What the Hard Lessons do as an indie band could be described as fairly revolutionary in the grand scheme of things. To quote Augie Visocchi, the popular Detroit trio's guitarist and co-vocalist: "We're old-fashioned. It does seem like a novel idea these days, I guess. We write songs. We record them and put out records. And then we tour."
To simply say they tour, however, is almost an understatement. The Hard Lessons spent more than six of the last 12 months on the road and they estimate that they've performed at least 600 shows since they formed nearly five years ago.
In a SPIN cover story featuring Bruce Springsteen and the Arcade Fire's Win Butler interviewing each other earlier this year, the elder rock statesman said he thought it would be difficult to be a young musician these days; when a band like Vampire Weekend can go from the dorm room to SPIN's cover and Saturday Night Live in less than two years, bands don't have a chance to develop their chops onstage as live performers, something great bands have been doing at least since the Beatles clocked in all those hours at the Star Club in Hamburg and at Liverpool's Cavern Club.
The Hard Lessons, on the other hand, have honed their live skills and are now known locally, as well as in many other parts of the country, for their dynamic and wild onstage performances; Visocchi has about 20 scars on his body, as well as a few chipped teeth (and a guitar that reads: "I bleed"), to show for their efforts.
To see the Hard Lessons onstage is a wondrous thrill. The young Pete Townshend had nothing on Visocchi, as he struts, apes those Townshend-invented windmill motions and dives from the stage. Beside him, an incredibly cute female keyboardist, with a decidedly Dusty Springfield-like vocal vibe, swings her hips behind the ivories, maintaining the bottom-end bass line with her left hand. And behind them, a diminutive drummer provides a metallic wallop that belies his small stature. Musically, it's a sound that sometimes brings to mind a hybrid of Dusty in Memphis and Kick out the Jams, occasionally with a twist of Squeeze-like pop thrown into the mix.
And it's exactly those live performances that's led publications from Austin, Texas, to Australia to headline reports "Vampire Who?" when the Hard Lessons played a SPIN magazine party show with the aforementioned Vampire Weekend at the South by Southwest music festival in Texas last March. The magazine reps were so taken with the band's onstage shenanigans and charm, in fact, that they asked the group to play again after the Vampire boys had finished their lackluster set.
"It's almost as though a band — any band — could fill up the Magic Stick these days even if they've only played two shows before in their lives, simply because the music blogs tell everyone to go there," says Korin Cox (aka Ko Ko Louise), the trio's keyboardist-vocalist. "But I really believe that at some point, music fans can see through it. And at some point, someone's going to finally think and ask: 'That's it?'"
The Hard Lessons — the band's rounded out by drummer Christophe Zajac-Denek (who claims to be Polish but is also the son of a mother who loves most things French) — have gathered at their funky rehearsal house on Eight Mile Road in Ferndale. Due to the group members' sometimes almost cartoon-ish look in certain publicity photos, those unfamiliar with the Hard Lessons' music might mistake them as just another entry in the modern "ironic rock" sweepstakes. But as Visocchi has emphasized frequently in the past, this is one modern unit that plays a totally non-ironic form of rock 'n' roll. They term it exactly that, in fact — but what "rock 'n' roll" encompasses in their universe goes well beyond the "garage rock" label they've been saddled with since the beginning of their career.
It's obvious that these longtime friends — all still in their mid-20s — are rock obsessives of high order from the moment a stranger enters the run-down house. They may have performed for 30,000 people in the last two days alone, including a performance the night before at Lansing's Common Ground outdoor festival — but these are still first and foremost music fans. Visocchi was taught the mandolin by his Italian grandfather at a very young age; he learned to play Nirvana tunes on the instrument soon thereafter. Cox grew up in a family of musicians and performers; her grandfather was in a successful post-World War II barbershop quartet and her mother was a touring singer who performed throughout the United States and Europe. "I don't know what 'Happy Birthday' sounds like when your family sings it," Visocchi says, "but at Korin's house, it's amazing — five-part harmonies, the whole deal!" As a result, Cox's family has always been more than supportive of her career choice.
