The White Stripes and other Detroit rockers shun major labels

By EW Staff
Updated May 11, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT

There are two things just about everyone who’s anyone in Detroit’s close-knit garage-rock scene agrees on: that there are more world-class bands playing around town than at any time in recent memory; and that major-label interest, if and when it comes, will be tolerated, not welcomed.

The White Stripes, a duo consisting of guitarist Jack White and his ”sister” drummer, Meg White (the rumor is she’s his ex-wife), are the Motor City’s buzz band du jour. The infectiously scuzzy rock of their two indie albums has attracted the attention of a number of corporate biggies, including DreamWorks, Interscope, and Elektra. So far, the White Stripes have said Thanks, but no thanks.

”We were getting like 10 calls a day from lawyers, booking agents, record companies, all asking about the band,” says Jack White, sitting in the living room of his ramshackle southwest Detroit home. ”But for right now, we’d rather stay with a label that’s supported us from the get-go and knows what we’re about.”

It’s a sentiment that’s echoed by band after band. Maribel Restrepo, guitarist with the Detroit Cobras — a spirited bunch specializing in scorching R&B covers — seems genuinely bemused by the notion that the Cobras might want to ensnare a larger audience. ”We haven’t really given it that much thought, to tell you the truth,” she says. ”We just wanna make good records, you know?”

And good records certainly abound in this town. Singles from groups like the Dirtbombs, the Hentchmen, the Clone Defects, and the Von Bondies are mostly recorded on the cheap at local studios like Ghetto Recorders for tiny labels like Italy Records, run by local mogul Dave Buick (who moonlights as a waiter). It’s all very Seattle 1988, right before grunge exploded; the memory of that music’s implosion goes a long way toward explaining Detroiters’ diffidence to corporate overtures. (Who wants to be the next Candlebox?)

”I don’t know if it’s the devastation or the isolation of this place or what,” says Outrageous Cherry’s Matthew Smith, musing about his town’s hermetic attitudes. ”But musicians here are just oblivious enough to the outside world that they keep coming up with interesting stuff.” Here’s hoping they can keep their collective blinders on once the A&R brigade hits town.