Radiohead cover band seeks to unlock Thom Yorke's genius

"What's That?" recreate some of modern rock's most complex songs

As the burnt glow of a fall sunset in November fades to black, freelance musician Marc Ziegenhagen, in his 40s, with strawberry blond locks and a manageable girth, pounds out six-note chords on an old upright piano. Ziegenhagen, or Marc Z as he prefers, is a man whose musical ambition sometimes exceeds his comparatively modest stature, and his current mission has him inside the Lake Vadnais church, an off-white chapel tucked between a freeway and a row of mini-mansions and the lake. The church overlooks a trailer park full of little homes placed alongside one another like loaves of bread. Inside the church, tiny electric candles illuminate the windows. It's here where Marc Z will spend the next six hours trying to get inside the mind of Radiohead lead singer Thom Yorke.

Surrounding Marc Z are a graphic designer wearing a bandana and baggy carpenter pants, a percussionist in a Captain America T-shirt who substitutes with the Minnesota Orchestra, a jeans-clad database analyst for Wells Fargo, a transportation coordinator in faded black sweatpants, and an accountant wearing his Aeropostale hat backward. They, too, are here to reverse-engineer the songs of Radiohead.

In front of them sit row upon row of empty wooden pews. Earlier in the day, a small congregation gathered in the same location to praise God. In a few minutes, this group will itself show a devotion akin to prayer, albeit with amplifiers and drums.

Marc Z surveys the band and swigs from his ever-present can of Monster energy drink. Each member looks ready to play. But before they start, he leans into his mic and suggests a smoke break. The guys meet his suggestion with eager nods. Soon the church is empty again, aside from the drummer and lead singer, who are still trying to work out an audio problem while puffs of smoke start to appear in the cold air outside.

"You really doing a story on us?" asks the lead singer, a boyish-looking man from North Dakota who sings in the church choir.

"Yep."

"Could I ask why?"

"You're not the normal tribute band. It's one thing to jump around in tight pants playing power chords, but another thing altogether to attempt playing Radiohead."

"Oh," he responds while repositioning his ear piece. "Well, then I hope you like it."

The band walks back into the church and goes directly to their instruments, and Marc Z completes his final checks. "We ready?" he asks the band. "Good. Let's start off with 'Bodysnatchers.'"

The band looks toward the graphic designer, who holds a black Fender Stratocaster that shows its age in scratches. He nods his head. A distorted set of chords jumps off his strings. The sound echoes through the church, vibrating the windowpanes. This intro helped make the song a top 10 hit for Radiohead, and his rendition sounds just as clear. He repeats the chord progressions four times before the accountant leans into his mic, the drummer strikes his crash cymbal, and the band takes flight.

Marc Z shakes his locks from side to side, steps back from his keys, and holds a high note. The shipping manager bounces his head and thumps his bass with cool control. The drummer looks straight ahead while the data analyst stays calm, keeping rhythm on his guitar while the graphic designer spastically twists his right hand over the strings. Meanwhile, the accountant's voice resonates over it all.

The tune causes the Bibles in the back of the pews to vibrate against the prayer cards like applause from an invisible audience.

The song ends as abruptly it started, and as the final chord fades alongside a cymbal crash, you start to realize that these guys don't just play Radiohead: They channel the band's soul.

 

IN 2006, RADIOHEAD traded the comfy surroundings of a professional recording studio for the dilapidated rooms of a condemned mansion in Marlborough, England. It was there, in a pile of a country house, that their most recent studio album, In Rainbows, finally started to come together.

If such a dreary environment inspired Radiohead, then the room where Marc Z sleeps, works, eats, and practices should win him a Grammy. It's a small converted attic space in south Minneapolis. Garbage bags full of empty Monster energy cans sit on the floor by his bed, a dingy futon mattress. Near this is a cashew container full of cigarette butts and still more empty Monsters, lined up to form a tiny wall. Beside this is his sleep apnea machine, a vacuum-looking device with a small mask at the end of its hose.

"Again, I apologize for the mess," he says.

Inside this room, Marc Z does the repetitive work of learning the Radiohead catalogue by ear. To demonstrate the process, he takes out a cheap Radio Shack keyboard and places it on top of a cardboard box flipped upside down. On each of the keys is a little strip of Scotch tape that says which note it plays: F#-G-A-B-C-Db.

"I really just listen closely to the song about four times on my laptop and then begin banging out the notes," he says.

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