went to see such bands as the Rocket 455 and Clone Defects as a junior. He’s very aware of his musical antecedents — he can school anybody about any of them — and where he stands in the rock ’n’ roll hierarchy. In this he knows he’s small, but you hear pieces of all those records in all the Sights’ songs.
His ability to play lead and rhythm guitar and sing and perform is alone a skill that transcends his youth. It’s born of his love of Townshend and “filtered through Wilko Johnson in the ’70s and stolen by Paul Weller.”
His guitar inspirations, he says, arise from Jack White (“Seeing the White Stripes two feet in front of me at the Gold Dollar and Jack playing lead and rhythm”), the Hentchmen’s Tim Purrier; Craig Fox and Brian Olive of the Greenhornes; and Rocket 455/Shanks guitarist Jeff Meier. His says his favorite is Greg Cartwright. “I first saw him play live in 1999 at the Magic Stick with the Compulsive Gamblers. His live intensity fucked my mind; so raw, so real, and not a punk rock guy. He had balls, and he could kill you.”
If Are You Green? was a teen-fueled, lo-fi love letter to ’60s pop, early Pink Floyd and punk rock, and Got What We Want was a logical extension defined by heavy record discovery — the Band, Zombies, etc. — then the newest, The Sights, is all their own.
Eddie says he made a conscious decision early to not get musically cornered. “We stepped out of this little power-pop box we had built for ourselves. We said, ‘Let’s just fucking blow this shit out of the water and fucking be a real band.’ I said, ‘When we’re looking for covers, guys, let’s not look at “30 Days in the Hole.” Let’s dig a little deeper so we look like real legit blues. So let’s go black so we can look like we’re real 313.’”
On The Sights, songs quickly turn corners, probably out of Baranek’s fear of getting locked into tired, tried-and-true chord progressions. But his reach never exceeds his grasp, and those arrangements and chord changes we’ve all heard a million times before are lifted out of wax museum-nostalgia and given a proper oomph, spin and luster.
Baranek undermines the melodies and structures of his heroes from the inside out; this is what separates him as a songwriter from nearly every other band mining similar territory — those retrofitted emotional neuters and Anglo-hype prototypes hogging newsstand space with perfected preens, from Jet to the Killers.
The songs also mirror his high intelligence and short attention span well. The clever, if not disjointed, twists are surprising and memorable — the harmonic wrenches are what keep Baranek’s pop and swagger from careening into the overcrowded rock ’n’ roll dumpster. You hear pieces of his record collection, but those instances are the song’s gateway, not their thrust, nor their definition.
It sometimes takes a personal investment from a fan of rock ’n’ roll to get into the Sights music; the band simply ignores the confines of the mainstream. Baranek gets bored with anything that’s either easy or facile. And part of his brilliance is that he manages to surround himself with like-minded, young and equally talented musicians.
But that’s not to say there aren’t loads of scrappily blasting, sing-song should-be hits mingling with baroque hum-a-longs.
There’s Dr. John boogie-woogie piano and Kinks-like phrasing on “Backseat,” a biting turn with an appropriately syrupy chorus that contradicts the lyrical tirade aimed at a Detroit rock scene caricature: “You were one of the people, enjoying the dream/that you read about in a magazine.”
Baranek’s Catholic guilt comes to haunt him in “Scratch My Name in Sin.” “Just Got Robbed,” sits on a simple lick, a Motown beat, and is bookended by B3 stomps, which lift into an instantly shout-along refrain. “That was me singing a Johnny Hentch [John Szymanski from the Hentchmen] melody line. And I did a hillbilly hiccup in there to give a dynamic. To show people that I’m not fucking ’70s rock,” he says. “I’m a pirate.”
Emmett’s “Baby’s Knocking Me Down” and “Suited Fine” see his sugar-sweet, George Harrison-reminiscent lead vocal swing into ballad-land. “I wrote ‘Baby’s Knocking Me Down’ the day before we went into the studio,” Emmett says. “I had just broken up with a girl.”
As a lyricist, Baranek’s writing from experiences, from did-him-wrong, or he-did-wrong characters in his past, and from simple observations. He’s the first to admit that his lyrics don’t necessarily stand on their own. But in context, they’re simple, honest truths sprinkled with sparkly couplets, such as, “She wears her arrogance, like it was a brand new dress/But nobody wears it like that anymore.”
