By Brandon Fizer
In the rock-and-roller scene — and it’s a scene — Rob Smith certainly stands out. Lean and towering, Smith rocks a Jimi Hendrix afro that adds at least another six inches of height to a sinewy swagger, and a sartorial sensibility that’s equally rugged and chic. Smith has been a name in Detroit’s incestuous rock scene for the better part of two decades. And in a town where everyone is a little bit of a Ron Wood, going from one band to the next, supporting each other, and dropping in and out of each other’s bands, while keeping a full-time job; what little catty competition that exists in this hardscrabble city is overwhelmed by support and a mutual understanding. In a city with so much hardship, being competitive is a luxury these rockers just can’t afford. Having fronted or been a part of a dozens of bands in his life, the multi-instrumentally talented artist has been drummer, bassist, lead guitarist, vocalist and songwriter. But there’s something special about his new gig he wants to talk about. A band called Thief, composed of three fellow young-at- heart rockers. And what’s so special about it is exactly what’s so un-Detroit about it. Equal parts California rock and British shoegaze, Thief sounds so unlike the rockabilly, three-cord garage rock that characterizes this scene that it’s hard to believe that it got its inspiration from the Corktown and Woodbridge area dive bars that birthed the White Stripes over a decade ago. And yet, where else could four creative types get together, one without so much as any experience other than loving music at all, and sound like a mixture of Slowdive, My Bloody Valentine, Ride, Dinosaur Jr. and Opal.
Detroit has always been a music town but it hasn’t always been Smith’s. Born in Toledo to an artist father and a mother in the culinary arts, he moved to Motown in 1998 for it’s storied music scene.
I have heard of Rob, but not met him before. We meet in Southwest, Detroit at his lower-level studio. Rock n roll isn’t my scene and neither is the rough-and-tumble free-spirited terrain that is Rob’s neighborhood. It’s all the kind of thing I respect from a distance, but just know I’ll never be cool enough or young enough again to really penetrate.
Rob’s flat is full of books, DVDs, endless vinyl, vintage Star Wars action figures (this makes me wince at the memory of my mother thoughtlessly discarding mine when she sold the house I grew up in) and the usual organized kitsch of movie buffs and artists.
He’s rocking his trademark stovepipe jeans and boots that make his male-model silhouette impossible to ignore. Gray curls around the temple of his spiral-curled afro betray his superannuated experience, while his easy cool is as ageless as the icon who dies young to live forever. Rob Smith is clearly a rock star. And he’s refreshingly really laid back about it.
A Dangerously Good Thief
I sit between the kitchen and the media library where a makeshift studio is parked in the middle of the space. There are two fenders, a Jaguar and a Baritone, and a Kramer bass. Behind sits a drum set and some amplifiers tucked in. This is where Thief jams and when I ask him about the neighbors he shrugs in a way that reminds me that I’ve lived in the suburbs for a good while now.
There are so many great artists making music in Detroit right now, though many Detroiters haven’t heard of them, to say nothing of the potential audience many of these artists may find elsewhere. If the cream rises to the top and moves to New York and L.A., then the sugar blends in, which is what makes the rock and roll scene in Detroit so, okay…so sweet.
Says Smith, “All the Detroit bands support each other. Well… most of the time.”
Rob describes the past 14 years immersed in a music scene so on the margins of rock royalty that I wondered how he and his peers could play as one after another of the Jack and Meg Whites went on to garner fame, wealth and even iconic status while their friends stayed behind, working the dive bar gig after shifts on assembly lines, in restaurants, on construction sites and hair salons. But there wasn’t the most remote trace of resentment or maudlin regret. Rather, describing a night hanging out with icon Patti Smith’s son Jackson, and Meg White of the White Stripes he seemed proud to call them his peers.
He pauses when he tries to describe what drives him after dreams of wealth and fame fade into a real adulthood that still includes making music, while keeping your “day job”.
“If you do something you do something, and if you love it you’ll do it for free.”
He expounds on the precariousness of making music for fame when you’re a working class kid from Toledo now living in the faded industrial rustbelt that remains of the Motor City. He shrugs. “A lot of us work 60-hour weeks.”
Truly. These aren’t kids showing their look books at casting calls between jam sessions in someone’s Silverlake house on a hill in Southern California. “It becomes less about the money or any of that. It becomes about the distribution, getting it out there. Detroit already has a reputation. So if some kid finds my album in a record store in Cleveland or Berlin and I get a check like six months later, just knowing it’s out there being heard is…” he trails off and inhales a puff of his Camel cigarette in a way that can only be described as satisfaction.
