cover_story (2007-08)

Bryan Garvey, The Coveralls

Jerry Finley, The Breakfast Club

2007 Music Issue (continued)

It's 8 p.m. on a Friday, and Jerry Finley is sipping a bottle of water in the upstairs hospitality room at Blue Cats. He's about as subdued as any bad-ass rocker I've ever met, wearing one of those porkpie hats--like the one Gene Hackman sports in The French Connection --and attempting to explain exactly why it is that he plays other bands' music for a living.

"I'd played original music for years. We had the record deals, the publishing, and all that crap, and then it started to fall apart," says Finley, drummer and founder of '80s cover band The Breakfast Club. "We decided it would be a good time to get out, but we were in for thousands of dollars, me in particular.

"We had to earn our money back, so I said we should put a cover band together for six months or a year to recoup expenses and pay who we owe money to. Then call it quits."

That was in November of 1993, and the music industry was already pushing '80s compilation albums. Finley's band knew the '80s rotation of The Outfield, Bon Jovi, Rick Springfield, etc. from covering them for kicks during high school. They took to the road, and Finley cleared enough cash in six months to pay off $100,000 in debt. As promised, the original three members of the band called it quits, but the concept, the lure of a steady paycheck, and Finley remained.

Thirteen years later, The Breakfast Club is still an '80s cover constant. Finley has gone through 19 members, having had the current quartet intact since 2005. Based out of Atlanta, the band is one of the top cover acts in the country, setting door records the last three times it's played Blue Cats.

I notice before the interview even starts that Finley bares a striking resemblance to Daniel Negreanu, the poker genius made famous by the relatively recent barrage of Texas Hold 'Em coverage on ESPN. It turns out to be an apt comparison, because Finley can read right through my poker face. He knows every question I have in my head, maybe because he's been asked them so many times before. "Why be a cover band?" For Finley, the inquiry is as exhausted as a frat guy who's done one too many beer bottle fist-pumps to "Jessie's Girl."

"You do it for money, yeah, but there's also a different level of glory if you will," Finley says. "It's partly because we put on a good show, and partly because people know the songs. You get a glory feeling from the crowd because they respond to it, but when you play original music, you only have 40 or 50 people who get it, and then the others don't care too much about it."

The cover/tribute phenomenon has so saturated the music industry that there is nary an iconic band that doesn't have a stunt double. Whereas The Breakfast Club covers a decade, tribute bands like Zoso (Led Zeppelin) and Appetite For Destruction (Guns 'N Roses) relish the task of transforming themselves into exact replicas of Axl Rose or Robert Plant. Just last week Bon Jovi tribute band Slippery When Wet rolled through Knoxville for a nearly sold-out show, and Blue Cats has Phix (Phish) and Zoso on the bill in the coming months. It's a movement that transcends all genres of music, from '80s rock to The Beatles to Michael Jackson.

About five years ago, East Coast Entertainment, a 30-year-old entertainment agency out of Atlanta that represents national artists such as Alison Krauss, decided the market had burgeoned enough that it needed its own faction of sound-alike bands.

"Tribute and cover bands started sneaking up on us, and we decided we needed to jump in and do something," says Rick Stowe, managing partner in East Coast, which represents The Breakfast Club, Zoso, Slippery When Wet, and several others.

"The Breakfast Club was really interesting because they had a great college following in the mid- to late-'90s. Now those kids have graduated and moved on to jobs as bankers or at TVA, but they're still 25 or 30 and they go out," Stowe continues. "So they hear The Breakfast Club is playing Blue Cats; they have expendable income and they go have a few drinks and run into old friends. Add that with the new college kids and you have a huge guarantee."

Guaranteed money has been hard to come by for original musicians since the turn of the century, especially with the rise in digital downloading and the plummeting of record sales. CD sales have dropped more than 20 percent since 2000, and record labels that once scoured the Earth for the next "it" band are reverting to the "oldies but goodies," which takes a lot less legwork.

As witnessed by the recent reunions of The Police, Genesis, the Smashing Pumpkins, Van Halen, and countless others, musicians realize there is a flawless economic formula for success. Just play what ticket-paying fans--usually middle-aged music lovers who know the difference between the openness of a vinyl record and the over-compression of a CD--want to hear.

"It really comes down to iconic stature," Stowe says. "Look at The Police. Sting did well as a solo artist, but once they get that past formula back together, it's going to be something pretty special.

"Take Appetite for Destruction. Guns 'N Roses has done all right since the original group split, but everyone remembers those first two Guns 'N Roses albums that sold millions. People may never have the opportunity to see that again, so they go see Appetite."

There are still those bands, however, that don't intend to make this their life's work. Knoxville-based cover band The Coveralls remains a peripheral gig, based around original projects and full-time jobs.

"We were playing in an original band and it just kind of blew up, so we figured we'd go the complete opposite direction," says bassist Brian Garvey. "We wanted not to sweat all the crap that seems to come from being in an original band. But I didn't expect it to last long."

