Red Velvet Letdown emerges from COVID ‘nightmare’ with joy intact

The self-described loud, sleazy rock band will perform alongside Bridesmaid, Pale Grey Lore and Dead Winds of Summer at Spacebar on New Year’s Eve.
Red Velvet Letdown
Red Velvet LetdownChris Casella

Red Velvet Letdown played its first concert at Spacebar in October, but the roots of the band actually stretch back to 2017, its live debut delayed by issues with personnel, myriad health crises, death and an ongoing pandemic that three years in has yet to exhaust its grip.

The band started in earnest when longtime friends Kent Grosswiler (drums), TJ Steppe (bass guitar) and Mitch America (guitar), who previously played together in Eric Wrong and the Do-Rights, started meeting on Sundays to jam. From the start, the three leaned into sleazy, loud rock ‘n’ roll, drawing upon Guns N’ Roses and early Aerosmith but more so those bands described by Steppe as “a cut under that.” 

“Hanoi Rocks, the Hangmen – bands that were just kind of missed,” continued Steppe, joined by Grosswiler and singer Ace Mayes for a mid-December interview at Upper Cup in Olde Towne East. “For every person that loves Guns N’ Roses, there are three nerds back here in love with Hanoi Rocks and New York Dolls, and that definitely fed wanting to be more on that uglier, trashier side of things.”

For a long stretch after, the band's lineup remained in flux. Guitarist Michael Christian joined the fold, while the group's original singer departed, his exit marked by the same drama that accompanied his entire run with the band. Following a round of auditions, the band added a new singer whose temperament proved a better fit but whose worldview and lyrics did not.

“He had transphobic [social media] posts, misogynistic lyrics – things that just were not going to fly with us,” Steppe said. “I had to pull him out of practice once, and we went and sat on the porch and I explained to him, ‘Hey, those words you were saying, you’re never going to say that in front of me again.’” 

The band booted that singer in December 2019, roughly three months before the pandemic hit, putting Red Velvet Letdown on pause along with just about everything else. 

“In my experience, COVID was scary at first, but there was also this element where everyone was clowning online, and everyone was ... almost pulling together to help each other out,” said Grosswiler, who will join his Red Velvet Letdown bandmates in concert at Spacebar on New Year’s Eve, performing alongside Bridesmaid, Pale Grey Lore and Dead Winds of Summer. “But in the back of my mind, I also knew it was a pandemic. And in every pandemic movie you have the part where it starts normal and then it becomes a nightmare. And [COVID] got to be a nightmare.”

Since forming, the band has been struck by one tragedy after another – a reality intensified by the coronavirus. Grosswiler’s mother and stepfather died, along with his beloved Great Dane, Luis. Steppe’s father died of COVID. Mayes lost a grandparent.

Returning to the band in the spring of 2021, and in the wake of these mounting losses, the music itself didn’t change, though the push behind it did. 

“There was a different weight to life, and not just for the band. For us, you, everyone in this coffee shop,” Grosswiler said.

“The music is still what it was and what it was going to be,” Steppe said. “But the band itself, it became so much more important to get it on the stage, to get it in the studio – something other than the five of us just getting together once or twice a week. And I think it was because we were having so much fun with it that it became imperative for us to share that joy.”

It helped, of course, that the band connected with Mayes a little over a year ago, Steppe’s ears initially perking to the singer during a night of Punk Rock Karaoke he tended bar at Spacebar where Mayes performed songs by David Bowie, Thin Lizzy and Arctic Monkeys. “And he did all three really well, and it showed me, wait a minute, his voice fits classic rock and modern stuff, but also in a way where it didn’t feel like he was aping any of those vocals,” Steppe said. “And I just sat there like, ‘Why haven’t I thought of this before?’”

Stepping into a group of friends whose history together stretches back decades occasionally left Mayes reeling as he navigated inside jokes and a shared vocabulary honed over time. Indeed, after sending the band his audition tape, for which he completed the lyrics to “Bottle of Booze,” Mayes was left dangling for hours due to Christian’s deadpan humor. 

“In our group chat, Kent, Mitch and I had all been raving [about Mayes’ recording], like, ‘Oh, my God, I think this is the dude,'" Steppe said. "Then time goes by and Michael’s like, ‘Sorry guys, not feeling it,' and nothing else."

“It was like that moment in a cartoon where a character runs off the mountain and looks down and there’s no ground,” Grosswiler said. “I felt things inside of me starting to shift.”

“Finally, hours later, he writes back like, ‘Sorry, I was clowning on y'all. I haven’t listened to it yet,’” Steppe said, and laughed.

Even Mayes’ first proper practice with the band left him disconcerted, the singer describing how Christian appeared to be scowling at him from the wings throughout the session. “I honestly left that practice a little discouraged, like, eh, it is what it is,” Mayes said. “And then a couple of hours later … I get a mass text from all of them that’s like, ‘Hey, if you want the job, it’s yours.’”

The months since have been productive for the band, with Mayes taking song titles initially meant as humorous stopgaps and injecting them with rich, often imaginative narratives.

“Surf Ohio Nazis Must Die,” which mashed the Surf Ohio clothing brand with the 1987 Troma flick “Surf Nazis Must Die,” evolved into a sadly relevant anti-fascism anthem. “Cinderella Beside,” jokingly named because the riff sounded "like a shitty Cinderella B-side,” Steppe said, turned into a weirdly moving tale of longing, with Mayes writing from the point of view of one of the door mice in the classic Disney cartoon, who goes on to express his unrequited crush on Cinderella.

“Not to sound like a fucking cosmic hippy, but peoples’ energy moves in a certain way,” Grosswiler said. “And either that energy is in harmony or it’s not. … And Ace was a natural fit, and the vibe was right.”

These positive vibes have carried over into recording sessions with Joey Gurwin at Oranjudio, with the band aiming to release a full-length sometime in 2023. In the interim, the musicians intend to perform live as frequently as possible, connecting with audiences in a way they couldn’t during those intense early pandemic years.

“I want that adrenaline buzz from being onstage,” Grosswiler said.

“It is a fix that nothing else gives you,” Steppe said. “But there’s also the pride of these songs. ... There’s definitely an aspect of, ‘Y’all need to hear this. Y’all need to get out and have this in your face.’”

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