Danny Kroha of the Gories is still excited. Upon speaking with the co-guitarist and vocalist of the reunited Detroit blues-garage band, it becomes clear that his music and life are one in the same, and he feels it more than ever. Kroha formed the Gories in 1986 with Mick Collins and Peggy O’Neill, the band aware of proto-punk, garage, and blues but coming together not to imitate but rather to celebrate their favorite music, using their inexperience as an asset and touched by magic songwriting that produced anthem after anthem. With scratchy, overdriven racket and thumping drums somewhere between Moe Tucker’s and Bo Diddley’s, the band championed drive-through chicken restaurants, cheap wine, and the Gories themselves, among other loves.
The band were no joke, though, obvious as they now reunite to play sold-out shows and knock around adoring fans with more visceral punch than ever. Rooted in Motor City rock lineage, they prove the staying power of top-notch songs, deceiving simplicity, and a need for the beat. Collins went on to form the well-received Dirtbombs, O’Neill left to play in ‘68 Comeback and Darkest Hours, and Kroha did a 13-year stint with Demolition Doll Rods, jamming out rough girl-group rock ‘n’ roll.
When it boils down to the essentials, the Gories feel like home for Kroha, and genre mash-up description doesn’t mean a thing when it comes to his music. Loud guitars and drums, three chords, and passion are the score, and the Gories still have the keenest ear on the street. Kroha remains ready to listen and be amazed by the music of others, as much as he’s still ready to stun somebody else with amplified bang. On the eve of the Gories return to Maxwell’s in Hoboken, N.J., he talked about the band’s history, Detroit and reuniting.
What was the musical backdrop for the Gories in Detroit circa 1986?
There were a few great bands, one called the Hysteric Narcotics that did ’60s garage kind of stuff really well, three-part harmonies, a guy that played guitar and organ and another guy that was a great lead guitar player, really good musicians and really great songs and we used to go see those guys all the time. Another band called 3-D Invisibles did all kinds of monster songs and science-fiction themed stuff, and their songs were really good too. They also had this other band with the same guys, a surf band called the Zombie Surfers, and this was like 1985, 1986, and no one was doing surf music and they were fucking awesome. They did that stuff better than any band I’ve heard do it since. There was a band called the Vertical Pillows, Mary from the [Detroit] Cobras, that was her first band, with Paula, a really good singer, and a really great drummer. Those were our three favorite local bands that we used to go see all the time.
So there was somewhat of a scene that the Gories could connect to at the time.
Oh, hell yeah. There was always stuff going on in Detroit, all kinds of bands. There was a big metal scene in the ’80s, hardcore punk stuff, great rockabilly bands, great blues stuff, always. Back in the ’80s we had all good stuff.
Some of those bands have been lost to history but the Gories are more well-known than ever. Does it surprise you that 25 years later you’re doing interviews, let alone sold-out shows?
I don’t know how this might sound, but I always knew that the Gories were something special — not that other bands weren’t, but I always had faith we had something going on. I was super inspired by the Velvet Underground and their whole attitude: We really don’t care if anyone likes what we’re doing, we do it to please ourselves, and we play the kind of music we wanna hear and that’s it, that’s all we care about. We did the same. That was really inspiring to me, and even if the Gories ended up like that and people eventually got it that would be cool, so I did think of that back then, and I’m really glad it happened.
Speaking to that, the band is critically lauded as being “important.” Do the praise and foothold in music history occur to you, and does it mean anything to you?
It means a lot to me, man. I’m really aware. It’s funny because coming through the ’80s there were so many garage-revival bands, and I’m glad that we waited until the latter part of the ’80s to do what we did. We saw a lot of bands come up that were doing ’60s stuff, and the garage revival was kinda big in the ’80s. We saw what everybody was doing and we said, “Well, this isn’t really doing it for us. There were a lotta bands from the west coast and even a group like the Gravedigger Five, though those guys were really cool, we felt that something was lacking there. It was like really raw, really crude stuff we wanted, and it’s like bands would tack a double-time rave-up at the end of a song and call it R&B. We were like, “Shit, we’re getting into some real blues here.” I think we thought we could play some really crude R&B. I think bands in the early ’80s were more influenced by Pebbles kind of comps. When Back from the Grave started coming out that’s what we latched onto, that was our thing. Tim Warren’s whole esthetic of being super crude and raw and inept and all that, [we thought], “Yeah, this is the shit, this is what it’s all about, this super raw stuff.”
Amidst the raw and crude approach, the Gories’ songs hold up really well. They’re great songs. How do you know when a song is good? The three of you must know when it happens. You must feel it.
Yeah. for sure. I can’t say that we were super conscious of that. I think we all just kinda had a feeling that we never really expressed. But I can say that I’m super proud when I look at pictures of the Gories and listen to our records that we don’t particularly sound like we’re from any particular time. Like I look at so many pictures of bands from the ’80s and listen to their records, and they look really ’80s and they sound really ’80s. I was definitely conscious and I think we all were of not looking ’80s, I mean we were totally obsessed with the ’60s and wanted to look ’60s but still there was already kind of a garage cliché look and we knew we didn’t wanna be that either so we found something else that wasn’t really the cliché but took from the ’60s but wasn’t, I don’t know. Somehow we found a way of doing it that ended up being really classic, and I’m really proud of that.
