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: Same as It Ever Was
Who: Curt Geren (vocals), Grant Geren (rhythm guitar, vocals), Josh Hobbs (guitar), Vince Ilagan (bass), Rusty Davidson (keyboards), Steve Corrigan (drums), Robert Richards (percussion), Laura Bost (backup vocals)
What They Play: All Talking Heads, all the time
Where They Play: Barley's, Preservation Pub
Curt and Grant Geren spend a couple of weekends each month on the road as touring musicians. Half the time they're in the van as Shortwave Society, an odd five-piece band that plays an exquisite, refined electronic chamber pop. Those trips can be tough—"exquisite, refined electronic chamber pop" isn't the kind of music that packs bars in college towns like Durham, N.C., and Richmond, Va.
The other half of the time, the Geren brothers are part of Same as It Ever Was, a Talking Heads tribute band. Those weekends are entirely different.
"Same as It Ever Was tends to be fun-loving, and on the road it's an absolute blast," Curt says. "There's no stress involved. You know there's a paycheck involved and everybody loves everybody. When you're playing your own music and really roughing it, it's a lot different. Not to say it's not fun and we don't love each other, but it's two different experiences, for sure."
The cover band is more than a side project for the Gerens. Its roots go back almost 10 years, to their first band together. Talking Heads had become an obsession for the brothers when they were in their late teens and early 20s, and their band worked up a version of "This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)," from Talking Heads' 1983 album Speaking in Tongues. They credit their early Talking Heads covers with making them better players and, for Grant, opening up the process of songwriting. A weird coincidence made the connection even deeper.
"I was playing drums and singing, and it became apparent that my voice kind of sounded like David Byrne's," Curt says. "We thought, ‘Wow, we could really do something with that.' It was the seed of an idea at that time. It didn't really come to fruition until three years later," when Curt and guitarist Taylor Hiner were studying music at the University of Tennessee. "We knew a lot of musicians, and we were like, ‘Let's put it together, let's finally do it.'"
Curt and Hiner recruited Grant and five more players to fill out the eight-piece band, and took the name from the lyrics to "Once in a Lifetime." The band quickly became a quirky bar favorite in Knoxville, filling up Barley's and Preservation Pub with two-set performances that run through the whole Talking Heads catalog, from the big hits—"Once in a Lifetime," "Take Me to the River," "Burning Down the House"—to less familiar songs pulled from the band's decade-long run.
"There was a list of 30 or 35 tunes we started with, because we knew from the beginning that we wanted to do two marathon sets, two 90-minute sets, and really keep the crowd dancing all night long," Curt says. "Pretty much all the hits you can imagine, plus some lesser known stuff that we enjoy, like ‘Sugar on My Tongue' or ‘Nothing But Flowers.' ‘Moon Rocks,' for instance—it's on Speaking in Tongues, a super-funky, groovy song. Every now and then we'll get someone who asks for it, but not often. But when you play it, the crowd loses it. It's just a real disco tune."
"Some of the Talking Heads: 77 songs are our most favorite to play, but they're the ones the crowd knows the least," Grant adds. "You'll get a vibe from a crowd in the first set. ‘Okay, they're feeding more off this kind of thing.' A lot of times I'd like to play the more obscure stuff, but so much of the time when you play it you lose the crowd."
And losing the crowd is the last thing a cover band can afford to do. In Shortwave Society, Curt and Grant are trying to pull an unfamiliar audience along to a new experience that they may or may not appreciate. Same as It Ever Was is obliged to give the crowd what it wants.
"That's why you have to very strategically pepper the set list with that kind of stuff," Curt says. "After ‘Burning Down the House' you can get away with anything you want."
Unlike most tribute bands, the members of Same as It Ever Was don't dress up like Talking Heads. Curt skips David Byrne's oversized suit in favor of a simple, well-fitting suit and tie, and he encourages the rest of the band to look sharp on stage. The band also aims for fidelity but leaves itself a little room for originality.
"Some of the solos are verbatim," Curt says. "But Josh Hobbs is a wonderful guitar player, and I love to hear him play, so sometimes we hit a solo section and just let him go. We change that stuff up, the same way the Heads would have done. If you listen to their live stuff, they did the same.
"I feel like we are paying tribute to music we love," he continues. "It's not like we play popular songs just to make money, even though we do sometimes. It's because we fell deeply in love with this music at some point in our lives. I like paying tribute to it even though we don't wear the costumes and go full-out. I think even that would be doing a disservice. I like the fact that we play this music in our own way and bring something of our own to the table as players and still try to maintain the thread of the Talking Heads throughout."
CORRECTION: The original version of this story identifed an earlier lineup of Same as It Ever Was.