Baranek can capture sorrow, and does on “Waiting on a Friend,” a country-like roll whose title is lifted from the Stones. It’s an ode to his old Sights running bud, Mark Leahey. “That was about losing my friend, Mark; my best friend, my songwriting partner, my blood, my ally, my only brother I ever had,” Baranek says.
Leahey started the pre-Sights band the Same with Baranek when they were sophomores at De La Salle High School in Warren. His melodic McCartney-style bass playing and enthusiasm for rock ’n’ roll (and music in general) history paralleled Baranek’s.
Tracing the Sights’ relatively short history is a confusing task because so many have passed through the ranks. In short, the Same became the Sights when Mike Trombley joined.
Local impresario Aaron Warshaw had a label called Spectator and gave the Sights money to do a full-length in 1999, which resulted in Are You Green? The record was done with Jim Diamond at Ghetto Recorders in fits and starts with two different drummers, Gene Strobel and Dave Knapp. Spectator went belly-up and L.A. indie Fall of Rome re-released the record in 2000.
And Baranek says he’s eternally grateful for Warshaw. “If he didn’t give that $1,900 to do Are you Green?, I would not have what I have now. From there I got on Fall of Rome records. From Fall of Rome I got Dave Kaplan as a booking agent. From there I got a real lawyer. And I did these all on my own. I got them there because [Warshaw] got my first album out. And he never asked for anything back. I gotta be more thankful to these guys because they gave me that initial run.”
In fall 2001, drummer Dave Shettler joined the band. As a gifted drummer, a multi-instrumentalist, and a skilled writer, arranger and singer, his importance to the group’s sound can hardly be undervalued.
“At first, me and Mark were the musical brothers,” Baranek says. “We were the two. You can only have so many. When Dave came, it became Dave and I. Now it’s Bobby and I.”
The band began doing out-of-state shows, recorded Got What We Want, their last for Fall of Rome, and soon added a fourth member, keyboardist Nate Cavalieri. This crew toured North America.
Cavalieri was drawn to Baranek as a front man: “He generates the feeling that he doesn’t give a shit, that you are witnessing something that will never happen again, and there is something really special about that — whether it’s some howling, transcendent thing, or whether it’s a disaster. What he’s able to do from the stage is a kind of fuck-you to all these bogus trends, and a middle finger to everything that any self-respecting person hates about music.
“When you would watch Jason Von Bondie play, and he’s so well-groomed and fake-macho and full of shit, and then when you watch Eddie, it’s the opposite. You get the feeling that he’s an underdog or something.”
Then Leahey spun out of control on heroin, crack and booze. After a couple of rehab stints, he was fired, rehired and when things got really ugly, the union was over. Baranek kicked his bud out of the band.
“Eddie and I were always together, we hung out every day and went through the same shit together,” Leahey says. “I was 20 then, and I had a pretty serious problem with drugs and alcohol. I was really out of control and it affected my relationships with the rest of the band. Our then-drummer Dave Shettler and I pretty much hated each other. Eddie wanted me to just get control of myself and start being myself again, but I couldn’t and he knew that he couldn’t keep turning his back on my problem. So he told me I had to leave. I was pretty upset at the time, but it really was the best thing for me.”
Cavalieri remembers Leahey getting the boot: “Mark was a fuck-up who did too many drugs and couldn’t keep his head out of his ass, and when the band was trying to do something, he was a liability.”
Leahey has since cleaned up. He joined the Army, went to Iraq and now is stationed in Germany with a wife and son. Baranek and Leahey are friends again.
Leahey’s replacement was bassist Matt Hatch. The band headlined a U.K. tour in early 2003 to support Got What We Want, followed by a long U.S. tour. In May, Cavalieri and Hatch bailed, both saying they couldn’t tolerate Shettler.
The band limped along on another short tour that year with Saturday Looks Good To Me’s Fred Thomas filling in on bass. Soon Emmett arrived.
Then a year ago, as the band was putting finishing touches on The Sights, Shettler up and walked out of Jim Diamond’s studio, and the band.
