Stevie St. Micheal’s got the date tattooed on his arm. January 10, 1999, was the day the “Gray House” at 6 Mile and Livernois, where members of 12 Angry Steps lived, burned down.
“The first fireman that came in saw this hollow-bodied guitar and immediately grabbed all our stuff and threw it in the cold part of the house,” says Dan Halen, the band’s vocalist and guitarist. “And we managed to get out with just about nothing except for our music gear. You can take it as a sign, or take it as what the hell else are we going to do?”
Shortly afterward, the band played its first show. Two years later, they released Innercity Hillbilly Lovesongs on Grey House Records, the band’s tribute to the old house with the bars on the windows that almost trapped bassist St. Micheal inside.
This weekend, the 12 Angry Steps perform at the Magic Stick after a three-month break devoted to practicing new material. During the break, Halen took a vacation to New York. On the 14-hour bus ride was where most of the lyrics were crafted.
“In our new material, we have a song about the pretty-boy rock guys I met in New York,” Halen says. “And we have another one basically about being on a bus for 14 hours. And then we’ve got one called “24/7,” which is just about doing what you do all the time full-force. It’s the anti-weekend warrior song. Not that we’ve got anything against Ted Nugent.”
The band definitely doesn’t have anything against Ted Nugent or any other famous rock ’n’ rollers who honed their chops in Detroit. In fact, 12 Angry Steps’ music is a bit of a return to earlier times in our city’s rock history — and dedicated to the blue-collar living that spawned it.
“My hands are never clean,” St. Micheal says, turning over his worn pair, permanently stained a grayish-brown shade in the creases. The 12 Angry Steps are car guys. Along with St. Micheal and Halen, there’s Todd Mang on lead guitar and Glynn Swig on drums. They look at their instruments as tools, roadworthy and sturdy, not pretty. And you can hear the shearing shrapnel, especially in Halen’s whiskey-metal vocals and the crunch of his guitar. This back-to-the-basics approach also mirrors an earlier time when performance and stage antics were expected at a rock concert.
“We don’t just stand there,” Halen explains. “I know the people coming in are pretty much as poor as we are, at least most of them. And they’re spending their money to see a show. There have been quite a few times where I’ve taken a 5-foot dive off onto the floor and I’m lying on my back or something like that. Any show you can walk away from is a good show.”
The band isn’t alone in the rock roots resurgence. Other groups in the area are taking similar cues from Speedball and Easy Action, two bands that picked up the momentum of the MC5 and the Stooges. A few groups from the newer crop will open the show this weekend, including Stroker Ace, the Unfriendlys and Shepwrench. These bands wear glasses tinted with the ’90s, so of course it’s not a clear regurgitation. There’s a hint of riot grrl, plenty of piercings and some experimentation — a bit of a backward and forward glance at the same time, since guts and grit played a role in the original spirit behind the movement.
“There’s a lot of good stuff that you almost have to be distanced from for a number of years to appreciate it,” Dan says. “It’s almost gotten back to that. We’ve all listened to a lot of different stuff over the years. We all have wide tastes in music, but it’s almost getting back to the music we grew up on, some of that really permanent stuff … We’re just doing stuff that in our gut feels right, now. We’re not trying to present an overpolished product. It borrows from punk rock, from old rock ’n’ roll, even the spirit of some garage rock, but the sound is pretty much rock ’n’ roll.”
In Halen’s brief journey out of state, he met a lot of rock guys with salon hair and clean fingernails.
“It’s like they all had jobs, but I didn’t feel like any of them worked. Everybody was just kind of trying to make a scene. Now I only saw it for about five days, but it was an immediate impression. It’s very dirty and gritty around here. And it’s very gray. I think that makes a lot of people angry and restless.”
Innercity Hillbilly Lovesongs represents this feeling. There’s not a whole lot of distortion or overdubbing, which gives the side a live energy. Halen says that the feel is best summed up by a friend’s comment.
“A friend of ours said that the album, when he first heard it, sounded like how we’d sound without the waitress coming out and saying, ‘Can I getcha anything?’”