The average high monthly temperature for January in Buenos Aires, Argentina, is 86 degrees Fahrenheit. The average high monthly temperature for January in Ann Arbor, Michigan, is 33 degrees. And, yes, I realize that Argentina is in the Southern Hemisphere (duh). And, no, I’m not spewing meteorological trivia just to make you want to whip iceballs at my head. This bit of Doppler Storm Team schadenfreude is an attempt to explain why, on a bone-chilling night last week, I found myself standing on No Fun record label honcho Charlie Lorenzi’s ice-glazed stoop in Ann Arbor. It is there he asks, eyes filled with hope, the half-rhetorical question, “It’s cold out there, isn’t it?”
See, Lorenzi — who moved to Tree Town from the Argentine capital last spring — is slugging out his first Michigan winter.
But if Lorenzi and his partner Claudia Leo have anything to do with it, No Fun records will soon be bringing the heat of the relatively obscure yet vibrant South American rock ’n’ roll scene to the current heart of heavily hyped American rock.
Now ensconced in the warmth of the pair’s one-bedroom flat/label headquarters, Lorenzi reclines comfortably, his rail-thin frame, tight jeans and cool-casual demeanor suggesting the universal rocker DNA strand. He listens quietly while his partner shares their label’s missionary zeal for importing the rock sounds from (way) down south.
“We want to share this really great music that not many people have heard about,” says Leo, in an accent that lands somewhere between a Midwestern newscaster and rolling Spanish. Horn-rimmed glasses toughen up her soft features. “A lot of people don’t even know that there’s this huge scene down there.”
For the last year or so, the duo have acted as ad hoc musical emissaries, spreading the word that Australia and New Zealand aren’t the only hotbeds for primitive, powerful rock ’n’ roll in the Southern Hemisphere.
Since Lorenzi founded No Fun in 1997 as an outlet for his own recordings, the label has released a dozen full-lengths and offers a catalog chock-full of nigh-impossible-to-find-otherwise nuggets of Argentine, Brazilian, Peruvian and Uruguayan garage punk, exotica, surf and straight-up balls-to-the-wall heavy music. And February’s shaping up to be a busy month for Lorenzi and Leo, with full-lengths due from Peruvian guitar-rawk ass-shakers Manganzoides and Brazil’s the Forgotten Boys as well as the debut 7” by the Detroit quintet, the Avatars (who happen to count Leo and Lorenzi as their drummer and guitar player, respectively). The pair are also two-thirds of the Coronados — the band name Lorenzi brought with him to Michigan — along with bassist Melody Baetens.
So how’d the South American-Detroit connection get made?
Well, after Leo moved to A2 from Buenos Aires in 1991, she soon found herself wrapped up in the rock scene. “A lot of people are surprised that I had heard of the Stooges and Ann Arbor in Argentina,” Leo says, explaining her choice of adopted hometown.
Besides the label’s nominal tip of the hat to the Stooges — it was actually a connection with that most Detroit of Detroit rock bands, the now-defunct Trash Brats, that ushered in No Fun’s mainline to the rawk motherland.
“’Round about 1998 or so I had become really good friends with the guys in the Trash Brats,” continues Leo. “And Brian [Oblivion, the TB’s frontman] had just come back from the West Coast and met this great band from Argentina called the Killer Dolls. He said, ‘You should get in touch, they’re really awesome, they’re a great band.’”
The Killer Dolls were exactly what the name suggests — raucous, NYC-circa-’74-influenced rock ’n’ roll, though straight outta Argentina. And they also happened to feature one Carlos “Charlie” Lorenzi on guitar and vocals.
Leo was due for a visit home to her relatives, and decided to drop a dime and see if Lorenzi could hook her up with any tips for good shows while she was in town.
“So he writes back, ‘Oh, by the way, I run this little record label,’ that at that point was sort of getting off the ground,” Leo says. “‘And I organize this little fest.’ And it just happened to be the same month that I was visiting my family.”