She sits behind her keyboard, occasionally tickling the ivories, throughout the interview; Visocchi frequently picks up a guitar to strum, even as he's speaking. And vinyl records are all over the place. Constantly on the turntable, of course, but album covers are also propped up against the walls as mini-art exhibits throughout their rehearsal space. The first covers that greet visitors upon entering are vintage copies of Abbey Road and Neil Young's debut solo album ("An original" now hard-to-find cover of the latter record, Visocchi is quick to point out; the Lessons are such big Shakey fans that they released a three-song tribute EP to Young last year). The records that appear or are visible during a nearly four-hour conversation range from the Byrds' Younger Than Yesterday to a Redd Kross offshoot, from LL Cool J to an autographed Brendan Benson disc, Outrageous Cherry's first single, the Sights' debut platter, and a copy of Ted Nugent & the Amboy Dukes' Call of the Wild LP, which the band members eventually autograph and present to your scribe as a comical gift.
Not all those influences are obvious on the Hard Lessons' new album, B&G Sides, the group's second full-length disc, out this week. But the eclectic musical mix does illustrate how much the band has evolved during the last several years. Styles run the gamut from the pure power-pop (with a blues chord!) majesty of "See and Be Scene" and the Beach Boys-esque vocals that kick off the album opener, "The Painter," to the hard rockin' "Come Back to Me" (a live staple written the week they formed and a song they've been trying to capture in the studio, beginning as far back as 2004 with producer Jim Diamond), to the epic closer: a revised reprise of "The Painter," inspired by the aforementioned Mr. Young's "Cortez the Killer."
But beyond the music, Visocchi uses the same words that opened this article — "fairly revolutionary" — to describe the concept behind the release of B&G Sides. The package compiles four EPs (now released as four individual discs in box set form) featuring music that's been available for free on the band's websites for months now. The EPs are all connected thematically — "B&G" stands for "Boy & Girl" — and it's a concept album-of-sorts in this age of one-song-per-artist iTunes downloads. Even the four cover spines and the EP covers — the latter featuring illustrations by local artist and band friend Emily Gustafson — are interconnected. The covers can be placed together strategically to create a larger picture that's nearly the size of those vintage vinyl album covers of yore. The band — with the aid of Ann Arbor-based music management collective Quack! Media — is banking on the belief that Hard Lessons fans, and perhaps music fans in general, still want to buy a deluxe physical product featuring musical and visual quality that tells a story, using both mediums, in 2008.
The work is bookended by two versions of "The Painter," not as artistic pretense but because the album concept came to Visocchi when he was painting bathrooms in the Woodward Avenue Brewery — where Cox works a "day job" — for $10 an hour immediately after the band returned from their most recent, and most successful, U.S. tour.
Visocchi, during the course of a long and involved description, says the concept was to tell the story of the band and, by association, "the kids on the music scene" in song. Not just that, but it's the story of the long relationship he's had with Cox — the couple will finally make it "official," with a wedding planned for next month. And yet, he also wanted the B&G Sides to transcend specifics to become "the story of any twentysomething boy and girl — and whether you are 20, gonna be 20, or have been 20, you can relate to it.
"You can read and interpret the record in a million different ways. Personally, it's also the story of my life — of me painting over graffiti in a bathroom after coming back from a tour. And everyone thinks we're big rock stars and have all this money when the truth is we're just barely scraping by." Thus, B&G Sides also deals with various frustrations, including those involving "local scene and music business politics," as well as the anger, resentment and other negative emotions everyone eventually feels in romantic entanglements as well as from being members of a touring rock band.
Ambitious? Certainly. But do they fear, especially in this disposable culture of ours, that people will no longer place value on something they can already hear for free?
"I don't think it cheapens it at all," Cox says. "Go ahead and sample it. Test it out. See if you like it first. You've bought other albums of ours in the past, so if you like it, you'll hopefully buy this one, too. It's our own form of indie PR."
For Visocchi, the album's release was a no-brainer: "I don't know what we're going to do next, but this is something we wanted to do — embracing the technology of the future while harking back to the rigid artistic history of recorded music as well." History is a word — usually used in connection with either rock in general or Detroit specifically — that's used countless times in the course of Visocchi's conversation. "It tells the story of our band — and of us as people — as well as or better than any picture or snapshot ever could."
Interestingly, it's a snapshot from several years back that Cox still remembers as one of the many defining moments in the band's rapid ascension. "It's a Polaroid of us standing in front of the Lager House, holding our first single," she laughs. "We were all so proud and we look it. We thought we'd really made it!" Visocchi's defining mental image comes from shortly before that, when the Hard Lessons were playing a gig at Lansing's Temple Club "with the Dirtbombs and the Sights. It was like, 'Wow!' A few years before, we'd been watching these guys play in clubs and now we were actually onstage playing with them!"
