Ypsilanti might not seem like much: A little university town in southeastern Michigan with an industrial past, it's the more low-rent, harder-core little brother of nearby cultural center Ann Arbor. But the area has long supported an underground music scene, acting as a breeding ground for some music stars later associated with Detroit: the iconic Iggy Pop, for instance, noise merchants Wolfeyes and white-hot bluesy garage rockers The Von Bondies.
It's in Ypsilanti, for instance, that Jason Stollsteimer lived and played music before finding fame as the leader of The Von Bondies (and some more fame as the guy Jack White brawled with). And it's in Ypsilanti where he crossed paths with local sci-fi punks Mazinga, who included future Von Bondies drummer Don Blum. That core of Stollsteimer and Blum led a rotating cast of side musicians on tours supporting 2001's Lack of Communication and the band's major-label debut, 2004's Pawn Shoppe Heart.
But it's been a few years now since anyone's heard from them.
"About three years ago, I just hit a wall, where I'd toured for almost four years straight with no breaks," says Stollsteimer, via phone from Detroit. "I was just dead on my feet; I couldn't tour anymore." A marriage and subsequent breakup had something to do with that, as did, I suspect, the way critics and audiences started cooling toward blues-based garage rock as the major labels began releasing their own parodies of the style. (Remember The Vines?)
Now Stollsteimer and The Von Bondies are back with two new EPs, a third full-length, called Love, Hate and Then There's You ... and a plan to reintroduce themselves to their audience on the road. Just don't call them bluesy.
"If we were doing blues rock, we'd be dead weight in Michigan, 'cause nobody's doing that stuff anymore unless you're over 40," says Stollsteimer. "When it broke outside of Detroit, most of the bands in the Detroit scene doing it were in their mid-30s, from The Detroit Cobras to The Dirtbombs ... they'd already been doing it for 10 years," he says.
"We were 21, we were really young, and hence we were able to take advantage of it, or be in the right place."
For the new recordings, the band steered in a more melodic direction, with more vocal lines and even piano and organ parts, a first for the Von Bondies.
"They're more songs than just spurts of energy," says Stollsteimer. "When you're 18, it's really easy to play blues rock. When you're 30—I'm 30 now—I'd feel silly if I kept playing it," he says.
"It's not in me right now. There's a different kind of sadness or anger, but it's not making me play the three chords I only knew when I was 19."
Stollsteimer's also been working to get the Bondies off of Sire Records, and took a different approach to recording the new album—one hearkening to his more DIY roots. He'd take off for different cities, sometimes with Blum, sometimes by himself, working with producers in their home studios.
"I was paying for all the recordings out of my pocket, so we would record in these people's houses—it wasn't like we were going to some huge place," he says with a laugh.
"People say that the new songs sound even better recorded than the last, but they cost one-tenth of the amount of money."
The band recently released a limited-edition EP called We Are Kamikazes, which opens with "Pale Bride," produced by Butch Walker; "21st Birthday" was recorded by Interpol go-to-guy Peter Katis, and "Wake Me Up" recorded by Rick Parker, best known for his work with Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. Joining Stollsteimer and Blum this time in the Von Bondies' rotating lineup are Leann Banks on bass and Christy Hunt on guitar; the band's June 3 stop at the Bouquet is part of their first venture west in nearly four years.
"It's all rock 'n' roll, unless it's Enya," says Stollsteimer. "As long as it's still dangerous and it's still sexual, it's rock 'n' roll."
June 3 8 p.m., $8. The Bouquet, 1010 Main St., 208-345-6605.
This story first appeared in The Pittsburgh City Paper.