The Coveralls have been together five years now, drawing its set lists from an amalgam of hits from the '70s and '80s to the not-so-retro '90s. Dressed in suit and tie, The Coveralls have become mainstays at local venues like Barley's with a rotation that includes Ozzie Osborne, INXS and Boston. (Drummer Dave Campbell chuckles when admitting to this fact.) But Garvey doesn't foresee a foray into the high-stakes national tours of The Breakfast Club.

"If we're able to keep playing, keep having fun, and keep it interesting, then there's no reason to stop," he says. "But we don't ever want to go to the extent of The Breakfast Club. Those guys are hardcore professional."

There is something to be said for an idealistic musician, but pragmatism is a necessary trait for any cover band to survive. "Playing covers is a quick fix for both parties involved--for the people playing, and for the people listening," Garvey says. "Pop songs are one of the simple pleasures, and they easily satisfy people.

"We're by no means playing avant-garde or pushing society forward," he continues. "But there is something to be said for not worrying and having fun. There is something to be said for feeling the energy of the song, putting out that energy, and it reciprocating. I don't want to have a philosophical dilemma over my music. I play cover bands for fun, and I can play with original bands to get that artistry out there."

When I first began the groundwork for this story, I made the egregious mistake of calling a tribute band by the name of its bastardized cousin--the cover band. For a week I had to remind myself: "Tribute bands not only sound like and look like, but they manifest the iconic powers of one great rock'n'roll band."

So when I arrive at Barley's to interview local Talking Heads tribute band, Same As It Ever Was, I'm searching for a David Byrne look-alike. I inquire about frontman Curtis Geren, whom I assume is a dead ringer. The drummer then points me to a guy leaning against the stage with spiked blue hair and black horn-rimmed glasses.

Of the three bands I've interviewed, SAIEW exudes the most confidence, or at least optimism, about their musical future. Not that The Breakfast Club and The Coveralls seem overly jaded or cynical, but both bands are at different points in their respective careers. The Breakfast Club is 13 years in with no route back to its original market. The Coveralls members aren't quite ruling out their own voice, but at the same time they've been around just long enough to know that, with nearly 1,000 new records coming out each week, they have only a miniscule chance of "making it big."

Geren and bassist Taylor Hiner, on the other hand, are the heads of a tribute band just two years old, and they themselves have yet to be rejected by the industry. It is their contention that cover bands actually have the shorter shelf life. "We want to ride this as far as we can," says Geren, who formed the band with Hiner and brother Grant after realizing there was no Talking Heads tribute to be found on Google. "It's just now starting to get to a boiling point where people are knowing who we are. We're playing in Nashville now, and in late March we hope to have a Georgia Theater gig."

"At the same time, we know cover bands don't last forever," interjects Hiner, sitting in the green hospitality room at Barley's. "The ones that do last, they got a lucky break. So right now we've been working on having everyone arrange a tune that's not Talking Heads and bring it in, to get used to writing stuff together and writing original stuff for this specific group."

Besides not resembling the band to which they're paying tribute, Green & Co. often veer from the Talking Heads play list, broadening their horizons with Halloween shows covering Radiohead or Beck. Like The Coveralls, all the members of SAIEW have various original ventures on the "backburner." Geren and his brother moonlight with an original/cover Brazilian band, Nova Delinquents, and Hiner said he'd like to begin looking for opportunities with jazz bands to display his abilities as a bass player.

"There are some Talking Heads songs we haven't learned, but once we learn them all, then that's it. There's nothing new," Hiner says. "That back pressure keeps us looking in all directions for new stuff."

I continue to press the issue: "Will you be doing covers 10 years from now? Will you be satisfied as a cover band?" Keyboard player Rusty Davidson finally cracks.

"I don't think any musician sets out with the goal of playing someone else's music all their life."

In less than an hour, The Breakfast Club's Finley will exchange his porkpie hat for a cowboy hat that has the sides turned up just so. Back at the hotel, bassist Steve Campbell will lose the glasses and slip into a kilt, complementing his pinpoint '80s vox, while keyboardist Mike Mundy powders his nose and applies eye makeup. Finally, there's guitarist DavayRay, who plays the part of a pre-show outcast. He's the only one in the room that could legitimately contend to be an '80s rocker. He sports shoulder-length hair, strategically torn blue jeans and that laidback apathy, barely speaking a word throughout the 30-minute interview--although he does give me a guitar pick with his name on it when we finish.

This is their day job, and they attest that the money playing covers is more substantial than any of them ever fathomed performing original music. Finley has no qualms admitting what drives the artistry--and The Breakfast Club van.

"The whole concept was to sell out and make money right from the start. There was never a thought when I put this thing together of coming back and doing originals," Finley says. "I had done that, and I was beat up over it. That whole concept of complete, over-the-top sell out really worked. Just make it cheesy, make it campy, and take it for what it is. Don't take yourself too seriously. If you have fun with it then the audience is going to have fun with it, and you're going to make money doing it."

Campbell is so far removed from the music industry proper that he no longer postulates as to why original bands frequently fizzle. But he says there's no secret to his band's success.

"We're playing a large collection of songs that have been popular for the last 20 years. It's a guaranteed," Campbell says. "We're not trying to risk anything, not trying to come up with anything new."

Finley quips, "Somebody else went to the toil and the trouble of presenting it, and we basically just turned around and took it all away."

2007 Music Issue (continued)