It Came From Detroit and Stayed There
“We are distinctly not marketable, which suits me just fine because I wouldn’t want it anyhow.”
Mick Collins (the Dirtbombs), It Came From Detroit
And in Detroit it stayed.
It Came From Detroit is perhaps one of the most culturally relevant documentaries of a particular time and place in music ever made. A documentary film five years in production (and almost mythic in stature—spoken of widely as the pinnacle tome on the Detroit “garage” scene, a claim made fervently by even those who have never seen it), It Came From Detroit chronicles some 20 years of Detroit’s thriving independent rock-and-roll subculture—Detroit “garage,” as it came to be known all over the world.
It Came From Detroit looks at this music scene as it evolved over two decades, but also approaches weightier discussions such as the price of fame. Filmed at the time the White Stripes had already skyrocketed into international superstardom, the filmmakers had the unique opportunity to document the genesis of the international spotlight on Detroit (referred to at the time as “the next Seattle” by a number of international media outlets) as well as the aftermath, when the rest of the world had moved on.
It Came From Detroit is a thorough and detailed chronicle of Detroit’s underground indie rock scene. What started as a bunch of record-collecting music geeks who lived, breathed, ate, and DEFINITELY drank music and ended up forming bands because, well, they lived in Detroit and it was so bleak they had nothing to do but to create, then became an international phenomenon, a whole genre of its own. They borrowed and plundered from from rock’s greatest eras, fusing soul, funk, ‘60s psychedelic, pop, punk, mod, classic country, Ziggy Stardust glam, and straightforward guitar-driven rock into a new hybrid later dubbed “garage.” Director James Petix interviews dozens of musicians and fans to document the rise of this so-called “garage” scene, from Mick Collins and Dan Kroha of the Gories all the way to Dan and Tracee Mae Miller of Blanche and everyone in-between—the Hentchmen, Electric Six, the Von Bondies, the Dirtbombs, the Sights, the Detroit Cobras, the Paybacks, and more are given their due diligence as being integral parts of this scene. As are the White Stripes.
What I like about this film is that it is not just a documentary of one band but of the scene as a whole. It would have been easy to make this whole film into a sort of “one degree of Jack White” spectacle, presenting all of these other equally talented artists as only being relevant inasmuch as they existed in Jack White’s shadow, and capitalizing on his fame to help promote the product. While the film does allow the rise of the White Stripes a certain platform of importance, it is only to show how this fame (and consequent spotlight on Detroit) did (or did not) effect the rest of the substantial group of talented and passionate musicians. Yes, the White Stripes are entirely relevant and no discussion of the Detroit “garage” scene can be held without in some way acknowledging their contribution to it, but largely because of the way their increasing fame changed things back at home.
This film feels like part homage, part eulogy, and part forewarning: it is noted by several interviewees that things were different before anyone got big, before anyone started touring, before anyone was on the cover of NME. This “before” time (the long long ago) is spoken of with almost a kind of wistfulness, a paternal sort of “back in my day.” Discourse regarding the White Stripes’ rise to fame is tinged with a sense of the bittersweet, hinted at being “the beginning of the end.” There was a distinct energy unlike anything happening anywhere else, an energy unique to Detroit largely because of the bleakness here, the sheer impossibility of ever landing a record contract or “making it.” As a musician, you simply had nothing to lose. You did it purely for the love of the music.
Once what was labeled as Detroit “garage” music (a label most of the subjects interviewed here bristle at) started making headlines in (inter)national media, the scene had changed irreversibly. It was no longer just “ours;” suddenly the whole world wanted a piece of it. Competition became vicious, friends became enemies, and just as quickly as all that attention had come it left once again, leaving a trail of destruction in its wake. The message throughout the film is the same: “Be careful what you wish for.”
But through it all, here in Detroit it was only ever really about the music, and that’s how it ultimately remained, even after Spin and Rolling Stone declared Detroit garage “dead” (a declaration that was ironically something of a relief). That same “garage” (or indie, or post-punk, or whatever else you might want to call it) scene still exists, and it is as strong now as it ever was before. The same 40 or so record geeks who kick-started the whole trend are still here, still playing, still forming new bands out of the ashes of old ones. And now, there is a whole wave of new bands to carry on the torch: kids who probably grew up listening to the Gories and the Hentchmen who finally decided to pick up a guitar and follow their lead. And much like those who came before them, these bands have no delusions of fame. Much like their forefathers, they are musicians. They aren’t trying to make it because there is no making it (and perhaps they know this now better than their predecessors did before); they play music to escape from soul-sucking day jobs and because they simply love it—they are fans first, and musicians second.
This is the ultimate fan film for anyone interested or involved in Detroit’s music scene, and for any music lover in general. There is a wealth of interesting factoids for a fanboy or purist to memorize and spit back out at the appropriate opportunity. This is a film made by fans for fans, a time capsule of this particular scene at this particular time. And while the scene will never again be what it once was—disregarded, neglected, ignored—what it has become is something far more valuable: incorrigible, unwavering, permanent.
