by Dan Bolles
Hey there, Solid State. How's things?
I just finished up an interview with Kevin Russell, from Austin, Texas progenitors of absurdist intellectual hillbillyism, The Gourds. Anyone who reads the paper regularly knows that the "rock interview" is not my particular forte. As such, I've decided to tackle the issue head-on and try as many different interview tacks as possible. Throw enough shit against the wall . . .
Last week, my interview with Broken Social Scene's Kevin Drew went from amiable to near-suicidal as I pressed a wee bit too much on the stresses of BSS A.F. (After Feist). You should see some of the shit I chose not to print. Isn't there some axiom about salt on open wounds? Whoops!
I'm currently gearing up for an interview with Tinariwen, an African group touring as part of the Cumbancha World Music Series. Should be interesting, but for one minor detail: no one in the band speaks English. So not only are my interviewing skillz a big-time work in progress, the Q&A will be conducted either through a translator — if we can find one — or via e-mail, which is pretty sterile. Sigh.
I was actually fairly pleased with The Gourds interview. Kevin seemed like a pretty laid back guy and lacked the pretentiousness of a number of the musicians I've spoken with thus far — nationally and locally. Plus, I've been a fan for years and have always wanted to ask him how he feels about their "biggest" song being attributed to everyone and their mother but The Gourds. (For the uninitiated, The Gourds recorded a hillbilly version of Snoop Dogg's "Gin & Juice" that achieved fairly widespread popularity on the interwebs . . . as a Phish song. The Napster version of the tune was also attributed to Ween and a number of other acts that don't even remotely sound like The Gourds. Damn hippies.)
I can't spoil it, since the interview is running in this week's edition. But he had an interesting perspective on the phenomenon and some good stories about the song.
Anyway, the conversation got me to thinking about great cover songs. Generally, I hate covers. In how many other mediums is that notion even an option? Would an author "cover" Hemingway or Faulkner? Would a painter "cover" Monet or Picasso? Granted, the phenomenon exists in film under the guise of "remake." But frankly, I usually hate remakes too — though "3:10 to Yuma" was pretty bad-ass. The cover is an enigma, only truly relevant in the world of music.
It's not that I dismiss the creative validity of reinterpreting another artist's work. Rather, it's that most bands do just that and choose to play straight of versions of their favorite tunes rather than invest any energy or thought into how they could put their own spin on an old song. It's too bad, because in the right hands, a cover song can offer brilliant new insight or completely re-invent the way a song is perceived, sometimes transcending the original altogether.
Take, for example, the queen mother of all cover songs, Jeff Buckley's "Hallelujah." Not only is Buckley's version about a bazillion times more emotionally engaging than Leonard Cohen's original, it's become the standard version of the song. Listen to the version Rufus Wainright recorded. He's not covering Cohen. He's covering Buckley, covering Cohen. And he's not the only one. Scores of artists in hipster coffeehouses and rock clubs the world over cover Buckley's cover. Not only is it a testament to Buckley's otherworldly ability, but to Cohen's remarkable poetic lyricism.
In a similar, if less iconic, way, M. Ward's version of David Bowie's "Let's Dance" turns a high-energy romp into a mournful, slow-burning elegy. Maybe Bowie's song wasn't meant as a party tune after all.
The cover song can be a powerful weapon in an artist's repertoire. But only if they take the time to flesh out the deeper subtleties of the original or turn the song completely on its head and arrive at remarkably different destination. The Gourds did and it — almost — made them famous. Damn hippies.