It's fair to say Pinkeye, much like the physical condition after which this musical collective is named, may well be considered more pain than a pleasure by many music lovers. The jazz-rock ensemble has about twice as many members as Slipknot, and its albums usually include only one or two songs. The group is the very definition of self-indulgent — both proudly and gloriously. Consisting of members of other experimental bands from around town (including Red China, the Oscillating Fan Club, Duende!, Sea Turtle Restoration Project, Wildcatting, etc.), this improvisational project was born when the various musicians discovered they were all like-minded souls, at least aesthetically.
Guitarist Mike Ross (disclosure: Ross is an occasional Metro Times music writer) founded the band almost by accident.
"My other band, Red China, had played the Summer Bash and the next year we wanted to play it again," Ross says. "My girlfriend was on the organizing committee — but they had a policy of not having the same bands from one year to the next. She suggested that I get a bunch of buddies together and play as a 'supergroup.' So I called some friends from other bands around town and we did just that. The first time we played, we didn't even have a name. But then, over the course of the rehearsals for that first show, a few of us actually got pink eye, which was really gross but also pretty comical at the time. The original idea was to have a rotating cast. But no one ever wants to leave and we certainly don't want to throw anybody out. So rather than rotating, it just keeps growing as other people invite other friends. During our last recording project, there were 15 of us gathered together."
Pinkeye is, perhaps, getting more attention than the band normally would because, on its latest and third album — the bravely titled Tearing Down the Shrine of Truth and Beauty (a tribute to the old Tiger Stadium) — it involved the considerable presence of former MC5 manager, poet, beatnik, D-Town icon and revolutionary John Sinclair.
Ross let us in on how the collaboration came to be — a relationship that actually makes sense: "One of our members, Jeff Howitt from Duende!, has a thing going where he sort of melds the old guard of Detroit rock 'n' roll with some current happenings. He's worked with people like [Motown guitarist] Dennis Coffey, Scott Morgan's Powertrane and Gary Rasmussen from [legendary garage rockers] the Up. He happened to see John Sinclair at a restaurant one day and just went over and introduced himself. They exchanged some pleasantries or whatever, and they exchanged contact information as well. Not too long after that, Jeff wrote John an e-mail, saying, 'Hey, next time you're in town, we'd like to work with you. ...' And it's true. Sometimes, all you have to do is ask. John wrote back, saying, 'Hey, that sounds like a lot of fun.' He gave us some dates for when he'd be back in town. We picked a couple and set up two recording sessions."
Sinclair talks of his involvement: "I didn't check them out first. I just went into it with an open mind as usual. If they'd been terrible, I would have just said, 'Thanks, folks. See you later.'"
For Sinclair, though, the experience of recording with a group of twentysomethings ultimately proved very refreshing. "I like them because they're kids," he says. "They're young guys who aren't worried about getting a record contract. They're playing for fun, like they do in New Orleans. And that's why I can relate to them. They play Sun Ra tunes! John Coltrane, Monk! So they're kindred spirits. The recording process was a lot of fun. So much so that I wrote the liner notes for the album too!"
Describing Pinkeye's sound is as futile as finding bacon in a mosque. But that doesn't stop Ross from trying. "It's interesting because everybody involved is a songwriter in their own right and in their own band," he says. "When it comes to Pinkeye, there's really no one who can totally grab the reins on it. Some of us may try, and that gives it an interesting dynamic, but inevitably it takes on a life of its own. A lot of time, whether we're doing an original or a Coltrane or Sun Ra song, it always ends up sounding like Pinkeye. We usually play one song per performance. It goes up to 40 minutes or so. We end up spontaneously arranging during the gig. Sometimes, we'll map it out on a big board beforehand, but that's basically just a foundation because it does take on a life of its own. Everyone's sort of free to do their own thing. There's an element of trust there; we know that no one's going to do anything that's in horrible taste."
Pinkeye and Sinclair are now taking their partnership to Detroit area stages. They did a show last week, celebrating Sinclair's 67th birthday. This week's gig at the Music Hall Jazz Café is to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Sinclair's Detroit Artist's Workshop. There'll another performance in November, celebrating the aforementioned Duende!'s latest CD release.
And Ross can hardly wait to see what unfolds. "It'll probably be just as interesting to watch as it is to hear," he says. "It can get pretty crazy onstage. Sometimes, band members even get injured. There's no violence but just reckless exuberance. Last time, we ended up in a spontaneous flower fight; there were a lot of flowers around so we used them. It wasn't so much a fight as just flowers being thrown around. But each show takes on a life of its own. It goes well beyond music and becomes this weird plateau kind of thing before falling back down again. We can't wait to see what John will bring to that table."
For that matter, neither can we.
Thursday, Oct. 9, at the Music Hall Jazz Café, 350 Madison St., Detroit; 313-887-8503.Brett Callwood is a music writer for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]