The Volebeats – The Sky, the ocean, and the Hamtramck shuffle
The band’s greatest strength is that they all write songs. The 14 tracks on Sky and the Ocean take shape from eight combinations, from individual contributions to collaborations. Former drummer Bill Peterson continues to write for the band even though he’s no longer an active member (he was replaced by Scott Michalski). “We just remained in contact and he helps out,” said Oakes. “I like that aspect, having different people contribute….Bill knows what works and what doesn’t.”
Judging from their records, that trait is the thread that runs through the band. Sky and the Ocean is seamless. Although there isn’t much stylistic departure from song to song, neither is there anything to drag things down. And there is variation in both sound and sounds. A bigger recording budget was put to good use: mixing on a 24-track board gave the left and right channels lives of their own. The record incorporates occasional flourishes, from West Coast surf to British Invasion rock, but is firmly rooted in country. “I’m really into Glen Campbell,” Smith confessed. “Anything we do that reminds me of that, I’m happy.”
Still, the Volebeats’ sound isn’t their greatest appeal. What is really appealing about listening to the Volebeats is what you feel, not necessarily what you hear.
One track from their stellar EP Bittersweet (1995, Third Gear Records) bears mention. “If You Won’t Take Me” sounds like a pretty good song on the surface. Underneath, there is an interplay between the music and the lyrics. Around the drummer’s swing, the guitars ring and chime, and bassist Russ Ledford gently plays in a bob-and-weave rhythm. The lyrics plead for some sort of common ground in a relationship. But the kick and snare drums bring everything together, and, as the mixing board in the mind takes over, that glorious shuffle is all one hears. While the lyrics point to heartbreak, the drums tantalize, suggesting possibility, fostering suspense. Will the song take off or end as it began?
Belying the song’s complexity, Smith said the EP was the result “more of a time that was unfocused.”
“We had those songs, and by the time they were finished, they felt right.” Rather than hold them over, Bittersweet was released to high praise. That allowed for a fresh start, the result of which is Sky and the Ocean.
Not everything about the Volebeats is quite as serious. To wit: a planned 7-inch single of Detroit bands covering songs by Slayer, to which the Volebeats contribute “Die by the Sword”. While it doesn’t exactly dovetail with the cover of Barry White’s “I’m Gonna Love You Just a Little More, Baby” that leads off Bittersweet, it serves a purpose: “Every band has a member with a soft spot for Slayer,” said Smith.
Another track the band is working on, “Hamtramck Mama”, has its history nearby. Recorded in 1939 by the York Brothers, the song recalls the city’s bordello era. Moreover, it appeared on the Fortune label, the rough Motor City equivalent of Sun Records, and the band had to have the song transferred from an old 78 rpm single to tape.
While the Volebeats are becoming better known outside Detroit, they haven’t had the luxury of an extended tour. Shows have been limited to places such as Iowa City, Chicago and the New York area. But getting on the road may mark another shift, as the Volebeats tend to focus their shows on brand-new material when they’re home. “We tend to walk onstage, play new songs that no one knows, and leave,” Smith said. “The simplest route to keeping it interesting is keeping it fresh.”