Rock ‘n’ roll at its best, at its most primal, is all about sweat and emotion and looking cool and songs that stick in your head for days. And here in the year of our Lord 2005, the Sights just might be the personification of primal rock, straight from the ooze.
This Motor City power trio, which just released its eponymous third album, favors a sound somewhere between the Midwestern muscle of Smokin’ OPs-era Bob Seger and the Mod pop of the Who and those British Faces (both Small and otherwise). They’ve been adored in Detroit for years, and on the strength of the new record it seems possible that they could win the rock star lottery.
Frontman Eddie Baranek, a whiskey-throated guitar demon seems ready for the challenge. “We’ll see how far we can take it without drinking our brains out and fucking losing it all,” he said.
At the Intersection in Grand Rapids, Mich., the Sights were playing the first night of a support slot on a tour by the Donnas of the U.S. and Canada. The record had hit stores earlier in the week. The trio was digging in for a seriously stomping set when a cute young chickie-poo in the audience yelled: “Eddie, I love your HAIR!!!” Rock ‘n’ roll moment, or a premonition of Baranek’s future as a TRL idol? It’s hard to tell.
The new album is the first release in the band’s deal with New Line imprint Scratchie, which is helmed by ex-Smashing Pumpkin James Iha. Baranek said working with Iha has been a positive experience.
“We had dinner a couple weeks ago and I was like, ‘Hey man, my fuzz pedals—all three of them—don’t work.’ So three days later, on tour, he sent me a fuzz pedal, and cords and batteries. Little shit like that means so much more to me than, ‘James—he owns this label.’ The guy knows that I need a pedal, or I will sound like shit. I need that cushion. But I think that showed me, really, that guy’s human, he’s not an asshole, you know.”
At the same time, Baranek retains a bit of cynical realism about life on a big label.
“James is good, but he’s supposed to be good, he’s playing the role of the good guy. He’s been in the trenches before, so he’s your ally. But who really knows, though? He could be barking orders from up top, and he just tells New Line to be the dicks. And they’re paid to be the dicks. So when we get the phone call—New Line wants us to do this—well, how much of it could be really James? But he’s your older brother; he’s your buddy. So who knows if he’s really playing that role? That’s my cynical approach, because that’s pretty much my approach to life—an asshole. ”
But having label support has changed things.
“I think it’s more of trying to learn how to adapt to a new set of rules,” Baranek said. “Instead of playing shitty bars and pubs, now you’re playing real rock clubs. So when you tour, you’re learning to adapt new ways, and that there actually is a front-of-house guy and a monitor guy. We’re not really used to that, we’re used to playing with a shitty PA. I think [we’re] starting to enter a new arena with all this mess, having all this money being put behind the songs that you write. It’s kind of scary at first, but you can learn—I’m starting to learn the ways that you can manipulate people (laughs uneasily).”
While the band has long been a fixture on the Detroit scene, Baranek said he has tried to avoid being perceived as just another bit of stripy whiteness.
“Oh yeah, you saw early on traps I don’t want to do. It’s like, you could have done an Italy single for Dave Buick. I was young and narrow-minded and naïve, and I was like, ‘Oh, I don’t want to do that, I’d trap myself into being a garage band.’ Well, thinking back on it now, I’d love to have put a 45 out three years ago on Italy; it’d be fucking great. But, point being, I tried to steer clear of the obvious garage-leaning things or bills sometimes,” Baranek said.
One of the big things that keep the Sights from being stuck in the garage is its sound. All three can play. And sure, the instruments are old and beat up, but they were expensive when they were new.
“We’ve got a couple different angles we can work from—pop, country, psychedelic, whatever you want to call it, garage, whatever,” Baranek said. “I can play with a pop crowd, but I can also blend in with a hard-rock crowd. That’s one of our assets, that we’re not pigeonholed. We’re working outside of this box and we’re not pigeonholing ourselves. So, bringing that up, I look at some of the Detroit bands who are ‘garage,’ and I hope that we write, that we come from more of a song, more of a pop (sensibility)—you know, fuse all those elements.”
Baranek formed the band in 1998, when he was just 16 years old. Trombley was introduced to a 16-year-old Baranek when he was 21. The introduction came from through a mutual friend who had a radio show. Even though there was a bit of an age difference, Trombley was impressed with Baranek. “I could tell Eddie had a lot of talent in terms of his songwriting. They were playing all originals.”
In 2000, Trombley left the group and was eventually replaced with Dave Shettler, who plays on The Sights. “I got kicked out,” Trombley said. “The reason why was just I was completely overcommitted. I was in like four bands, and I was coming late to rehearsals and canceling, flaking out a lot, and they were just like, you know, Eddie was focused and he just said, ‘We can’t, we can’t do it.'”
The next major addition to the band was Emmett. The keyboard player is shy, dark-haired and dreamy, with the kind of eyes the term “doe-eyed” was coined to describe. He was schooled in jazz and has played with greats like Harold McKinney, George Benson and Pistol Allen. ” It’s this big family there,” Emmett said.
Emmett was going to buy a Wurlitzer piano at a store in Ann Arbor where Shettler was working. The drummer recruited Emmett to play a piano solo on the band’s second album, Got What We Want. “I ran into Eddie, absolutely wasted, and he said that half his band quit, and he wants to know if I can do left-hand bass and right-hand organ. I was like, ‘Yeah, I can do that.’ He said, ‘Oh, we’re going to Europe in like a month, so get your passport,’ and I just quit my job, I was like, ‘Ah, later.'”
Emmett added: “It was great. Coming from working bagging groceries to, like, rocking Europe—pretty good change.
After Trombley was kicked out he moved to California. In 2004, he was about to go to grad school when Baranek called him and asked if he wanted to reenlist. “I was just like, ‘Hell, yeah. I totally want to do this.’ I was flattered, and nervous, and at first—I called him back up, and I was practicing along with the songs, and I was like, ‘I can’t do it. I totally can’t do it.’ And he was really bummed out; I was kind of bummed out. I called him back the next day, ‘Well, just—just give me another week. Let me play with these songs a little more,’ and I just decided to go ahead and fly out there.”
The band features a Hammond organ and old-fashioned guitars played through tube amps. Its songs have strong pop hooks, but not in a Neptunes sort of way. So there’s this entire retro vocabulary thing that goes on when people talk about the band.
Emmett addressed that, saying, “I don’t see what’s so retro about playing real instruments and just writing straight-up music without like electronics and stuff like that, you know. Just actually being able to play it live and not using a fake keyboard or anything.”
Baranek acknowledged that the “rock revival” of the past few years could be a bit frustrating. “You know, I’m not into this this week, and I’m not going to move into the post-punk shit. I’m in for the long haul, and I do like Humble Pie and the Jam,” he said.
Both the record and the band’s live shows have been getting good notices far and wide. “I just feel right now that this is either going to be really big or nothing’s going to happen at all,” Trombley said. “It’s intimidating. It’s really kind of nerve-wracking.”
Emmett seems less worried about whether the band makes it big or not. “I’m just here to play. I’m going to be doing the same thing if this record gets big or our next record gets bigger, whatever, or if it doesn’t, I’m still going to be doing the same thing.”
If the Sights are ever going to break huge, this seems like the time. After all, they’ll always have the chops, but they might not always have the hair.
© 2014 Brian J. Bowe. All rights reserved