Detholz! first came to my attention when they opened for Bobby Conn at a small club in Brooklyn a few years ago. I hadn’t heard anything about the band (whose name is pronounced “death holes”) prior to the show, and they were a mystery to my friends as well. We were all intrigued by the name, though, with its Germanic undertones and curiously emphatic punctuation, and decided to show up in time to investigate.
New York isn’t kind to opening bands, especially on weeknights. Though the room was small, cluttered and dingy even by the generous leeway accorded to rock clubs, there was plenty of room to move around among the sparse crowd. This didn’t seem to affect what was going onstage, which appeared to be five guys ecstatically banging out staccato, extremely loud post-disco-inflected power jams. There was a curious dynamic going on between the lead singer – whose stern, declamatory motions didn’t stop him from sliding into falsetto croons – and the keyboard player, who delivered big, party- ready lines with an ecstatic abandon, and the lead guitarist – a reedy dude who sporadically sang a delicate counterpoint amidst all the rhythmic hurly burly.
Such was my introduction to one of the strangest and more intriguing bands currently active in the American underground scene.
I bought a record after the show, which turned out to be Cast Out Devils (2006), the band’s second album, and upon listening to it when I got home, discovered that I was dealing with something much deeper and infinitely weirder than a surprisingly dynamite opening act. For one thing, there were the lyrics, which made pointed references to God, prophecy, faith, and revelation. But these weren’t exactly songs of praise – instead they seemed to be full of doubt, the intense, crippling intellectual kind that nearly drove the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard around the bend and which he painstakingly detailed in his book The Sickness Unto Death (1849).
Musically, Detholz! are a world apart from all things religious or abstract. They take much of their DNA from the twitchy, denatured grooves of Devo, but, in a few intensely creepy sing-speak numbers, you could also hear hints of No Means No, and, in the dual vocals and crisp rhythm section, something of the streamlined melodicism of The Cars. With such brazen musical instincts, it takes a while for the meaning of the lyrics to sink in; but once they do, the ground shifts. Though there’s a strong streak of hedonism in Detholz!, the band’s real concerns are thorny matters of the head and heart.
The band’s new record, Death to the Traitor, self-released as a “name your price” download on the site Bandcamp, only complicates things further. Produced by subversive glam rocker and fellow Chicagoan Bobby Conn, the album is a leaner, more stripped-down affair, with a slight but distinct AM-radio-funk vibe. The spoken-word jeremiads, along with the band’s proggier moments, have been jettisoned, replaced with blunt, compact hooks, delivered with an almost obsessive fervor.
Lyrically, Traitor is a departure as well: it’s preoccupied with brute physicality, blood, hunger, lust, and the manifold other ills that the flesh is prone to. It’s full of surreal violence, sexual deviance, and bodily turpitude, and if anything, only makes the Detholz! project even harder to decipher. Skyscraper recently caught up with frontman Jim Cooper via email for a lengthy discussion of zealotry, faith, music, and apocalypse.
Skyscraper: Let’s start with the backstory, for those who are unfamiliar with it. When, where, and how did the band form?
Jim Cooper: Detholz! was initially started as a gimmicky social experiment at Wheaton College [west of Chicago], our alma mater, in the fall of 1996. Wheaton is known as the “Harvard of Christian colleges” and is famous amongst its alumni for its “bubble” – the insular evangelical force field that seems to surround the place, letting nothing in or out of it. We endeavored to find whom we deemed the “oddest” cartoon characters on campus and start a novelty band, consciously as a joke, unconsciously as a reaction to the environment at school. In retrospect, I think we wanted to “rattle the cages” a bit.
As it turned out all of the weirdos turned us down, except for one, James Mitchell, a six-foot tall computer programmer who became part of the “conceptual” aspect of the band at the time. We were high on concept and low on funds; every show had a theme and a back story, replete with props, costumes, et cetera. The results were admittedly schlocky. It caught on, though, and Detholz! became a popular draw on campus.
Musically, at the time, we were playing a sort of low-rent surf-rock. It was pretty jokey and we didn’t take the songs very seriously – they were just means to an end.
However, somewhere along the line, Detholz! tapped into something deeper. Within religious circles – especially Christian circles – there exists a tension between the “sacred” and the “profane.” Post-college, some of us fell into one camp or the other, but many of us remained in the middle. It’s at times confusing to be pulled in both directions at once, even frustrating. If anything has defined Detholz!’s music over the years, it has been that tension.
