What would posses a writer to dedicate over 4,000 words and weeks of time to cover a band nobody has heard of outside of a small Michigan town? You must be new to this site.
It was the fall of 1989 or 1990, I don’t recall anymore. It was a long time ago. I do remember exactly how it felt though to be visiting friends at various colleges and getting those first tastes of freedom that power so many of the memories of that time. To be wandering around with people your own age with so few restriction or boundaries. To be treated (somewhat) like an adult when you’re really still just a kid and excited by the simplest of things like hanging out in the quad talking at three o’clock in the morning and nobody—NOBODY—is telling you it’s time to come in. Staying up for two days playing video games or watching foreign films you don’t quite understand but are intrigued by just the same. Meeting people from around the world and discovering new ideas, accents, films, books and music. For me, those growing years where I transformed from a dopey half-rate wrestling team pseudo jock to a pretentious and undereducated, but infinitely more open and curious person…that transformation happened in Kalamazoo, Michigan.
Kalamazoo is where I formed the inklings of my forever developing political beliefs and ideas of social justice. It’s where I met the smartest people I’m likely to ever know. It’s where I later met my wife. And the entire time had a soundtrack that was filled with songs from bands nobody outside of that city and that time know anything about. The band that best captures that time and transports me to that person is the Sinatras. Back on that fall night, Jake and I were on our way to see a group of college bands play in the basement of Kalamazoo College’s student center. Pushing through the sweaty mass of students packed into a cinderblock room I can still see the faces of my best friends, smooth in youth and ecstatic with drink and rock and roll.
All I knew about the bands that night was that one had been around “forever” and would play ridiculous covers of TV theme songs, including a funky “Sesame Street” and “Movin’ On Up” from the Jeffersons. Drunk on Bacardi and Coke and praying I’d meet some hot coeds, I was transfixed by the sight of a giant and a mop-top fronting a pie faced mass of drumsticks and fury.
Ron Casebeer is six foot six with the sweetest voice you’ve ever heard and a playing style that fluctuates between Pete Townshend and Neil Young and can shift from finger picking to power chords in a fraction of a beat. Karl Knack is much shorter (who isn’t?) and topped with a shock of hair that covers his eyes and a curious feel for the bass that pushes melodies while never giving up sonic ground. Scott Stevens to this day looks like he’s 15 years old with a grin never far from his lips and drum fills that confound your mind. This is the Sinatras.
MP3: “Lousy Neighbor”
MP3: “Action Party”
GLONO: Tell me about the beginning of the band.
Karl Knack: Scott and I knew each other as far back as junior high school – a mutual friend of ours got a band together, with me on keyboards (I’d just spent an insane amount of paper route money on a monophonic presets-only synthesizer the size of a tuba – this was late ’78). That outfit didn’t last long.
Ron Casebeer: A guy I worked with when I was in high school was friends with Scott, and we bumped into each other a few times but we didn’t really speak much, he was just some guy with a cool car. [A “blue ’71 Mustang convertible with rusting floorboards,” according to Scott – ed.] A few years later, around 1984, my friend Pat Gault said he knew some guys putting a band together and he introduced me to Karl and then Scott.
Karl Knack: Pat Gault, who became the band’s first “manager,” came to East Lansing with Ron to go record shopping, and he saw me walking down the street! Eventually, I asked Ron to join a cover band I was starting, with me on keyboards and him on bass. We did a few shows but it didn’t last past the summer. Scott was playing with Toxic Attitude at that point. It was funny, here Ron and I were gigging with covers of “10-9-8” and “Time After Time”, and Scott’s doing gigs with [national punk bands] Channel 3 and the Big Boys! Eventually, Toxic Attitude dissolved, and in early ’85, the three of us started getting together with Pat Gault and Niels Magnusson as Prisoners of Kulture, whose sole gig was playing a few songs at someone’s party. Pat and Niels moved on, but the rest of us were interested in keeping it going.
