The feeling you get the first time you walk into the Hamtramck Hoard House verges on sensory overload. Music blares, guitars hang from the walls, there are records everywhere, clothes, books… did I mention records? There are stacks and stacks of rare records, the kind of r&b, soul, blues and jazz that you can only find in Detroit, at Detroit prices (the best I’ve encountered in my digging conquests), and before you’ve picked your jaw up from the floor, up pops Richie Wohlfeil, the proprietor, whose encyclopedic knowledge and friendly demeanor make the Hoard House seem like the living room dreams are made of.
Between spinning some of those aforementioned rare 45’s, Wohlfeil plays drums in The Darleans, putting the beat behind their killer garage/r&b, tours with Ian Svenonious’ Chain & The Gang, hits junks shops, thrift stores, Craigslist, garage sales—the man about town. Oh, and he has his own publishing company.
Wohlfeil took some time and talked to me about the store, what it’s like to live in Detroit, and of course, the city’s rich musical history. We barely got to scratch the surface in the interview, but one of the best things about Richie is his affability, and despite how busy he may seem, he always has time to talk about anything in the Hoard House that catches your eye. So if you find yourself in Detroit, stop in, tell ‘em Splice sent ya and prepare to be regaled by one of Detroit’s most convivial characters.
Hoard House info: 10022 Joseph Campau. Hamtramck, MI. Hours are generally Noon to Six pm everyday (though it's never a bad idea to call). Number: 734 664 1186.
Splice Today: How are you doing?
Richie Wohlfeil: I’m all right, I’m here at the shop. I just had a guitar fall on my head, I’m bleeding everywhere.
ST: Oh shit!
RW: I feel fine.
ST: What kind of guitar?
RW: A ‘68 or ‘69 Tonemaster by Framus.
ST: Sounds heavy. I hope it wasn’t a solid body.
RW: It was, it is…
ST: Tell me about what you’re trying to achieve with the store you’re currently bleeding all over?
RW: Well it’s just me [running the store] now so I’d like to shift more towards records and books. My long-term goal would be to buy the whole building, which is two storefronts, and connect them. One side would be records and books, the other side would have a series of islands, and each island would have a coffee table, chairs and some couches for sale—all for sale. Each area would be a listening station where you could sit down and relax on the furniture that was for sale, and listen to records and drink coffee. This side would have more furniture and clothes. I’d also like to focus on receivers and stereo equipment, musical gear—old amps, guitars. I designed a switcher, where I’d have a wall full of speakers and a wall of receivers and a sort of patch bay where you could try out any combination of the two.
ST: Rad. Where to you find most of your stock?
RW: The records are largely from my own collection, which is really big; well, was really big, but not anymore. I find them everywhere, from Craigslist to junk shops to garage sales to abandoned buildings. In Detroit, you find them in the trash as well. The rest is the same thing. If I go to the thrift shop looking for a pair of boots or something I might come across a really great pair of pants or a cool jacket and buy them for dirt cheap, and turn around and sell them for a small mark-up. It’s all specialty items, the weirder the better.
ST: When I was in there, some of my favorite things were those documents you pulled out of a condemned building. Is that something you’re doing frequently?
RW: I don’t want to tell people I’m doing that, but yeah, so a lot of times I’ll do that, if a buildings being set to be demolished or something—but it’s illegal. There are two sides to it: One side is, yes, it is preservation, because this stuff is going to be burned or water damaged. In the old Motown buildings where people were finding Marvin Gaye check stubs, hobos were squatting there and using that stuff for fires. On the other side, it’s trespassing, which is generally frowned upon.
ST: Well, I definitely see you as a Detroit historian. Can you talk about how your store reflects Detroit?
RW: Yes, for example, most of the paper products I have in the shop aren’t just old magazines for the sake of being old magazines in a junk shop. I want them to be old Polish magazines (for the shop is in Hamtramck which has a large Polish population) or an old Mexican publication from South West, Detroit (which is heavily populated with immigrants from Mexico)—something that has a connection to Detroit. As far as being an historian goes, one of my biggest interests is Hastings Street.
