High Points & Hard Lessons: An Interview with Augie VisocchiPublished: 03/23/2011 7:00 am By: Ryan A. Bunch
This Saturday, Detroit's most lovable rock n' roll couple will play a special acoustic Hard Lessons set, also known as one of their popular, semi-rare Korin & Augie Shows, before they take a hiatus to birth the next generation of Midwest rock n' roll royalty.
In anticipation, I took a moment to reflect on the long journey the band has taken over the past eight years, and how they've changed and our friendship has grown since I first saw them at a small show at Ypsilanti's Elbow Room sometime around 2003-2004 when they were just starting out. I realized that throughout their impressive evolution, and my career as a wanna-be rock writer, we'd only done two previous proper interviews, so, I thought it'd be appropriate to cover the history of the band and have a candid conversation about rock ideology growing up and having kids, the good times, the bad times, and, of course, the music. Here's the outcome.
The Hard Lessons' Korin & Augie play a very special acoustic show at Mickey Finn's Pub (602 Lagrange St.) on Saturday, March 26 before a baby-raising hiatus. In Augie's words, "People can expect some new Hard Lessons material, but I think we're going to delve a little deeper in the vault and I think we're going to play a lot of songs we've never played before in Toledo. We're going to have some exclusive merchandise, the Gold Tapes cassette (an advance of their Record Store Day exclusive), with a bunch of rare and unreleased Hard Lessons stuff ... and an ultrasound photo. It should be cool."
Local rockers Frank & Jesse and Athens, Ohio's Mindfish open up. 9 p.m. $5. All ages. www.mickeyfinnspub.com
Ryan A. Bunch: So, what's been up?
Augie Vissoci: It's been a pretty crazy year. Finding out Korin was pregnant at the end of last year was obviously a big change. We kind of wanted to go out on top, so we booked four final electric shows in cities around Detroit, and then announced we were pregnant and were going to take some time off, and it was - it made me realize why KISS always acts like its their farewell tour. These last four shows had such an urgency to them. The crowds were just amazing at every show. People were coming out of the woodwork, people who hadn't seen us for a while came out. That felt really good.
RAB: Ha! I bet. It's pretty crazy.
AV: Yeah, It was nice to take a moment and look back at what we'd done. We'd never really done that before. We put the petal to the metal back in 2003, and just went. Korin's mom keeps a record of all the shows we've played. We didn't play a show in January this year, and she emailed me and said, "Did you know that was the first month you went without playing a show since October 2004?" It was like, Jesus! That's a lot of rocking! That's like 700 shows, which is probably more than Rage Against the Machine's played. So, when we come back, maybe we'll be on par to top The Ramones or something.
RAB: Right, so what's up with that? Does Rock n' Roll grow up now, go family and the band's done?
AV: The way Korin and I feel about things is that we're not just up there playing music with the mindset of, "Well, we'll just work here until something else pans out," it's not like a normal job. It's in our blood at this point. You don't do something that doesn't reward you in normal ways without needing to do it. Music is something that we're going to be doing for the rest of our lives, regardless.
The fact that The Hard Lessons as a moniker has sort of morphed over the years from a garage rock band to a banner for my wife and I to create anything we want, it just seems like there will always be a place for the Hard Lessons. I still feel like there is so much more that we can give. We've been getting better and better at writing and recording albums. I feel like the last two years that we've played with [current drummer] Ryan V., have been some of the best shows we've had.
I mean, I'm of the mindset "don't drag something on past it's due date." I supported The White Stripes decision to end it. Now that Jack White is this multimillionaire businessman, I think it would be kind of weird for him to put on his red and white clothes again and be like, "Hey, this is my big sister, Meg! We're just little bumpkins!" As much as their music stands on its own, it would just be silly at this point. But in our case, we're just starting in some respects. We sort of laid a foundation with that B&G Sides concept album to do whatever we want, which was sort of the intention. It was like, OK, what can't we do now? Country? Did it. Pop? Did it. Ballads? Did it. Raw rock? Did it. It was liberating.
I don't think the baby will hinder anything. Obviously our priorities will shift to keeping our baby safe and healthy, but once that happens you can't stop being who you are because you have a kid. Personally, I think it's going to be pretty cool to show our kid these pictures, "Yeah, when you were in your mom's belly, we were playing in front of 600 people at St. Andrew's Hall. Here we are on the cover of this magazine and you were six-months along in her belly." It's cool. I would love for my son to be able to see us play.
RAB: I didn't know this until years later - I thought you guys had been around for a while - but when I first saw you guys, it was like one of your first five shows.
AV: Isn't that wild? When you booked us at our first show in Toledo [at Mickey Finn's], that was one of our first shows out of state, maybe our third or something?
RAB: That's crazy. Thinking back to then - you said you just recently had the time to reflect - when you and Christoph [aka original drummer, The Anvil] would where your short ties and not having a beard and stuff, to now - when you look back at that, did you do what you were trying to do? Did it take an unexpected turn?
