In August 2006, Michigan State University students Annie Moss and Erik Adams had a simple idea: to start a blog to celebrate the local music they both loved. He was writing music reviews for MSU's student paper, The State News; she was taking photographs at shows. So, pooling their creative output and putting it online seemed like a natural progression. But neither of them could have predicted the massive outpouring of support and encouragement that they'd receive over the course of the year that Just Haircuts and Jackets (justhaircutsandjackets.blogspot.com) was in production.
It wasn't that what they did was unique, but that they were the first people to do it. The blog itself was simple, but without realizing it, they had given a voice to a community that's become very strong in the last few years and which, up until then, had been undocumented — the statewide Michigan music scene. Not the Detroit scene, the Ann Arbor scene, the Flint scene or the Grand Rapids scene ... but the Michigan scene, fueled by bands willing to travel cross-state for gigs, audiences willing to support music made by people from other ZIP codes, and a spirit of collaboration and camaraderie that's rare just about anywhere these days.
The lack of one locality is something that Adams noticed a while ago. "After my freshman year at State, this guy in Livingston County named Nate Dorough started the Livingston Underground," he says, "which was basically a Web site and show promotion for a bunch of high school bands looking for something to do in Brighton, Howell, and all these different places. It was right in the middle of the Detroit garage-rock boom and everything was hinging on the White Stripes and the Von Bondies and the Dirtbombs. [But Dorough's site] sorta made me realize that you didn't have to be in a big city to create any sort of scene."
Like anyone interested in a local music scene, Adams learned more about it and, as time went on, he found it drawing him further in. "It was just spread throughout [the state], and I have no idea how that happened," he recalls. "Maybe it was the interstate highway system — the thing that actually allowed everyone to escape Detroit once the blight set in. Suddenly, the culture is spreading, though."
In addition to the lack of a central geographic location, there's also no one sound that actually unites all these bands. It's true that Detroit has a strong garage-rock scene, Ann Arbor a vibrant folk-rock scene, and so on. But it would be hard to try to categorize the varied bands and musicians currently playing in the state. For Moss, it's a common attitude that sets Michigan apart from other places.
"We have so many musicians who are willing to collaborate with each other and who pursue all of these thousands and thousands of festivals that go on each year," she says. "You know, whatever fest it is that's happening. All these musicians want to support each other, play with each other and create these really awesome events and experiences."
Adams remarks that it's the musicians themselves who have created much of the friendly climate. "I think it all goes back to the community and in particular there have been some bands that have really fostered collaboration, like Saturday Looks Good To Me," he explains. "[That band is] really just Fred Thomas and his rotating group of friends that he makes use of."
The name of their blog comes courtesy of a lyric by Great Lakes Myth Society, another Michigan band that's always eager to travel across the state and to support fellow musicians. The full lyric is from the song "Heydays," the first track off the group's latest album, Compass Rose Bouquet, and reads: "Bands that you loved/were just haircuts and jackets." It makes an ironic title for a blog celebrating musical chops over cool haircuts. Still, the lyric captures what it's like to be personally invested in a band. Plus, the group is an admitted local favorite of both Moss and Adams.
Although the group's three songwriters cover territory ranging from place-specific myths to their own personal histories growing up in Brighton, the state of Michigan has always been an important element in their music. Songs like "The Gales of 1938" and "Nightfall at Electric Park" (also on Compass Rose Bouquet) clearly explore specific locales and times in the state's history, while songs about their own lives and lifetimes (such as "Summer Bonfire" and "Debutante") also contain a sense of place, whether one is explicitly stated or not.
The band formed in 2002, and before that recorded two albums as the Original Brothers and Sisters of Love, with the added element of Elizabeth Auchinvole on violin and additional vocals. Tim Monger, who shares most of the songwriting duties with his brother Jamie, claims he noticed a shift in the Michigan community about two years ago.