To this day I field questions from Wheaton students inquiring about the band, the timbre of which leads me to believe Detholz! has taken on a somewhat mythical quality at the school. Sometimes I elect not to answer certain questions, preferring instead to let that “mythos” shape itself.
As a disclaimer, while discussing our roots, I want to be clear: we all have very fond feelings towards our alma mater, and it was a fantastic place to receive an education. Many of the people I met at Wheaton remain my dearest friends to this day and are people I consider to be among the best, brightest human beings I know. One advantage a religious university offers is that each student is required to deal with big questions about morality, ethics, religion, politics and philosophy every day. Wherever one jiggles in the conga line from the sacred to the profane, that environment tends to cultivate more thoughtful, wiser people.
Skyscraper: What was your first show, and how did it go?
JC: We played our first show outside on the quad at Wheaton, October 1996. After a friend of ours dressed as the devil entreated the crowd with a fake severed head in a bag, we wheeled big James out on a gurney, clad in radiation suits and made up like zombies – it was ridiculous. Upon the first chords of our opening number, James whipped the sheet off and goaded the audience with two metal lightning bolts. This kind of kitschy schlock would likely seem tame in most places, but at Wheaton at the time, it was a tad scandalous. In fact, the local police were called, with reports of “satanic worship” occurring on the campus quad. True story.
The cops did show up, but they stayed for the show and all said they enjoyed it immensely. Unbelievably, none of us got into any trouble, either.
Skyscraper: How did what I’ll call the “mature” Detholz! style develop? How did you go from a prankish art band playing low-rent surf to the Detholz! we know and love today? Were there any growing pains?
JC: I’d say the more “mature” sound began with the Cast Out Devils set in 2005-2006. As we moved into our late twenties and early thirties, the gawky, dorky music we’d played in college no longer held much appeal. A listener put it well in a message to me at the time. He said something to the effect of: “with so much musicianship under your fingers, why are you wasting your time writing these ridiculous songs?” We took that to heart.
There was a painful transition period between our first record, Who Are the Detholz? (2001) and Cast Out Devils. In fact, I consider those transition songs to be the “lost” Detholz! album. Some of our completist fans archived those songs – many of which only exist in live or demo form – which I posted on the Detholz! mp3 blog a few years ago (cringing inwardly). Songs from that period lack focus and are hit or miss, as we cast about to find our voice.
That era did produce “Time Travelin’ Peterbilt Semi,” a song which has passed into Detholz! lore as one of our worst/best. We played it live exactly once and it was such a colossal flop, someone in the audience approached me that night and said Detholz! was the “worst band [she’d] ever heard.” Ha!
After posting that turkey of a song on the blog, it still gets requested occasionally and seems to have found an audience… I guess that proves that on the interwebs, there’s an audience for anything.
As a sidebar: our favorite bad review as a band is one from the Wilco tour, a paper in Cleveland who wrote that Detholz! unleashed a “tsunami of suckitude.”
Thankfully, we found our stride and are all very proud of Death to the Traitor. I’d say overall the lesson we’ve learned as musicians and songwriters is to keep it simple. Unless your name happens to be Frank Zappa, less is always more.
Skyscraper: What other bands have Detholz! members been in?
JC: Since we’ve been around since Moses was in short pants, we’ve all had the opportunity to play in various outfits. I play bass for Baby Teeth and Bobby Conn, as well as an instrumental collaboration with Shelby Cinca of Frodus and The Cassettes called Travelers of Tyme. Travelers of Tyme has been busy this year scoring a documentary film, A Second Knock at the Door, as well as numerous commercials and promo spots, including a highly amusing ad campaign for Vidal Sassoon Germany featuring many thin, middle-aged men in turtlenecks with manicured beards.
I have also had the privilege of doing arrangements for Chicago songwriter Daniel Knox, and he and I are planning a live “symphony” at Lincoln Hall in August and are working on recordings as well. Daniel’s output is relentless.
Jon Steinmeier (our keyboard player) is a musical dynamo and has played with Mavis Staples, Bobby Conn, Mucca Pazza, and has his own amazing and hilarious hip-hop act, Steinomite. Additionally, Jonny is a music director with New Belgium Brewing Company’s “Tour de Fat” festival, which travels the country for half the year. Our drummer, Andrew, also moonlights in a new band called Cool Blue Kid.
