Motor City bloozoids the Howling Diablos are such stalwarts of the Motor City music scene that it’s almost easy to take them for granted. Sure, they’ve won armloads of trophies at the Detroit Music Awards and helped give li’l Bobby Ritchie his start. But they’ve been around so long, and have been so ubiquitous, that they get Rodney Dangerfield levels of respect.
But when front man Tino Gross was tapped by Oxford, Miss.-based Fat Possum Records to help give a contemporary flavor to some of its artists, he came back with a head full of deep blues that, in turn, influenced the Howling Diablos’ third long-player, Car Wash, which comes out this week on Bomp/Alive. The results are certain to turn some heads.
Spending time with the Fat Possum posse had a deep effect on Gross — and subsequently on the Howling Diablos.
“It just reminded me of what my own roots are, and it definitely affected the Diablos album, in a good way,” Gross says. “Just being re-exposed to all that really brought me back to what made me excited about music in the first place when I was a kid. It made me wake up to what’s really good about music, and so when [the Howling Diablos] did this record, I wanted to be fair to the band. I didn’t want it to be some producer record, because the musicians are too good.”
Gross got hooked up with the Fat Possum folks through old friends (and Kid Rock collaborators) Kenny Olsen and Jimmy Bones. Those two met Fat Possum honcho Matthew Johnson and T-Model Ford backstage at a Kid Rock show. Johnson said he was looking for someone to do some remixes of R.L. Burnside, and Bones referred him to Gross.
“I worshipped Fat Possum. I couldn’t believe it when they called me,” Gross says.
Johnson sent Gross some snippets of music to do a demo mix. “He said, ‘Even if I hate it, I’ll pay you a hundred bucks,’” Gross says. “I sent it back down and he just goes, ‘Man you nailed it. This is exactly what we’re looking for.’”
So then Gross did a Burnside EP called Darker Blues, beginning a collaboration that continues to this day.
“Then I started traveling to Mississippi and working with those guys, going down and doing sessions,” Gross says. “There’s a lot about Mississippi that’s a lot like Detroit in a lot of weird ways. They’re real into Detroit down there.”
Gross handled production chores on Burnside’s 2004 release, A Bothered Mind. Among his credits is work on a raw blues record by the late, great Charles Caldwell (who was dying of pancreatic cancer during the sessions). Gross introduced Fat Possum to Nathaniel Mayer and his boys, and subsequently played drums on his brilliant return to recording, I Just Want To Be Held.
As a producer, Gross’ stock-in-trade is melding the hip-hop tool kit — beats and loops and turntable scratches — with dirty slide guitar and bluesy vocals. But on Car Wash he refrained from that, instead favoring a straightforward blues approach.
“I thought about all that too. I wondered if I should run some loops through there or some samples because I love that stuff too. But that’s not really what the Howling Diablos do, so I stayed as far from it as I could. I just really didn’t want to put that whole thing on the band,” Gross says.
That approach brought the group back to its roots as a pickup band at Dearborn’s Sully’s nightclub. In that capacity, they backed up the likes of Hubert Sumlin, Jimmy Rodgers, Bo Diddley, Albert Collins and Johnny Adams.
“We were able to be with guys like that, of that caliber, and it was just a treasure chest of knowledge to be lucky enough to do that kind of stuff,” Gross says. “We weren’t focused on some career-type shit. We were just musicians who liked to play. We would get a call [for gigs], and those calls would be regular.”
He adds, “Making this album was just like being able to go back through all of that.”
Car Wash features a straightforward take on Mississippi hill country droning trance blues. The record sports nine Diablo originals and a cover of Burnside’s “Gone So Long.”
The Howling Diablos grew out of an earlier band called the Urbations that featured Gross and Johnny Evans (sax and harp). The pair linked up with bassist Mo Hollis, who’s been with them from day one as well. The lineup is rounded out by guitarist Mike Smith and drummer Shannon Boone. The regular band is augmented on Car Wash by legendary Detroit Wheel/Rocket Johnny “Bee” Badanjek, who played on three tracks and co-wrote two.
“Bee’s been a hero to us for years,” Gross says. “He’s just an unbelievable drummer.”
The record kicks off with the snarling title track. “That was one of the first songs that we did,” Gross says. “That was the one that everybody seemed to like. It just seemed like — all the way down the line — like that’s going to be the name of the record, you know.
“It’s kind of based on just a good blues groove and the lyrics just came to me one day. Actually I just kind of freestyled them at a rehearsal and everybody in the band was like, ‘Oh, that’s cool. Keep that.’ It just came about organically.”
That organic beginning led the band to a bit of an epiphany about car washes.
“Car washes, you see them all the time and you know they’re there and they’re always interesting. And once we focused on it, it was like, man, car washes are the shit. And then we really started paying attention to them and driving around and looking at all the cool ones,” he says.
Which, in fact, seems like a good metaphor for Car Wash, the album, too. The band spent some time paying new attention to what was always there.
“I would say the theme was to just go in and play the fucking music without laboring over it and the best stuff is going to rise to the top. And that’s kind of what we did.”
Record release show is Saturday, May 7, at the Magic Bag (22920 Woodward Ave., Ferndale; 248-544-3030), with Uncle Jesse White and the Brothers Groove. Brian J. Bowe is editor of Creem magazine. Send comments to [email protected]