Garage-Rock Dropouts 

The Hard Lessons take Detroit's White Stripes hype and do it themselves.

The hype that surrounded the White Stripes' — er, Jack White's — ascendance to musical messiah-hood finally died about a year ago, and with it ended our brief love affair with the Detroit garage rock scene. Then again, maybe it just means a whole host of bands won't have to be called "White Stripes-esque" by critics anymore even though, well, they kind of were and kind of still are.

The Hard Lessons — Detroit's hardest-working unsigned band — are totally White Stripes-esque, but for all the right reasons. For the past three years, they've churned out rock that consistently challenges their preferred genre while dutifully paying homage to their musical roots. It basically began with a dare.

Co-lead singer and guitarist Augie Visocchi races through rural Alabama toward a show at a pizzeria as he details his band's beginning. His co-lead and keyboardist "Ko Ko" Louise says a stage was even built for them at their 'Bama destination, since they were the first "Detroit band" to ever play there. The ghost of Detroit Rock City apparently still looms large.

The Lessons got their start at a battle of the bands at Michigan State University, which gave them the chance to record a free demo in a communications class. "We wrote three songs, rehearsed them, won $400 in the battle of the bands, recorded them, and hit the ground running," Visocchi explains.

This was at the tail-end of the White Stripes craze. Detroit's "hot factor" began to wane, and yet the Lessons' gospel-rock three-piece outfit — which included drummer Christophe Zajak-Denek and boasted an Ike-and-Tina/Sonny-and-Cher, call-and-response lyrical style from Visocchi and Louise — stood out from the fuzzy rabble the same way the Stripes once did. It wasn't long before everybody in the Motor City dubbed them the "next big thing."

Two years later, the Lessons have yet to blow up, but they've learned some real lessons about the recording industry. Even though they've become minor musical royalty in Detroit, where they pack venues that national acts have trouble filling, they've shrugged off contract offers from a slew of minor labels. "We don't want anybody to think we're anti-label, but at this point we don't see any reason to sign with a label seeing as though we work so hard at every aspect of what we're doing," Visocchi says. "We book our own tours, put out our records ... and we like to keep all the profit ourselves."

Taking turns driving, tour planner and coproducer Louise says being from a "Detroit band" and being a woman didn't seem that big a deal until they hit up the South. "Detroit has always had a lot of women musicians," she says. "So, starting out in this band, I didn't think it was unusual that I was a woman in rock. I'm not the token girl in the band in Detroit. But, as we tour [nationally], I definitely feel more, 'Oh, check them out, they've got a girl in the band.'"

Touring nationally comes with drawbacks beside being mistaken for the merch girl, too — especially when facing crowds substantially less robust than what you're used to back home. Still, the Lessons are surprised at times, such as when the Ravenite Pizzeria in Fairhope, Alabama, turns into a big show. Most surprising because, as Louise points out, "We've never even been to Alabama."

Visocchi puts it another way. "We are definitely humbled time and time again playing to three people in" — he thinks of some random locale — "Huntington, West Virginia, on a Monday night."

Apparently, some lessons need to be lived through.


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