Detroit’s Turn to Crime Play Winston-Salem
Glam, industrial, post-punk and pop hooks mix in this band that doesn’t dwell on feelings
Maybe pie is the secret.
It’s not every artist that can get away with writing a song about pie. But those that do sometimes hit a sweet spot. Derek Stanton, of Detroit’s Turn To Crime, wrote an excellent song about pie that caps off Secondary, the band’s new record. It’s not exactly what one would expect from an ominous glam/post-punk project with an industrial tinge.
There’s no foolproof formula for writing a solid song. You can fixate on beats-per-minute, on keeping things under the three-minute-15-second mark, on certain chord changes, on melodic arcs, a well-placed tambourine, and all kinds of other things. But, at the end of listening to the new record from Turn To Crime, it struck me that maybe writing lyrics about pie was as good of a template for success as anything else. Bear with me. Think about it: Dylan had “Country Pie,” Zeppelin had “Custard Pie,” and there’s Don McLean’s “American Pie” (which isn’t entirely a pie song, per se), and Warrant had a hair-metal-hit with “Cherry Pie.” There seems to be something there. (I guess some pretty good cake songs exist too, like “MacArthur Park,” at least, but somehow it’s different.) In pop songs, pie often stands in for female genitals. (This can’t be news to you.) But just about everything in pop music is a stand-in for genitals, sex acts, orgasms or lust. Turn To Crime, who play the Garage in Winston-Salem on Tuesday, Feb. 21, and their excellent pie song is called “Mary Jean’s Chocolate Pie.” One could easily assume that it too was of the “pie as sex” variety. But listen a few times and it starts to seem that, well, this is a song that’s actually about pie, a celebration of a dessert item.
I spoke to Stanton recently about Turn To Crime and the new record. And that pie song, it turns out, is just a sort of twitchy percolating Lou Reed-flavored art-rock ode to his “grandma’s secret recipe.”
“I been waiting all year/now the time is almost here/for another slice/of Mary Jean’s chocolate pie,” sings Stanton.
Explaining the inspiration: “She would make it for me on my birthdays or Christmas,” says Stanton.
Some people think that music is best when expressing some deep personal emotion. But, as with any aesthetic position, there are others who think that’s total BS, and that music doesn’t need any baggage of feelings in order to be effective. Stanton, the main songwriter and creative force behind Detroit’s Turn To Crime, isn’t that interested in writing about his feelings. That’s a feeling, of course — not wanting to share one’s feelings — but it’s one that guides Stanton toward songs that have an enigmatic charm, like with the pie song.
“I’m into not being super serious,” says Stanton. “I’m into not writing about my feelings — like ‘I broke up with somebody’ or ‘my life sucks,’ I think every song is like that, and it sucks.”
So Stanton pushes into non-standard subject matter and perspectives, you might say. There’s also a catchy little song called “Get Your Pills From Tony,” which is, as Stanton says, “about a guy named Tony who always had some weird pills.” The song has a crunchy stomp to it, like if the Pixies and Gary Glitter had decided to write a pep anthem about their dealer. (Drug dealers are probably another good song subject for aspiring songwriters: Love, the Velvet Underground and the Small Faces all did it.)
Stanton, 38, is one of those restless musicians who is around bands, songs and instruments all the time. He does sound in a couple Detroit clubs, and he runs his own studio out of his home. He hears a lot of music. And he doesn’t like it all. He notices a lot of details, styles and techniques that he’d just as soon avoid.
“I see a lot of things that I’d rather not do,” he says. “I see a lot of trends in music. I see what makes a band successful. Usually I don’t agree with any of it. My heart’s set on being unique and true to myself.”
Stanton plays everything on the record, which often brings to mind Tubeway Army, the Silver Apples, Wall of Voodoo, T Rex, Psychedelic Furs and the Jesus and Mary Chain. Whiffs of Trans-era Neil Young or “Don’t Come Around Here No More”-period Tom Petty come through too.
These songs are repetitive and semi-synthetic, with patterns that keep cycling around and don’t stop or pause for a cheap sense of space. This is all by design.
“I’m obsessed with pop and hooks,” says Stanton. “I think that that technique for me — the repetition — will really expose the subtleties of the extra hooks you throw in. I’m working with more simple hypnotic repetitions, with lots of hidden hooks and weird parts.”
Listen to “Chasing,” the second song on the record. It has a wonderfully nasty guitar sound with a riff that has that addictive caveman appeal that rewards believers in the power of bar chords and distortion.
The drumming on the record sounds like a vintage drum machine, but most of it is in fact Stanton.
“I do play kind of tight and repetitive drums. I don’t go too crazy on ‘em,” he says. “My own style of drumming is very much like a drum machine.”
Stanton says he writes and records practically every day, and that there was a lot of material set aside, cut out or put on hold for a future record while making this one.
Another aspect of his recent writing involves a series of alternate guitar tunings. Stanton says the switch to semi-mathematical non-standard tunings opens up a whole different world of guitar playing and songwriting possibilities, sometimes letting the ear take the lead where the routine muscle-memory of the hands would have provided simple solutions before.
Turn To Crime turns into a four-piece with guitar, bass, keyboards and drums when Stanton and his friends hit the road. Some of the songs on this album were written after Stanton had a harrowing medical experience, a tumor that was pressing up against his ear and required an eight-hour surgery to deal with. He almost lost his hearing. It’s strange, there’s very little about Secondary that would suggest someone coming to terms with a dire health problem. (The title track is actually about the “secondary” role that anyone romantically involved with a creative person must have to play in relationship to the making of art, which is primary.) The weird sense of humor and deadpan humor in the songs is its own kind of defiance and statement of purpose.
“I have to do this now,” says Stanton of his frame of mind about music making after confronting a health scare. “I love doing this.”
Wanna go? Turn To Crime play The Garage (110 W. 7th St., Winston-Salem) at 9 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 21. Visit www.the-garage.ws for more information.