Skyscraper: Obviously, religion has shaped the band quite a bit, especially in the lyrics. Are you all religious dudes?
JC: That is a complex question as all of us have had very complicated relationships with religion and the world that surrounds it. Without writing you a dissertation, I will say simply that I don’t think any one of us would be comfortable with the label “religious.” It’s too loaded a term that conjures pejorative associations with our collective past. Religion and religious imagery appear often in our songs, as I write all of the lyrics and religion constitutes a large part of my background.
And, so we get this out of the way early, let me state for the record: I have zero interest in persuading anyone to alter their religious or non-religious views via Detholz! songs. That is a fruitless and silly enterprise and, ultimately, an insult to the listener’s intelligence. Detholz! is not, repeat not, a “Christian” band.
We are just a band, writing songs drawn from our own experiences. Our experience with religion and evangelical Christianity is one aspect of those experiences but, obviously, it’s a hot-button issue given the aggressive sales tactics of certain American evangelicals. When you say the word “Christian” a lot of people immediately raise their defense screens, much like they’re answering a call from a telemarketer: “Christian? Uh-oh. Are you going to try and convert me?” I don’t blame them.
Some of us identify ourselves as Christians, others of us do not. One of our band members is an avowed atheist. Our individual spirituality or lack thereof is each member’s personal business. For 15 years, we’ve all gotten along just fine.
Skyscraper: Have religious issues ever caused any problems for you, from religious or non-religious fans? For instance, I read somewhere that at some point there were actually anti-Detholz prayer circles. True? If so, why?
JC: Ha, yes, that is a true story. It happened when we were still in college outside of a show in the student union. At the time, our audience on campus was growing – as I mentioned, we had inadvertently tapped into that uneasy space between the sacred and profane. Those Wheaton Detholz! shows could get pretty wild as students blew off steam. In retrospect, we were just college kids being college kids – recreating and horsing around in perfectly healthy ways – but the perceived “wildness” of these shows caused concern among the more buttoned-down types at the school.
There’s another funny story related by a friend of ours who was in a theology class at the time. When the professor inquired about the status of campus art/culture/morality, one student raised their hand and said something to the effect of “I don’t know what to say about art on campus, but there’s this HORRIBLE BAND…” She was abruptly cut off by the bell.
To answer your question, yes, we have had scrapes over the years, fan vs. band, fan vs. non-fan… even fan vs. fan! (There was a fist fight that broke out at a show in Lansing when someone yelled some encouragement to us and another fan misinterpreted it as a heckle. He clobbered him, sending our drummer’s mother flying!) I could spend all day recounting war stories, so here’s a select few:
Years back, we played a show at Messiah College in Pennsylvania on Ash Wednesday. Messiah is perhaps even more conservative than Wheaton. Our set drew from our second album, Cast Out Devils, which is loosely based on a period in my life when I rejected Christianity outright. There was a guy who literally went nose-to-nose with me after the show, accusing me of “mocking his faith.” I thought he was gonna deck me; had I not responded calmly, reassuring him that I understood and respected his views, he probably would’ve! That was definitely the most unnerved I’ve ever been by the religious tension that can exist at Detholz! shows. As a cherry on top, they wrote an exceedingly snide and negative review of the show in their school paper that got pretty personal, even misquoted me. We have not been back since.
One last story, on a more positive note: when we did a stint opening for Wilco on their A Ghost is Born tour (2004), I was approached by a pastor from the Cleveland area. He was struggling in his church, which was in a depressed part of town. He said, “You know, when you guys started playing, I thought: hey, are they making fun of me? Then, as your set progressed I realized, no, they aren’t making fun of me, they are me!” He thanked us and said the set encouraged him that he was not alone in his doubts and misgivings related to matters of faith.
That comment, and others like it over the years, are what keep us coming back to ring the bell. There’s nothing more satisfying than creating something that’s meaningful to others.
Skyscraper: Do you consider yourselves evangelical at all?
JC: Again, “evangelical” is a loaded term that means different things to different people. However, I can safely say no, none of us are part of the American evangelical movement. In fact, many of our songs were born from my perspectives on the dysfunction inherent in American evangelicalism. I worked in the church for almost a decade and was very much a part of the evangelical world, though I did not personally espouse the views of my employers at the time. But that’s an interview unto itself right there.
