The first thing one notices about Knoxville's King Super and the Excellents—winner of the Square Room's most recent Sound Off battle-of-the-bands contest—is the mustache, that being singer Dave Bowers' frontispiece facial hair. And a most Excellent cropping of lip plumage it is, molded with American Crew Fiber Blue-Top Wax into a patrician curl worthy of a classic silent movie star.
The next thing one is apt to notice is the costumes: '80s Flashdance get-ups, state trooper outfits, jorts with lightning sweaters, homemade Pac-Man suits—it changes with every show. Except for the aviator sunglasses; those are a staple.
And last, though hardly least, one notices the music, an aggregation of decidedly weird—and sometimes downright awful—cover tunes, rendered with the Excellents' singular eclectic touch, and mixed in with an ever-broadening selection of originals, songs about dying unicorns and turds on Market Square.
"Our drummer [Scuba Steve Corrigan] asked me if I wanted to be in a band after I sang at a wedding one night," says Bowers, he of the magnificent mustache. "My response was, I want to be in a band that plays over-the-top music, with an over-the-top name, and that wears over-the-top costumes."
The idea was a quick sell for Corrigan, and the musicians who joined them shortly thereafter: guitarist Kenton Martin, a buddy of Corrigan's from the University of Tennessee music school; Sam Quinn, a blues-rock guitar player and former everybodyfield who took up bass just to join the band; and keyboardist Rusty Davidson.
"Part of the stipulation was, we have to have costumes," Bowers says. "If you're onstage, you have to respect that you're putting on a show."
"They told me, we already have a more ripping-er guitar player than you," Quinn says. "But I still wanted to be part of it. ‘Do I still get to dress stupid?' So many bands are so good, but they're so boring on stage. With us, there's a bunch of dumb shit going on onstage. People are pretty juiced to look at a bunch of people looking like morons. And I'm pretty juiced to look like a moron for them."
As to the band's music, Corrigan says the Excellents' original concept was "to play bad songs really well." Set lists have included covers from the likes of Meat Loaf, New Kids on the Block, Rick James, and the Trace Adkins novelty "Honky Tonk Badonkadonk."
"If it didn't suck enough, it didn't get it," Corrigan says.
Bowers adds, "It's really fun to tell people your music is absolutely terrible, and they stick around for it."
But "terrible" comes with an asterisk for King Super and the Excellents. These guys have music-school chops (in addition to Corrigan and Martin, Bowers was a baritone singer at East Tennessee State University), and can stretch a three-minute pop song into a long-form adventure. And they have a way of wholly reimagining the familiar songs in their repertoire. A loungy version of Green Day's "Basket Case," for instance, or Britney Spears' "Hit Me Baby One More Time" with Pink Floyd's epic "Comfortably Numb" inserted in place of the song's dance breakdown.
All of which helped the Excellents in winning the Square Room Sound Off, the impetus for the band's recent efforts at writing original songs.
"Steve walked into the Preservation Pub and said, ‘Do you want to enter this contest?'" Bowers says. "I said, ‘What does it take?' He said, ‘$20 and two original songs.' I threw a $20 bill on the counter and said ‘Let's win it!'"
The band wrote a pair of originals, one "'50's-style R&B number about a turd someone left on Market Square… a very pretty song about an ugly moment in Knoxville history"; the other "a German techno tune about killing the last unicorn."
On the last night of the competition, even the band was a little surprised when emcee Todd Steed called King Super's name as the winner. "I literally had no doubt at first," Bowers says. "Then I had a moment where I said, these other bands are good. We might not win."
"There were some other bands who were insulted," Quinn says. "Like, come on, we're a serious band, and we're getting beaten by a bunch of costumed buffoonery."
Don't look for that to change anytime soon, though. That's because the Excellents take many of their cues from a late, lamented local legend, namely Phil Pollard, the recently deceased percussionist, bandleader, and all-around provocateur whose Band of Humans trafficked in a similarly virtuosic mix of campy showmanship and musical derring-do.
"The Band of Humans is in my top-five bands of all time," Bowers says. "I had more fun at their shows than anywhere, losing my shit and dancing until everyone thinks I'm stupid."