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November 20, 2003
Detroit is often perceived as an industrial jungle, a poor man's Chicago. It is a city of the blue-collar worker and, so to, a city of muscle and chronic hardship. However Detroit-the spirit of Michigan-also happens to be a place very closely associated with emotionally intense music; where modern Soul got its heart and where some would say rock music planted its earliest seeds in the form of Motown.

In the late 1950s and '60s, rising phoenix-like from the billowing smoke plumes of urban factories and downtrodden luck streaks were the pure sounds of legendary Rhythm and Blues artists such as Aretha Franklin, the Supremes and the Temptations. Relatively soon after, changes occurred bringing a new type of artist to the pop forefront while still paying homage to these musical figures. Many of these new artists were white and played a style of rock music narrowly removed from the rhythm section-powered groups that the Motown and Soul styles had ushered in.

Currently the Detroit area is again acting as host to a worthy musical expedition that could trigger bigger and better things. This time the journey comes full circle led by electronic styles that thrust rock music back to its most basic rhythmic and melodic roots. If one were to take a slight detour west on I-96/MI-14 from D-town to Ann Arbor, you might just bump into the next Michigan group to play musical tour guide: Midwest Product.

Similar to the Michigan groups of yesteryears, the trio of Midwest Product is first and foremost TIGHT. Austin Powers' Goldmember would undoubtedly call them, "Toight like a toiger." Yet theirs is a different kind of tight. Similar to musical styles and textures, the psychological source for this tightness with which Midwest Product plays is far removed from the Motown, Soul, and Rhythm and Blues artists from four decades ago.

"Originally it was just for fun," said guitarist/electronics specialist/vocalist Ben Mullins. "We just wanted more control [of the music] and to fool around."

Mullins and fellow band mate Drew Schmieding (bass, synth) - the third member, drummer Chad Pratt had prior engagements - huddle around a telephone at their parent label's HQ and talk of music, band member relations, and more with a blanket of uplifting morale hovering over them. At times the conversation gets personal and reflective, while during other moments the duo's candid laughter engulfs the telephone's mouthpiece.

Chemistry, however, didn't always come so nonchalantly for the current lineup of Midwest Product. According to Mullins, who is also a recording producer and engineer for many local Michigan acts, Midwest Product unofficially formed in 2000 as a five-piece outfit. This bigger setup was intended to verbalize numerous layers and subtle electronic and live sounds. The result, instead, came out as a verbalized musical mess. Eventually the group was trimmed down to Mullins, Schmieding and Pratt and now the amicable bond between the tautened three is a fountain of wealth for musical ideas and success.

Midwest Product's first album, Specifics, initially opened eyes around the independent scene with its release on Ann Arbor's own Ghostly International label in 2002. The debut has been compared to the works of a wide range of artists, from indie rock legends Tortoise to synth pop/dance innovators New Order. Fans in both indie rock and electronic camps are not the only ones enjoying the music, though, as a new demographically-vague following has begun to emerge at shows. Members of MP are excited, yet somewhat befuddled, in embracing the new crowd they have attracted.

"We're still kind of amazed at how well we've done locally. At our first show we thought we would just be discounted as button pushers... It turns out people just like the show," Mullins said. "It's about the compositions and not the genre of people or instruments."

"We get a lot of soccer moms," said Schmieding, then jokingly added, "I did see one of them throw their kid up on stage."

When a band has an appeal broad enough to prompt their own parents, along with soccer moms, to actually want to go to shows alongside college kids, some explanation is usually needed. The answer is not some drawn-out formula or commercial catch though. In fact, it just might lie in one short phrase: Sexy M.F., Prince. Mullins, Schmieding and Pratt together have found additional inspiration and musical tightness with each other in a mutual admiration for the pop legend that, for some members, has been present since adolescence.

"I think I used to watch Purple Rain at least once a week when I was in elementary school," Schmieding admitted. "I pretty much wore out the VHS tape so bad that my parents wouldn't let me watch it on the VCR anymore because they thought it would ruin the tape heads."

