Just because theyre the White Stripes opening act, dont let any next Stripes hype fool you. Judged for their Puritan-like work ethic in constant touring, three absolutely ace studio albums, and their indefinable yet palpable yeah, man brand of charisma, the Greenhornes long ago reached the top rungs of the garage-rock ladder. Not for nothing does the Cincinnati threesome count among their fans one Steven Van Zandt, who has frequently championed them on his Little Stevens Underground Garage radio show.
Since forming as a quintet in 1998, the band has gone through a number of lineup changes, but the core has always been Craig Fox (vocals, guitars), Little Jack Lawrence (bass, vocals) and Patrick Keeler (drums). Not long ago they traveled to Detroit to record their latest record, the East Grand Blues EP, with local pop maverick Brendan Benson. It marks their major label debut, on V2 also home to Benson and the White Stripes.
Compared to the hi-octane R&B-cum-garage spuzz of 2002s Dual Mono, the EP has a warmer, more densely layered quality; highlights including the slow, harmony-strewn jangler Im Going Away, slinky Doors-meets-Kinks throbber At Night, and the heavy industrial fuzzbomb Pattern Skies. In a phone interview last week, Lawrence whos by now an honorary Detroiter said stylistic growth simply came out of wanting to try something different.
Metro Times: Theres a really distinctive, lush sonic vibe on this EP. Was that Bensons input?
Jack Lawrence: We had recorded these songs before, first at Ultrasuede Studios [Cincinnati], where wed done the other records. We also went down to Nashville and recorded them at the same studio where we did the record with Loretta Lynn [Lawrence and Keeler played on the Jack White-produced Van Lear Rose]. The songs sounded really good, but Brendan wanted to do something with us.
Brendan was really good with vocals for us, just making sure we sang in tune, and he was always into trying to layer more vocals. We did the tracks first, upstairs in his attic, and it was in summer 100 degrees in that attic so some of the songs were kind of rushed because we wanted to get out of there. But afterwards, we started getting the overdubs down and Brendan would say, Try this, try that. ... Hes got a lot of guitars and stuff, keyboards, in his studio.
MT: It was maybe around the time of Dual Mono and we interviewed Little Steven about his Underground Garage program, and the Greenhornes were one of the first band names out of his mouth. At what point did you sense youd really picked up some national momentum? His name-checks certainly helped.
Lawrence: Oh, yeah, hes done a lot its a good feeling to get that. And we just got back this afternoon from Sirius [satellite radio] where we did an interview for his channel with Kid Leo. I think this year has really been the point where we thought maybe something will happen. Weve been at it so many years, and you get so many promises that dont ever work out. But this year theres been the Broken Flowers film, for example. [Jim Jarmusch included the Greenhornes There Is an End on the sound track.] Its still hard to tell sometimes. You get to New York, you play, its packed and theres a buzz. Then we get to Buffalo and theres like 10 people there.
MT: Talk a bit about how this tour with the White Stripes has gone.
Lawrence: Its been a really nice experience. Usually the theaters are 2,000 or 3,000, although we have played some bigger ones like Red Rocks in Denver, which held about 9,000. We went to Mexico too, which was actually my favorite time on tour.
I was surprised, because playing with the White Stripes, people are coming to see them, so you never know what their reaction will be because 96 percent of them havent heard you. You play at 8, and theres still a lot of empty seats. But in Mexico they went crazy. We did Lost Woman [Yardbirds], and both times, in Guadalajara and Mexico City, they all had their hands way up over their heads I didnt know if it was just because of the rhythm or what, but they just got crazy.
MT: Mexico has a legacy of garage bands from the 60s not everyone theres a Morrissey fan. Actually the best way to gauge a tour is how youve been doing at the merch table.
Lawrence: This time around [laughs] we have beer huggies, we have little Velcro wallets, and we have switchblades. Yeah, weve been doing pretty well an average of 50 CDs each night.
MT: Thinking of the side projects, you played banjo with Blanche, you and Patrick did the Loretta Lynn album with Jack, and the band is on Karen Os [the Yeah Yeah Yeahs] upcoming solo album, right?
Lawrence: That album should be great. Its different, some Yeah Yeah Yeahs sound, a kind of doo-wop thing too, a mix. Craig sang on one with her, and we all played on two or three songs.
MT: Theres also this Raconteurs project with Jack and Brendan too?
Lawrence: Thats Patrick, Brendan, Jack and me. Its just a mix of [everyones] sound. Brendan sings, and then they trade off and Jack will sing, then theyll sing together. Weve recorded some songs that I think will come out next year some time. We havent played yet, but when it comes out well probably tour because were pretty excited about playing together.
MT: Given all your Detroit connections, did the city embrace the Greenhornes early on?
Lawrence: Oh, yeah. Probably around 1998 after we started, we got a show with the Hentchmen at this place, the Gold Dollar, and everyone there was in a band. The first few times we were there meeting all the other musicians. Everyone was friendly, Jack was there too, and these bands just kind of took us in. In Cincinnati it was different; in Detroit, people were totally excited.
MT: You could practically call the city your second home.
Lawrence: I think Im going to be there something like four times next week. Yeah, I know that stretch of highway [between Cincinnati and Detroit] very well now all the exits, everything.
Sunday, Oct. 2, at the Masonic Temple Theatre, 500 Temple, Detroit; 313-832-2232. With the White Stripes.Fred Mills is freelance writer. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.