'Hit Me With Your Best Shot': The Pop Rox

Cover bands get no respect. They get paid, generally a lot more than the average local band playing original music, but no one remembers them the next morning. No one buys their records, if they even bother to make one, or wears their T-shirts. But in our special Music Issue, we at last pay tribute to the cover band, profiling four local standouts: the Pop Rox, Same as It Ever Was, the Invaders, and the Quorum.

The Band: The Pop Rox

Who: Valerie Buckner (vocals), Chris Cook (guitar), Josh Gaither (keyboards, guitar, backing vocals), Dave Peeples (bass, backing vocals), and Dave Whitaker (drums)

What They Play: Mostly '80s rock and pop, with other things sprinkled in. The only real criteria: "It has to have been a huge hit," Whitaker says.

Where They Play: Downtown Grill and Brewery, Ray's, Irish Times, Smoky Mountain Brewery, private parties

Stage fog rises from the floor, pierced by the spindly beams of multi-colored lasers. The piano starts, pounding out eighth-note triplets in an instantly familiar pattern. By the time the drums kick in, pushing a muscular 3/4 shuffle, and the guitar enters with meaty, processed chords, the song has probably registered in the minds of most of the Friday-night crowd at the Downtown Grill and Brewery. Even the ones who don't remember the original artist can sing along with the chorus, and a lot of them do: "Hold the line/Love isn't always on time." (It's by Toto, for those about to Google.)

This is how a set by the Pop Rox starts, and how it continues, too. Hook after hook, lick after lick, hit after hit, all of them near-twins of the radio versions of these familiar songs. The Outfield, Michael Jackson, Pat Benatar, Journey, even Wham!, all get the Pop Rox treatment. The guitar solos, the drum fills, and the bass lines are exactly where they are supposed to be.

If it sounds as choreographed as a Vegas club revue, that is more or less the idea. The Pop Rox are a rock band in that they are musicians who play rock music, but really, they are entertainers. They know what people want, they want to give it to them, and they want to get paid to do it.

"We're here to please," says Valerie Buckner, the cheerful, dark-haired lead singer. "That's what we're here for. To play songs that make people remember a moment in time."

Those songs mostly come from the 1980s, but not exclusively. The majority of the band members are in their 20s. They settled on the era as their base of operations not out of any particular love for it but because it is common ground for everyone from college kids to AARP members. As they've gigged around for the past few years in local bars and clubs, they have reached further back, into '70s funk, and forward, too. It's not uncommon for them to throw a Lady GaGa or Katy Perry tune into the mix. If you hire them for a function, they will learn up to three songs at your request.

None of it is about them. The five Rox—Buckner; guitarist Chris Cook; keyboard player Josh Gaither; bassist Dave Peeples; and drummer Dave Whitaker—say that they don't care whether they like the songs they play. What matters is what makes people happy. They laugh about an earlier guitarist, who they parted ways with because he didn't fit the band's almost egoless template.

"He wanted to play what he wanted to play, and he didn't care about anyone else," Buckner says.

The Pop Rox arose from a familiar musical frustration: the difficulty of attracting a paying audience. Whitaker says he and Peeples had played together in different combos and had talked about "this idea of forming a rock band that would be successful and make money." He adds, with a laugh, "Selling out was the goal."

In early 2009, Whitaker decided to make it happen. He wrote a list of things that people would like in a band—songs they knew, played perfectly, by young, attractive musicians, with an exciting live show—and worked his way down it. Buckner was a key ingredient, both because she meets the "young, attractive" criteria, and because of her vocal versatility. Having a female singer meant that the group could cover songs by both women and men. She gives the band its personality, making sure that the songs sound as much as possible like their original incarnations but also distinctly like the Pop Rox.

"For one thing, it's a chick singing this stuff, it's not a dude," Buckner says. "I can sing Journey way better than any guy in town."

Behind her, the guys in the band—all perfectly handsome themselves—are happy to hide among the fog and lasers and syncopated light displays (run manually by their tech, Josh Cole). They know the crowd isn't there to see them, beyond their vaguely '80s costuming: Peeples' spiky hair and shades, Gaither's New Wave tie.

Whitaker's formula has worked. The Pop Rox quickly became favorites at several spots in town, with more opportunities opening when they added Gaither to the lineup. He works at the Downtown Grill and Brewery, and for several years he was in charge of booking bands there. So in hiring him, the Pop Rox got not only an able pianist, rhythm guitarist, and backup singer, but also an insider who knew who to talk to all over Knoxville. Besides the brewery, they now have regular nights at Ray's, Irish Times, and the assorted Smoky Mountain Brewery locations. And more importantly, from a money standpoint, they are breaking into the lucrative wedding and private-party circuit. They're already playing almost as much as they can handle.

"Our schedule for the next six months is every Friday and Saturday back to back, and that takes several days to recover from," Buckner says. The last thing she wants to do is blow out her voice—she quit her day job, and singing is now her sole means of support.

Talking to the Pop Rox about music, the actual songs they play, is sort of like talking to scientists or marketing consultants. They can tell you which songs work with which crowds, and which parts of songs people like or don't. Take Corey Hart's 1984 smash "Sunglasses at Night": People love it, for about a minute. "But that song goes on for, like, six minutes," Whitaker says. Crowds get restless. The dance floor empties. The song is not in the set list. The band has even talked about stitching together a medley of the bits of songs people respond to most immediately: this verse, that chorus, that guitar solo. And with close to 60 titles in their repertoire, they can gauge the mood of the party and adjust accordingly. As a rule, they'll open with a rock song and a dance song, and see which works better. Often, the rock stuff gets the crowd warmed up, and then as people migrate to the dance floor, the funk and R&B will keep them there. In a sense, the Pop Rox are like a live, five-person DJ.

Cook, a veteran of lots of original-music bands, admits that he had some reservations about joining. "I always said I would rather fall on my face playing something I wrote than play something that everybody knows," he says.

"Until you tried it," Peeples says.

"Until I tried it," Cook agrees. "And then I was like, ‘Screw that.'"

Whitaker, who also plays in a regular jazz combo and is a member of local experimental-music outfit Distant, says there is a basic musical buzz in the feedback of an appreciative crowd. It doesn't matter to him if he never wants to hear "Jessie's Girl" or "Don't Stop Believin'" again.

"I literally am sick of every song we play," he says. "But if we're playing it and there's 80 people going crazy, I'm having the time of my life."