Ben Blackwell is Detroit-rock’s renaissance man.
As a drummer for the highly-acclaimed Detroit garage-rock band, The Dirtbombs, Blackwell has been instrumental in Detroit’s rock culture evolution, and the rebirth of Detroit garage-rock.
Blackwell is also the sole founder of Cass Records (which has released records by The Muldoons, The Black Lips and The Go) the official archivist for The White Stripes and director of vinyl manufacturing and distribution at Third Man Records. Blackwell’s unmatched knowledge of vinyl production, analog technology and Detroit’s music history has shaped him as an essential piece of the Detroit rock story.
Ben Blackwell spoke to Detroit Music Magazine regarding rare Detroit vinyl, The Dirtbombs’ newest release and working as Jack White’s right-hand man.
You have spent a lot of time working within the Detroit music industry. What makes the Detroit music community so unique?
I feel like for a long time, when I was coming up, people outside of Detroit really didn’t pay attention to what was going on there. For the most part, Detroit was insular – mostly because of the fact that no one else cared. I think that made things more interesting for those people. People were playing in five different bands and they were playing every weekend. I think once bands in that world started touring more, had bigger labels putting out their stuff and people started catching on, it was then, ‘Wow. Look what’s going on in Detroit.’ Whatever you want to call it: fresh, new, original, invigorating… For me, not having any experience otherwise, I just thought that’s the way it was. I didn’t know what things were like in Seattle or San Francisco, or any of that. Once I started seeing other places, touring and being exposed to ‘scenes’ or whatever you want to call them, to me it always appeared that, ‘Oh… That kind of stuff isn’t happening everywhere.’ Detroit is unique in that realm. And I still feel that in what I am exposed to. I love the stuff that Urinal Cake Records is doing. Specifically, the Growwing Pains record. Stuff like Growwing Pains and Feelings. Those records I’m really, really into.
What can you tell me about Car City Records in Detroit?
[Laughs] When I officially got my license it was the first place I drove to. That’s how important Car City Records was to me. For years, and years and years, starting at least when I was 16, I was dangling to get a job. I just wanted to be surrounded by that, and I kind of already knew all the guys who worked there. Tom Potter, who at that time wasn’t yet in The Dirtbombs, was working there. Matt Smith and Dante [Adrian White] from The Starlite Desperation worked there… Dion [Fischer] from The Go. All those guys were working there and it was a great place to go and be turned on to music that I had never heard. It was just a great environment to be in. So, I didn’t end up getting hired on there until… I think I was 18. The summer between high school and college I started doing really, really temporary work.
They used to have two rooms at their location and they were moving out of the second room. All the stuff was going into storage or the owner, Bob, was taking it to his basement or garage. I was just doing the grunt work of boxing-up LPs and taking them to storage or Bob’s house. I remember I had gotten into this band called Old Time Relijun. They had put out a bunch of records on K [Records]. They had a weird, CD-R-only limited release. 100 copies or something like that. It came packaged in a popcorn bag. And I remember knowing about it, and being like, ‘Oh, well I’ll never find that.’ While we were emptying out the second room at Car City, I literally moved a shelf… like a big LP shelf, and underneath this shelf was the Old Time Relijun CD-R. It was sitting there waiting for me the whole time. And just recently, I was looking online somewhere and I saw a picture of J Dilla. He was flipping through the racks at Car City. When I saw it I kind of got emotional, like ‘Fuck.’ That place is not there anymore… I spent a lot of time there. You know, the story of the band Death starts there. It began with a customer bringing in a cassette of all these unreleased Death songs.
Well you are obviously a big collector of Detroit vinyl, especially 45s. White Stripes records aside, what is the rarest or most interesting Detroit 45 in your collection?
Hmm. I will preface with saying, I have tried to figure out my own niche… or what land I inhabit as far as collecting Detroit stuff. I have never been too crazy into soul or funk stuff.
Well lucky for you. That stuff is everywhere.