AV: Back in '03 I was just a super fan. I'd been a super fan for years. In the late '90s, when I first got my license, I started going to shows in Detroit, and little did I know, it was sort of the birth of something cool. So I got hip to a lot of those bands pretty early on - shows with 15-20 people and it'd be like Jack White and Brendan Benson, stuff like that. It was just so inspiring to me.
Finally, I got a cassette four-track for Christmas and I was like, "Fuck. I'm gonna start writing some songs." And I did. I wrote like six songs in my dorm room. Korin and I had known each other for a while, and I found out that she played keyboards, and I was like, "Well, let's see what we can do." So, we put a band together, and people were really excited about it right away.
Now that I'm a little bit older, I can see how the young bands come up and everyone's really excited about them and wants to be a part of that. We totally got swept up in that. And we did exactly what we wanted to do, we wanted to play some rock n' roll, and maybe, if we were lucky, open a show at the Magic Stick for anybody, and within a year, we were selling it out on our own. It was crazy. We just hit the ground running and didn't look back. We wanted to put out loud music and just around on stage and it just so happened that we got to do it at a time when we were on stage with our favorite bands in the world. That was a very fun time.
RAB: Any regrets?
AV: I'm really proud of everything we did. But, I didn't realize we were going to have to answer for stuff we did, said, or wore. In hindsight, the thing I wish I would have taken a little more seriously are the interviews we did, because ... I feel like indie rock is so damning when it comes to shit you say. I probably could have played the game a little bit better instead of being so honest and heart-on-my-sleeve. Like, I admitted liking Goodbye Yellow Brick Road because it was one of the only records my parents had, and I got made fun of for that for a really long time. I just didn't realize how things could be so misconstrued ... but I guess I haven't learned that much, because here I am just saying this long stream-of-consciousness this. If I was more like these Pitchfork bands, I would just give you a couple of cool little nuggets. But that's just not me, and I think our fans like that we're so direct with them.
RAB: You got to a point too, though, where you had to deal with some scene backlash from Detroit too, didn't you?
AV: Yeah. I don't think we've ever fully recovered from that, for better or for worse. The cool kids decided one day that we were no longer part of their little group. When that happened, I realized how shallow some people can be. They're not listening to the music. There's no difference between some 12-year-old girl who wants to have a pair of designer jeans and some 25-year-old hipster who wants to be seen at the cool show. It was so funny because our music was the exact same. It's not like our music changed overnight. Just suddenly, some people didn't want to be involved with us. People at the bar who had been kissing my ass literally the week before suddenly were cold to me. That's why I say for better or for worse, because for better I'd rather have a fan base that isn't so wishy-washy and superficial.
RAB: Was there anything else that contributed to it?
AV: I think there were a couple things that happened. Our fan base kept growing, and there's really no way your fan base can grow bigger than your peers without some resentment.
And, I'm sure that ... when we first wrote "See and Be Scene," people loved it when we were just playing it around at the clubs. But, I think writing a poppier song at the same time our fan base was really growing, from an outsider perspective, it seemed like a calculated move. It was not. It was about all the bullshit I was witnessing in town. I had written it because we were playing a show with My Chemical Romance, and someone was like "Fuck those guys, they look like girls and they wear girls clothes." And I was like, "Well, so does Iggy Pop, so do the New York Dolls [who the The Hard Lessons opened for shortly after, inspiring the song to come together]." I'm not saying their music is on par with that, but every criticism I would hear about these shows we were playing was superficial. If you want to hate on their music, that's fine. But, it was always about how so-and-so was wearing girls jeans.
But, that song basically came true. I wrote the song based on observing what was happening in other bands, but because of the song, and things that were happening around us, it totally came true, [Quoting the lyrics] "There's a line in the sand/I'm not sure about the side where I stand/One thing's certain, the sandbox is small/If you don't say something nice, you can't say anything at all." It was a tough time. I'm not going to lie about it. we went through some hard times not being able to go out to the places that used to be friendly territory, suddenly it was hostile. It was weird.
RAB: The other thing I've always thought was interesting about you guys is that the idea of "making it" changed while you were trying to make it. You did all the right stuff. You were in Spin Magazine, you toured Europe, all over America, you did all the stuff that ten or 15, or maybe even five years earlier, would have put you to the classic sense of having "made it," whatever that means. But the industry changed, it was kind of going down while you were coming up --
AV: That's an understatement, it was fucking tanking.
RAB: Ha! Right. Was that hard to swallow, did you have to change our mindset? Was it depressing?
AV: When we started this band there wasn't really MySpace, there was no Facebook, there was no Twitter. We were in the most awkward part of the music industry to make any sort of big, national splash. That stopped. What was the last band to make a big splash? The Strokes, maybe? There is no "NEW ROCK BAND - HERE THEY COME!" That doesn't happen anymore. We came up at a time when [...] no one knew what to do with the music industry anymore. Major labels were dead. Do you go the route of an indie label? We had this Hollywood Records offer, but it was going to take away all these rights we had, so we passed. We self-released Wise Up! and then went with the local label, Quack Media. But I don't know if people still have it figured out as far as what's the right trajectory of a band anymore.
