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Rock/Pop

Sonic!

Duende! spins traditional Americana with classic noise rock. So how the hell does it work?

Photo: Megan Lang
Duende! (l-r): Laura Willem, Joel “Jelly Roll” McCune, Jeff Howitt and Jason Worden.
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Published 2/3/2010

The word "duende," often used by flamenco musicians, describes that soulful time when, after hours of jamming, the music becomes less together — more instinctive and loose. It's the joy to be found in formlessness. A duende is also a Latin-American goblin or elf. When considering these two definitions, Duende!, Detroit's own experimental Americana band, couldn't have picked a better name.

Duende!'s second official full-length, Remnant of a Remnant, saw light late last year, and the album's nothing if not loose. That's not to say that the band members — singer and guitarist Jeff Howitt, drummer Laura Willem, bassist Jason Worden and lead guitarist Joel "Jelly Roll" McCune — aren't skilled. On the contrary, Duende! is one of today's tightest Detroit bands, wallowing in an uncommon ability to veer off of the beaten path while keeping it together, in the near-supernatural fashion of someone like noisester Jon Spencer, one of the band's acknowledged major influences. That the band members listen to lots of free-form jazz should be obvious to the initiated (Howitt also plays in the jam-tastic jazz-rock ensemble, Pinkeye). But foremost, it's the rootsy, raw and honest influence of classic early American roots music that drags the listener into Duende!'s weird, cool world.

Detroit-native Howitt, an intensely likable and enthusiastic person whose smile seems permanently etched on his sideburn-framed face, started on the Duende! idea after meeting guitarist McCune in his then-relocated home of Phoenix, Ariz., back in 2001. 

"We had an idea for something that we wanted to do — something like Hank Williams and Woody Guthrie," Howitt says, "something that was informed by the Harry Smith Anthology of American Folk Music but with the energy of Jon Spencer. The first batch of songs we wrote with Duende! in mind was in 2002. But it wasn't until I moved back to Detroit in 2005 and met Laura that we founded Duende!"

Howitt is keen to hammer home the fact his band has strong connections to the Americana world but with key influences from elsewhere. 

"We didn't just want to be a country band," he says. "When you look at Americana, there are a lot of elements to draw from. That's why I call us 'sonic-Americana.' There's a certain buzz if you're banging on a box guitar. It's a natural fuzz. So we just don't want to be confined to sounding like Hank Williams or like a certain era in Americana music, because Americana is also the Ramones. It's Sonic Youth. It's the Stooges."

In addition to playing together, Howitt and Laura Willem are a cohabiting couple. Any problems arise when playing in a band with your significant other? 

"Since she's a musician, she understands the amount of [thought and time] that goes into writing something or practicing," he says, grinning. "I've had some friends who've advised, 'Never be in a band with your girlfriend!' But I've seen even in Detroit, with bands like Blanche, people do have relationships within their bands and I think it can make things a little more peculiar and believable. I think it helps us. Besides, until I played with her, this band didn't click. We were probably dating about six months and then I saw her get behind the drum kit. That's when I realized that she's my drummer.

"Duende! started out more as a recording project," Howitt continues. "I didn't realize that I was going to push the band as far as I have taken it and play live. We did some recordings with Dave Knepp [from Powertrane and one of the area's most powerful skinsmen] on drums. But when I heard Laura play, it seemed to be more along the lines of the feel that we were looking for — still hitting hard, but with a sense of antiquity."

In addition to Duende! and Pinkeye (the latter perhaps most recently best-known for their recording and area live shows with Detroit countercultural hero and poet John Sinclair), Howitt heads up a Trans Love-eque artist collective as well as the Loco Gnosis record label, both aimed at cross-promoting like-minded local bands and artists, including Oscillating Fan Club, Wildcatting and Marco Polio & the New Vaccines. They're all involved in what appears to be a valiant endeavor in difficult times for Detroit's artistic community. 

Howitt maintains that this is a fascinating time for the city: "I would have a hearty laugh for anyone who doesn't see this as a new frontier. I mean, some of the wilder personalities that break out of Detroit, like Kid Rock and Eminem, even Jack White, to a degree — that's like superstardom. That's a different level to anything that most of us can ever expect. But the music here is probably more diverse than ever right now, and there are more opportunities to do things, even though you might not get as big of a crowd because Detroit's lost half of its population. But I think we're going to look back and see wild diversity, thanks to cooperation. Everybody feels like the underdog. There's no pressure to be the same as anyone else. So Detroit gives you a passport to be different.

"This might not be a commercially viable time, but I think that certain trends are going to be set right now."

If trends are being created, then Howitt's prolific enough to have a say in them. How does a person manage to balance two bands, an artist's collective, a label, a day job (Howitt paints and tiles houses) and a home life? 

Howitt shrugs, and says, "Pinkeye pretty much controls itself. There are things that Pinkeye wants to do and there are things that it gets offered. But it kind of has a life of its own. If you let necessity and coincidence guide you, you can end up doing a lot of things. If I have a few days where I don't have to work, I end up doing a lot of Loco Gnosis stuff. If someone can't make practice, I'll still go practice. We look at it as segments of a bigger picture as opposed to getting overwhelmed with everything that has to be done, because not all of it has to be done right now."

Right now Howitt is focusing on Duende!, and he has a busy 12 months ahead. "We're going into the studio at the end of February to record an EP with Dave Feeney [Blanche, Goober & the Peas]. We'll record four to six songs with him that we'll put out in the summer," Howitt says.

"We probably have enough songs for another full-length album that we'll record around the same time that we put out that EP. So it'll be released around the end of this year.

"We're also doing a Remnant of a Remnant tour," he continues. "We're going to New Orleans and we'll build some shows from there in Mississippi, Arkansas — places like that. We haven't stopped writing. We never want to wait too long. Every band has a fuse — so we want to work as hard as we can within our lifespan. We're trying to keep our faces fresh."

Well, hey, if rock 'n' roll doesn't work, bring on the Oil of Olay.

Friday, Feb. 5, at the Cadieux Café, 4300 Cadieux Rd., Detroit; 313-882-8560. With the Wrong Numbers and Woodman. The band's new album, Remnant of a Remnant, is out now on Loco Gnosis.

Brett Callwood is a music critic for Metro Times. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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