ETROIT -- The pathway to rock music glory is littered with one-hit wonders and bands that imploded when the going got a little tough.
Detroit rockers Sponge, who were all over the radio in the mid-90s with gritty hits like "Plowed," "Molly (16 Candles)," "Have You Seen Mary" and "Wax Ecstatic," were hit with the double-whammy of personnel changes and record-company drama just as it seemed they were on the verge of superstardom.
Band members walked away; a new record label insisted that Sponge take its music into a more pop-friendly direction; and suddenly the once-promising future of the band that went gold right out of the starting gate appeared over.
But group founder and lead singer Vinnie Dombroski is nothing if not a fighter. He kept Sponge together, always looking for the right musical pieces to the puzzle, and he kept playing.
Now, with the exciting EP "Destroy the Boy" out and the musicianship of Sponge as tight as ever, the band appears ready to reclaim its rightful spot among the modern rock elite. Local fans will have an opportunity to judge for themselves when Sponge plays a show Thursday at the Crowbar Grill on North Westover Boulevard.
"The thing about Sponge is that we've always been a nuts-and-bolts rock band," Dombroski said in a recent phone interview from the band's Detroit home base. "It's like the MC5 or Alice Cooper's band ... two guitar players, a bass player, a drummer and a singer. That's about as basic as it gets.
"There was a period there around 2000 where the bottom just fell out for modern rock. The (record) labels decided there was not enough business for that format, so they took away support for our kind of music. And the bottom fell out."
Dombroski, who'd started Sponge with drummer Jimmy Paluzzi, brothers Mike and Tim Cross, who played guitar and bass, respectively, and guitarist Joey Mazzola, kept looking for the right musicians to keep his vision of the band alive as he watched most of the original members walk away after the success of the band's first two albums, 1994's "Rotting Pinata" and 1996's "Wax Ecstatic."
Charlie Grover replaced Paluzzi on drums, and Kurt Marschke and Tim Krukowski took the Cross brothers' places for 1999's "New Pop Sunday," which was a stark departure from Sponge's two hit discs. Mazzola left a short while after the release of 2003's "For All the Drugs in the World," and Dombroski found himself as the last man standing.
"After the first two albums, we signed with a new label (Beyond Records), and they pretty much changed up everything we'd been doing," the Sponge singer said. "Until then, we'd produced and recorded everything on our own, but the label wanted us to work with a producer and A&R person of their choice.
"We spent more money on hotels and dinner during that time than we had making either of the first two records. When we finished, the label didn't like what we'd done. So we took what we had to another label, and it just wasn't a successful transition."
After Mazzola walked away, Dombroski brought drummer Billy Adams, guitarists Kyle Neely and Andy Patalan, and bassist Tim Patalan on board. Tim Patalan also produced "Destroy."
That lineup released "The Man" (Idol Records, 2005), "Galore Galore" (Bellum Records, 2007) and worked on the new record.
"We went back to square one with the new EP," Dombroski said. "We did the things that we'd done early in our career, and the response has been awesome. We spent a lot of time finding the right songs for this record, and we did it right."
While Sponge have maintained an active touring schedule in the decade and a half since the band formed, there's a sense now that the group is rekindling the spirit of its early material as it ventures out further from its comfort zone in the upper Midwest to bring its always dynamic live show to a wider audience. After playing in Albany Thursday, Sponge will play the following night at the Pensacola Interstate Fairgrounds in Pensacola, Fla. The band will play at The Station in Broussard, La., Saturday before returning to Michigan.
"As long as people are listening, this is what I plan to do," Dombroski, the obvious rock lifer, said. "As long as I feel we're doing the music justice, I can't see one reason why we wouldn't do this.
"The fans have a vested interest in our music, and I know it sounds cliche, but we couldn't do this without them. It's always been vital that we do Sponge justice. And you can tell the people of Albany, we ain't coming all that way just to be OK. We're going to give them a show to remember."