Skyscraper: Have you been influenced by Christian bands or music, past and present, at all?
JC: Not really, though we all had our “Christian music” phase as kids (an evangelical rite of passage wherein you throw away all of your “secular” records. I cringe when I think about it as I had several records that would be worth a fortune today if I still had ’em…). Sadly, at the time, most Christian music really sucked. I missed my secular records immediately upon discarding them.
The landscape’s a little different these days with guys like Danielson and Sufjan Stevens, who are openly Christian yet creating viable art that’s not tailor-made to be sold to people who only buy their music at Family Bookstore.
However, I’m a big fan of Larry Norman. Some of his songs are so wrenching and beautiful, yet contain the most disturbing fire-and-brimstone lyrical content imaginable. “666” is a good example; we sang that song quietly as a band after we finished recording Death to the Traitor, quite by happenstance. Norman was no saint, though – he cuckolded the guy that “led him to Christ,” stealing his wife and also had a child out of wedlock who he refused to acknowledge. So it seems, religious or no, humans will be humans after all.
Another great example is The Louvin Brothers – hard-drinking, foul-mouthed, brawling good-old boys who sang like angels about the evils of drunkenness and the wages of sin.
Music and stories like that have had an impact on Detholz! – they represent the tension between the sacred and profane, which is what many of our songs explore.
Skyscraper: How do you handle the conflicts between the intensely secular world of rock’n’roll and your religion?
JC: Heh, that’s been a source of cognitive dissonance. For 10 years, I worked as a church orchestra director, so most of the time that meant playing at a dive bar ’til two or three in the morning, then driving out to the church a few hours later to conduct the morning’s service. Navigating between the two universes got a little dizzying sometimes… but again, that would take a whole separate interview to parse out completely.
Skyscraper: Even though you’ve opened for some pretty big acts, you’ve always seemed pretty DIY. Cast Out Devils was self-released and Traitor is only available digitally. Have you ever had any run-ins with the traditional record industry? Ever been tempted to go big-time?
JC: Detholz! has always been fiercely DIY. Many bands like to claim that their music “defies categorization” but – without meaning to sound arrogant – in Detholz!’s case that is literally true. We would stick out like a hairy wart on most label rosters these days. Also, in the current Internet age, there’s not much a label can do for a band that the band can’t do for itself. Over the years we’ve had a few nibbles from some indie labels but they never panned out.
I suppose if a label were really, really amped about Detholz! – so amped they’d be willing to throw fistfuls of cash in our direction – we’d probably consider it, but shopping labels has never been a priority. Maybe 15 years ago when we were full of piss and vinegar…
Skyscraper: I first heard of you when I saw you open for Bobby Conn, during his King For a Day (Thrill Jockey) tour in 2007. How did you hook up with Bobby? He’s done some interesting things with religious themes on his records.
JC: I met Bobby initially through Abraham Levitan, my cohort in Baby Teeth. Shortly thereafter I found myself playing bass in Bobby’s band, touring The Homeland record (Thrill Jockey, 2004) in the U.S. and Europe. I’ve been sitting in Bobby’s bass chair ever since (with one brief hiatus). Playing in his band is like being a kid in a candy store for me. Bobby has been not only a tremendous musical resource and mentor over the years, but a dear friend as well. He is one of the most exacting songwriters and engineers I have ever seen, willing to spend untold hours adjusting just one or two knobs. Additionally he and Julie (his wife and musical co-conspirator) and their kids are all fabulous human beings.
Skyscraper: Did his opinions ever clash with yours?
JC: Bobby is an informed guy with strong opinions, but it’s rare we disagree on musical matters – most of the time, his “mission” was akin to ours during the recording process, so things were pretty simpatico.
Skyscraper: And that segues nicely (I hope) into the new record, which Bobby produced. What did Bobby bring to the process?
JC: Without Bobby’s contributions to Death to the Traitor as a producer, engineer, and guest musician, the record would have never happened. Death to the Traitor belongs as much to Bobby as it does to Detholz!.
We had never worked with a producer before, but after the debacle that was Cast Out Devils – recorded in four or five different studios on as many or more hard drives, none of which were compatible, ugh – we decided we needed to get some fresh ears into the studio. Long and short: we were worn out.
