Novi sprawls just west of the freeway tangle where I-96 meets I-275 and M-5. The usual retail, entertainment and residential features straddle Grand River Avenue as it runs through the suburbs on its northwestern meander toward Lansing; Novi really is the typical middle-American suburb. And yet, in the hands of Washtenaw County's Great Lakes Myth Society, we revisit its past. "No. VI," from the quintet's self-titled 2005 debut, imagines the Novi Depot as not simply another stop on the railroad line, but as a destination for immigrants and itinerants, or a compartment for their dreams. You'd be hard-pressed to find a Detroit band not influenced by the ruins and cracked pavement of the Motor City. But here's a group willing to mine the rich folklore of a seemingly mundane northwest suburb. "At Tin Eye Tavern they were told," goes "No. VI," "The land at Six is made of gold." A guitar picks out a rhythm as straight and steady as a railroad tie, and a banjo plinks in the background, like a musician busking for change in the next train car. Not to get too carried away with the imagery The Great Lakes Myth Society is a rock 'n' roll band, and they'll tell you that first. But as songwriters, musicians and lifelong Michiganders, regional pride drifts through their music like wind slivering through a November cornfield.
It's a sunny Saturday in Ann Arbor, and the guys of Great Lakes Myth Society are at the home of a friend during a break from recording at nearby Big Sky Studios, where they're working on their second album. Planned for a spring 2007 release, it'll be the group's first for Quack!, the upstart Ann Arbor media company that's also home to pop combo Tally Hall and Found Magazine. But in the meantime, there are a few hours to eat popcorn, drink Newcastle and talk about GLMS, regional flavor and how folk music just might be more primal than the bellowing dirges of Scandinavian black metal.
Northern is the new Southern
Drummer Fido Kennington is relaxing on the off-white shag rug of this comfortable, 1970s-era home, his bandmates spread out on the living room's assortment of agreeably slunk furniture. LPs are stacked here and there; a collection of antique cameras lines one shelf. Books are everywhere.
"People will ask me, and I don't know how to say it without sounding like a pompous fool," Kennington says. "But they'll ask what our music is like, and I'll say Northern rock."
It's an apt description. Besides its regional flair Great Lakes Myth Society opens with "Salt Trucks" and closes with "Lake Effect," two phrases specific to northern Midwest living GLMS's music often nods to the effortless warmth of 1960s pop, particularly the Beach Boys. But there are also stark moments of folk and blues, like broken branches poking through the snow in the chilly landscape of a Jim Harrison novel. In other words, it's music for all four seasons.
"We're all influenced by that," singer, guitarist, accordionist and songwriter Timothy Monger says. "Music should sound like where it's from. Even if it's not entirely in the lyrics, it's about the dark and the light. Pop music is so wonderful and beautiful, but the girl songs have been written so many times over, and all the neat little pop themes, so it's kind of going back to folk music to where a certain sound seems more genuine."
Tim's older brother, vocalist-guitarist and songwriter James Christopher Monger, agrees. "I think the further north you get, the more folk songs are just outright dark. It's just all laid out there, in British folk all the way through to Scandinavia. There's a reason why there are so many black metal bands in Sweden they're all based on folk music, because the translations of those folk songs, the titles themselves, are the entire story. Like, 'My baby was born with one arm; a monster ate it three weeks later.' It's all Beowulf."
The room explodes in laughter, drowning out the Portsmouth Sinfonia record on the hi-fi. Black metal really does have an unhealthy fascination with the ancient epic poem. Jokes aside however, the guys in Great Lakes Myth also see a connection between the primal nature of northern European folk music and the folk and blues tradition of the American South. The darkness and suggestion in Leadbelly's version of "Where Did You Sleep Last Night" is a feeling Great Lakes ingrains in its own songs.
"I like the sound of boots hitting the stage," James Monger says. "When I see people doing that, it makes me excited. It's primal like, you can achieve primal, and not play just heavy metal. You don't always have to smash your guitar."
And besides, is Northern rock any different a descriptor than Southern rock? "Southern rock is entrenched in its region too," adds bassist-vocalist J. Scott McClintock. "We all accept that, right? It's the flag of Dixie, slight racism and Lynyrd Skynyrd."
Regionalism, pop songs, black metal, the primal grip of folk music, the spirit of Skynyrd a conversation with Great Lakes Myth Society is as rangy, thoughtful and brainy as the band's music.