Visocchi — who grew up in Warren to first-generation Italian immigrants — and Cox — a Brighton native — bonded as fellow rock aficionados while still students at MSU. They'd drive to Detroit four or five nights a week to see shows; they became lovers early in their relationship. Too young for the burgeoning Gold Dollar garage rock explosion, Visocchi's first entry into the Detroit music scene was catching Outrageous Cherry open for Wilco at the Majestic Theatre; soon thereafter, he befriended Matthew Smith — it seems every modern Detroit rock success story has to include that name — "and it just snowballed from there." Indeed, just from being visible fans on the scene, the pair would soon connect with other Detroit rock luminaries, from Brendan Benson to the Paybacks — something that would, um, pay back for them in spades when, following a lot of success in Lansing, the Hard Lessons booked their first area gig at Paychecks in Hamtramck.
"You hear so many negative things said about the Detroit music scene these days," says Visocchi. "Whatever it may be now — blogs and scene politics building up bands just to tear them down again later — we feel very fortunate that we got to experience firsthand that there once was a great community of musicians here who came together and really did rally behind us when we started this band. I don't know what we would have done if it wasn't for bands like the Sights taking us under their wings and letting us open shows for them. It was genuinely a fun first several years." (The band's relationship with Sights leader Eddie Baranek continues to this day; Visocchi describes the talented frontman as someone who should be a millionaire and a national rock star, while Cox still performs with the multi-instrumentalist in a side project called the Drinking Problem.)
The band first formed to play a "Battle of the Bands" competition on the Michigan State University campus. When they were accepted as contestants, Visocchi recruited Zajac-Denek to join them; the drummer had been several grades ahead of Visocchi at the same high school and they'd recently met up again at a Gore Gore Girls gig in Detroit. The soon to be newly named "The Anvil" — Visocchi first gave him that name due to the drummer's small stature but powerful strength behind the kit — got his first set of toy drums on Christmas morning when he was just 4. There's an audio recording from that morning that features the young Zajac-Denek exclaiming, "I like drums!" before proceeding to take control of the kit. "Can I just say it's the cutest, most adorable thing you'll ever hear?" Cox says. "Christophe beat all of us by making his first recording, thanks to his dad, at 4 years old."
"I remember I beat the crap out of those drums," recalls Zajac-Denek, who gave up the skins for a while as an adolescent before returning to them again full-throttle as a high school student. "There were huge dents in all of them before long."
The group was initially called the Boll Weevils — they originally thought they'd be a blues cover band — but changed their name right in the middle of that debut performance, announcing it from the stage and basing their new moniker on the fact that Visocchi's first three original compositions dealt with some of life's "harder lessons." Although they had less than a week to prepare and had to come up with all original tunes after being informed that cover tunes wouldn't be permitted in the competition, the group still managed to win second place and a $400 prize. The band did its first out-of-state tour within six months, built solely around Cox blindly calling various rock clubs. The Hard Lessons didn't have a booking agent until June of this year. "It was great because I invented all the rules myself," she says. "Over the years, most of it was done via networking with other bands and record stores."
After graduating from MSU, the band relocated to Hamtramck, where it recorded its debut album, Gasoline, now an ironic title for an indie band that spends at least six months a year on the road. "Any band that says they're doing more than breaking even is a very successful band," Cox says, although Visocchi confesses the last tour would've ended in the black for them had their tour van not needed a new radiator at its conclusion.
For a while after their relocation, the couple — both education majors (the Anvil was a telecommunications major at MSU) — worked as student teachers in the area. Cox taught ninth grade American history; Visocchi instructed high school students in English. "I recall being in front of the Renaissance Center at 4 a.m. — we were going to Jacoby's to eat — and moaning, 'I have to teach in two hours!'" Visocchi says, "Many times, we'd spray Febreze on ourselves and go directly to school from an out-of-town gig."
Cox — who earned a master's degree during this time — is quick to point out, however, that they were always excellent teachers, confident and proud of their skills, and that they never "phoned it in like some other teachers do," despite their odd rock 'n' roll hours. They were eventually offered full-time teaching positions, "but believe it or not," deadpans Visocchi, "they told us they wouldn't give us four or five months off to go on tour. I actually asked my principal if that was a possibility when he offered the job!"
