"We’re done. We’re through with teaching. We’re here for rock ’n’ roll,” Korin Cox says, with a matter-of-fact nod. The Hard Lessons keyboardist-vocalist is sitting in Gusoline Alley, sipping red wine, spinning tunes on the venerable Royal Oak dive’s well-stocked jukebox, and bickering playfully with her bandmates over liner note details for the trio’s upcoming LP debut. Through with teaching? Cox and her guitarist/vocalist bandmate Augie Visocchi both student teach. They’re quitting their jobs (or at least putting them on hold) at the end of this school year to focus exclusively on the Hard Lessons. Who then will educate the young minds of the Detroit and Utica public school districts that there’s more to life than Halo if Cox and Visocchi leave the blackboard jungle behind?
Visocchi shakes his head along with Cox. “Those kids will learn more from our record than they ever will in school.”
Visocchi is nothing if not confident, but why not? He believes in his band. And as the English Beat’s “Mirror in the Bathroom” cues on the juke, the pure potential of the Hard Lessons’ future is staring them in the face.
In early 2003 they were still a scrappy East Lansing four-piece called the Boll Weevils, full of casual happiness and believing in not much more than some laughs and the occasional gig. But the bassist was soon sent packing along with the name, and Visocchi, Cox and drummer Christophe Zajac-Denek became the Hard Lessons. They adopted zingy stage names — Gin for the guitar player, Ko Ko at the organ, and on drums, The Anvil — and started gigging regularly. By the middle of 2004 it seemed like the trio had been on the scene forever, rocking their eager blend of tingling power pop hooks and maximum R&B alongside local faves like Back in Spades and the Paybacks. It was sort of a whirlwind, but good songs have a way of making people jump.
The Hard Lessons are as surprised as anyone by the sudden local success. “When we started this band we set goals,” Visocchi says emphatically as Cox and Zajac-Denek construct a playlist in the colored light of the jukebox. “You know — put out a 45, play the Lager House on a weekend, open for the Paybacks. And they all came true.”
His mates pile back at the booth, nodding in agreement and smiling in a half-sheepish sort of way that reveals their sense of amazement, but also their youth (they’re all in their early- to mid-20s). Visocchi talks of his idolization of the late, great Detroit band Atomic Numbers, how he couldn’t quite believe it when he really got to know them. He and his fellow Hard Lessons were just kids who came to all the shows, and now people are paying to see them? Now they’ve played almost a hundred shows in just over a year of existence? In the background, Wendy Case has just finished wailing “Black Girl”; the song’s raucous stomp segues perfectly into “Cissy Strut” by the Meters. Visocchi, Cox and Zajac-Denek get a little wide-eyed when they talk about the local response to their band. But they’re also adamant about where they’re going. “Those goals all came true,” Visocchi says with a fist on the table. “But I want fucking more.”
The “Feedback Loop” 7-inch was tearing up turntables in winter 2004. But it was only two songs, a double A side of hyperized dueting, cavestomp guitar and vintage-leaning soul. But now it’s time for a proper full-length, and Gasoline is that. Due this spring from No Fun, the Ann Arbor imprint that’s home to the Avatars as well as freaky, South American garage scene crazies like Manganzoides and the Butchers, the album delivers on the promise of both the 45 and the live show. “Feel Alright” and “Share Your Vanity” are wiry, needle-burying rockers in the tradition of the Castaways or the Seeds, while “That Other Girl” has an R&B shimmy thanks to Cox’s keys and soulful vocal. Her crisp organ runs and bright, bold singing play off Visocchi’s guitar and husky yell perfectly, and there’s no bass man needed when Zajac-Denek’s beat is always in the right place. The Anvil — it’s really the only nickname that’s stuck, and every kick drum bump and cymbal crash is the reason. The material from the 45 is here, but there’s also a song like “Milk + Honey,” which dynamically is much closer to indie rock than garage or punk or soul or whatever. That’s what doesn’t matter — ultimately, Gasoline is a rock ’n’ roll album with hooks and spunky attitude, the kind of record that infuses each influence or genre name drop with addictive fun.
Another round has been ordered from the bar, and the Hard Lessons are telling stories about all-night drives to Kentucky and playing shows to 35 kids in Flint — the tales of a rock band working hard for the money, the same ones a thousand bands have told, but still unique to the Hard Lessons history. The Small Faces give way to Muddy Waters, who in turn sets up the Beastie Boys’ “Johnny Ryall,” which everyone agrees is Zajac-Denek’s best pick of the jukebox set. Visocchi and Cox talk of recording the forthcoming album at Zach Shipp’s house in Hamtramck, how the microphone tracking an impromptu, porch-based acoustic session picked up the yells of some Lumpkin neighborhood tykes, and that piece of tape was added to the beginning of Gasoline. (Visocchi: “Just so ‘Feel Alright’ really tears your skull off when it kicks in.”)
Visocchi and Cox are serious about quitting their teaching jobs to give the band and the album their full attention. It’s another story rock bands have told forever — the old 40-hour-a-week job on top of a 40-hour-a-week job rap just isn’t cutting it. Besides, Cox adds, “We have to play rock ’n’ roll.” They believe in it that strongly. The Hard Lessons know they have the songs, hooks, and chops with which to truly educate.
Saturday at at Knights of Columbus (9632 Conant Ave., Hamtramck; 313-871-8888).
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