The last place you’d expect to find smart, pop-minded rock — with influences ranging from Sonic Youth to the Police — would be from a metal band that writes such songs as “My Nordic Butt Can Ruin Nations.” But that’s exactly what you get with Detroit’s melodic-rock torchbearers, Ten Words for Snow.
After serving time in harder edged outfits like 7,000 Dying Rats (who, by the way, are the culprits for that Nordic butt and all the ruined nations), guitarist-vocalist Justin Berger, drummer Dave Melkonian and bassist Kraig Sagan started Ten Words for Snow. The band was an outlet for their growing interest in alternate tunings, hooky vocals and their urge to delve into the styles of XTC and Devo.
“After a short time away from playing, I wanted to start another band — this time, a band that focused on melody more than power, but still had interesting song structure and unique chord progressions. When you boil it all down, we all like the great hooks and driving rhythm, but being curious and voracious music fans, it’s inevitable that we would seek out more exciting types of music,” Melkonian says.
Good for them, because finding fresher ground is exactly what Ten Words for Snow has succeeded in doing. You can hear hints of U2 guitar heroics, the swooping rush of a Townshend-like power chord and the urgency of the Jam and Hüsker Dü stuffed into the band’s back pocket. But there’s a slightly futuristic slant to Ten Words’ snap, crackle, pop that keeps their debut EP, Spit on Electrics, from slipping into the retro repetition that plagues many of Detroit’s better-known outfits. Perhaps it’s the band’s lack of convention that keeps them forward-gazing.
“I think we want to have catchy vocal melodies. I’d say that’s our top priority,” Melkonian says. Typically, Berger writes a song, brings it to practice, and the band recasts it into a something they all can dig. “Justin gets a bit overly technical. But that’s part of what makes him a unique player.”
It seems as though it’s that push and pull of traditional vs. experimental that perpetuates the notion that Ten Words are somehow outcasts in a Detroit music scene. Melkonian thinks there’s probably some truth to this. He likes to categorize his band in a sub-genre of local acts like A Thousand Times Yes, the Trembling, P.A., Hairshirt and New Grenada — bands whose interests reside more in crafting quality music than how skinny their skinny tie should be.
“I’d like to think we fit somewhere, but I’m not exactly sure where,” Melkonian says. “We’ve been in this situation with every band we’ve been in. We’ve been in hardcore bands that were shunned by the straight-edge contingent because we ate meat and drank alcohol; we’ve been metal outcasts because we played around with time signatures and odd noises; and now we’re sort of on the outskirts again, but in a band that has some catchy elements people can hang on to. You’re not going to see us up there with costumes, wacky hair, ties, suits, etc. We just want to go on stage in our regular clothes and play our songs, hoping that the audience enjoys it in the process.”
Melkonian goes on to praise the group’s comrades in rock, saying, “We end up being connected to bands because we get along with them as people, not necessarily because our music is similar. Hairshirt is probably our most similar local peer; they’re a nice group of guys who do some really interesting and catchy stuff. New Grenada are great friends of ours; they are humble, loyal people.”
Humble and loyal themselves, but unafraid to wear their affection for their own music on their sleeves, these former head-bangers are getting a new lease on their musical lives. With the addition of full-time keyboardist Shannan Hibbard, two 7” records on the way and a bevy of shows scheduled, it’s possible that these nice guys won’t finish last.
“I think the public has a way of seeing through the bands that come by it honestly and the ones who are simply riding coattails,” Melkonian says. “Whatever level of success we achieve, it’ll be on our own terms. I think that’s really the only way we could stomach it.”
Friday, Feb. 18, at the Belmont, 10215 Joseph Campau, Hamtramck; 313-871-1966. With A Thousand Times Yes and the Vespas. Ryan Allen is a freelance writer. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org