Of lampreys, libraries and brake parts
Great Lakes rose in 2004 from the Mongers' Original Brothers and Sisters of Love, which also included Kennington, McClintock and GLMS vocalist-guitarist-songwriter Gregory McIntosh. Their original group had a similar Michigan bent in its lyrics and music. But it's with Great Lakes that their stories of Michigan history and local heroes have found a listenable home, since GLMS stays region-specific but evokes the history of pop music too. The tight backbeat of "Across the Bridge" might have been lifted from an old Joe Jackson record. But then there's fiddle, acoustic guitar, rich vocal harmonies and lyrics that check St. Ignace and lantern-lighting.
It's definitely not garage rock. But through regular gigging, GLMS has built a respectable and growing local following, becoming a favorite at both the Lager House and the Blind Pig. Live, the sometimes too-literate quality of their recorded material falls away. Musicianship takes over, and a little showmanship too the band's 2006 TasteFest performance was livened by what amounted to an Abbott and Costello routine between the Monger brothers. And who doesn't like a band with an accordion?
"I think our appeal lies in the fact that we're completely and utterly bereft of irony," James Monger says.
No irony? In 2006? Irony is a commodity in our culture. It's the whiff you catch from reality programming and trash-celebrity; it's the spin on news. It's truthiness. To say you're bereft of irony is like saying you don't have a cell phone. And to say it about rock 'n' roll, when every band has an angle and a publicist on the payroll, that's nearly a spin move in itself.
And yet, they don't.
Sure, they wear suits on stage. And yes, there's a bookish, almost precious quality to their romance with history. But Great Lakes Myth Society do all of this with a steadfast belief in their songs. It's a work ethic, not an irony play. Truth, not truthiness.
"I've worked so many fucking jobs, like the weirdest assortment of jobs in the world," James Monger says, relating his wildly varied résumé to his songwriting process. "I spent a year in a factory putting together brake parts, so I understand the 10-minute break, and how many cigarettes you can smoke, or 40s you can get down in your 20-minute lunch. I also worked at U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, where I trapped and killed sea lamprey. They're the freakiest. They only bore into game fish, but they're all muscle. When they're in buckets and there's no water, they scream."
"It's just that I've worked with lots of different kinds of people," he says.
It's this feel for real people, places and things that guides the band's music. But they're still mindful that this is rock 'n' roll, not the library.
"You need a hook," Timothy Monger says. "A musical or lyrical hook, one thing that grabs people by the back of the neck. I don't want to write some 10-minute, verbose historical Michigan epic unless there's something else to give in there. So I boil it down, put a good chorus in, and if it happens to be about the Great Lakes, well, then that's just the way it is."
"This next record is much less specific about things," James Monger adds. "The area we live in is like wallpaper for the songs, not the walls. The regionalism is just in the core of what we do, so we don't need to worry about specifically writing Michigan-centric songs it's just in there."
Still, actual faces and place names matter. "Why should an artist not be allowed to talk about where he's from?" Monger continues. "You shouldn't be scared about writing a song about a friend of yours with proper nouns just because it doesn't fit into the pop rhyme scheme. I think it's more honest when a song comes from somewhere people know."
"What's more appealing to you?" Kennington adds, from his reclining position on the carpet. "Boy meets girl? Or Ivan meets Claudia?"
Dance hall days
"We're definitely focusing on the hipster crowd," Quack! Media mastermind Al McWilliams says, describing the promo push the label is planning for Great Lakes Myth Society's upcoming album. His meaning is clear. (He's a sales and marketing guy, after all.) In the last few years, tastemaking music blogs, Web magazines and even television and film music supervisors have driven up the popularity of "indie chic" artists like western Michigan native Sufjan Stevens, Andrew Bird, the Decemberists, Joanna Newsom and Midlake artists whose mannered, often folk-tinged sound is perfect download fodder for recent college graduates. This March, GLMS will bring its Northern rock south to Austin, Texas, and the South by Southwest music festival, the annual booze-and-schmooze event that, with a good showing, can carry the good word on a band through spring and into the summer touring season.
Which isn't to say that the quintet is too mannered. If you've seen them perform at Jacoby's, Lager House or the Blind Pig, you know their sound is closer to a house band in a beer hall (with the influence of Bowie, the Beach Boys and XTC thrown in) than anything too pretty. But there's no harm in trying to sell some records to indie pop fans obsessed with new discovery.
And whatever you do, don't call Great Lakes Myth Society soft. Remember, James Monger has wrestled lampreys.
The Monger brothers’ Michigan lit picks.