Their Goal In Life Is To Be An Echo


Mario Iván Oña wrote the story on tribute bands that appears in today's Weekend section and offers up some interview outtakes.

Today's article talks about tribute bands as an alternative, affordable form of entertainment in this down economy. But with each band I interviewed, another angle emerged -- a story of struggling, hard-working musicians faced with the dilemma of trading in their dreams of becoming rock stars for practicality's sake.

Some of these artists have babies to feed and mortgages to pay. For others, it's the only viable way of not abandoning their passion. These guys take their profession quite seriously, often playing 150 to 200 shows per year. Some watch endless footage to get every vocal and facial nuance perfect. As fake as their acts might be, their reasons for becoming tribute artists are real. Their stories left little room for mockery and I realized that at least the gaudy Elvis impersonators ( that once defined tribute bands have left the building.

Some extras with: Chad Atkins (NotQuiteAxl from Appetite for Destruction, Guns N' Roses tribute); Wayne Hosking (Maurice Gibb from the Australian Bee Gees Show); Jeremey Hunsicker (from Frontiers, Journey tribute); Chris LeGrand (Mick Jagger from Satisfaction, Rolling Stones tribute); Joe Pascarell (from the Machine, Pink Floyd tribute)

It seems most musicians don't plan to be in a tribute band. So what happened?

CA: Friends bugged me about sounding like Axl Rose and having the red hair. A part of me thought, "Stupid cover bands aren't as cool as having your own band." But then I agreed to do a show. It sold out. We did another show and it sold out again. I was no stranger to playing for other bands and their girlfriends, so this was kind of nice. Look, it's absolutely more fulfilling to do your music when you're young and don't have a wife and child to support. Once you have these responsibilities, things change.

CL: I've been making music most of my life -- mostly as a bass player. I'd been in original classic rock bands for a long time. After years of frustration and trying to do my own thing, I retired from music in my mid-30s and went back to electronic sales. I decided it was time to grow up, get a real job and move on. I went back to college, got a degree and music became a part-time thing. That was about 1996.

Around 2000, I was itching to get back into it. I'd been told that I looked like Mick Jagger and Steve Tyler, so in 2001 I did some research to see if there was a market for a Rolling Stones show. I then sunk some of my 401K money on advertising and promo. I put it out there. It started small and it just grew and grew. The show has given me a six-figure income for the first time in my life. I was able to purchase my first home and start one daughter in college.

(More after the jump.)

Are the real bands aware of your existence? Have you ever met them and do you know what they think of you?

JH: I'm very familiar with Journey. I was actually asked to join the band a few years ago and I have writing credit on the single "Never Walk Away" off their latest release, "Revelation." Journey was looking for a new singer and they came across a YouTube video of me. Neil Schon [Journey guitarist and founding member] and Jonathan Cain [Journey keyboardist] flew out to Charlotte and saw one of our shows. They invited me to San Francisco to play for their management people. Everything went well and it seemed like a done deal. I returned home and we agreed on how much money I would be making, the schedule and other details.

A few hours later Neal Schon's manager called and said, "Well, Neal feels like they've got the rest of the year to think it through and regroup in a few months to see how things look then." My wife was seven months pregnant and I simply couldn't wait around for them to figure it out. I was pretty angry that this opportunity was put in front of me and then pulled back at the last minute. But I don't have any hard feelings toward them and would definitely join the band if asked. The financial gain for my family would be too great for me to pass up. Besides that, I have publishing royalties from the CD. I have a platinum record on my mantle with my name on it. And, thanks to Journey, I have a full-time career doing what I love and grossing hundreds of thousands of dollars annually.

(Ed. Note: Journey has denied having made a formal offer, but Hunsicker says he signed a W-9 form and agreed to a $70,000-stipend and a touring salary of $10,000 per week. He also says he has the e-mails and voice mails to support his claim.)

CL: I've never shook their hands personally, but we had the pleasure of meeting some of their family in Las Vegas in 2005. We were part of the "Legends" show and the Rolling Stones had done a show at the MGM Grand. After our respective shows, we went to their after party. I got to hang out with Keith Richards's daughters and meet some of his family, but the band was probably too busy counting their money to come down. They weren't too interested in us.

What do you to stay on top of your game? And do you stay in character beyond the stage?

WH: I play the role of Maurice Gibb, who died in 2003. This put pressure on me to play the role with some respect and reverence, but Maurice was always the comedian in the group, which makes upholding his legacy a little easier. To prepare for the shows, we drink scotch! Lots of it. Maybe we do a few vocal warm-ups. But we've been doing it so long that when we walk on stage, it puts us into character. I think if I ever had to get on stage as myself, that would be difficult. Barry, Robin and Maurice were always very funny on stage and we try to recreate that with a touch of ourselves thrown in.

JH: We're not a copycat act like the Rolling Stones or the Beatles tributes, where there's an official Ringo or an official Mick. We don't do the costumes and the drama. I'm not knocking bands that do that, but I've always tried to interpret original Journey music in the spirit of Journey instead of putting on a wig.

CL: I train for this the way an actor trains for an acting role. Our show is 100 percent live and I don't see us as a tribute band, but as tribute show. We don't have band mates. We have cast members, who play Keith Richards, Mick Jagger or Ron Wood. When I hire these guys, I want them to accept the role, study the Stones' video catalogue and develop the look, sound and attitude. If the look isn't quite right, there are wigs, make-up, clothes and sun glasses.

It's important to immerse yourself into the character and take on that persona. But when the lights go down, you pull the switch. I do ask my guys to practice in front of the mirror, but to keep the two worlds separate. There are other tribute bands who want to live the life, but you can't walk around thinking you're a rock star.

JP: Our focus is on the music. We don't try to look like them or live like them or be like them. We just like to play their music. But we like to keep things fresh and approach the music from a different angle, while being respectful of Pink Floyd's music. We change the sets and rearrange songs so that they work in an acoustic setting. The only songs we might not do are because we simply don't like them or because of our technical limitations stemming from being a four-piece band.

By David Malitz |  July 17, 2009; 7:09 AM ET Economy
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I just caught The Machine's show at the State Theater. I confess that I didn't expect it to be as awesomely good as it was. The band was able to duplicate the sound of Pink Floyd but at the same time bring their own style and originality to the performance. This is an extremely high quality group.

Posted by: tradeczar | July 19, 2009 1:13 AM

Great article Mr. Oña. I have been following and enjoying your literature for quite some time. Your articles are always so insightful, smart, and enjoyable.

Posted by: rablease | July 20, 2009 3:19 AM

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