Despite the financial hardships they've endured — Visocchi says he'd just like to be able to afford to go to a hospital emergency room on those occasions when he actually hurts himself onstage (in a cruel twist, the group recently had a woman from Germany on tour with them as their merchandising salesperson ... and she got to go to an emergency room in San Francisco for an ailment because the German government pays medical costs for all its citizens) — they all feel their career gamble has paid off. The band can fill St. Andrew's Hall, no problem. They've played in front of sold-out crowds at Cobo Hall, and nearly four years to the day after their August 4, 2003 inception, the Hard Lessons were opening for the Stooges at Meadow Brook Music Festival. They were even labeled for a time as Detroit's "next big thing," a blessing and a curse.
It really is hard work, they explain. It's also torture to be sick on the road, and Visocchi spent a majority of this last tour as sick as a dog, frequently puking into buckets after shows. It wasn't until they reached the James Brown statue in Augusta, Ga., and made a pilgrimage that the guitarist finally started to feel better. Then there was the van breaking down in the south side of Chicago — "We're talking R. Kelly territory!" explains Visocchi — and literally having to push the vehicle to gigs. There were the overnight accommodations at a funeral home in Lindsay, Okla., a dry town where Cox spent a birthday ... and where a "nice cowboy" finally gave them a six pack at a local rodeo they found following their sparsely attended Lindsay performance. Then there was the Anvil having to play the band's recent homecoming gig at the Rock City Festival earlier this summer using just his left foot after injuring the right one during a tour mishap.
"He still managed to surf, though, on his most recent trip to California," Cox says, perhaps alluding to another obstacle the band faces in the near future. Shortly after this interview took place, the Hard Lessons informed Metro Times that Zajac-Denek — who Cox describes as "our red-eye man when we're touring because he's the only one who can drive from 3 a.m. until the sun comes up" — will be relocating to California before the end of this year, a move that can't help but affect the dynamics of the band.
"He'll be playing with us for the next several months, so nothing is immediate by any means," Visocchi says. "But it definitely will be a transitional time for us. Everything is totally amicable, of course, and we've all had a great time playing together. But Christophe's moving onto a new chapter in his life, although everything's still somewhat uncertain at the moment." In the meantime, the guitarist and Cox have already started writing and recording their next album with the Electric Six's Zach Shipps — who produced both Gasoline and the band's Wise Up! EP — behind the boards.
Whatever the future might hold, the three members agree that the outstanding moments have certainly outweighed the negative ones — not just playing with the Stooges but also touring Europe; opening for the New York Dolls at the renowned Spaceland club in L.A.; being hugged by Leni Sinclair and then being told it reminded her of "hugging one of the MC5"; playing one of the last gigs ever at CBGB and having Patti Smith herself chatting with them as they unloaded equipment (the group, as friends of Patti's children, then spent the night at Smith's apartment, with the matriarch serving them warm pastries for breakfast the following morning); or simply sitting on the roof of their hideaway on Eight Mile, staring at downtown Detroit in the distance, proud that they're fans of — and also now participants in — the musical legacy of a city that, as Visocchi notes, counted both the Beatles and Rolling Stones among its fans.
And then there was that Common Ground performance in Lansing the night before this interview took place. "Last night was one of our proudest moments ever," Visocchi says. "We played a great show a while back with a band called the Darts. Since then, their guitarist has been diagnosed with leukemia. He then had a bone marrow transplant that went wrong and caused infections. Last night was the first time he's been able to leave the hospital in eight months. And he came to see us! He had to wear a surgical mask, due to the infections, but he was there."
"He came in an ambulance with nurses and his dad." Zajac-Denek picks up the story. "We were getting food before the gig and suddenly saw this ambulance pull up. They got him out and situated him so he could see the whole show."
"He pulled us aside and said, 'I just want you guys to know what an inspiration you've been to me,'" recounts a genuinely touched Visocchi. "I've never felt so guilty or ashamed before because it's the other way around. He's an inspiration to us! It really was humbling. As cool as playing with the Stooges or staying with Patti Smith was, that's the kind of magical moment that a band will remember forever."
The Hard Lessons' record release party is Saturday, July 26, at the Crofoot Ballroom, 1 Saginaw St., Pontiac; 248-858-9333. With American Mars, Four Hour Friends, Paul Green's School of Rock students, Josh Epstein of the Silent Years and other "special surprise guests."Bill Holdship is Metro Times music editor. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org