Here’s a classic tale told a thousand times: A teenager with hormones to spare makes some friends who also happen to play musical instruments. They find some common musical ground and begin playing around for fun — even if they’re not so proficient right away and no one’s paying attention yet.
Soon they’re recording some of the best style-specific rock ’n’ roll out there in a cultural climate that’s got a huge stiffie for said garage-punk, touring Europe and the United States, and playing with bands and artists that inspired them in the first place. These include members of bands who have in the past (Afghan Whigs) and are currently (White Stripes) enjoying spots on the Billboard charts and critical adulation (Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Holly Golightly).
“When we started the band, we were just doing what we wanted to do,” says lead vocalist and guitarist Craig Fox of ’60s punk, British invasion and R&B revivalists the Greenhornes. The Cincinnati group formed in ’97.
Fox had done time in other bands (“nothing embarrassing” he asserts without further elaboration). In high school he played with Greenhornes drummer Patrick Keeler and had known Eric Stein (guitar/ vocals) and Jack Lawrence (bass/ vocals) socially.
“When we first started, we knew we really wanted to do music that sounded old, thinking that there wouldn’t be anyone into it,” says Fox with a chuckle.
“We knew there were other people out there doing it, like the Hentchmen, but we’d never seen ’em live,” he adds.
It was that Detroit connection that would first lead the Greenhornes up I-75 for an introduction to a city and a scene that would prove a second home for a band whose best moments approach an alchemy of the Kinks and Back From the Grave dressed up with a loose-limbed, heavy-lidded NYC ’76 abandon.
“Our first trip to Detroit was, like, perfect,” says Fox of their May ’98 bow here. “We played the Gold Dollar with the Hentchmen.”
What’s more, the Greenhornes managed to get jaded Detroit rock audiences, usually found with hands firmly in their pockets, to shake it a little bit.
This could be because several of the Greenhornes’ early shows were conducted with the band rocking out on or near floor-level — roadhouse-style boogie affairs that brought the band eye-to-eye and ass-to-ass with the crowd.
“I like to play on the floor,” says Fox, “I like to see people dancing and totally not paying close attention to what you look like. When I go see a band, I like to listen first.”
It’s this music-first approach — and the fluency 120 live shows a year affords — that’s earned the Greenhornes a reputation as a live band to be reckoned with.
They’ve also found themselves touched by relationship serendipity; their debut 45 on Detroit’s Italy Records was produced by Jack White.
“We recorded with him right around the time things were happening for the White Stripes,” says Fox. This led to opening slots on some cherry tours too.
“Opening for them showed us that you can do it if you stick to it.”
And if you check out the credits on the Greenhornes’ latest LP, Dual Mono, you’ll find production handled by one John Curley — the bass player for Cinci alt-soul titans the Afghan Whigs.
“Patrick works at a bar called the Comet and he came in one night and said ‘you guys should record at my place,’” says Fox, typically nonplussed.
“At first, I didn’t even know that it was his studio. But for Dual Mono he was pretty involved.”
Then there are their recording and touring jaunts with garage rock’s in-house diva, Holly Golightly.
Dual Mono includes the Greenhornes with Golightly on two of the most striking recordings of her career. “There is an End” is a dusky trip down heartache’s memory lane and the cover of ’60s modsters the Game’s “Gonna get me Someone” is a perfectly randy, he said-she said rocker.
These cuts highlight the Greenhornes ability to swing with whomever’s in the house. But they’re also apparently included by casual accident.
“We did a tour with her last spring. So when she came back to the States while we were recording, she hung around.
“I think we were recording those and some other songs for her album. I never did ask her if it was OK if we used them,” laughs Fox.
So what happens to the little band from Cinci started “just for fun” when the public rolls up the red carpet on rock ’n’ roll?
Says Fox: “Hopefully [the interest] will last long enough, ’cause it’s so hard to get things going. I can see how it could just go away, but if it does, it does. We’re doing what we’ve always done.”
Does that sound like a plan?
The Greenhornes will perform Thursday, May 1, at the Majestic Theater (4140 Woodward, Detroit). For more information, call 313-833-9700.E-mail Chris Handyside at firstname.lastname@example.org