If you’re in need of letting off a little steam, “Waking Up the Horse” is the song for you. It certainly did the trick for local songwriter John Salvage. The new single by the Hamtramck-based guitarist and lead singer of the New Twenty Saints is a bracing jolt of adrenaline, a relentless 4-minute hard-hitting groove with a pummeling pulse and cathartically exertive vocals. Oh, and an extra-fiery set of guitar soloing throughout the bridge. This is a classic chip-on-the-shoulder, kick-the-door-down kinda rock ‘n’ roll song.
“I wrote it because I was just really tired of the set I had,” Salvage says. “The songs I was previously playing were all acoustic and a little slower and … kinda dreary. So I just wrote this song very quickly; I just needed to get it out!”
It was barely a year ago that Salvage released his debut record, Coyote Hasten, which certainly presented as a traditional “solo album,” flourished almost entirely by just his distinctively intricate and jangly fret work on the acoustic guitar and that signature raspy-melodic voice of his. The thing is, not only did he feel an urge to break away from the heavy-hearted and wearisome overtones of those nevertheless captivating and beautifully arranged tunes, but he also wanted to expand the sound and just make it all hit a little harder, a little fuller and a lot louder. And for that, he would need a band.
“This song and the whole album were very much about exorcising stuff. … And, being able to get this record out and articulate all those feelings is really amazing — it feels good to just get it out of me.” — John Salvage
He wanted to break away from the sparer and occasionally more somber solo material, and he played solo for so long out of necessity, not by choice. Salvage moved into town (from Toledo) a decade ago, and had “always wanted to be in a band,” he says, but began playing solo just to get his foothold amid a music scene that he perceived to be impermeably interlinked with long-fostered associations. Or, put less obliquely, he was the new kid in the cafeteria and it just took a while before he found his table. But now, with New Twenty Saints, he’s got some company in the cafeteria.
It was, though, quite an auspicious time to try to start up a band. “When COVID hit,” Salvage says, “[drummer] Evan Eklund and I started playing together because we both had so much time to do so. We didn’t really know each other before; we were acquaintances but really started to get to know each other and become good friends rather quickly.” This was the summer of 2020, though, long before vaccines were rolled out, so, Salvage says, they committed to serious caution for their collaboration by getting tested before every rehearsal. “After a few practices, it was evident that Evan and I had chemistry, so that’s when I reached out to [guitarist] Josh Budiongan and [bassist] Kirk Scarbrough. And that was the perfect time, since they’re both usually very busy, but we were just all very not-busy at that time.”
After one practice, Salvage says, they all concurred they were a band. “It felt good. The four of us quickly bonded – it became a unit. And we remained serious about getting tested every single week before we had practice – we weren’t loose about that – and I would be the only one at practices without a mask, so that I could at least sing. It was very much a tension release for all of us.” Given the extraordinary circumstances of basically the entire world and the looming sense of uncertainty and dread, Salvage says that having a band at that time, a tiny concentrated community of four likeminded individuals, led to them forging something of a stronger bond than they might normally have in the before times.
“But having [the band] to focus on, rather than just sitting around during quarantine, gave us a good work ethic as well,” Salvage says. “And maybe it’s also because we’re all a little bit older now, and have all been in bands before. But, out of all the bands I’ve ever been in before, this one has the best work ethic.”
Just one year after releasing a solo album, Salvage has found himself with a fully committed band, a truly cohesive unit of talented players. That certainly put him on cloud nine, as having a band this tight was something he’d been hoping for since basically the sixth grade. But because of how important this was to him, “… it was important for me that this band have a name, rather than it just being my name, or [the] John Salvage Band.” He continues that the band pressed on as John Salvage and New Twenty Saints rather than just New Twenty Saints because of the first solo album, which had already gotten some promotion.
Speaking of work ethic, Salvage says that he and his bandmates were keen on getting into a studio to record as soon as they were able. “I didn’t want us to play our first show and the only record we had was my solo album,” Salvage says. “Because [Coyote Hasten] sounded nothing like the band, so we needed to put something out very quickly.” The group recorded nine tracks for their forthcoming record, titled Nikita, with majority of the recording wrapped inside the Outer Limits Lounge in Hamtramck, where Scarbrough has regularly assisted other groups with sound engineering. “And once we were done, we had it mixed and mastered at Adam Cox’s [Hamtramck Sound Studio]. So, it’s a fully Hamtramck record, written here, recorded here, mixed here.”
The band just hosted an intimate premiere party for the music video streaming at the top of this page at, where else, but Outer Limits (in Hamtramck). The video was directed/produced by the duo known as Static Screen Productions, Mark Larsen and Rachel Knorp, filmed inside Spread Detroit, a gallery space in Woodbridge. Static Screen has previously produced a handful of videos for local rock and punk groups, demonstrating a sensibility for capturing music with a distinctly visceral energy, which certainly accommodated the vibe of the New Twenty Saints’ first proper single.
“This song and the whole album were very much about exorcising stuff,” Salvage says. “The songs are a bit darker, that’s for sure, when it comes to the themes. It was a dark time for me when those songs came together, so they’re addressing depression, addiction, unchecked anger. That’s stuff I’ve always dealt with, but I definitely don’t deal with it nearly as bad as I used to. And, being able to get this record out and articulate all those feelings is really amazing — it feels good to just get it out of me.”
Salvage could see how he needed a bit of a wake-up and a shake-up; if you feel like you need one too then this song is for you.
Nikita will be released on March 30, available on Outer Limits Lounge Records. They’ll perform a release show on April 2, at the Outer Limits Lounge, with Milk Bath.
Meanwhile, Salvage says that the band has already worked out more than enough songs to fill an entire new album after Nikita, and that they’ve exploring different things with a distinctively different vibe and energy. They’re looking to get back into the studio by summertime, so stay tuned.