After the three members of the Hentchmen got home from their first European tour in 1998, they had a troubling sense of “OK, now what.”
The band, founded in October 1992, was a revered part of Detroit’s modern garage rock scene back then and was held in the same regard locally as the Gories and the White Stripes. Jack White had been famously featured as a guest bass player on “Hentch-Forth” (Italy Records), their fourth album.
But just back from Europe, the band members — all lifelong friends —were feeling let down. Even after winding up a tour abroad, a certain level of rock-star fame eluded their high-energy garage-rock sound. As a result, the Hentchmen nearly broke up.
“Back then, everything seemed like it had to be so defined,” recalls organist-singer John Szymanski. “Like (in the ’90s) if music was going to be our job, then (success) had to be more instant!” Szymanski remembers thinking briefly around 1999 that “there was no way we’d do this band after 10 years; there’s no way we’ll do this when we’re in our 30s.”
Fast forward nearly 20 years and the members of the Hentchmen, including drummer Mike Latulippe and guitarist Tim Purrier, look back on their near-breakup with a bit of amusement. They’ll be celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Hentchmen this weekend with an album-release party at the Outer Limits Lounge, and they’ve come to realize that success is a relative thing — something they can determine for themselves as they look back on their years together.
Rock ‘n’ roll journey
“I don’t think we’d ever break up because there’s no point,” says Szymanski. He shares a knowing chuckle with Latulippe, who is sitting across the table from him in the Outer Limits, a bar Szymanski owns and manages in Hamtramck with his wife, Kelly Jean Caldwell. “It just feels too good to get together and play music with these guys!”
“XXV,” the Hentchmen’s new vinyl LP, is the fourth release on Szymanski’s Outer Limits Lounge Records. The bar serves as a merchandise boutique for the label and sells releases by the Cheetahs and Wiccans as well as Caldwell’s band. It’s also a recording studio. The 14 tracks on the Hentchmen’s new album were recorded there during a series of Sunday-morning sessions while the bar was closed.
“Our rock ‘n’ roll journey is continuing,” Szymanski says. “It’s just not as intense now as it was, but still it’s amazing. For this show we’re putting together, I have all of these pictures and stuff, and I mean actual printed photos because most of these experiences were in the ’90s. And it’s been an emotional time for me to go through and see these photos. It was my life! Some of the best times of my life were with these guys.”
Says Latulippe: “It’s any band’s dream to become ‘huge rock stars,’ but this band is more to me than anything I could have imagined. ‘Success’ is all relative. I’ve achieved more than I ever thought I would ever achieve just because of the fans that have supported us at every show.”
The Hentchmen’s sound has lots of swagger, lots of elements of blue-collar garage rock, but also bits of rollicking 1950s R&B, slick ’60’ surf-rock and some post-punk nerviness. The band essentially forms a bridge from Chuck Berry to Devo, and it was a prominent part of the local music scene in the late ’90s, a time when there was an effort afoot to revive and redefine ’60s bands like the MC5. The Hentchmen played some of their first shows at local hideaways and clubs like the legendary Gold Dollar with groups like Rocket 455 and the White Stripes.
‘Everything just fell into place’
“I think as we get older, you lose some energy; that’s just a fact of life,” says Latulippe. “But I also think that continually revisiting that punk and rock ‘n’ roll that you grew up with can always renew your energy. You can always relocate and feel that initial inspiration of hearing your first punk rock record. We obviously still hold those memories and those feelings and that energy close to us. Every time John and Tim write a new song, I get the same feeling, like: ‘Oh my gosh! This is a classic Hentchman song!’ ”
Latulippe recalls loading into the Outer Limits on a Sunday morning earlier this year and encountering a hunched-over Szymanski in the middle of setting up a mixing board and “an archaic digital recording device.” He and Szymanski laugh at the thought of Szymanski running his own studio — something they could never have imagined back in the day.
“But everything just fell into place,” Latulippe says with a grin, “with Outer Limits coming into John’s possession, getting to record our album here, setting up the studio. I don’t know if it’s fate or luck or whatever. But I guess it all really has to do with (John)’s spirit. And the spirit of the Hentchmen is still in this place!”
He turns to gesture at the cozy surroundings of the Outer Limits. “We’ve never recorded in an environment like this, but we have always had our Hentchmas parties here. This has long been a room where we’ve gotten together and played music and had fun and shared some beers. So because of that energy, that let off a lot of pressure. This record does feel a bit looser, but that’s to its advantage.”
Outer Limits Lounge Records
Starting the Outer Limits Lounge label was more than just convenient; it was strategic. Two of the Hentchmen have become fathers during the last decade, which limits the ability they once had to commit to months-long tours. “And if we can’t tour, then we’d just let down any other label because labels want you to tour,” Szymanski says. “So I said (to Caldwell): ‘Let’s just do it! We’ll start a label! Let’s do it ourselves. If we can’t always tour, let’s just do it and release it because we love the music!’ ”
The Hentchmen were also DIY in their earliest years together, recording and releasing their own material, but their best-known recordings were put out by notable labels like Italy Records in Detroit or Dirty Water Records in London. The inspiration to start Outer Limits Lounge Records coincided with Szymanski’s purchase of the watering hole five years ago.
The Outer Limits Lounge officially reopened to the public as a bar and live music venue in early November. Kirk Scarbrough, a member of the Cheetahs, runs the soundboard for live shows, and he helped mix a lot of “XXV” in the bar’s new studio space. The album will be the label’s fourth release in a year’s time.
“And so … yeah,” Szymanksi says, pausing and smiling, “it looks like I’ve got to try to keep it going!’
‘I would not change a thing’
“I was telling Mike the other day how comfortable it is not having that competitive streak we used to have,” Szymanski says while looking back 20 years. “You know, your friend would get famous and you wouldn’t, and you’d be counting people in your crowds. And then you’d watch your sales numbers on Amazon or something and just get frustrated about all of it. We tried to make a go of it, for sure. And we might have felt like nobody appreciated us at a few points. But all of that doesn’t matter anymore. Looking back now? I would not change a thing about our rock ‘n’ roll journey.”
Adds Latulippe: “I also feel like we’re so much more excited now. Everyone (in the local scene) is kind of down to earth again. No one’s concerned about being a rock star or making a bunch of money.”
“But also,” says Szymanski, “(rock ‘n’ roll) is all you’ve got! So what are you going to do? It’s all part of a greater experience. Opening this bar and getting to see a bunch of other bars opening up around town, I think that this social aspect of the rock ‘n’ roll culture is still going to stick around for a while. People need this.”
And Purrier, Latulippe, and Szymanski need one another. “It’s hard for me to imagine bands that don’t get along with each other,” Szymanski says with genuine bewilderment. “I look at old pictures of us, and it hits me that I wasn’t just in a band with these guys. I grew up with these guys! I mean, aren’t you supposed to grow up with your band? Isn’t that how it should work? You want to experience it all together!”
“XXV” album-release party and 25th anniversary celebration
With the Cheetahs and DJ Jam Jam Spiker
Doors at 8 p.m. Fri.
Outer Limits Lounge
5507 Caniff, Hamtramck
Details on venue’s Facebook page