That “little” label was No Fun, and that “little” fest was called “Gearfest.” As it turns out, the fest drew more than a thousand punks out each night to bask in the rawk energy of bands from around the continent. And for Leo it was a tip-of-the-iceberg glimpse into the burgeoning South American rock scene.
“So that’s how we met, and I started collaborating with him on the label and then later on — totally unrelated — we became a couple. So he started coming up here to visit me and the last time we decided you know, ‘you should stay here.’”
So just to get a sense of scale, let’s back up. We all know that Detroit has been getting gobs of international ink spilled about its rock scene for a while now — and most of the hyped bands can draw in the neighborhood of 300-500 kids on a good night.
And that’s something to be proud of, but to hear Lorenzi and Leo tell it, our South American nightlife counterparts have it hands down with a scene of white-hot popularity.
“In the big cities, especially Buenos Aires and São Paolo in Brazil, it’s much bigger than here,” explains Lorenzi. “Much bigger. People go out every day, like in Spain. We’re talking about a show on a Monday with 800 people.”
But like most other places where punk rock took up grass roots, it didn’t always go over, according to Lorenzi, particularly in punk rock’s U.S. and European late ’70s heyday, when youth culture collided with the military government that ruled Argentina.
During the ’70s and the ’80s, Lorenzi says, just singing in English was an act of rebellion bordering on cultural treason. “People got used to bands just singing in Spanish, so when we [this community of bands] started singing in English in the mid-’90s, it was like we were shocking the audience at first.
He continues, “But it wasn’t like being a punk rocker in the late ’70s. Some friends I have that were in the first punk bands back then, it was really hard, because you could get detained by the police for it.”
So Lorenzi had the wisdom of accumulated experience when he set about starting a record label and helping establish a network of promoters, ’zinesters and support that let bands tour “small cities” (read 4-5 million people) throughout South America. This is the scene from which the majority of No Fun’s artists spring, thriving on a growing fan base and looking to bands like the Mummies, the Phantom Surfers, the Ramones, and those bands’ forebears for inspiration.
No Fun was one of very few labels that was putting out DIY punk rock music in South America. And, says Leo, it’s a testament to the label’s spirit that since Lorenzi has moved north “there are a lot of smaller labels that have surfaced. And it just created a snowball for a bigger market.”
Almost since the label’s inception, Lorenzi has gotten decent international distribution, with records reaching tuned-in U.S. and European ears. His catalog has sold well, with many items out-of-print and others selling more than a thousand copies (a respectable showing for any scrappy indie).
One set of tuned-in ears is that of “Little” Steven Van Zandt of the nationally syndicated radio show Underground Garage. He’s been spinning No Fun records — much to the label heads’ pleasant surprise: “We’ve never even sent him anything,” says Leo with a smile.
Another group of folks with their ears pricked up to the SA sound — one of the few Detroit bands that has toured Brazil — is the Demolition Doll Rods. In 2001, Danny Doll Rod (aka Dan Kroha) returned to Brazil to produce a full-length by kindred spirits (and No Fun artists) The Butchers Orchestra.
Last fall, Leo headed to Buenos Aires for the annual BA Stomp Festival, which is a sort of gathering of the rock ’n’ roll tribes from South America, Europe and elsewhere. She went with the intention of setting up a merchandise booth and spreading the gospel of No Fun.
“I left with a suitcase full of records,” she says. “A lot of merch.”
“By the end of the first day, I was totally sold out! So I’m sitting at the booth with nothing to sell and I still met a ton of people. And I actually got to see and hear a lot of great music.”
The message was heard, apparently.
And so it is that after three hours of conversation, coffee and cookies, and thanks to the warm music of some obscure ’60s Mexican surf-rock combos and T. Rex, I’ve forgotten entirely that it’s bitter cold outside. But Charlie hasn’t.
“I may have to stop wearing my Converse in the snow,” he says, a bit dejected at the thought of doffing his Chuck Taylors in favor of boots.
Some things are the same everywhere you go.
Hear song samples and get more info about No Fun records at www.nofunrecords.com.Chris Handyside is a freelance writer for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org