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"Detroit is a virtual ghost town except for the music scene." So says John Krautner of Motor City rock band The Go. The 22-year-old guitarist speaks with authority, having lived in and around the city his whole life. He's watched as depressed economic conditions and urban flight have turned the once-bustling metropolis into a shell of its former self. He's also seen the local rock scene suffer through a lengthy drought for the better part of the last decade. Formed barely two years ago, The Go are part of a new generation of Detroit rockers who've rediscovered the city's rich musical heritage and are helping to revitalize its current scene even as the rest of the city goes to waste.
"It's just like any city; it has waves," says Krautner. "Certain times it's the low period, certain times it's the high period. But freaks never die. And Detroit is a city that's full of rock 'n' roll freaks."
Though The Go is in its infancy, it is perhaps the quintessential Detroit band -- merging the city's R&B and soul traditions of the '50s and '60s with the garage and punk of the late '60s and early '70s, and updating it with a sense of post-urban collapse. Whatcha Doin', the group's debut, is not only its first album, but it also represents the band's initial experience in a studio. The current monthlong tour is also the first time the group has ventured out of its native Michigan stomping grounds. The first record and tour -- a heady time to be an aspiring rock 'n' roll star. But for rock 'n' roll fans -- the kind that worship at the twin altars of the Stooges and the Standells -- there will probably be few experiences as exciting as hearing The Go for the first time.
The pastoral serenity of Idaho is about as far removed from Detroit as you can get. Its quixotic vision is diametrically opposed to the image of a charred, decaying inner city. Krautner notes the irony as he calls from a roadside pay phone just outside Boise to discuss the band and its hometown.
Krautner punctuates his conversation with the nervous laughter of someone not used to giving interviews. He elaborates on the unlikely story of The Go; how a group of Detroit youths barely out of their teens managed to create the best pure rock 'n' roll record of the year and provide a ray of hope in an increasingly bleak musical landscape that the salvation of rock 'n' roll might still be at hand.
After graduating high school -- and after what he describes as period spent "trying to figure out what to do with our lives" -- Krautner and longtime friend/drummer Marc Fellis began working on material hoping to start a band. A tape of those songs ended up in the hands of singer Bobby Harlow, a high school acquaintance. "Bobby heard the tape and said, 'Man, we have to write some stuff together,'" remembers Krautner.
The rest of the group -- bassist Dave Buick and guitarist Dion Fischer (who joined the band after recording the album, replacing Jack White) -- came together soon after, unified by a rejuvenated mid-'90s Detroit music scene, spearheaded by bands like the Hentchmen, Detroit Cobras and Rocket 455.
"There's a great rock scene in Detroit right now, for the last few years actually. Those bands would be playing, and we'd go all go out to see them. Getting together in that environment is how we decided to form the band," says Krautner.
The group's initial sound was a rough mix of influences and talents that proved to be too primitive even for Detroit's notoriously rough-and-tumble musical environment. Despite the general resistance the group received early on, one of its most vocal champions was Outrageous Cherry mastermind Matthew Smith. Crossing the amphetamine-fueled bite of the Velvet Underground with the sun-kissed innocence of the Beach Boys, Smith's Outrageous Cherry has become an important part of the Detroit rock 'n' roll resurgence. With an encyclopedic musical knowledge and an ear for talent, Smith was immediately taken by The Go's rawness and spirit. "He said, 'I don't care what anyone says about you, I like you guys and I want to produce your first record,'" says Krautner.
Krautner says that prospect seemed little more than a pipe dream until last year, when the group was signed, quite improbably, by Seattle's Sub Pop records. Though the band had a fairly large catalogue of material, it had never stepped inside a studio and had nothing but its dynamic live performance to offer label reps.
"The Sub Pop people happened to come to a show where we were playing with the [Demolition] Doll Rods in Detroit. We had never even done a seven-inch or anything like that. When they signed us, they were dumbfounded by the fact that we hadn't recorded anything," laughs Krautner.
After inking the Sub Pop deal, the group went into the studio with Smith in January of this year. Working at Detroit's aptly named Ghetto Recorders, the band laid down tracks for what would become its debut, Whatcha Doin'.