Ron Casebeer: Sometimes we’d play in grocery store parking lots after dark. Scott, Karl and I were the only ones that could really play our instruments, and one by one the others just sorta dropped out. The three of us kept on playing, and played our first official show as the Sinatras on the afternoon of August 10, 1985, at Rock Cafe Records in Battle Creek.
Karl Knack: We did an “in-store”, which was a really cool thing for Gonzo and Cathy (who ran the store) to set up for us, since we were totally unproven. There were a number of folks there, a lot of ’em punks who knew Scott from TA. There were also friends and curiosity seekers. I understand we disappointed one gentleman who saw “The Sinatras” on the store marquee, and stopped in to get tickets to see the Chairman! After the show, we got in the car and headed to Royal Oak and caught R.E.M., the Replacements, and the Three O’Clock. It was a good day!
Courted by labels
By the time I first saw the Sinatras that autumn night, they’d been a band for five years, which is forever in the world of college bands. They were veterans in a scene that was just beginning to develop. Maybe it was the alcohol, maybe it was the heat in that room, maybe it was the fact that I was 19 years old… In fact, it was all of those things and the undeniable fact that the Sinatras are to this day one of the best live bands I’ve ever seen, but I was hooked.
The early 1990s were a strange time in pop culture. While frat houses reeked of Polo cologne and were packed to the rafters with girls who accessorized collegiate sweatshirts with pearl necklaces and over-sized Aviator sunglasses, basement clubs and pseudo “raves” with deliberately dirty teenagers were inching into the mainstream. Bands were getting hits with songs like “Detachable Penis” and “She Don’t Use Jelly.” The weirdness was spreading and for a brief moment in those early years when Alternative was becoming Mainstream, Kalamazoo and the greater West Michigan scene was getting attention. Local bands like Twitch, Thought Industry and one-hit wonders Verve Pipe were getting signed to majors and mid-sized indies. The Sinatras were on the radar…
GLONO: There was a time in Western Michigan when a number of bands were getting signed. Was that ever something you guys were interested in?
Karl Knack: Before that whole wave of signings, we’d been approached by both Twin-Tone and Warner Bros. in the late eighties. WB got wind of us thanks to [the Violent Femmes’] Gordon Gano saying something nice about us after we’d opened for the Mercy Seat at our first Club Soda show in June of 1986. Out of that, we got to play a showcase at the Cubby Bear in Chicago in March of ’88, but we had zero fan base there (except for one enthusiastic friend) and the performance didn’t do enough to get us studio spec time or anything like that. Twin-Tone was a different deal – I guess Dan [Murphy] from Soul Asylum played the tape we’d sent to the label, liked what he heard, and tipped off the label head, who had us come play the Uptown in Minneapolis in November of ’87. He was more encouraging, but wanted us to move to Minneapolis so we could spend some months fine-tuning the live show, getting a fan base, etc., and then he’d see whether or not we were ready to make a record. Family situations weren’t gonna allow us to make the move for something so indefinite, so it didn’t happen.
Ron Casebeer: We wanted it, for sure, but we weren’t very good at that part of the game. Early on I thought it was beyond our grasp, living in Battle Creek. Who’s ever gonna sign a band from Battle Creek? We had people that tried to help us. Bill Bored, AKA Smelly Mustafa (Boom and the Legion of Doom/Depression Records/Plainfield) offered to put out a Sinatras 7″ if we’d cough up $100.00. We just never did it. We did get a couple songs out there on smaller labels. There’s a song on a Celluloid comp called It Came From Jay’s Garage, and we covered Henry Gross’ song “Shannon” on Pravda’s first K-Tel tribute album, 20 Explosive Dynamic Super Smash Hit Explosions.
