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Radiohead cover band seeks to unlock Thom Yorke's genius

Nick Vlcek

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.

This could go on for several hours—or sometimes days— depending on the complexity of the song.

Tonight, Marc Z starts playing "Like Spinning Plates," a tune produced when Thom Yorke heard another song, "I Will," played backward in a studio. Yorke liked what he heard, so he rerecorded his vocals and created an entirely new tune by following the backward melody. Recreating this song live is, even for Radiohead, a challenge. Yet on this night, when the temperature outside fights to stay above -21, Marc Z is playing along.

 

RADIOHEAD NEVER PLAY the Twin Cities. The last time the band performed in the Great White North was in 1997, when the lads did a show in support of their album OK Computer. While the band now routinely fills football stadiums, back then Radiohead was still a mid-sized act, performing at the State Theater.

It was nine years later, in 2006, when Marc Z got the inspiration to form his Radiohead tribute band. He was at an open-mic night held at the Chatterbox pub down the street from his place when he saw an acoustic guitarist do a rendition of "Lucky" that floored him. He couldn't believe the guy was playing Radiohead. And he realized that was the extent to which Radiohead was being performed in the Twin Cities.

Yet, this being Marc Z, a man who sprints before he walks, he also decided the cities needed Pink Floyd and Nine Inch Nails tribute bands, too, since they rarely come around either. So he took his idea to the musicians section of Craigslist, and posted a want ad in the hopes of luring the weird fishes who would want to join him for such a project.

Now Forming: NIN, Pink Floyd & Radiohead Tribute Bands

What would it take to put these projects together? I think maybe this:

1) Talented, dedicated, and passionate musicians.

2) Players who have big ears and can pick up their parts off the recordings, then play 'em well—without having to struggle much.

3) Professional gear and the know-how to use it (samplers, effects, laptops).

4) Great improvisers with the ability to deviate from the material in their own ways (something I'm definitely interested in doing).

5) Players who are interested in and can do a LIMITED AMOUNT of rehearsals by showing up knowing their parts, and nailing it all down relatively quickly.

6) Ideally, players who do NOT have drug or alcohol problems.

7) (Insert your idea here)

At this point, it's only a thought, but a WAY BIGTIME SERIOUS one!

It took time and several repostings to get responses from enough quality musicians. To separate the chaff, he asked that each of the guys be comfortable playing the most difficult songs from the Radiohead catalogue—songs like "Airbag," "Everything in Its Right Place," and "Pyramid Song."

"If they could get through these songs, I thought, then all the rest of the songs would fall into place," says Marc Z. "Some people stopped responding after I told them what songs to learn."

One of the first guys to respond was Nate Wycoff, the graphic designer. He lives on a five-acre farm in Wisconsin with three horses, three kids, a patient wife, and a couple of dogs and cats. When he saw the Craigslist post, he'd already been gigging for the last 13 years and was interested in all three of the bands. "I'd been doing straight-up rock—four-four time and power chords—and wanted to do something different," Wycoff says. "Radiohead's music has so many textures going on and really weird sounds and sometimes you can't tell if it's a guitar or a spaceship."

Responding with Wycoff was Imran Hussain, the database analyst for Wells Fargo. His current life has him busy with a wife, an 11-month-old daughter, and an apartment in St. Louis Park. He rocks a shaved head, jet-black goatee, and one awesome secret about his past: He's a heavy-metal rock star in Bangladesh, the Far East's version of Slash. Before coming to Minnesota for school, Hussain was a founding member of the band Rock Strata, who pioneered hard rock in the capital city of Dhaka. Rock Strata came to define the heavy genre now known as Bangla. When Hussain heads back to visit, local musicians line up to meet with him at parties. "Yeah, it's a little strange," Hussain admits. "Those kids don't realize they're better musicians than me. Although, the interesting part is that I feel like I moved away from hard rock. When I heard Kid A, it blew me away. Never, never did I think I'd ever be able to play these songs out. It's incredible."

 

With two guitarists in place, the band needed a bass player. Enter Scott Kee, the transportation coordinator from Northfield. He's another guy with a heavy-metal background. But unlike Hussain, Kee still looks the part: long dark hair, a leather jacket with steel buckles, tight black pants, and zip-up motorcycle boots. He originally wanted to join the Nine Inch Nails band, but Marc Z convinced him to do the Radiohead project. "It was a great challenge," says Kee. "Radiohead's bass player doesn't think like a normal bass player. You can't nail down his style. Every song is a complete challenge from top to bottom. Finishing one is an absolute personal victory. You just keep going and you never get bored with their music."