[Laughs] Partially, because without breaking the bank you can amass a decent collection of that stuff. And maybe I do have a decent collection. I don’t even know. If I see something that’s interesting I will pick it up, but I was never paying 800 bucks for a Northern soul single or anything like that. It just didn’t connect with me. So, a lot of that stuff I may know about, or if I see something cheap or under-priced I may grab it, but I never got collector-y with that stuff. Plus, it felt like people had been collecting that stuff for 40 years before I was even aware of it. So it was already sufficiently discovered, documented, hyped and kind of at an apex. You could say a lot of the same stuff for garage records too, but I just felt a better connection with garage. But… interesting or rarest Detroit record… There is a record by a band called Flying Wedge and it’s on a label called Brown Whole Jams. There’s no information about the band or the label anywhere. The only person I’ve talked to that had any info about it was Ben Edmonds. He used to write for CREEM. He told me all this information about the band. They actually came into the offices at CREEM and gave him a copy of the record. It sounds like some psychedelic, wah-wah type shit. You know, some bongos on it.
The label is so crude that you have to look it up. But Ben said the guys were super, super young and were really shy, and they were all black. Which I would have never guessed in a million years. He said, “Forget about Black Merda. Forget about Parliament. Forget about Death. Flying Wedge was the pinnacle of black rock for me.” [Laughs] But nobody knows anything about them! There are no names on the record or anything like that… and I’ve got a beat up copy. I’ve been looking for one that’s a bit nicer. Maybe one that doesn’t look like a dog chewed it.
But that one for me… you know, so much now is instantly Google-able. You can find the guys who did it, see the three other bands they played in and all that other stuff. The fact that there is no information online about any of that, and that I found out about it through word of mouth from Ben Edmonds… Ben says he had been given the record in 1972 and then lost it. Ben had asked Detroit record stores, “Have you ever heard of this band Flying Wedge on Brown Whole Jams?” No one had ever heard of it. And he had almost convinced himself that he had imagined this. So, he had this brief experience with this record, and then nothing for 40 years.
You began your own record label in Detroit: Cass Records. What is the story behind Cass’s creation?
When I was doing work for Italy Records, it was effectively dormant – for a lack of a better term. They weren’t doing new releases. They were just kind of maintaining the back catalog. Up through 2002 they still had copies of almost everything. Maybe not The Hentchman mini LP, or mini EP… whatever they called that: Hentch-Forth.
There were still Soledad Brothers singles, Hentchmen singles… White Stripes singles had been repressed. But Dave [Buick] didn’t really show any interest in putting out anything new. He ended up doing more stuff through Young Soul Rebels, his record store. But, for me, I remember talking to him about the first record I put out, The Mooney Suzuki. I remember playing that for him and being like, “Hey would you want to put this out?” And he was like, “Nah. You should put it out.” I said, “I don’t have any money. I don’t put out records.” There was kind of this build-up of things that I liked and I wanted other people to hear it. I wanted other people to hear this.
I wanted to play Mooney Suzuki for people on a much larger scale than me playing a CD-R for Dave. Luckily for me, my mom was refinancing her house at the time and gave me 10,000 dollars. I had a full-ride to college and she never had to pay cent-one for me. I was still living at home, but I had all my schooling paid for, so I had never asked for money for books… I didn’t really ever buy the books to be honest. [Laughs] But she said, “You know, I paid for your brother’s school. I paid for your sister’s school.So, I think it’s only fair that I do this as a gesture.” People had told her… Brian Muldoon specifically had told her, “Someone should just give him money to run a record label. He knows what’s going on, he knows how to do it and I think he’d be really good at it.” I am eternally grateful for Brian taking that upon himself to say. There was no coaching or urging from me. So that’s what I did from 2003 to 2008. I just ran Cass out of my high school bedroom… mainly just to put out bands that I liked.