Bobby was just as exacting with our music as he is with his own. For a week, we camped up at Bill Skibbe’s Key Club studio in Benton Harbor, Michigan, and did nothing but sleep, eat, and record. We gave Bobby total control over all engineering and production decisions and he wove the process into a total dream. Making Traitor was one of the most satisfying musical experiences of my life, hands down, mostly owing to Bobby’s expertise at the helm.
We are all privileged to have been able to work with someone of Bobby’s caliber and consider Traitor to be our best effort to date. A word of advice to bands out there: HIRE BOBBY CONN TO PRODUCE YOUR RECORD!
Skyscraper: What happened between Cast Out Devils and Traitor that contributed to the way the record turned out?
JC: Well, a few things: First, I had a “religious reawakening” of sorts, which Death to the Traitor chronicles. I view it as a sort of “sister album” to Cast Out Devils. Where Devils chronicles a loss of faith, Traitor chronicles a return to it, albeit an uncertain and gory one. Interestingly, the imagery on Traitor is much more brutal and macabre than on Devils…
Second, we started experimenting with simpler musical devices, like repetitive bass lines, and focused more on rhythm than upon melody/harmony. In the past, Detholz!’s music could get a little over-cooked and pointy-headed. We wanted to write songs that were more straightforward musically, at least to us.
Third, Cast Out Devils was written in my mid-twenties during a period when I was intensely angry about the perceived BS that I had had to endure as a result of my religious upbringing and chronicles that struggle, albeit imperfectly. It posits a very personal question to which Death to the Traitor is the answer.
I won’t wax on about that – it’s very personal for me and I don’t wish to muddy anyone’s reaction/response to the songs by navel-gazing overmuch. Suffice it to say that the imagery on Traitor is more Grand Guignol than on Cast Out Devils, which happened quite by accident. Given that it’s about a return to faith, I thought that was interesting.
Skyscraper: What made you decide to release the record via Bandcamp? How has it worked out so far?
JC: Well, these days, no one buys CDs and they’re ridiculously expensive to produce. We toyed with the idea of pressing vinyl, but it seemed like too much money for too little yield.
Last summer, we moved out of our longtime rehearsal space and did an experiment: at a festival show, we made piles of our merchandise that had accumulated over the years… and gave it all away! It was amazing; all of the stuff that had been collecting dust in our basement for eight years magically disappeared!
Personally, I love the donation model of Bandcamp. It allows the fans to participate directly in the business of the band and gives them the power to assign value to the music they listen to. We’ve employed the “pay what you want” approach at all of our most recent shows. Between those that pay and those that don’t, it all evens out in the end. We gave up a long time ago on making money via Detholz! – after 15 years on this carousel, we’re doing it because we love it.
So for bands like us, the Bandcamp model works really well. If you’re aspiring to be the next Justin Bieber, maybe try something else.
Skyscraper: I’m guessing that standout Traitor jam “Catherine Zeta-Jones” was written before her bipolar thing was announced. Do you look at that song differently in light of that news? What exactly sparked the idea behind the song?
JC: Funny how certain songs seem to stick more than others. “Zeta” is far and away the most popular song on Traitor, and the most highly requested. Interestingly, it was also the most difficult to record and mix – it almost didn’t make the cut!
That song actually has little to do with the real Catherine Zeta-Jones. It’s about Robert Hanssen, the worst Soviet spy in American history. Many of the songs on Death to the Traitor explore themes of betrayal, a central concept in historical Christianity. Hanssen was an FBI official who turned traitor and handed government secrets over to the Russians for over 20 years until he was caught in 2001. Apparently he is/was obsessed with Catherine Zeta-Jones, an odd tic I found fascinating. In the end I think he betrayed his country because he hated himself and Catherine Zeta-Jones was his fantasy outlet – a conduit through which he could escape his dreary existence.
As I recorded demos for Traitor, I wrote about them on the Detholz! blog. The entry for “Catherine Zeta Jones” is here, if you’re interested in the whole “study guide.”
In the wake of the record release, Catherine’s real-life troubles hadn’t occurred to me as the song has more to do with the idea of someone like her – a fantasy woman – rather than the real person.
Skyscraper: Seeing how time, death, and revelation are central Detholz! concerns, what did you think about the recent failed apocalypse?
JC: An amusing anecdote: Rick Franklin, our keyboardist, was hired years ago to play piano at a service hosted by Harold Camping [photo above]. The picture, in this case, says it all: “End Times is Good Times!”
Photos Courtesy: Detholz!