The great Detroit music, the stuff that has put this city atop of the rubble, has always found the perfect balance between grit and hope, the broken glass and the banana pudding, the melody and the noise.
Look at Jehovah's Witness Protection Program. This Ypsilanti-based two-piece absolutely adores the fuzz (both musically and facially) in a manner that recalls Dinosaur Jr. and, in turn, and of more relevance, the Stooges. And like those bands, the Jehovahs burrow a bit beyond the glorious mess, and the tunes are spectacular.
The duo — vocalist and guitarist Anthony Anonymous (born Gentile) and drummer Jehan Dough (born Burki) — formed in 2006 out of necessity when a Ypsi fest slot needed filling. The guitarist's looping, multi-part guitars and the drummer's ability to sound like a pair of Keith Moons are both remarkable, creating a full sound.
The band had in fact played together since around '97, beginning as Ann Arbor quartet Propeller. They were Clouds next, and later became Rome for a Day. When that fizzled, Clouds sort of re-formed, which birthed the Jehovah's Witness Protection Program. Follow?
"I used to put the Ypsi Fest together. ... I was doing that again that year, and we wanted to have something to play. We did a Clouds set and then, the next night, we didn't have anyone to open the festival so we [the soon-to-be-real Jehovah's Witness Protection Program] decided to play as a two-piece."
The JWPP guys quickly earned a rep as a "fascinating" live band, roping in an enviable following and then hooking up with the left-of-center Loco Gnosis Records stable. Comparisons to other bands, and myriad sub-genre typecasting began to fly around, but the two gents are happy to call to themselves simply "rock 'n' roll." How refreshing.
"People will often bring up bands from the '90s in comparison," Anonymous says, cringing. "Not to date myself, but I went through my entire 20s in the '90s, so of course the music of that era had an impact."
And then there's that band name. The guys insist that it's nothing more than an off-the-cuff joke thought up in an emergency situation. What's undeniable, however — particularly in this era of here-today-gone-today online-generated novelty band existences — is that the name has brought them some superficial attention. Of course, that interest wouldn't last if the music sucked — which it doesn't.
But, at fests such as, say, the Hamtramck Blowout, event-goers often choose the band whose name resonates in silly, ironic ways, particular if they're faced with dozens of faceless here-today-gone-today group monikers. So, yeah, there are few who can out-do JWPP in that regard.
Both men visibly recoil when the novelty band name subject rises. "It was really a joke," Anonymous says. "We were practicing out of this place in Bridgewater, and there are a fair amount of Jehovah's Witnesses out there, and there happened to be a Watchtower [the Jehovah's religious magazine often distributed door-to-door] in the room. I saw it and came up with the name. I didn't like it too much, but we were just going to use it for one night anyway. ...We thought it was fun, and after we'd played for a while, it didn't make sense to change it. Now we would be changing it for the sake of it."
Dough adds that "there was definitely a show where afterward we realized that we couldn't change it anymore."
As with any band — just ask Oasis, or the Who — the chemistry between musicians is key. A certain level of tension can produce spectacular results if managed well. With a two-piece, it's perhaps even more important because there's no mediator, no John Entwistle to fall back on. Fellow Loco Gnosis band Marco Polio & the New Vaccines thrive on the tension between the front-duo. They practically cultivate it. The forthcoming and forthright Anonymous and the laid-back and pensive Dough, while two very different guys, seem completely comfortable in each other's company.
"We've been in bands where there's a lot of personality clashing and issues over who's really in charge," Dough smiles. "We'd played as two-pieces where we'd tried to add an additional bass player, but it was hard at that point for the person coming in because we already had a vision for what we wanted. We kinda wanted someone that just played what we wanted them to play and to not really contribute much beyond just being there. Most people don't want to do that."
"It's definitely easier to work with one other person," Anonymous says, grinning in the knowledge of the obvious. "It's easier in that it's less complicated. There are just two points of view when we're trying to plan stuff. Sometimes it's harder, because if we don't agree on something, we've got to figure it out. There's no option of bouncing things off other people. It's a different kind of relationship, not unlike other two-people relationships. Not to be funny, but it's true. Recently Jehad told his girlfriend that I got 'girlfriend mad' at him."
Unlike other local two-pieces, such as, of course, the White Stripes, folks attending a JWPP show with their eyes closed could be forgiven for thinking that there were more than two folks on the stage.
"Jehan plays a lot of drum," Anonymous says. "He covers a lot of space. With my guitar, the looping is a huge part of it. Being able to loop and play fourth and fifth parts — that really fills it in. It's challenging to do. It was hard to get it down in the beginning, and probably harder for him because, if there's a weird timing in my loop, he's the one that falls upon. I really enjoy it. It's challenging enough to make it fun. So that's how we do it — basically, it's all smoke and mirrors."
Though Ypsilanti-based, the JWPP guys have made themselves very much a part of the Detroit rock 'n' roll scene through their willingness to play anywhere and everywhere. Their sound is as raw and fundamentally "Detroit" as anything the Motor City has produced in recent memory, and they're proud of that.
"We're not rich. I work for my family and Jehan works a few different jobs and goes to school," Anonymous says. "We're not living the Hollywood highlife, going to the beach and spending G's at the club, but we don't want that either. That's not us. We're living a normal life. We see the desperation around us, and it affects our music and us. We sponge in what we see around us. I'd have to try really hard to write 'unicorns and roses' songs, which is weird because I perceive myself as a positive person."
Jehan Dough, who's more a soft-spoken philosopher than rawk-band dude, gets the last word: "Everybody's plagued by something, even if it's just a crappy day at work. Our stuff maybe does lean toward the darker end of the rock spectrum, but it's only because we're just working out what's happening to us at that particular moment." He pauses before adding, "It's all about the struggles in your own personal life."
Brett Callwood writes about music for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org
See the band Friday, Sept. 3, at the Savoy, 23 N. Washington St., Ypsilanti; 734-485-4444; with Blue Snaggletooth and Holy Hounds. To sample Jehovah's Witness Protection
Program's music, see the band's MySpace page at tinyurl.com/25cjs3y.