It Came From Detroit closes with a series of shots of confused musicians who had clearly just been asked why they choose to stay in Detroit, and their answers are resoundingly unanimous: because they can’t imagine being anywhere else (with an underlying sense of “what kind of stupid question is that?”, as if the answer should be so obvious). They choose to stay here—even those who have made a career of their music who could live in any other city in the world. They want to be here—even after a grueling tour they look forward to returning home, despite all of home’s many problems. The music is still alive here: and that’s what makes it so rewarding.
The final cut of It Came From Detroit is now complete and will be screened May 20th and 21st at the Magic Bag in Ferndale. After so many years in production and so much local coverage of the film already (including on this website), when I had the chance to speak with director James Petix I wanted to approach my conversation with him with the filter of five years having passed and much having changed since it was shot. In many ways the film is still entirely relevant to the current music culture in Detroit (and most of the musicians featured still play around town), but it also has a bit of a dated feel—Danny Methric is interviewed as the guitarist for the Paybacks, long before that band dissolved and he formed the Muggs; Marcie Bolen was still in the Von Bondies and Silverghost didn’t yet exist; Ryan Allen and all his bands weren’t around yet, and neither was the acerbic, wonderfully elitist music blog named after one of the songs written by one of Ryan Allen’s bands. Most of these people have moved on or moved forward, in one capacity or another, and a whole new crop of eager and enthusiastic young musicians have jumped onstage, guitars in hand, to fill in the voids. Bands like New Grenada, Pas/Cal, Millions of Brazilians, Zoos of Berlin, Deastro, Champions of Breakfast, Silverghost, the Nice Device, the Silent Years, the Hard Lessons, Four Hour Friends, Friendly Foes, Lightning Love, the Muggs, the Pop Project, SikSik Nation, SSM…and this is just scratching the surface of Detroit’s nü-garage scene (even the Metro Times Blowout, né the Hamtramck Blowout, with its feature of some 200+ bands annually and going on 12 years running, still can’t begin to encompass all the great music currently happening in and around the city). I was interested in looking back at the film as an archival piece, and reflecting on how things have changed even more since the film was shot (but also how they’ve stayed the same).
Nicole Rupersburg: The film documents a certain specific “scene” in Detroit, that existed at a certain time. How has the “scene” changed?
James Petix: Our film documents a group of friends that all played in rock bands in the same 3 or 4 bars in Detroit from the late ‘90s until the mid-2000s. At first the scene was small and close knit. As it became more popular in town there were more bands that were influenced by the scene and thus it grew. Eventually a couple bands got some
recognition outside Detroit and allowed the scene to grow again. As the scene continued to grow in popularity, more and more media attention was placed on them. Eventually, for whatever reason, the media stopped paying attention and didn’t cover the Detroit scene as much. Some bands broke up, some musicians moved away, some formed brand new bands—but those are all normal things that would have happened whether the media was watching or not.
One thing that never changed was the music. It was always consistent. Perhaps it got better as musicians naturally tend to do, but it never changed to match the newest trend.
NR: What do you think about bands like the Silent Years and the Hard Lessons, who are fairly new bands getting a lot of national attention, who surfaced after this doc was shot? How do they fit in with this “scene”?
JP: I’m sure those bands were in the crowd watching the Dirtbombs and White Stripes in the heyday of the scene. They know what a good Detroit rock show is like and they’ve carried the torch in that vein. There’s a pretty high bar for musicians in this town and if they’ve gotten any success outside the city, that means they’ve reached that level.
NR: Why do you think Detroit bands like the Von Bondies and the Dirtbombs who have flirted with fame (and still do) but never quite achieved it?
JP: I think both of those bands have been able to make a career out of music and therefore are successful. If you measure success only by the level of fame they’ve achieved, then most people are going to come up short. Celebrities have to be an elite group or else everyone would be one!
NR: Do you think Detroit artists have been resistant to major-label deals and the national spotlight because there is a strong elitist perception here in Detroit that mainstream equals selling out, that a band’s credibility and their music’s authenticity is destroyed by a record deal?
JP: No, I’m sure all these bands are more than eager to sell their music to a commercial or sign a major record deal, given the right opportunity. That’s not selling out, that’s making a living. However, there are strings attached to major labels that independent minded musicians like the ones in Detroit might want to avoid.
NR: Do you think the fame of the White Stripes had a counter-effect on other Detroit bands, who saw the end results and decided not to pursue anything more?
JP: Yes, of course. I think it put a lot of pressure for the scene to come up with the “next big thing.” Some bands tried to step up and be that, but I think (knowing what I know now) that feat was probably impossible to achieve. The White Stripes were a phenomenon. They were not only very good at what they do, but they were smart enough to be at the right place at the right time. In the end, it helped a lot of bands grow to a bigger audience outside of Detroit, so that’s a very good thing.
NR: Is the music still pure, or has the kiss of fame (from the White Stripes and from previous major media attention) destroyed it?
JP: Not at all! The whole reason this scene is worth talking about is because they didn’t change who they are to meet some media expectation of what “garage rock” is or isn’t. That’s what makes this group special and why I chose to make a film about them.