But it also seemed that being a rock-‘n-roller in Detroit is not about other things, like organization of the scene and the way these artists navigate their way through it so that, at the very least, they’re big somewhere like Berlin. Or Cleveland. ”Too many Detroit musicians spread themselves out in too many bands and then nothing gets done. You’re working full time. You’re in four bands. You have a girlfriend. Eventually it just becomes doing it because you love it.”
But it’s also sad in a way that in a city with the three inexplicable casinos, a thriving sports community, a world-class art museum and one of the most iconic American industries in the world, automakers, all in a couple of square miles of downtown Detroit, there’s no real infrastructure to what remains globally the city’s most iconic mystique: music! Where are the people supporting these people? Where is the pipeline to the agents and the media and the studios in New York and Los Angeles? Where is the next Barry Gordy to funnel this talent into a viable commodity so that the world can hear Detroit’s contemporary sound?
One gets the sense that Detroit rockers may just be too cool to think about that, or to acknowledge it. But one thing is for sure: Thief, with it’s international, intelligent space rock vibe and New Wavey melodies might just break away from Detroit’s hardscrabble mold and put a more sophisticated, jet-set sound on the map.
“Thief is different from any of the other bands I’ve been in,” Rob says, and he’s been in several. There was the noise rock, instrumental collective of Paik. Once signed to Virgin, their arty appeal unsurprisingly got little support from the big commercially-oriented label. A band called Dark Red plays that rustic Detroit sound, with Rob on guitar and vocals and local artist/sculptor Chris Turner banging away on drums, molding backbeat out of air.
“I’ve always loved Fleetwood Mac’s harmonies and I’ve always wanted to sing with a woman,” he says. Enter the friendship between Rob and Jill DeSandy.
“When Rob and I started hanging out music was the main thing we had in common. We would talk about it for hours trying to one up each other on classic stuff and turn each other on to new bands. One day he just said point blank, I think you should sing. Honestly, I had never considered it before but it has opened up a whole new realm to me,” she said.
Never mind that she sounds like Elizabeth Frazier from the Cocteau Twins.
“The rest of the band, (the Chris’s – bassist and drummer) came about organically as well. Bassist Chris Masek is my best friend’s husband and Chris Morris is Rob’s roommate and a drummer. So we just kind of got together and have been writing and practicing ever since. Over the last year we have been evolving to a sound that we can call our own, and plan to add visual elements of installation, projection and light to our shows in the near future.”
It made sense that Rob would branch out of the classic Detroit rock sound. His eclectic influences range from “everything modern” — seemingly before its time — like the Walkmen, Harlem, T-Rex, Roxy Music and Bowie. An intriguing genre he describes as 60’s Swedish metal, and the shoegazer legends like My Bloody Valentine, Slowdive and Ride. Without a whiff of pretension Rob qualifies his taste by telling me that, “I believe in art more than entertainment.” And his taste in films, books and campy artifacts definitely backed up the kind of statement that can sound lofty to hipsters who clandestinely listen to Lady Gaga when nobody’s around.
But this guy struck me as the real deal — even if I wouldn’t really know what I meant by that until I heard what Thief actually sounded like.
How do I describe Thief without grasping for 90’s noise rockers and aging myself? One of the first things that I noticed about the first song, “Real,” was how different Rob’s voice sounded and how much tighter the sound was then some of the earlier recordings he had played me from Dark Red. Slicker and more polished than Dark Red’s sound, but somehow just as inspired and untamed.
A song called “More Night” was surprisingly catchy, and that’s not a word I would use to describe a lot of rock around here. The harmonizing between Rob and Jill reflected Rob’s affection for the 70’s Fleetwood Mac sound, when male and female vocalists shared microphones onstage and in the studio. It was at once Brit and Southern Cali. Dinosaur Jr. meets Blur or even Suede.
“You Never Stay” is an atmospheric piece that Rob said reminded him of “a rainy day in Paris,” which matched the songs poetic aspirations.
And “Shapes” reminded me of my own favorite band of the moment, Neon Indian. And to renege on my attempt not to age myself, it would be remiss not to say that I heard some Ride, Swervedriver and Spiritualized in there too, influences that Rob excitedly admitted to.
He doesn’t have more expectations from the endeavor than spreading the music — and his love of it — to anyone who wants a listen. No lofty platitudes about big plans or even about the purity of making art for its own sake. Rather, his philosophy is simple.
“If you’re not living on the edge, you’re taking up too much space.”
Thief plays Friday, November 23, at Old Miami in Detroit, MI.