Jordan Ryan Pedersen swears that Casey Mize’s split-finger fastball will one day return the Detroit Tigers to their former glory.
As an artist, do you seek to escape your surroundings? Or do you try and reflect them? The music of Third Man’s Southeast of Saturn – gauzy, ascendant, beatific – appears to take the former tack. After all, the setting that produced it was pretty grim. When Detroit’s Majesty Crush, who lead off Saturn, released their first album in 1993, their city was way down the wormhole of post-industrial blight. The city saw its population fall from a high of 1,850,000 in 1950 to 680,000 by 2015. The one-two punch of the decline of the American auto industry and white flight had turned Detroit into a ghost town. Miles of abandoned houses were demolished. “Urban prairie” is what urbanists call it when urban land is vacant for so long that it reverts to green space. Elmore Leonard became the greatest American crime writer since Raymond Chandler by mining the seedy despair of post-UAW Detroit.
Late stage capitalism aside, Detroit is a tough place to live anyway – especially in the winter. It’s not the cold that gets you. I mean, it does: Detroit Januarys regularly see temperatures of 10 to 20 degrees below zero. But the mind-killer is the sun, or lack thereof. From December to March, the thing goes into hibernation. Midwestern cities become great asylums, walled off by slate grey skies. Summers in the midwest are as incandescent as they are because the winters are such punishment.
But across southeast Michigan in the early 90s, disaffected youth were rebelling, as they are wont to do. Against the decay of post-industrial Detroit, against the archetypal boredom of growing up, against the cold. In Ferndale they bought any record on the turntable at Play It Again. They crammed into Zoot’s Coffeehouse in midtown to see Detroit’s best noisemakers, and drink everything but coffee. In Dearborn, they flocked to house parties hosted by DJ Larry Hofmann, who hosted a show on WHFR at Henry Ford Community College.
The Southeasters were building something. A kind of six-string forcefield. An icy, shimmering wall of squall that both kept out the cold and seemed to recreate it. It was a sound inspired by the shoegaze scene then blossoming thousands of miles away in London and its cushy western suburb of Thames Valley. But it was, too, their own. Call it midwestern shoegaze. Michigan Dreamin’. Larry Hofmann might have said it best. He called it Detroit Space Rock City. Jack White’s Third Man Records has collected some of the sharpest, strangest, catchiest songs from this forgotten footnote in the history of loud, pretty music.
Credit where it’s due: MC5, Death, and the Stooges and their descendants had been reliably putting out punk and garage rock for the broke and the furious in Detroit since the 1960s. But that wasn’t where this new scene drew its influence. “I don’t think we really noticed the local Detroit scene earlier on,” commented Andrew Peters of the band Thirsty Forest Animals. “We were more into the bands you would see in the NME / Melody Maker, zines, and records – mostly from the UK – on the walls at [the record store] Play It Again.”
Bands like My Bloody Valentine, Ride, and A.R. Kane – the stables at 4AD and later, Creation Records – were the primary reference point for Peters’ band and his cohort. It’s a hard sound to pin down semantically. Some call it shoegaze – for the way the bands used so many effect pedals that they’d spend whole shows staring at their feet. Sometimes it’s dream pop, because it’s a sound that hardly feels like a waking state. Other times it’s space rock. And for a few glorious years in the mid-90s, the most reliable source for this sound – whatever you call it – outside of the London metropolitan area was southeast Michigan.
The tracks on Southeast of Saturn feel aesthetically coherent, but they’re impressively diverse. Loveliescrushing’s “Youreyesimmaculate” is impossibly, achingly beautiful. On “Laughing at Roadsigns,” Calliope crafts a perfectly assembled pop song that the Cocteau Twins themselves would’ve felt lucky to write. Glider’s punishing “Shift” is a hop skip and a jump away from a metal song. The chiming guitars on Peters’ band Thirsty Forest Animals presage the swooning cinematic soundscapes that Explosions in the Sky would ride all the way to fame and Dillon, Texas. “No. 1 Fan” finds Majesty Crush’s David Stroughter lacing a boppy dream pop ditty with a John Hinckley Jr. promise to “kill the president” for the girl he loves.
Majesty Crush was probably the closest the scene came to a breakthrough. Alas, the band fell victim to the same fate that’s befallen so many would-be greats before them: their record label folded just after the release of their first album, Love 15. Plus, by the time most of the Michigan shoegazers were putting out their first LPs, the London bands that had inspired them were in the process of being reduced to irrelevance by the arrival of grunge. The re-re-(re?)-surgence of garage rock via the White Stripes and the Von Bondies – haven’t thought about that name in a long time – helped to sweep the remaining vestiges of the scene away. (Admirable, then, that Third Man is doing its part to bring ears back to the sound.)
In the end, the Southeasters didn’t really choose between escaping their surroundings or cataloging them. Calling this music dream pop always feels like something of a misnomer, and “shoegaze” is a goofy made-up word anyway. They make the music sound lightweight or disposable. The music is beautiful and hooky, but it’s also sad and eerie and touching and heavy and rich. Southeast of Saturn reflects the complexity of its setting, and of its artists’ projects. “Despite all the disintegration that took place in Detroit, it was and still is a place of uncanny beauty,” said Michael Cooper, the booker at Zoot’s Coffeehouse. The music on Southeast of Saturn is so splendid because it reflects that push-pull between pretty and ugly, escapism and naturalism. That’s one of the things that makes this sound so wonderful: you can hide so much in those swirls of guitar.
Southeast of Saturn will be released November 20th on Third Man Records.
Shout out to David Segal’s great liner notes, this history of British shoegaze from Uncut Magazine, Hobey Echlin’s beautiful remembrance of David Stroughter, the Thirsty Forest Animals Facebook page‘s trove of classic gig posters, and Larry Hofmann’s general ebullient existence for helping me with this post.