Sex and the end of the world: That's perhaps the best way to describe the music of Octopus (or the Octopus; it doesn't matter which, according to the band). Well, that and a long list of other things that band mastermind Joe Frezza is passionate about: Comic books. Conspiracy theories. Salvia (as in that psychedelic herb you can buy from ads in the back of High Times). Aleister Crowley. Jesus. God. The devil. The number eight. Octopi.
"This is all stuff I care about," Frezza affirms in his trademark gravelly bark. "I don't know if the rest of the band gives it a second thought, though."
The "rest of the band" is a trio of Detroit's rock elite. Drummer Kenny Tudrick is one of Detroit's most respected musicians (he's currently trying to decide whether to turn his band, Bulldog, into a proper solo project; he also drums for the Detroit Cobras). Lead singer Masha Marjieh left the critically loved Detroit- and London-based alt-country band Deadstring Brothers only a few months ago. And bassist Dale Wilson has years of experience writing and playing sweetly sung rock songs (on guitar, though, not bass) despite being the youngest member of the band. He most recently played with his own band, Four Hour Friends.
And then there's Frezza, the highly intelligent, slightly intimidating guitarist and de facto leader of Octopus. Like Tudrick, he's used to huge crowds, thanks to having been an original member of Detroit's wildly popular, tongue-in-cheek rock band, the Wildbunch-cum-Electric Six.
Octopus actually started more than a decade ago, when Frezza first wrote some heavy, driving rock songs. A few years later, in the early '00s, he recruited his then-roommate Marjieh to sing them.
"If the idea is to be a heavy band but not fall into some of the grosser shit that heavy bands do," Frezza says, "you're pretty far along right off the bat if you have a good female singer and not that 'raawwwwrrrrrrr' [heavy metal screaming thing]."
The two friends eventually played a handful of shows, with Jeff Klein (the Blame) on drums and Eric Pott (Mood Elevator) on bass.
"But then the Electric Six thing starting blowing up," Frezza explains, "and Masha started singing with Deadstring Brothers, which started touring. And so it was an ongoing thing on hold, sorta like, 'When are we practicing again? We have to do that.' ... Finally, we just said, 'Hell or high water, we'll play on 8/8/8.' "
As Aug. 8, 2008 drew closer, however, Klein and Pott were no longer available.
"At that point, I just thought it would be me and Mash and a big studio thing and we'd just do it that way," Frezza explains. "But as 8/8/8 started getting closer, she was like, 'No, I want to play live. We have to.'"
OK, but the question was to "play live" with which of their many talented friends?
"The running joke," says bassist Wilson, "was that Joe had asked, at one point, in my house alone, no less than 12 people to join Octopus. [Matt] Hatch was one. I'm sure Eddie [Baranek] was another. Dave [Knepp]. And he asked a myriad of other musicians that would come to the house."
When Frezza told Wilson he was pretty sure Hatch — who's played bass in more Detroit bands than can be listed here — would do it, Wilson's flippant response, despite his close friendship with Hatch, was "Fuck that guy."
"I just figured I'm gonna jump on it," Wilson says. "I mean, I've played bass in, like, one band before, but, yeah, I knew I could do it. I could pull it off, I think."
"Yeah, bass — how hard could it be?" Frezza chimes in, laughing.
Only problem was Wilson's own songs had always been, well, the direct opposite of heavy. Think a hybrid of Tom Waits and Ryan Adams. How would he fare in this "sex and the end of the world" thing? That is, performing a sound he describes as "hard rock, stoner rock, a Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin thing"?
Not to worry, he now says: "All my friends in high school were in a band called Sewer. They had the train track photo. Everybody had a goatee. I grew up with flannel shirts and Slayer." (Well, that in addition to Phil Collins and Michael Jackson, he finally admits.)
Plus, although he was raised in Ferndale, Wilson was born in Berkley, and, as Frezza notes, "When you're born in Berkley, the first thing they hand you is a joint and a copy of [Black Sabbath's] Master of Reality."
