For years, the line between cover bands and original bands was well-defined. These days, not so much. As more and more original artists struggle to make any money in today’s depressed musical landscape, local musicians find themselves opting to join and start cover bands. With the cover boom in effect, naturally the stigma of performing someone else’s music is disappearing. Many long time area cover bands, however, are starting to find the waters crowded. We caught up with a few of the county’s most popular cover artists for their take on the current climate.
The Veterans: Sound Effect
Think your band has been around a long time? It hasn’t if you’re measuring yourself against the titans of local longevity: Sound Effect. For more than 30 years, the guys and gals of Sound Effect, which, as expected, have had numerous lineup changes, have been a constant fixture on the cover band circuit. No matter the decade, if it’s soul, funk or R&B, there’s a good chance Sound Effect knows the tune. As one of the group’s long-term members with 19 years and counting, Lisa Sadowski has seen cover bands come and go and she’s not at all concerned about the competition.
“This past year was definitely our busiest since I’ve been in the band,” she said. “I think some of that is due to the economy coming back, but I think a bigger part is us really honing in our demographic. We’re more selective with bookings. We’re not catering to the teeny bopper crowd; our average demographic is mid-30s to 50s. We know what that audience likes and I think the key to being a good cover band is knowing your audience.”
The Professionals: Mini Driver Band
From being the current drummer in famed new wave band Berlin, to DJing and playing in not one, but two different cover bands, Chris Olivas is the rare breed that can make his living solely by making music. Of all his projects, though, the longest-running is the multigenre pop-rock cover band MiniDriver. Formed in the very early aughts, MiniDriver takes the cover business seriously, working hard to make the songs sound as close as possible to the original versions and always working on updating its set. It’s one of the tightest and most polished cover bands you’ll ever see, but it’s the lack of detail other bands show that concerns Olivas.
“The biggest problem with the current cover scene is over-saturation and . . . a lot of these new bands are horrible,” laments Olivas. “Their set lists are all over the place, there’s no flow to their shows, they’re talking in between every song. It looks bad for the cover bands who are professional and take pride in what they’re doing. A great cover band should be entertaining and put on a show that plays to the crowd. Worst of all, these same bands play so cheap, they end up undercutting the professional ones who take it seriously and are trying to make a living.”
The Blue Collars: What the Funk
What may frustrate full-time cover artists is exactly what David Diaz and his fellow What the Funk members pride themselves on: affordability and availability. What the Funk, truly one of the most diverse cover bands in the area, able to jump from classic rock to reggae to funk to country within in a single set, has been at it for around five years. Its philosophy is to play anywhere and everywhere without focusing on the money or hours in the rehearsal room as members openly admit their gigs are their practice.
“We’re all employed. This isn’t our only job. We’re not in it to gouge anyone,” explains the 63-year-old Diaz. “I know what some of these bands charge and it’s crazy. We’re doing this for fun. We’re blue collar. We’re there to play for the people. Backyards, house parties — we do it all and make it affordable.” Diaz, however, does think the county suffers from one universal problem when it comes to cover bands.
“What the clubs pay hasn’t changed since the 1970s. You can pack the bar, see the drinks moving, people dancing and tons of money coming in. Then at the end of the night they roll off a few 20s for you. I’ve been at it a long time, and that’s one thing that hasn’t gotten any better. Still, we’re out there to have a good time and make sure everyone listening is doing the same. We don’t let the pay get in the way.”
The Rockers: Mandex
Mandex is arguably the area’s best example of original musicians who have turned to covers to help pay the bills. The list of acts that Mandex band members have been in is like a who’s who of the county’s original music scene. Despite years of touring and recording dressing up in full glam gear and doing three sets a night of the finest ’80s hair metal, currently pays better than a set of any of their original projects. The band members however, all of whom still have active original projects, have no shame about the covers game.
“It’s fun,” says bassist Willi Love. “OK. It is covers and you don’t get the satisfaction of playing something you’ve written, but you do get the satisfaction of seeing people rock out to songs they know and love. We’re not a cover band that is playing music they can’t stand. We’re paying homage to bands that inspired us to make original music.”
But for seasoned musicians who have sacrificed so much for their own art, is there a sense of giving in or giving up by playing covers?
“Hell no,” says Love. “Whether it’s mine or someone else’s . . . I’m down on my knees, Shawshank Redemption-style, thankful anytime I get to make money playing music.”
The Eclectic: TresCoustics
Not all cover bands are dressed-up tribute rockers or eight-piece funk gurus. While not necessarily as loud as its colleagues, there are still plenty of bookings for a group like TresCoustics. As less raging venues like restaurants and street fairs want to get in on the cover action, the four-piece that can break it down to acoustic when needed lands a lot of non-traditional gigs. From the Pacific View mall’s food truck nights to dinner sets at local restaurants like the Waterside Restaurant in the Channel Islands Harbor, TresCoustics has had a busy year. What sets apart the three gentlemen and one lady of TresCoustics from many other acts is the fact that they don’t chase down today’s top hits or attempt spot-on renditions of Neil Diamond and Journey covers. They very much bring their own feel to a more eclectic set list.
“We really try to pick songs that are off the beaten path,” says Jodi Farrell, who by day is a popular local music teacher. “We don’t do the obvious covers and we put our own spin on things. For instance we’ll put three-part harmony on songs that have never had it. It keeps things interesting for us as artists, and we find audiences really react to hearing songs they know but with a different feel.”
The Lifers: House Arrest
If anyone can stand as a righteous example to a life under the covers, it’s John Grimaldo, one of the longtime members of House Arrest. A band nearly synonymous with Ventura’s Bombay Bar, which has given cover bands a home for decades, House Arrest is in the midst of its 20th anniversary, give or take a year. Versed in all things R&B from old-school to new, not to mention Latin and funk, House Arrest plays all the venues you’d imagine plus every cover band’s dream gig: high-paying corporate events and parties. One thing those shows have in common is that Grimaldo loves them all equally.
“I am a dyed-in-the wool blues and soul man. I just love R&B music,” says Grimaldo. “It’s a privilege to play it. Whether I wrote it or not, I always play music from the heart.”
While cover artists may disagree on the current climate, there’s one thing they can all get behind: their mutual feelings toward their arch enemy, the DJ. As Grimaldo bluntly sums it up for virtually all cover bands, “There’s no comparison. It’s apples and oranges. A DJ is not a musician.”
Check VCReporter’s weekly After Dark listings to find out when and where to check out one of these excellent musical acts.