The three members of Detroit rock ensemble Gardens slump on a couch at downtown's High Bias recording studio. Exhausted from several days' work on the band's debut album, the trio is disheveled but exuberant. In fact, they look downright relaxed for three guys about to get the boot from their landlord.
"Our electricity got shut off, and I think we're getting evicted," bassist Vincent Mazzola, 25, reports casually. Like the other two, he's interested in the impending situation, just not particularly perturbed by it. Gardens' lean, bespectacled drummer, Julian Spradlin, 24, echoes Mazzola's cool demeanor. "It's like we're all in the same boat," he says, adding sublimely: "It's a big boat but not an actual boat."
Guitarist-singer-songwriter Jeffrey William Thomas' broader interpretation of the issue incorporates what is, ostensibly, Gardens' mantra: "Art and music should be valued in this society, and they're not," says the magnetic 25-year-old, his fingers gently exploring some truly troubled-looking incisors. "I feel like, if things were functioning right, people would be able to support themselves by making art. Since our supposed elected officials aren't doing anything about it, we need to develop institutions that will support that notion."
Such is the preternatural charm of Gardens. On the outside, they are the archetypal Detroit art punks — brandishing a raw, unvarnished sound that suggests an unbroken lineage from Doug Brown and the Omens through the Gories and beyond. But, on the inside, they're a completely different animal. Although the band has all the earmarks of a made-to-order phenomenon (young, beautiful, earnest and singularly talented), its members view their collective endeavors more as a vehicle designed to promote an altruistic purpose than a rock 'n' roll agenda.
"We want art to perpetuate itself; that's what we're trying to do," says Spradlin. "We want to have a compound — a big building where we can do all the things we want to with all of our friends. We do music because we like doing it, but we want to use this to do other things. The way that seems logical is to push the band first and bring the other ideas along with it." Mazzola says Gardens has even envisioned plans for derivative nonprofits that it would like to proliferate "in the city, on the Web and worldwide."
But these guys aren't your typical, pie-in-the-sky vegan tree-huggers. There's a Dionysian element to what they do that pulverizes any trace of do-gooder hippie stink. One does not want to hold hands under the rainbow in the presence of Gardens; a more likely scenario would be to pass out post-show in an overgrown lot with a lover, a jug of Carlo Rossi, a three-legged dog and the moons of Jupiter.
"I think our band is stoner music, although it doesn't fit what's commonly thought of as 'stoner,'" says Mazzola, whose uncle is Sponge ex-pat/Detroit Cobras guitarist Joey Mazzola. "But it goes well with smoking."
Thomas, whose conversational style is consistently marked by a vague, slightly checked-out dispassion, adds, "We're trying to still have abstract qualities, you know? I never consciously think about this too much."
There is something special about Thomas. Like Sun Ra or Oscar Levant, his presence is naturally beguiling. As one half of the avant duo Genders (which still performs occasionally), his tireless drive to create has forged, among other things, a 13-disc, hand-painted, hand-assembled box set of more than 14 hours worth of music entitled 13 Moons. And though he projects an aura of nonchalance, Thomas is very sharp. No nuance escapes him. And he is utterly unapologetic about wanting more for Gardens than just local cred.
"If you want to get support for doing your music, you have to look outside the city," he says. "It's just more of a game. You have to try harder." With a new single — "Gardens in Novelty Land" — out on Detroit's Italy Records, a split 7-inch with locals Tyvek on Portland's Just for the Hell of It Records, and another upcoming split single with local outfit the Sugarcoats, slated for Gardens' own Holographic Resonance label, no one can accuse these guys of slacking.
"I want what we do to be relevant, fresh and exciting," Thomas says. "I want it to be interesting but still accessible. And lyrically, I want it to be positive and encouraging — for good things to happen in the world."
Thomas' desire to become a positive force in the universe has come a long way since he and Mazzola first met as teenage YMCA team leaders on the east side.
"I went there mostly to hang out with him," says Thomas, gesturing at Mazzola, "but we never did anything significant. It was like, 'Go to this training thing,' but it was just an excuse to hang out." He laughs. "I don't remember doing much of anything — I think we organized a Halloween party once." At this point, Spradlin affects a fake, droning voice and moans "Whatever happened with thaaaat?" To which Mazzola rhapsodically replies, "It's still going to happen!"
Although the band didn't officially form until the end of 2007 (with Spradlin joining in 2008), it has made rapid progress, winning loyal fans through its kinetic live performances and a network of communally minded musical peers. Gardens marvel at the mutual support the current crop of downtown bands have mustered for each other, but they are aware of the inherent limitations.
"It's a small scene," Thomas says. "I really enjoy the family community but at the same time, if you want to get serious about music, you have to think outside of that. There aren't many resources here."
Spradlin agrees. "We all encourage each other more than we compete," he says. "But when you play, everybody's on the guest list because everyone's a friend."
Which brings us back around to our initial discussion — the fact that lack of funds could soon mean lack of viable shelter for Gardens. As long as they're able to get the record done, though, they say they don't care. And, providing the Avalon Bakery stays in business, they won't go hungry either.
"Dumpster Avalon bread is our staple diet," Thomas says, smiling — his front teeth graying from abscess. "Sometimes you get the gems, like the loaves with fruit and nuts in them — or scallion dill."
Spradlin's favorite is the cherry walnut. "Sometimes it's messy because it has batter thrown on it," he says.
While we chat, High Bias owner-engineer Chris Koltay plays back the band's rough mix of "Maze Time." Thomas' voice cuts aggressively through the punchy guitar and throbbing rhythm section. "People do whatever for money," he sings with pleading, caustic glee. "They don't really know what's going on." It sounds amazing — like the bastard child of the Seeds' "Evil Hoodoo." Koltay, overhearing our discussion, throws in his two cents: "No other band in town is as poor as you guys," he says. "At least none of the bands I've recorded."
When I ask Koltay later how the band is able to pay for the sessions, he tells me they're doing various jobs for him in trade — Web design, helping out in the studio, etc.
"Every musician is broke," he says, "but for most of the people I know, it's because they drink too much. These guys are a good band and they work really hard at it.
"They're broke by choice, not by habit — because they spend all of their time making music."