Wilson continues the thought: "If I didn't already know Joe and Mash well, I would not be in a band like this. But it's because I know them and we're good friends and I think the songs are great and I think the music's great — whether it's hard rock or not — that I wanted to play. Even if you took all these songs and did 'em with a banjo, a mandolin, an acoustic guitar and a fucking cocktail drum kit, these songs would still be just as good, especially if these four people were playing."
"And we're gonna do that one of these days," Frezza laughs.
"We just may do that," agrees Wilson, totally deadpan.
A good band vibe and good songwriting are key, of course. But what actually makes Octopus' heavy salvia-rock so intriguing, so not a clichéd hard rock thing, is, as Frezza mentioned up-front, Marjieh's voice. Deceptively sexy, it bumps a lithe curve into a sound that could easily end up thick, angular, über-masculine.
The new Octopus' third show, following the triumphant 8/8/8 show at the New Dodge Lounge and a September show at the Old Miami, was sparsely populated due to a Sunday timeslot at the cavernous Magic Stick. But it was nevertheless the first time the band really got into their groove and felt that "ahh-yes-there-it-is!" tingle.
There was Frezza striking the classic rock wide-legged stance with a cigarette dangling from his mouth, Tudrick enthusiastically keeping time, and Wilson — the only member not in a black T-shirt — finally feeling at home on bass. And at center stage was the exotically mysterious Marjieh, who goes all shy when asked about her sex appeal but is every bit the tough-as-nails vamp onstage.
The heavy songs didn't actually play heavy at the Stick. Yes, it was loud and all the requisite riffs were there. But the bass lines — many of which, Wilson stresses, were written by original bassist Pott — serpentined with the timbre of Marijeh's vocals, adding a romantic sensuality to the apocalyptic mood.
Thus, these flexible, disparate talents — undeniable in their musicianship as well as their songwriting chops — have combined to form a band that can't just be labeled "hard rock" and simply put on a shelf. They've covered the Doors and they've covered Donna Summer. They name-check Metallica, then discuss the possibility of bringing in some Bo Diddley riffs to their sound.
And while musicians everywhere continue to mindlessly spout that hackneyed line, "It's about the music," Frezza is more complex than that. In addition to his guitar duties, he's also a filmmaker and has recently produced tracks for hot local artists Deastro and Aran Ruth. But mostly, he's just ridiculously, intensely knowledgeable. And everything he studies informs his art.
The band's original MySpace profile was a thinly veiled tribute to the British prototype hard rock band Cream until Frezza changed it to an erudite cocktail of the aforementioned Crowley and Friedrich Nietzsche. Allow him to and he'll hold you hostage until you are thoroughly acquainted with his various intellectual obsessions.
When asked why he named the band Octopus, for instance, Frezza first says, simply, "I had a series of dreams involving octopi."
But he quickly continues, "It was after the nuclear war, and there were Russians and Americans on this big ship that was a giant metal octopus. It was a submarine and a spaceship, and they were traveling the world, post-Armageddon. ... Then [in real life], I ran into this Chinese girl I hadn't seen since high school. And she launches into this dream she had about octopi hanging in a basement and Susan Sarandon babysitting these unruly kids."
This all leads into Frezza's fascination with the book The Octopus: Secret Government and the Death of Danny Casolaro, about a reporter who was found dead in his hotel bathroom while investigating a software scam that involved the Reagan administration, the Kennedy assassination, the October surprise and UFOs, among other things.
Actually, all of this is almost too much to take ... until Wilson butts in.
"Just as an aside," he says, unflappable in his comedic delivery, "I had that same dream." Pause. "Susan Sarandon was a Russian spy, working as a CIA informant who was about to be told about a giant conspiracy theory."
So, as their conversation might indicate, one gets both the heavy and the light from this band. Octopus sounds like the end of the world, yes, because there is so much intense thought behind the darkly horrific ideas involved. But there's no question — especially if you see one of their shows —— that Octopus also sounds like sex. Because, fuck, the truth is, if you're not giggling like a schoolgirl (or boy), swinging your hips and enjoying the ride to hell, you're probably not paying attention.
Octopus plays Saturday, Nov. 29, at the Belmont, 10215 Joseph Campau, Hamtramck; 313-871-1966. With SSM and Wolfbait.Liz Hill is a metro Detroit freelance writer. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org