Karl Knack: After those situations, we didn’t really concern ourselves with getting “signed.” Partially, it may have been resignation – by ’89, the band had already been at it almost four years, gone through name and personnel changes, some personal drama, and also, the bands and sounds that had inspired us were either broken up or people cared about them even less than before, so getting gigs was difficult – there were local musicians and friends who were supportive, but most audiences could have cared less about us at the time. After we hooked up with Leppotone, I don’t think we ever considered having anything released through another label.
Before Elephant Six and Saddle Creek, there was Leppotone. Dreamed up as a mock label named after the mysterious fifth member of the Rutles, Leppo, Leppotone Electrical Recordings soon became a co-op of musicians who trafficked in obscure musical oddities and wrote Rock Operas. Most of the stable features a rotating cast of players, but Scott Stevens seemed to somehow be involved in most of the bands.
GLONO: Leppotone is kind of like a co-op of bands, who all have you played with?
Scott Stevens: I’ve played with the Sinatras, Twister, Goldstar, Fortune & Maltese, and I even played the drums with the Sleestacks for their show “A Pirate’s Life,” which we performed live on the University of Michigan’s student radio station, WCBN, as a live radio drama—commercials and all!
GLONO: Do you have a favorite?
Scott Stevens: They’re all pretty varied in their approach. The classic interview reply would be “whichever band I’m playing with right now.” But, I mean the Sinatras obviously have the greatest personal attachment for me. We started doing this in our teens and really shared so many great times together. At that age everything is so new and exciting and you get to experience so many things with an open mind and no real expectations—it was a really magical time. And I think we got to do exactly what we wanted to do with that band—well except for the fame and fortune part of it. But that’s okay. The most important part of it is that we are good friends making music together.
GLONO: Tell me about the beginning of Leppotone.
Karl Knack: The Sinatras didn’t have any direct involvement with the founding of Leppotone, but our relationship with the Sleestacks was so good that when we approached them about being part of the label, before their first Leppotone single came out (“Land of Lincoln” c/w “Soulshaker”), they were receptive to the idea. I think we jumped their train! Calling Leppotone a co-op describes it well, since all the acts were responsible for their own promotion and releases, and collectively covered costs for the Leppotone sampler CD release in ’94.
GLONO: What’s the point?
Ron Casebeer: The point as I saw it? A logo makes you credible. I mean, if you’re going to put out a record, you make up a name for your record label, right? These guys came up with a name, a great logo, then The Sleestacks put out their record. When we put ours out, well I’m not sure if they asked us, or we asked them, but we were on Leppotone too. All you need is two bands to make it legit, really. Then it’s no longer one band’s pretend thing; it’s a stable, a roster. Along with The Sleestacks and The Sinatras, Leppotone has releases by King Tammy, Twister, The Port Wine Lads, and Fortune & Maltese. There were others, I’m drawing a blank right now. There are some new things in the works.
Karl Knack: The Leppotone moniker was a nice umbrella for a number of diverse acts who really didn’t fit in with any of the other subsets of local acts which were very active in Kalamazoo (if not all of West Michigan) in the early 90’s, and sometimes didn’t fit with each other! I do think the bands envied each other’s talents… which may have led to so many offshoot groups getting formed by members among the original acts – we all wanted to be in each other’s bands!
The most frustrating thing about being a Sinatras fan is that they so rarely play. Of course, what band with a 20-year history and no back catalog of hits funding the way does? But it’s always been this way. The band has always been on again-off again.
Karl Knack: I think the on again, off again, has frustrated each of us at different times, but not all of us at the same time. Each of us has had something going on at different times that took priority over the band, and I think we’ve always accepted it. Being close friends makes a huge difference – since we want to play with each other, it’s never been a case of “so and so can’t do it so let’s find another player” – that wouldn’t work for us. Not ’til one of us dies and the other guys decide to do a show with an offspring or sibling as a substitute!