I also think coming up so soon after The White Stripes and getting burdened with that "next big thing from Detroit" has hung over us to this day. I feel like every once in a while, people will be like "What did the Hard Lessons do wrong?"
What did I do wrong? We've been around for eight years and we just brought 600 people out to St. Andrew's Hall for our Christmas Show. What have we done right, I think is the question. We've done well in our little corner and I think there's something to learn there. The idea of what it is to "make it" is so confusing now days, and it's hard to understand. I still don't have a grasp on it. I don't know if any body does. I mean, Rebecca Black is the biggest singer in the country right now, so there you go. Some 12-year-old girl singing about the days of the week.
RAB: Well, there you go, that's what you're doing wrong. You were 12 years too old when you started the band.
AV: [Laughs] Yeah, damn.
RAB: One of the things people don't realize, when you talk about working hard is that you've done the band on top of working, graduating college, with Korin also finishing her masters, and you worked as teachers in Detroit's inner-city schools. All while pushing the band. I've always been impressed by that ... and thought you were crazy.
AV: Yeah, well, we both came from middle class families that worked their way up to middle class. Korin's dad is a plumber, my dad was a cement guy and brick-layer and carpenter in Detroit. That work ethic was instilled in both of us.
When I think about those first few years, we were both working roughly 50 hours a week without the band, getting up at 6 in the morning. When we first started getting some exposure outside of Detroit, every once in a while we'd get a call from Columbus, Ohio or Kentucky, and there was going to be a garage fest. We'd say, "Alright, we'll be there, but we have to leave right after." So, we'd leave right after work, jump in the car - because we didn't have a van yet - drive to Columbus, play the show, drive all the way back to East Lansing and be up to student teach at 6 am. We would do whatever needed to be done. We were working 80 hours a week with virtually no sleep.
There were so many nights I'd be outside the Renaissance Center in Detroit because we'd just played Jacoby's with some touring band, and the car's loaded and I'm thinking, "Wow, I have to be teaching in front of a bunch of kids in three and a half hours." That's something I'm proud of. We worked for everything we got. We didn't get any freebies.
RAB: I thought Arms Forest was a huge leap for you guys, especially after the B&G Sides project, which was just by its nature kind of fragmented. I think people were hungry for a more coherent, full album, and you delivered. The songwriting and production both is just excellent.
AV: Thanks! I was really proud of it. B&G Sides was just a total growth period, us finding our footing as songwriters and stepping outside of the garage rock label. But, I am proud of those songs, and I feel like there are some lost gems in there, like "The Sound of Coming Down," or "Everything Away," which just sort of slipped through the cracks. It was a necessary step for us to be able to do what we're doing now.
It feels like we've hit a stride now. As we're writing for the next step, I feel like there are so many things we could do. Korin and I especially are working on music together and these acoustic shows, you know, we're doing Toledo, Kalamazoo and Ferndale - hitting the three cities we haven't had a chance to get back to before Korin got a little too big. You know, the last show she played, she was five months pregnant and she wore high-heels and she rocked her ass off. That's how I wanted to end the electric sets before the hiatus.
But, I'm excited about these acoustic shows. We get to play some of the songs that we don't get to play, like those lost gems I mentioned, we'll probably play this new song off our Record Store Day tape [a Record Store Day exclusive also available only at the last three Korin & Augie Shows]. It's a demo I recorded called "All the Kids Know," just guitar and voice. It's going to be different, it's a different animal than the electric show and I think that's good. I think people like to see that side. We have so much material now, it's good to give some of the songs a rest and let other ones breathe.
RAB: Do you ever have your "Smells Like Teen Spirit" moment where people are chanting for a song and you're like, "Fuck, I'm so tired of playing that"?
Umm ... I guess we've gotten that with "Hey Hey My My," which is funny because its not our song. But, when we don't play it, people usually comment about us not playing it. But, I never feel pressured to play any song from our catalog or a certain single off an album, just to put on the best show we possibly can. And I think we've always done that. There's never been a show that I haven't been proud of.
We brought [original drummer] The Anvil up on stage at the Metro Times Blowout recently and he played four songs with us. I expected people to freak out when we launched into Gasoline stuff, and they were, they were digging it, but I noticed more there were people on the fringes like,"Fuck yeah! They're playing some of those old jams," but the people up front, the younger crowd wasn't singing along like they were to the new material. And that felt good. It lets me know that we're moving, we're not being stagnant. You know, the new songs are exciting to play, and the old songs are more now too because its almost like we're exposing it to a new audience.
So, no. I've never felt pressured to play a song I didn't want to play.
RAB: So what's up with Toledo's acoustic show?
AV: "People can expect some new Hard Lessons material, but I think we're going to delve a little deeper in the vault and I think we're going to play a lot of songs we've never played before in Toledo. We're going to have some exclusive merchandise, the Gold Tapes Record Store Day cassette with a bunch of rare and unreleased Hard Lessons stuff ... and an ultrasound photo. It should be cool."