The band's 2003 release, World Series of Love, takes its title from Prince lyrics from one of his hits, "U Got the Look." For the past two years in Ann Arbor, they have even gone so far as to play Prince cover sets under the alias Paisley Product with fellow Ghostly International artist Mike Dykehouse doing vocals.

"We've tried to do covers of other artists over the years and they just never seem to gel," Mullins said. "The Prince songs are second nature."

Part of the Prince attraction that MP emulates is towards an exciting and tight funkiness that pervades the music and extends onto overall artist personae and performances when live. And people love this, even if they don't know where it hails from. However another draw to the style is for the level at which Prince wrote songs which were never restricted by instrumentation, audience, or even criticisms of that style. Although MP's sound is not suggestive of him, the members still use Prince's approach and energy to enter the right mindset for creating their music.

"A fairly consistent element with the '80s bands is that they use electronic instruments, but they still write songs," said Mullins. "Those songs could be covered by a rock band and you'd still know what songs they are. I think that is something that we all focus on. We want our songs musically to be strong enough that they don't depend on the equipment that they're played with. They could be re-interpreted on the banjo."

The band members later admit to other influences for their unique sound, reference points coming anywhere from the Beastie Boys to Jimi Hendrix. A further common thread that the trio realized while forming the group was that many of their favorite musicians hailed from the Midwest region: Prince (Minneapolis, MN); Rodan, Slint, Papa M (Kentucky); Devo (Ohio); and many post-rock groups of Chicago. After this discovery, the name "Midwest Product" simply slipped into place and the members now consider it so synonymous with these representations that it has become a "non name."

What spews forth from the influences is something unique and, moreover, it is what draws such a diverse crowd and makes the music exceptional. There are elements of ambient, trip hop, dance, and many other electronic styles throughout, yet listeners are forced to disassociate the general stigmatic terms "button pushers" or "computer jockeys" with Midwest Product. Song textures are largely built around the basic rhythmic and melodic components of live sound found in funk and rock music. Still, even with praise as this, the trio is continually looking to make their sound more distinct. Progressions to more precise compositions and the use of vocals were made from Specifics to World Series of Love, and even greater departures lie in an upcoming full length.

Mullins describes new material-under the working title The Approximations, with a projected release time of late 2004-as being "higher fidelity yet much more organic." He additionally uses words such as "dirtier," "not as crisp," and "more rock feel" alongside the claim that it is the "best produced" MP material to date. Schmieding simply remarks that, "It's gonna blow up your stereo." Such dynamic combinations should prove to be intriguing to say the least.

Also on the horizon for Midwest Product is a summer record release and live performance tour. The release will be their first made on vinyl and it will feature highlights from both Specifics and World Series of Love and alternate versions of several songs. The real treat will come if and when MP matches up with similarly up-and-coming Ghostly International artists Dabrye and Matthew Dear for a batch of West Coast dates in late July before returning to their hometown fans in Detroit.

Mullins and Schmieding should be tired after more than an hour of answering questions over the phone. Even close friends and relatives would have ended conversations before this, but the duo somehow brings on a new level of comfort and hilarity. Schmieding tangents to talks of his love for Shao-Lin Kung Fu martial arts and the comedy of Will Ferrell and Dave Chappelle; Mullins of his enjoyment for running and Mouse on Mars. Then both take pokes at the absent Pratt (aka DJ Kirk Flowers) as any good pal would, speaking of how he is the "domesticated" one of the band and almost like a "bald Bob Villa" with his painting business and mature demeanor.

But don't worry about any rifts forming within the trio. After all these boys are tight, you know.

SEE ALSO: www.ghostly.com/1.0/artists/midwestproduct/

--
Josh Zanger
Joshua Ian Zanger, a native of rural Chicago, rocks many a world with his writing, style, and generally sweet aroma.

See other articles by Josh Zanger.

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