Ron Casebeer: I’m not really frustrated by it, it’s all our own doing. It would be easier in some ways now. At our busiest, we were spread out across the state. Now we all live in the same general area again, and we need far fewer practices than we once did. We all have “good” jobs now, mortgages, there are children in the mix, our priorities have changed. Now if we could make music for a living, I’m certain we’d all jump at the chance, but unless Rick Rubin finds an “Action Party” 7″ and makes us an offer we can’t refuse, I think we’ll continue to play the occasional weekend gig and be happy watching our friends dance.
GLONO: But there are so few official releases? Given the technology today and the relative affordability, why is that?
Ron Casebeer: There’s no satisfying answer to this. When we were younger and had more free time, we were just more into playing and hanging out, listening to records than doing the work necessary for that. Once we got to the point where we thought we were pretty good, I think we just figured someone would do it for us. They never did. I mean, we weren’t being big headed about it, we just assumed that if it was going to happen, it would happen. That’s what happens in the movies, right? We loved movies.
GLONO: I’ve heard an album and a half of material you recorded at Western Sound Studios with Steve Versaw (of the M’s). Any plan to release it?
Ron Casebeer: Yes. Well, wait, what constitutes a plan? We talk about it, Karl says he’s working on it. Every six months or so somebody asks about it, and sometimes we’ll lie and give a phony deadline that we never meet. See, this is what I’m talking about, there should be real plans, right? Goals and deadlines and money set aside. Did you see “Deadwood” last night? I love that show. What’s for dinner? This is pretty embarrassing, really. To think that people still care enough, still want to hear some of these songs, and we just keep blowing it off. That might be punk rock, I’m not sure.
Of course, it doesn’t make it any easier to be living in Kalamazoo, Michigan, which isn’t exactly a hotbed of rock and roll…at least not anymore. In the early 90s, Kalamazoo not only had a hot local scene but being located exactly halfway between Detroit and Chicago meant bands on the verge regularly played the same venues as those of us lucky to get two drink tickets for payment. In the center of it all was the legendary Club Soda, which hosted Nirvana and the Flaming Lips before they were cultural touchstones.
Ron Casebeer: Kalamazoo really did feel like the next big thing for a while there. A lot of pieces fell together just right. Western Michigan University has a great radio station, WIDR, and they were bringing a lot of great bands to Kalamazoo. There were great record stores, new college kids every autumn, and this little metropolis was surrounded by tiny burbs with nothing going on, so everybody headed to Kalamazoo. Bands you’d see on “120 Minutes” would stop through. Lots of shows meant there were lots of opening slots to fill, so just about anyone could get a gig. Nothing hones your chops or filters out the crap like a live performance, and everybody got a turn on stage. After a while some bands were good enough to hit the road, Chicago and Detroit fans start seeing band after great band coming from Kalamazoo, so then there was a buzz. Several bands did get to make some national noise: God Bullies, Thought Industry, Fortune & Maltese. [Don’t forget Verve Poop! – ed.]
GLONO: So what happened?
Karl Knack: I think the new Club Soda ownership tired of a lot of the bands and sounds that had graced its establishment for years, through WIDR New Music Nights and its good rep among indie bands who were looking for clubs to play while on tour. This seemed to coincide with a rejection of noisy rock in general – I think people got sick of the “grunge cycle,” and whether or not a band was grunge, if you played rock at any loud volume, there seemed to be a point where people just weren’t as excited by it as they were with boy bands and Britney and hip-hop. Soda wasn’t shy about wanting to get what they termed “noise” bands outta there
Ron Casebeer: What happened to the Kalamazoo scene? What happened to most of them? MTV, DJ’s, Salsa Night, MTV, Britney Spears, cocaine, the Internet, and MTV. Greed, I guess. MTV stopped pushing art and started pushing a product. Club owners took the easy out the minute they could, hired a DJ, slapped a half naked girl on a flyer and started serving half-priced belly shots. The clubs filled up with 30-year-old Shakira fans and the rock and roll kids went home and discovered MySpace.