The place you came from was crude and raw, and the songs had fun with a bit of an edge and danger. Is that still the vibe? How do you describe the vibe then and now?
For one thing, we definitely had a sense of humor about it, and we liked to write funny songs. The band was almost started as a joke anyway. We were like, “Oh, we’re gonna be the worst band in the world we’re gonna drive everyone away from the club screaming, wait till they hear this.” We were willfully crude and out of tune. Now? It’s really weird doing this stuff now. I’m really happy with the way it sounds. When we decided we were going to do this, we all discussed it, and we all agreed we wanted it to sound as close to possible as what it used to be like. We didn’t wanna add anything new, we didn’t wanna make it sound new, we didn’t wanna update anything. We’d all seen band reunions before and they’re not always good, and we wanted to be conscious of what it was that people loved about the Gories, what it was that made the Gories sound like they did and be true to that. I think we have and I’m really happy about it.
Why reunite now?
Tim Warren [Crypt Records founder] was gonna have a 25th anniversary party for Crypt and he asked us to play. Peggy is good friends with Eric from the Oblivians, and those two were talking about it and Eric was like well if you guys do it, we’ll do it, and Mick and I were like, well, if they do it, we’ll do it, and Back from the Grave was such an inspiration so yeah. The 25th anniversary party fell through, but we had already started talking about it, and Eric and Peggy said we should do it anyway, we should tour together, and Peggy got psyched about it and it was a good time for me, I stopped doing the Doll Rods and Mick was in between Dirtbombs albums, and Peggy had lost her job, so it by chance was a good time to do it.
You personally have played for so long now. Generally speaking as a musician, is there somewhere you’re trying to push yourself or is there at least a spot you’ve found where you like being that you’re attempting to refine?
I’ve been feeling cast adrift since I left the [Demolition] Doll Rods. The Doll Rods ended, we’d done that band for 13 years so I felt really out of it — cast adrift is the best way to describe it, with a need to find my identity apart from the band. It’s taken me a few years; I’ve felt groundless and drifiting and not knowing what to do. I had a band for a while called the Readies, sort of British early ’70s hard rock and pub-rock stuff, mod and freak-beat ’70s influenced. We put out a single on Cass Records I’m proud of, but I kind of lost interest. So I got back to playing garage stuff again and going, “Wow, this is my home; this is where I come from and this feels good.” I really enjoy playing these songs again, and they do stand up, and it’s beautiful that they do.
I also started getting into wanting to learn open tuning blues, Doctor Ross style, and never knew that John Lee hooker played in open tuning, so I’ve spent five or six years working on that and tyring to learn old-time acoustic finger-picking. So yeah, chipping away at that kinda stuff.
You don’t have a problem using the term “garage.” How would you break that term down for the person who doesn’t know it?
Literally it comes from bands in the ’60s practicing in garages. My first band when I was 18 practiced in a garage, got the cops called on us and had to move to the basement — that kinda thing. To me it’s folk music. It’s a bunch of young kids getting together and playing three-chord rock ‘n’ roll, which is to me folk music. Garage is a form of folk rock ‘n’ roll; it’s simple and anyone can do it. But within that framework magic can occur. Not everyone can do that, but when the magic happens, it’s a really beautiful thing. But a lot of time for lack of a better term, garage is ’60s three-chord rock weirdness. The weird stuff is what I like the best.
Does blues still have the same visceral impact for you?
Yeah, it does. It does still hit me that way. That stuff — early Muddly Waters, Howlin Wolf, Bo Diddley — all was a big influence on the Gories. “She Moves Me” by Muddy Waters, Leonard Chess just beating on a bass drum, a heavy bass drum beat, showed us you don’t need a whole drum kit to make a record. A lot of Bo Diddley’s records don’t have a bass; it’s just percussion and guitar. On “She’ s Fine She’s Mine,” there’s no bass; it’s just a guitar and percussion. That opened up our eyes: You don’t need a bass, you don’t need cymbals, you just need a good rhythm going. I still feel it. I still love really crude blues records. I’m still turned on by that.
What is it about Detroit and a connection with blues?
The thing about Detroit is that a lot of folks from the South moved up here to work in the auto industry, so literally there’s a lot of people from Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, Kentucky, Tennesee. Detroit is very much a melting pot of the southern states, where our rich fertile musical ground comes from, and it’s not just the African-American folks but the white folks that moved up from Appalachia and brought the hillbilly too. There’s a really rich fabric of all kinds of music from the South that was brought here.
Detroit has a reputation of taking it to the stage, that no matter what music you play there, you have to be real with it. You can’t fake it or you’ll get some real flack. Where do you think that comes from?
That has a lot to do with, I guess, people in factories. Really there was a lot of factory work and manufacturing. People worked hard, and when they got off they wanted to play hard too, and they demanded hard-working musicans who went for it as much as they did.
Is that the point of rock ‘n’ roll?
The beauty of it is that there’s often no point at all to it. There’s a feeling. You get up there and make a bunch of noise and also maybe get into a groove. It’s about a groove and a feeling. If there’s a point, yeah, it’s to get people to feel something, get ‘em dancing, to get things going. But sometimes the best stuff there’s no point at all, just howling.
Any plans for new Gories music?
Not really. We have some dates until the fall, but we all have our own lives and things to do. This is like revisiting something. In some ways it feels like we’re this oldies act, which is something I’ve never felt before. In many ways you don’t wanna live there, but you sure like to go back and visit.