"Once we finally put out our first record in 2005, we sort of noticed these other bands," he says. "Some people started coming to us that were kinda doing similar things or at least identified with the 'outside of Detroit garage-rock' experience. There was definitely a real, underground, almost folk-y community. Even if it was rock bands, there was still this folkish element, with people who were doing house shows and setting up festivals and that type of thing. That was the first time we had ever felt part of anything in our 10 years of playing music together."
Although not every band in this community sings about Michigan, it's not uncommon, and it doesn't take a large project like Sufjan Stevens' album Greetings from Michigan: The Great Lakes State to justify using the state as a subject. Mining one's past and looking back on your childhood, after all, is a surefire way to find material.
"You know," Monger says of his band's lyrics, "I think people will always celebrate and hopefully long for that historical aspect, and I always want to write about things that are near and dear to me."
Great Lakes Myth Society has played several of the fests that have helped to fuel the community. These festivals, often hosted in people's houses and yards, provide a unique opportunity to see a dozen bands in a day — or twice that many over the course of a weekend — while swigging beers with musicians and music-lovers who are more likely to travel cross-state for a larger event than a show with only a couple of bands. Part of what might be fueling the local community is that, aside from a few notable exceptions (such as Tally Hall's recent signing with Atlantic Records), there isn't much national exposure for all the worthy bands playing shows right now. This seems to inspire musicians to reach out to each other to collaborate and book shows together since they all ultimately want the same thing: an audience.
A particularly exciting note in Michigan music history came last February via Keweenawesomefest, a two-day festival that brought 17 bands to Houghton in the farthest reaches of the Upper Peninsula and proved that a U.P. tour stop could be a viable option for local groups.
Keweenawesomefest was the brainchild of Kevin Eder and Tyler Debelak, both students of Michigan Technological University, who work at the university's all-volunteer radio station, WMTU. Eder had spent the year booking bands, including a show with folk singer-songwriter Chris Bathgate and Great Lakes Myth Society in October 2006. So when the time came to decide what to do with the extra funds lying around for the station, putting on a festival seemed an obvious choice.
"I'm really into the Ann Arbor folk stuff, and so I booked Matt Jones, Misty Lyn and some of those guys," Eder explains. "And then Tyler is really into punk rock, so he grabbed the Terrible Twos and the Mahonies. We had a really good Marquette band called Hell Town Trio, so Tyler booked a lot of those bands. It was a cool mix of folk and punk rock and it worked pretty well."
The two-day festival sold 155 tickets; not bad for a town with an estimated population of 7,014. The beauty of the U.P. and its isolated nature definitely add to the mystique of traveling there. "I think we have a little on our side because it is the U.P., and I think it gives bands like Great Lakes Myth Society a little bit of authenticity or something," Eder says, laughing. "Luckily, we do a really good job and bands keep coming back."
Moss and Adams put on a fest themselves last June — ELFest, named after their adopted home of East Lansing. The two-day festival featured 24 of the pair's favorite bands and they were completely overwhelmed by the number of musicians offering to play and the number of people who came to watch. It's a good illustration of why this community is so strong. Musicians aren't just promoting themselves or competing against each other; they're collaborating and spreading the word about each other's projects. And the people that don't make music themselves are starting blogs, taking pictures, booking shows and otherwise getting involved.
"I think I probably say this all the time when I talk about the blog, but I really think that one of the reasons why I fell in love with local music so deeply is that when you are at a local show, the musicians need you to be there and they want you to be there," Moss explains. "And they are appreciative. Because they don't have a huge level of exposure, you know what I mean? And when you sense that need and appreciation as an audience member, it makes you want to support them even more."
Getting involved is as easy as reading one of the many local music blogs around, sharing recommendations with friends, or digging through the endlessly linked network of local bands on MySpace. Sadly, Just Haircuts and Jackets is no more, but, here in Michigan, there's an endless supply of creative and talented young people with time on their hands and a willingness to work together. It should be interesting to see what they come up with next.Leah Warshaw is a freelance writer. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org