Hastings Street was a very large area that was referred to as Detroit’s "Black Bottom." It's also called paradise valley. Detroit’s first black owned businesses started here, black record labels, black nightclubs. It was from the waterfront up to the North End, all the way up to Hamtramck. It thrived for years and years, from the 1920s up until the middle of the century it was a center for black arts and culture. It rivaled Harlem’s Black Renaissance. It began as neighborhood housing projects for factory workers and grew from there.
ST: It was kind of destroyed by urban renewal, when they started building all the highways, right?
RW: Exactly. That ended it. It seems weird that they would just bulldoze a thriving community and build a freeway through it. Racial politics were certainly involved. Whites were freaked out.
ST: Do you still sense racial tension in Detroit?
RW: Yeah, definitely. In some areas not that much, but in some areas, definitely. After the riots, they had the great white flight, when people fled Detroit for the suburbs. They’re referring to the present as the great white flight as well, because so many whites are moving back to Detroit. Reactions have been mixed; some people are cool about it and excited about the opportunity for a change in Detroit, some people are hostile because they feel like their city is being taken over. Hamtramck is different, it’s always been very diverse. There are lots of Bangladeshi, Yemeni, Polish, Ukrainian, you name it. But I'm still subject to some receive some harassment or slurs every once and a while. It's definitely not as bad as it was 10 years ago, but it's still felt in some areas.
ST: What is your reaction to national media that claims Detroit is going through a revival?
RW: I’ve always sort of felt like something was happening here, but at the same time, a lot of writers don’t really get into the city. They only scratch the surface. They only talk about abandoned buildings and urban gardening… which is fine, but there's much more to the city than that. On the beautiful side you never hear about Belle Isle, an island park in the middle of the Detroit River that was designed a hundred years ago by the same planner that designed New York's Central Park. You don't hear about the old Hastings Street block parties that are still going on today in empty lots a few blocks from where Hastings used to stand. And on the ugly side, you don't hear about the insane number of uninsured cars in the city from unreal insurance rates that no one, not even folks in the suburbs, could afford. You did hear about some of our political corruption in the news, our last mayor committing perjury against himself twice in court, but even that barely scratches the surface of the problems we face politically if we want to do anything from starting a business in the city to buying a building—there is a revival going on, but it doesn't have anything to do with the old administration that's been "running things" and continues to do so—the change is coming from folks who are starting independent businesses and doing their own thing, living with independence from major grocers, chain stores and the like. But we'll see how long that lasts… the city’s administrators will find a way to fuck it up.
ST: Why did you decide to move to Detroit?
RW: I was hanging out here a lot when I was a kid, going to shows. I grew up in a small industrial town called Wayne, Michigan that was essentially the size of a factory and was surrounded by garbage facilities. I didn’t want to live there, so I went to the country for a bit just because it was nice to get away from factories and dumps. I was still hanging out in Detroit a lot because so many interesting things were happening here and realized ‘why aren’t I just living here?’ It boggles my mind that people still want to live in the suburbs.
I grew up dirt poor, so if I was going to start a business, or a publishing company, which I’ve got, I had to do it with the bare minimum. Detroit was the best place for that.
ST: I’m sure another factor must have been the music scene.
RW: Oh definitely. I was going to a lot of shows and playing music with people. Some friends and I had a practice space here as well.
ST: Detroit has such a diverse musical history, do you feel it’s still that way?
RW: Oh yeah, it’s always been like that. From Hastings Street, which had really great jazz and blues and r&b—Chess Records for example, their first recordings were made in Detroit. John Lee Hooker’s earliest recordings (‘49?, ‘50?, ‘51?) were recorded in Detroit but put out by a Chicago label. As the same time you have that happening, you have a really huge rockabilly and country scene in the 50s. Then up through the 60s you had soul. More soul and r&b records came out of Detroit than any other city. In the 70s you had everything from punk rock to indie stuff. Then into the 80s, Touch & Go, which began as a Michigan label with a Dearborn address, had the Meatmen and The Butthole Surfers (who were from Texas but we're hanging here). At that same time Techno was being developed—the term was coined here. We had Juan Atkins, Kevin Saunderson and Derrick May, bands like Cybotron. You had one of the biggest indie labels and the biggest musical movements of the 90s starting at the same time in Detroit in the 80s. There’s always been really great gospel, going back to CL Franklin (Aretha’s father).