Karl Knack: It WAS a lot easier to look to Soda as the establishment that would have all the cool acts, and now, if one looked at their schedule only, they’d think the scene passed on, but that never ever happened – Harvey’s was hot, Kraftbrau is hot, Rocket Star Cafe has great shows, Corner Bar is doing well with shows, and even Soda is supportive in some way of local music, just more on the metal edge now as far as I can tell. There were, and are, always warehouse shows and all-ages shows, wherever someone could throw them, where you might catch an act like Doo Rag or the Dirtbombs, though there hasn’t been a central place the scene call “home.”
Given the rarity of shows and the lack of officially released material, it begs the question why anyone—let alone someone who sees as many bands as I do in a year—would still care about the Sinatras. The answer to that question lies in the motto of this site: Rock and roll can change your life. With one song, the Sinatras did just that.
Tucked in between the sonic madness of “Action Party” and the noisy scratch of “I Know Your Thang” is a heartbreaking song that could be the story of the Sinatras. “Harvesting” is more than a nod to Neil Young’s only number one album, it equals in melody and nostalgic imagery anything he’s recorded. It was the song that made me take songwriting seriously.
GLONO: “Harvesting” holds a special place in many, many hearts. Talk a bit about that song.
Ron Casebeer: I wrote it, man, I don’t know, 1990-ish I guess? I was thinking about how a friend of mine and I were growing apart. Some of it is me thinking about him, but I was also trying to imagine what he thought about me. He seemed suddenly changed, maybe overwhelmed by his new responsibilities, maybe he just grew up. I’m just as much to blame, really. I got really paranoid for a while there, stayed home a lot, avoided friends. Whatever the reason, we just couldn’t relate to each other anymore. I was pining for the days when we’d stay up all night talking about music and movies, wishing we were hobos, wishing girls would kiss on us.
Karl Knack: For me, “Harvesting” is the song that ushers in the best period of Sinatras songwriting, primarily those songs penned by Ron. Since the song showed up in our repertoire right after the period we’d really been focused on “making it,” I had wondered if he directed it at me, since I was pretty glum about how things turned out at the time. He may have directed it at himself too – the ever-popular “write the song to yourself” method.
GLONO: Everybody loves that song.
Karl Knack: I think a lot of people love it because it can apply to anyone, and/or be about anyone they miss, either because they’re not there physically, or not there emotionally. That is universal and timeless. The song is gorgeous, and it’s especially flattering that other bands have covered it, but I love our version the most, since Ron does the best vocal with it, and also because I love the interplay between our three instruments at the end – I think Scott is channeling Elvin Jones sometimes!
Ron Casebeer: A bluegrass band called The Corn Fed Girls just recorded a beautiful version of “Harvesting” for their debut CD. It made me cry when I heard it, partly because it was so damned pretty, partly because I was ashamed that someone else was going to release it before my own lazy band got around to it. I mean, how dare they? They only gave us, like, 20 years to get it done.
Karl Knack: I get excited when people recognize our songs, which is always cool about playing “Harvesting” or “Action Party” live. It’s just so humbling having the audience sing along or get excited just by hearing a song’s opening notes. Of course we’ve been dormant so long, a number of folks won’t know those songs at all!
We miss you
And yet, some of us do. Glorious Noise was started as a forum for a group of friends to discuss the music that moved us. Five years and millions of readers later, we’re still moved by bands who play for the love of playing. If ever a band deserves to be covered on this site it’s the Sinatras who provided the soundtrack of our 20s and continue to inspire us with an unflinching love of what they do. It’s as pure as any emotion you feel when you’re 19 years old and pushing wildly into life. The fact that they play so rarely leads all of us who love them to sigh and whisper, “We miss you, we mean it.”
Previously: We’ve been publicly begging the Sinatras to release their songs since the month we launched Glorious Noise: February 2001. Visit the Sinatras on mySpace, befriend them, and download more mp3s.
The Sinatras live at Kraftbrau, Kalamazoo, August 11, 2006: