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Hot Teachers

For the Hard Lessons, learning doesn't stop just because school is not in session.

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The hype that surrounded the White Stripes' — er, Jack White's — ascendance to musical messiahdom finally died about a year ago, and with it ended the nation's brief love affair with the Detroit garage-rock scene that White helped birth. Then again, maybe it just means a whole host of bands won't have to be compared with the White Stripes by critics anymore — even though a lot of 'em are like the White Stripes.

The Hard Lessons — Detroit's hardest-working unsigned band — arguably falls into this category, too, except for the fact that, for the past three years, it has been churning out rock that challenges the garage genre but still pays homage to its musical roots. It's the kind of outfit that makes other bands look hokey and hackish by comparison.

In that way, the Lessons are sorta like the White Stripes, too. But for all the right reasons.

"Bamboo" by the Hard Lessons from Wise Up! (self-released):

When Augie Visocchi, the Lessons' co-lead singer and guitarist, answers his phone, he and his band are racing through "very rural" Alabama on their way to a gig at a pizzeria, of all places. His co-lead and the band's keyboardist, Korine "Ko Ko" Louise, will later add that a stage was even built for them, seeing as though they were the first Detroit band ever to play there. Detroit Rock City's legacy still looms large, apparently.

The Lessons got their start at a battle of the bands at Michigan State University. The prize was getting to record a demo for free in a communications class. "We wrote three songs, rehearsed them, won $400 in the battle of the bands, recorded them, and hit the ground running," Visocchi says.

This was at the tail end of the White Stripes craze. Detroit's hot factor, if it ever existed (and musicians in Detroit will probably argue that it never really benefited them), was on the decline, and yet the Lessons' gospel-rock three-piece — rounded out by drummer Christophe Zajak-Denek, nicknamed "the Anvil" — stood out from the fuzzy rabble. How could they not, given Visocchi and Louise's Ike-and-Tina, Sonny-and-Cher call-and-response lyrical style and Visocchi's dynamic stage presence, which often sees him climbing speakers or pitching his guitar skyward? In fact, Visocchi might be a perpetual-motion machine trying to pass itself off as a first-generation Italian-American.

"I've got my scars to prove I've paid my dues as a rock-and-roll soldier," he says, citing a habitual disregard for his physical well-being. An onstage limp means that he's probably just sprained his ankle again. Don't worry. It won't slow him down.

Because of the Lessons' commitment to balls-out performances, it wasn't long before critics in the Motor City dubbed the band the "next big thing." Two years later, the Lessons are still waiting for national props.

In the meantime, they've learned some real lessons of their own about the recording industry. Even though they've become musical royalty in Detroit, where they often sell out venues that national acts have trouble packing, they've shrugged off recording contract offers from a slew of minor labels.

"We don't want anybody to think we're anti-label, but at this point we don't see any reason to sign with a label, seeing as though we work so hard at every aspect of what we're doing," Visocchi says. "We book our own tours, put out our records ... and we like to keep all the profit ourselves."

"I'm enjoying [learning] how a band works, how to go on tour, how to release your own records," Louise adds the following day as the band drives through Louisiana.

Louise — who is the daughter of not one but two barbershop-quartet singers who toured internationally ("We were that family singing at the campground") — is that seemingly rare thing, a woman in a Detroit band. "Detroit has always had a lot of women musicians," she says. "So, starting out in this band, I didn't think it was unusual that I was a woman in rock. I'm not the token girl in the band in Detroit. But, as we tour, I definitely feel more [of an], Oh, check them out, they've got a girl in the band."

Touring nationally comes with drawbacks besides a band member being mistaken for the merchandise girl, such as facing crowds substantially less robust than those back home. Still, the Lessons are surprised at times, such as that gig at Ravenite Pizzeria in Fairhope, Alabama, which turned into a big show.

Visocchi puts it another way. "We are definitely humbled time and time again playing to three people in" — he thinks of some random locale — "Huntington, West Virginia, on a Monday night."

Apparently, some lessons have to be lived through.

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