Even now there’s a great scene. I’d rather go to a random show in Detroit than anywhere else. A random $5 show in Detroit, for my money, is bound to be more interesting than a random show in another city. Not to discount other cities & scenes, ‘cuz there's some great things happening out there, but…
ST: Who are some of the contemporary bands you think are doing a good job representing Detroit?
RW: I think Outrageous Cherry is really great, they’ve been around since the mid-90s and are still putting out good records. Matthew Smith, who lives in Hamtramck, produced the last few Andrew Williams records, and Nathaniel Mayer before he passed away, as well as tons of local bands. He plays on everything and with everybody. To throw out a random example: People are like, “Hey Matthew, have you played with Kevin Ayers” and he’s like “Yeah, I jammed with him.” Another one to watch out for is Tim Lampenin from Human Eye & Timmy's Organism. Everyone calls him Timmy Vulgar. He’s like a mutant of a human, in person and on stage. He’s always doing far out things. He’s also one of the most supportive dudes around town, always up front at every show. The future will regard him well. There're many many more…
ST: Speaking of, I know you’ve had a chance to play with some of Detroit’s older legends, like Eddie Kirkland for example. What’s it like to cross generations musically like that?
RW: A couple guys, Mike Hurtt and Adam Stanfel, have a group called the Party Stompers who play around a lot, and they called me up and asked if I wanted to play drums with Eddie. I said ‘of course!’ These guys know a lot of the older cats around town and play shows with a handful of them. They’re total record nerds, like most of us in town. Mike is a New Orleans transplant who came up after the hurricane. He still has a group down there he plays with, but lives here now. A lot of people from New Orleans I meet sometimes describe Detroit as a sister city.
Anyway, Eddie came up to do a couple shows opening for the Gories on one of their reunion tours. Eddie got up a day or two early, and when he got up here wanted to have a band practice. I was DJ’ing a thing with Forest that we call The Whip at this punker bar in Hamtramck called the Painted Lady. We were talking to Eddie and decided to just play at the party as our band practice. We went on from midnight ‘till two, then Forest and I played some more records. All of a sudden Eddie got back on stage, sometime around 2:40. I went over and asked him if he was up there ‘cuz he wanted to keep playing, and he said, "yea!" So we got back up there and played for another hour! It felt like one of those all night house parties Eddie was telling us about.
Eddie used to play with John Lee Hooker, he came up from the South in the 40s and they met and gigged house parties together. He was John’s second guitarist for many years and went on to become Otis Redding’s bandleader. He recorded for Fortune records and King Records, just a ton of sessions. He has a lot of great 45’s! Check out “Monkey Tonight” on the King Label, that’s killer, and another pair on the Fortune label: “The Grunt” and “The Hawg.” He was just telling us stories about growing up down South, moving to Detroit, working in factories and hanging out. A really deep dude with a lot of honest and real things to say. I miss him.
ST: How did The Whip start?
RW: Forest [Juziuk] and I always got along really well. We DJ’d together at some event and had a really good time tag-teaming, and said ‘we should do this more often.’ If I had a gig I’d invite him, and he’d do the same. We decide to do a rotating monthly between Detroit and Ann Arbor. It’s all early r&b, stompers, teeners, a little garage—everything.
ST: Any future plans for The Whip?
RW: Forest is moving to San Francisco, but we’ve been talking about going over to Europe and hanging out there for a month and playing parties. We were able to hook that up because I just got back from playing with Chain & The Gang. I’d play records at all the after parties, or if it was a one-band bill, before and after our set, and made some connections that way. Forest just toured with Mi Ami and was able to make some connections, so we put them together. It should be fun. It’s a shame he’s moving, because we’re like kindred spirits. Detroit and Ann Arbor have always been connected artistically, going back to the Stooges and MC5.