Role play 

How to navigate the world of tribute bands, with a little help from Missoula's Glass Spiders

I used to look down on tribute and cover bands for the same reason most people do: If you can play someone else's music so well, why not just play your own? My viewpoint on that changed a little bit several years ago when, I'm embarrassed to say, I ended up at Slim's in San Francisco to see Super Diamond, a tribute to Neil Diamond. The show was well executed, but the best part was how "Surreal Neil" captured his role so perfectly by reenacting between-song banter, word for word, from live Neil Diamond albums. That kind of commitment I could get behind. That was worth my time. Not long after, I saw Hell's Belles and Adrian Conner's Angus Young impersonation—guitar licks, one-legged hopping and all—sealed the deal for me. Yes, tribute bands can add something worthwhile to the musical landscape if they know what they're doing.

Our local musicians often do covers and tributes during Halloween, but the most recent example of committed tribute work is Glass Spiders, Missoula's David Bowie tribute band. (For those who don't know, cover band means you just play the songs however you want; tribute band means you try to mostly pull off an emulation of the original material.) The band has played only five times in the two years they've been together, and the members are all in their own original music groups. But with more tribute bands sprouting up around the world, and a 1990s night of tribute bands playing at the Badlander this week, I met up with Glass Spiders' singer Nicholas Ryan and bassist Jason McMackin to see if they could shed light on the perils and perks of tribute life.

I wanted to talk with you guys because there's this whole Northwest tour of 1990s grunge bands coming through town—tributes to Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains and Temple of the Dog—and I'm wondering what to make of it.

Jason McMackin: I feel like when they added the Temple of the Dog part of the tribute they upped the ante. To me, that means, 'We're doin' it.' These dudes are the types of dudes who probably know some Mother Love Bone songs and are just waiting for somebody to be like, "Stardog Champion!" and they're just going to be like [makes a bunch of bass sounds.]

Nicholas Ryan: They're just going to be waiting for something that will never happen—like that dog at the end of the "Futurama" episode that makes everyone cry. A temple to that dog!

How have your feelings about tribute bands changed over the years, from when you first started playing your own music to when you started Glass Spiders?

NR: In Minneapolis we would do New Year's Eve and everyone would pick a band and do a cover set. I feel like you always learn something from that. We did a Kinks thing and a Creedence thing. And even with Creedence, you could discover a lot of hang-ups. I don't think John Fogerty has ever written a song about a woman, or a love song, which is sort of weird. It seems like it's a given that there'd be three or four.

JM: I know that cover bands and tribute bands when I was 18 or 19 were ridiculed to the max, by me and everyone else who played original music. Even though the original music we were playing was fucking terrible, like Psychefunkapus garbage, slappin' the bass. It was the '90s. Whatever.

NR: No one gets a free pass! You were just following orders.

JM: And we had a rad time. But if a band showed up and just played covers, it was just like, "Boo! You suck." Even if they were really good at it. So you just didn't do it. And if you did do a cover it was ironic, like a Madonna song, or something that was such a deep cut ... And now, later, I still don't like tribute bands. I do one and I'm still kind of grossed out by them for some reason.

click to enlarge Washed in Black, A Pearl Jam tribute band, plays Missoula this Friday. - PHOTO COURTESY OF JORSILLO MEDIA
  • photo courtesy of Jorsillo Media
  • Washed in Black, A Pearl Jam tribute band, plays Missoula this Friday.

Why is it different for you to do a Bowie tribute?

JM: I think it's because there are different Bowies. He has such a huge catalogue. He has bands that are basically tribute bands—his bands from the '80s are playing those songs from the '70s in a way that's totally different. He's doing a performance and he's even doing a tribute to himself in some ways.

NR: He's also a writer. I've seen interviews where he refers to himself as a writer, and it's theater, you know? I mean, Shakespeare—people still do that.

What did you do to get into Bowie mode?

NR: I started smoking more. I lost weight. I now have a 30-inch waist.

JM: Halfway there, dude!

NR: I don't know. In a lot of ways I was already into it. I was in a heavy Scott Walker phase and he took a lot [from Bowie]. It's basically being like you're depressed that no one else is as cool as you—which is perfect for a town like this.

If you had to do a different tribute band, what would be your next choice?

NR: Duane Raider [bassist for local band Holy Lands] has been throwing around the idea of doing Roxy Music, and I think Roxy Music would be super fun.

JM: Nirvanya. This is a long-term dream of mine. It'd be Russian. We'd play accordion and do dancing and play Nirvana songs.

What are your thoughts on tributes from the grunge era?

JM: I was there. I was watching these bands [in] tiny, shitty clubs with very few other people ... The first time I saw Alice in Chains they were wearing makeup—they looked like Poison, right? And then mysteriously, literally 90 days later, they looked like how you imagine them now in your mind. But I'm not surprised that we're doing tributes to them—it's been 25 years-ish—so, of course ... Early on at least, there was some legitimate heat at their shows. It was fuckin' bangin'. Mudhoney in particular ... I would be in a Mudhoney tribute band and I would probably go see that because they don't take themselves so seriously. I don't want to go hear someone sing "Black Hole Sun." I don't even want to hear Soundgarden do it.

I don't want to make this about pitting tribute bands against each other, but what makes a good tribute band?

NR: There's a lot of things for me personally that I watch for. I remember seeing a band cover Exile on Main Street and there's that song where the guitar is run through a Leslie [speaker], and I was like, how are they going to make this sound live? And I was so disappointed that the guy's pedal didn't work.

JM: Yeah, I think you're looking for your personal highlights if you're coming at it from a musician angle. I know if the Soundgarden tribute band play "Rusty Cage," I know for a fact I would stand in back and go, okay are you going to tune your bass down in the middle of the song? Are you playing this in C-sharp and are you going to bang it out and is it going to sound right?

Do people in the audience who aren't musicians care about the technical stuff?

JM: I feel like when we play people aren't necessarily hearing us play, I think they're hearing the recorded song inside their head. As long as you don't do anything weird, make it a reggae version or honk any notes, if the band is doing a good job—and I just decided this just now—the audience is hearing the original song in their mind.

But also, not to be all fangirl, you guys are fun to watch. It's not just about having a live sing-along or something. What do you do to make it interesting?

NR: It doesn't have to be a somber thing. But I think it was Ben [Weiss, keyboardist] who said he'd seen other Bowie tribute bands where there's a bunch of musicians supporting this actor who is hamming it up. And Bowie isn't Elton John. [I'm] not coming out in a duck suit—yet. It could happen.

The Best of the Northwest Tribute to Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains and Soundgarden features Washed in Black, Jar of Flies and Outshined at the Badlander Fri., July 22, at 9 PM. $12/$10 advance.

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