The history of rock 'n' roll is littered with eccentrics — those characters who generate interest apart from their music and sometimes make headlines, depending on their level of fame, because they appear to be completely apart from what conventional wisdom deems normal. And Detroit has certainly had its fair share of musicians who embrace the bizarre over the years, from the chest-slashing antics of Iggy, the life on Mars-dom of Question Mark and the theater macabre that is Alice Cooper to Eminem's "anti-family values" and the current asylum inmate-in-waiting that is Mike Hard of Thrall and They Never Sleep.
Yep, the local scene in this city has never been dull, contrary to the contrarians — but Marco Polio & the New Vaccines just might be about to crank up the crazy to an entirely new high.
Musically, the band could call Suicide, Kraftwerk and Devo reference points; their hypnotic, pulsing electro loops create a frankly fucked-up canvas that the screaming vocals stamp on and then frame. Aesthetically, the duo of vocalist and looping maestro Stephen Puwalski and guitarist, keyboardist, programmer Michael Mars is visually fascinating: Puwalski consistently looks like he's wearing the clothes he slept in the night — even perhaps the week — before. One suspects, however, that his disheveled appearance is no accident. To look like a cross between a Russian gypsy and a shuffling background character in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest only gives credence to Puwalski's general demeanor of unhinged psychosis blended with no small amount of calculated intelligence.
"I think one day he's going to end up leading a cult or at least creating his own religion," Mars says.
In person, Puwalski comes across as a cross between Charles Manson and David Icke, talking with confidence and authority about cockeyed subjects to such an impressive degree that it isn't beyond the realms of possibility that people might actually believe him.
To wit: "I'm not a conventional musician but I invented an instrument called the imaginatron, which is all around us," Puwalski says, without the slightest hint of a grin. "It's light. The keys are in the sky. You play it in the air and you can play it all around the venue. One thing I really like about the imaginatron is that I never have to load it. It's in every venue. It's always there. It allows me to interact with the audience because the keys are in the sky."
He's keen to point out, mind you, that the imaginatron isn't just a musical instrument. Hell no.
"We were playing the imaginatron at shows and I started thinking more deeply about what it could be and it occurred to me that the imaginatron is a portal to another reality," says the front man with a kind of religious fervor. "That's when I discovered ultralight. The keys of the imaginatron and all of the energy are beams of light from another universe. Every time we play the imaginatron, we open up a door to another universe and we reflect part of that reality into our reality. The umbrellas [which the group distributes at shows] are connected to that too because, when you open an umbrella, you're opening another reality."
And you were thinking that umbrellas were just to keep you dry, right?
For his part, Mars is happy to leave the cosmic instrumentalism to his band mate, saying, with a wry smile: "That's really Steve's thing."
And with that one comment, Mars gives his role in the band away. The multi-instrumentalist is quite obviously more interested in the music than the mythology and, while Puwalski is visually unkempt, Mars is always impeccably dressed. A hair is never out of place and his clothes hang almost too perfectly off his delicate physique. There a touch of Low-era Bowie about him, mixed with some new wave fashion fun. So, how did these two very different people find each other, and what made them form a band?
"We used to play at the same open mic at a place called Trixie's," Mars says. "Everyone else there was kind of boring — folky and bohemian. We were always the freaks in the room. So we started talking, and one of my friends said that we should play together."
Puwalski: "I was doing a human beat-box thing, and Mike would turn up with his Casio keyboard. We were both doing these weird acts. We were the two people that didn't fit in — so we started talking, and we decided to hang out and jam. Some of the audience really liked what we were doing and other people would say that it's 'interesting,' just to be polite."
If the two men are to be believed, Marco Polio & the New Vaccines were born out of the fact they were the only two people at an open mic not obsessed with incense, Bukowski and the Grateful Dead. Surely there has to be more to it than that.
"Well, Mike and I have a complicated working relationship," Puwalski says. "We are very different. I don't know what it is, but I don't feel like I'm in this band by choice. Musically, we do fill in what the other one is missing. We feed off each other. He's interesting to work with. We'll flip the script on each other frequently. Even the whole overall sound of Marco Polio — he'll say that he really wants to do poppy stuff at some point in time and we'll start writing material like that. Then he'll say that he wants to work on experimental music. Then I'll be in the mood to do droney, weird things. We'll push and pull on each other constantly."
Most music fans will tell you that a confrontational, unpredictable and volatile edge to an artistic pairing — a la Lou Reed and John Cale — can produce stunning shit. However, the Cale-Reed lineup of the Velvet Underground could only manage two albums before the pair's working relationship ripped them apart. How does this band deal with differences? In a word: humor.
"When I take a step back, I have to laugh," Mars says. "We are very different. So I see myself as the one who has to keep control while Steve is off running around. We've played shows where he has run outside and down the street with his mic, still singing, while I've been there on my own wondering if he's ever coming back. That can make me mad at times. But when I stop and think about it, it's really funny."
Marco Polio & the New Vaccines — who recently added a live drummer, Scott Stone (also of Rogue Satellites), to their lineup — would appear to have everything to play for. Over the past two years, the band, which recently became part of the Loco Gnosis label/family, has gone from virtual unknowns to headliners. Word of their spectacular live show is spreading and the debut album, The Imaginatron and You, due in May, 2010, could be sweet.
Puwalski, though, will be happy if he can change the world just a little. "People have this way of initiating themselves into the repetitious nature of society, but if you let go of that and realize that you can still be a member of society and also remain an individual, you can find your own way to change the world," says the young philosopher, before adding, "That's what we try to do."
Suddenly, he doesn't sound so crazy.
Playing Wednesday, March 31, at the Trumbullplex, 4210 Trumbull St., Detroit; 313-832-7952; with the Protomen. Also Friday, April 16, at the Majestic Cafe, 4140 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-9700. With Pinkeye.Brett Callwood is a music critic for Metro Times. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org