So, from there, everything I had been learning in accordance of putting out records as a hobby – it was a business, but it was a hobby. It wasn’t paying any of my bills. Any money that came in went right back into putting out more records… but everything I learned from that was directly preparing me for the job here at Third Man [Records].
When the opportunity came up Jack [White] thanked me. He was like, “You’ve spent the last five years figuring out vinyl pressing and how it works. Mail-order and all that stuff. You know it better than anyone I know. That’s the kind of thing we want to do at Third Man. You were there when all this [White Stripes] stuff came out originally. You know the catalog better than I do. I can’t do this without you.”
Well, your Third Man business card reads, “Pinball Wizard” and you’ve been described as Third Man’s “Psychedelic Stooge” – which tells us nothing about your daily duties…
[Laughs] Daily interviews with Detroit-based, Internet magazines. That’s my main duty. No, my main duty is vinyl manufacturing and distribution. So, whether it’s getting masters cut, getting jackets fabricated, approving test pressings… I’ve got a pile of test pressings to listen to here today… distributing, whether it’s Australia, or Canada, or the UK or mainland Europe. I’m dealing a lot with that on my day-to-day. But, as a point, nobody here is saying, “That’s not my job.” So, there’s a little A&R [talent scouting] thrown in there. I may bring some records to the table. I was really proud to do the Rockfire Funk Express 7-inch on Third Man, which is the pre-Death band. It’s kind of our duty to make things exist that other people aren’t making exist.
Recently, your band, The Dirtbombs, released a new album titled Ooegy Gooey Chewy Ka-Blooey. What was the greatest challenge of creating a “bubblegum” album as a garage band?
Well, I think the main challenge was anytime we’d done a, for lack of a better term, “thematic” album before… you know, UltraGlide [in Black] was the soul covers album and Party Store was the techno covers album. So, this being the “bubblegum” record, I think the initial challenge was – I know the label was originally thinking that this would just be bubblegum covers. Which obviously it’s not. I don’t know that if when it came to, ‘These are songs that are going to be written by Mick [Collins] in the bubblegum style…’ You know, I think it may have taken a second for the label to get up to speed. So, that might have been it. I don’t know if the public had anticipated us covering “Sugar, Sugar” or stuff like that.
The album is only 30 minutes long. Was that purposeful, or was that determined by the bubblegum style?
In my opinion, it was probably most dictated by that AM radio, two-minutes-30-second-style. That would be my take on it. Plus, who the fuck has time for a 70-minute album these days? [Laughs] I think as a follow-up to Party Store, which is a triple-LP, I think a 30-minute record makes sense.
If there were someone who had never heard of The Dirtbombs, who was just being introduced to the band’s music, and you could present to them each album in an order of your choosing – in what order would you introduce The Dirtbombs’ discography?
Wow. That’s a difficult question. It’s difficult because, first and foremost, I consider myself a Dirtbombs fan. I was a fan before I joined the band. I was tracking down import-only singles and stuff like that. I keep referring back to We Have You Surrounded. I remember listening back to the completed version of “Ever Lovin Man” with Mick. Me and Mick were driving back from CMJ in New York and listening to it. And I remember him saying something to the effect of… “That’s the most perfect Dirtbombs recording. That is everything that The Dirtbombs are meant to be.” Like, we’ll never do a more quintessential Dirtbombs statement than that. I don’t disagree with him about that comment. I would say, We Have You Surrounded, then UltraGlide [in Black], then Dangerous Magical Noise, and then… [Laughs] I don’t know.
Party Store and Horndog Fest are so stand-alone. I don’t know if me saying this is going to predestine this into happening or prevent this from happening, but I keep on thinking, in 20 years, Party Store is going to be the album that people really, really dig. I don’t know if it was just too early for its time, or people just don’t even know what to make of it. To be fair, we didn’t really tour on it. It’s easy to idealize in my mind We Have You Surrounded, because we spent an entire year on that album. Maybe six months recording and then a year touring. I think that when we were touring for We Have You Surrounded we were really, really at our best.