“He told me he quit over the E-flat 7 chord also known as the C minor,” Baranek says. “He was fighting for some minor chord. He left and he took the sandwich that I’d made for myself. Prick. I really wanted that ham sandwich. And he walked home, ate the sandwich, and called me at the studio and goes, ‘Yeah, I’m done.’ And I just go, ‘OK.’ He wanted me to be in shock and I wasn’t; I really didn’t care. But of course I cared. I had a band, I’d just signed a deal. I’m right in the middle of recording what’s supposed to be the most important thing in my life. And the whole world has crashed. My musical brother and ally. And again, ‘What the fuck do I do now?’
Shettler says there were musical spats in the studio. He adds that he “didn’t really feel like getting pushed around” by a big record company. “And getting played by WRIF between Jet and Mötley Crüe was definitely not one of my immediate goals.”
“Me and Bobby, we were shitting our pants,” Baranek says. “So we got Billy Hafer [Human Eye, Paybacks] in the band, but I wanted Trombley.”
Trombley flew in, and passed the audition.
“He didn’t think he was good enough; he’s always insecure, more than me,” Baranek says. “But he gave up his life to be in my band.”
Trombley moved back to Michigan from his L.A. home, basically to live on peanuts, for the gig. Both he and Emmett survive on band money.
On stage at the Flamingo Cantina in Austin, Texas, at this year’s South By Southwest festival, the Sights are alive. And Baranek, who’s unshaven in a red shirt and soiled jeans, looks the part of a grizzled soldier heading off to war. His voice is shot, he can barely hit the higher notes, and it gives the impression of Joe Cocker, popping forehead veins and all. He’s been hitting the bottle hard the last few nights, and this is their fourth show in as many days. But who can tell? The hundred or so crowded to the front, whose heads are nodding, whose fists are raised, who sing along as if in on some private knowledge that the Sights won’t be their pet band for long, are in the moment.
The band runs the “hits,” their cover of Rev. Thomas Dorsey’s “I’m Going to Live the Life I Sing About in My Song,” “Just Got Robbed,” “Circus” and “Frozen Nose.” Emmett’s hulking, 425-pound, wooden-cased Hammond organ actually bounces, rocked to-and-fro by its owner.
When Emmett first became a Sight, all he could do was stand still and watch his hands. That could’ve been a lifetime ago. And when his keyboard bench takes flight from the three-foot-high stage — nearly taking out the shins of James Iha, who’s near the stage — it just makes sense.
Trombley, too, grooves less than Dave Shettler did, but he gives the songs a heavier, chest-thumping wallop.
Baranek snaps a guitar string and catches it between his teeth, spins with one foot off the ground, still chording, and turns, spits the string out and nails the vocal on cue. By the final song — a cacophonous translation of their Ray Charles live-staple, “Sticks and Stones” — he’s on his back on the floor, twisting with guitar tones ringing, feeding back. As the final chord crashes, he leaps to standing, his arms outspread in the stale bar air.
The band’s youthful insecurities collide with new confidence in this mess of melody, harmony and bashing chords. It’s all orchestrated with musical intuitiveness, which makes the band so great live; each knows instinctively where the other will go. They could play the same set every night, and each show would be completely different.
After the set, the band is sweat-wet and amped with stage energy. A pair of fresh-faced girls in hip-huggers, one with Meg White hair, approaches the singer, looking for him to autograph a Sights single they just purchased. “What do I say on these things?” Baranek asks timidly, then he scribbles something indecipherable, hands the single back and thanks the girls.
The Sights are not yet clouded by road-damage and dashed expectations; maybe they never will be. So far their expectations fall in line with “Whatever happens, happens.”
Suddenly the Austin sky darkens. Rain comes down in heavy sheets. And the band’s equipment is out on the club’s partially covered back patio. Of course it’s raining.
Soon, James Iha and New Line’s head of marketing Garrett Te Slaa are helping the band and merch man Dave Lawson take the gear down a wet sidewalk to the alley and into the band’s van in the pouring ran. A rock star label owner and a record company man moving the band’s gear. Has anybody ever seen that?
Baranek surveys the action, lifts his shoulders, extends his arms outward, and tilts his head to the side. Then he drops them down with a shrug. There’s a big fat grin on his rained-out face.
The Sights record release show is Thursday, April 14, at the Magic Stick (4120 Woodward, Detroit; 313-833-9700) with the Muggs and the Boomerangs.
Brian Smith is music editor of Metro Times. Send comments to email@example.com.