What exactly is the Detroit sound? It encompasses a spectrum that spans minimalist blues to post-punk disco. It is rhythmic and raw, and like the Red Wings circa 1997 — or perhaps the $5 round pie — it has become a dominant, near-ubiquitous presence in the American cultural lexicon.
Besides having what is objectively the best band name of all time, the ILL Itches embody all of the qualities we think of when we talk about Detroit rock 'n' roll. They are firmly rooted in the city's musical past, but in a manner that explores all facets, including fuzz-saturated proto-punk (on "Hallelujah" and "Lucille," from their new album), and danceable soul ("I Feel Good").
This Saturday, April 30, they headline the Marble Bar alongside the Hentchmen, Moonwalks, and Idiot Kids in order to mark the release of their first full-length self-titled LP. Metro Times caught up with lead vocalist and guitar player Stephen Schmidt, bassist Matt Mruzek, guitarist Joshua Woodcock, and drummer Matt Livengood via email, to reflect on how they are taking this quintessentially Detroit phenomenon forward.
Metro Times: Where was the new album recorded?
Matt Livengood: "Michigan Ave Meltdown," "Lucille," and "My Sister's Possessed" came via the Tempermill with Dave Feeny, back in summer 2013. We laid down the rest of the tracks with Zach Shipps at his studio, Rancho Verde Audio Lab, spread out over several sessions in 2014 ("Hallelujah," "Revolving Door," "Bubbletape," "Give It Up," "No Way") and right before Josh left for Japan in January 2015 ("I Feel Good," "Al Serpico," "Heather").
Josh Woodcock: I had worked with Dave before, and he's a great producer. Zach has a totally different style, and it was interesting to experience both for this one. Zach brought in a lot of ideas for how the final mix should sound, and I felt it captured our live performance well.
MT: What label are you guys working with for this one?
Livengood: Jett Plastic Recordings, the brainchild of Jarrett Koral. We released our second 7-inch single with him, and he helped us concoct some sweet ideas for creative things we could do with some of the vinyl pressings. He was really excited to hear what the rest of the songs we'd recorded sounded like, so we figured it'd be a great match for the full-length.
Woodcock: [Jarrett] is a good friend of mine, and he's got some brilliant ideas on how he sees record releases happening. If he keeps it up, he's going to have a huge impact on the future of the music industry.
MT: Have you ever been acknowledged by a certain metro Detroit entrepreneur for your band's name?
Matt Mruzek: No. But whenever young women hit on me, I assume it's because they think we are related in some way.
Woodcock: Notice me, Senpai. Notice me.
Livengood: What's an entrepreneur?
MT: How did you link up with Chelsea Schultz for the album cover?
Livengood: She designed the art for our first two 7-inch singles. Since those songs also appear on this full-length, we thought it'd lend continuity.
Woodcock: I originally worked with Chelsea on the Pathetic Sounds of Detroit album artwork. She's done all of our art since then, and is fantastic. She's really easy to work with, and brings a lot of ideas to the table. It's great to work with someone who has a good understanding of the band, and what we're looking for.
MT: The ILL Itches are definitely carrying the torch for Detroit garage rock. The Stooges and MC5 are huge, of course, but was anything more recent — maybe early 2000s — a big influence on you guys as well?
Mruzek: I really enjoyed Creed's Human Clay album from 2000; I was rockin' that through my Discman on the school bus every day. That album totally changed my life.
Livengood: No one specific, not really. Plus, most of our songs are a kind of sonic collage. For sure, much of our sound is built on a foundation of garage/punk/etc., but we've always been cognizant that staying rooted in that kind of vibe risks narrowing what all we can explore, musically. In any given track, you could hear Stephen or Josh playing a punk guitar riff, while Matt's plucking a walking bass line and I'm hitting a swing beat.
Woodcock: I think we're interesting in the fact that we don't have a true influence we go for. I think each of us has our own style and own influences, and the blend of those is what really creates our sound. My biggest influences would be the Beatles, Buzzcocks, and older bands like that, but I have a lot of recent influences as well. I love the quiet/loud dynamics of bands like the Vines, the dual singer dynamics of the Libertines, and the energy of acts like Ty Segall and the Cribs. Obviously, all the bands in Detroit influence us in some way, both past and present. We're playing with the Hentchmen, and they're a band that has influenced a number of other groups (including us). There have been so many great bands here, and it's really inspiring to be able to go out any night of the week and see something new.
MT: What did you guys think of the recent Iggy show and album?
Livengood: Incredible, both. Queens of the Stone Age and Arctic Monkeys are two of my favorite present-day bands. So Homme, Helders, and Fertida making a record with Iggy Pop was an unexpected treasure. But seeing them all play onstage with Iggy Pop was sublime. Plus, it reinforced that even one of the godfathers of punk can sing mellower, more reflective odes to sex, love, and romance and still sound completely authentic and within character. No wonder the guy's got such longevity.
Woodcock: I had a smile on my face from the time he came onstage until we left to go home. Matt, Stephen, and I were all at the show, and it was really cool to see other people we recognize from shows there too. Someone came up to me and asked if I was in the ILL Itches at the show, and it made me realize that our local music scene is farther reaching than I thought. And that even if we don't see it firsthand, we all have the chance to entertain people outside of our immediate circles.
MT: Joshua, can you tell us what you were doing in Japan?
Woodcock: I had lived there previously for more than five years, but most recently went there to work for an entertainment company called Empire in Tokyo. I was a producer and worked on different projects for companies like BMW and Adidas. Tokyo's really great; I consider it my second home.
MT: Stephen, I hope you don't mind me saying that your guitar solo on "Halleluja" sounds a lot like Wayne Kramer. Did you get a lot of your chops from him, or who were some other guitarists who influenced your playing style?
Stephen Schmidt: Wayne Kramer was a huge influence. He was sporadic and fierce, and you really didn't have any idea where he was going to go. I've tried to replicate an era that was strictly fueled off of passion and soul. I may not be the best technical guitarist when it comes to some of my work. But I can play with more soul and energy. One guitarist who's always been a huge inspiration of mine is Ron Asheton from the Stooges. He made the "sour note" one of the most beautiful things I've heard.
MT: Anything else to add?
Livengood: We've got some videos in the works, so keep out an eye for those. And be sure to check out WhateverFest the weekend after our release show.
Woodcock: We're just really appreciative of the chance we've had to play in this city, and do what we love. Detroit's a great music city because there's so much to learn from each other. The talent here is immense. I hope one day someone says that the ILL Itches influenced their band in some way, and I hope I continue to see new bands such as the Idiot Kids and Moonwalks that we can learn something from, as well.
The ILL Itches perform at the Marble Bar Saturday, April 30; Doors at 8 p.m.; 1501 Holden St., Detroit; $5.