April 1, 2004

Jason Stollsteimer’s Emotive Purity

In a less-than-rock-and-roll-world where everything is like everything else, slam dancing to a different drummer ain’t the most effective way for a musician to court success. But Von Bondies frontman, Jason Stollsteimer, did it his way, and he didn’t die. In fact, his band garnered tons of street cred in Detroit’s club scene, signed with Sire Records, and just released the much-anticipated Pawn Shoppe Heart. And all of this good fortune has poured down on a cat who also mocks the conventional gear police by using Eko guitars (his current favorite is a Condor V4) and $150 Silvertone amps. Who the hell does this guy think he is?

“I just wanted to write songs,” offers Stollsteimer. “I was pretty messed up and depressed when I was a teenager, and instead of drinking myself to sleep, I started playing guitar. Of course, I had no clue about song structure, other people’s riffs, or acceptable guitar tones. In the beginning, I’d often write songs on a guitar with two strings that weren’t tuned to anything musical. I just tried to play the guitar in a way that sounded like what I was thinking.”

What Stollsteimer was thinking about were the sad stories that charted his life. The narrative became the structural focus of his songs, and those narratives didn’t fit neatly into a traditional A-B-A-B-C-A-B song arrangement.

“Nine times out of ten, I tell a word-for-word story,” he explains. “There’s no catch phrase that doesn’t mean anything, and there’s no message to anyone but myself. When I’m done saying something, I’m done. I don’t usually repeat choruses. This was kind of a problem when we worked with [noted producer] Jerry Harrison on Pawn Shoppe Heart. We came from different backgrounds, and that first week in the studio was tough. He’d ask me why I didn’t repeat the choruses more, and I’d say, ‘There’s no point. The song is finished.’ But I always tried each song his way. And when we’d play both versions for his daughter—who is like the typical 14-year-old music fan—she always picked my version.”

Dodging a creative bullet with the help of a teenager may be a bit of a deus ex machina, but it’s not like Stollsteimer is consciously victimizing the art of songwriting like some street punk terrorizing a geek. It’s simply a very singular and very honest approach to songcraft.

“I have these stories in my head, and I don’t know how to sing them until I sit down and work out the music with my guitar,” he says. “If I’m using an aggressive tone, I’ll match it with a certain lyrical topic because it will feel more real to sing it. I’m always looking to be inspired by the guitar. Which is one reason that, to this day, I’m ‘punished’ for not knowing what I can and can’t do. For example, our drummer will get on me because I’ll fit an odd timing or an extra bar into the middle of a song. But those kinds of ‘mistakes’ are exactly why our songs are so different. They simply don’t fit the mold.”

—Michael Molenda  

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