After a while, Marc Z found his lead singer in accountant Thom Fox (yes, that's his real first name). Fox had never been in a band before, but he sang in choir as a kid. When OK Computer was released, a friend had him read the lyrics on the CD booklet, and he liked what he read. "They spoke to everything I wanted to say but couldn't," says Fox. "And when I saw the posting on Craigslist, I wasn't sure I could be a lead singer. But I knew I could hit Thom Yorke's notes."

The final member to join was Paul Hill, the professional percussionist. He sports short spiky hair, Puma trainers, and a knack for finding occasions to use polysyllabic words in everyday speech. During a past rehearsal, the band was trying to peg down the feeling of a vocal refrain. It wasn't quite sad, but it was definitely a downer. Hill stopped the debate when he offered the perfect adjective: "lugubrious."

Hill had seen the Craigslist post for some time, but it wasn't until Marc Z posted another note specifically looking for a drummer that Hill decided to toss his skins into the game. "I really got into Radiohead with Kid A," say Hill. "I remember buying the album, heading home right away, and listening to it straight through. It's a band where you like their sound right away and appreciate them more with every listen."

 

ON A MONDAY NIGHT, Trocaderos night club is a shell of its cherry-bombing self. The place normally packs tight with a crowd fueled by Jägermeister and sporting halter tops, designer denim, and whale tails, but tonight there are only a few people inside, and their stares are attached to the flat screens above the bar.

Behind the stage, members of the Radiohead Project sit on the back staircase and debate their set list. Trocaderos messed up on their start time and pushed it back by an hour. Later in the week, the delayed start wouldn't matter, but on a Monday night, when the work week looms like a nun's habit, pushing the gig into the late hours could be a nonstarter. After discussion and a couple of rounds of smokes, the band members decide to trim their set, cutting about a half-hour of music.

When the band finally takes the stage, the floor is empty. It seems more like a sound check than an actual concert. Several dozen people sit at tables lining the walls, sipping beer between bites of pizza. A giant projection of an unhappy Macintosh computer appears above the band. It's a take on Radiohead's song "Fitter Happier" from OK Computer. But tonight it looks sadder than usual—lugubrious, even.

The band doesn't mind. The sound guy at Trocaderos is exceptional, and any night playing Radiohead is better than a night watching Family Guy reruns on TBS. The guys rock through their first few songs. Soon enough, two crowd members put down their pizza slices and begin to tap their feet. Three songs later, the taps turn into head bobs, and by the end of the night, the band wins itself, at the very least, two new fans.

On the stage, Fox still has on his Aeropostale hat. Whenever he's not singing, he waltzes back from the mic and hides from the audience. "You need to understand that I'm really new to this," he says later. "I'm not a lead singer. I'm an accountant."

When the band launches into their take on "Paranoid Android," a girl who had been sitting near the back breaks out of whatever conversation she was in and turns to the stage to scream. This is her song. And even if it's Thom Fox the accountant instead of Thom Yorke the rock star, it doesn't matter tonight. It's a song she connects with and it's coming to her live.

 

Not every musician is a songwriter. And while musicians who play in symphonies receive hefty contracts and global fame, cover bands usually punctuate their existence by being the butt of a joke. Among people within the music industry, tribute bands are met with a grin. Andrew Luftman, who works in A&R for Atlantic Records in New York, offers this email summation: "My feeling on tribute bands is similar to the old adage 'those that can...do; those that can't...teach; those that can't teach...teach gym.' To me, cover bands teach gym. And we all know how much fun gym class is...so really I'm not complaining."

For Marc Z, covering popular tunes is the way he makes a living. Whatever the song, be it "Mustang Sally" or "I Will Survive," he plays it and gets paid. He enjoys it, too. But years ago he noticed that other cover musicians just went through the motions for a paycheck. Their love for music was replaced by the need to pay the power bill. Gig by gig, he found himself following that path and didn't like it. So his Radiohead Project is just that: a project. And his band has already changed several of the tunes. The most noticeable is "My Iron Lung," a song that Yorke wrote about constantly having to play the band's mega-hit, "Creep." While the Radiohead version is a slow, three-minute build to a hard-rock finish, Marc Z's version cuts out the build and heads straight into the heavy stuff. They've increased the tempo, too, turning it into a punk-rock speed blast. "We like to say that we play the Reader's Digest version of 'My Iron Lung,'" says Marc Z.

Also, the band does not play "Creep." They like to say it's because Radiohead never really plays the song. But truthfully, the pop hit just doesn't interest the guys. Why spend time with Pablo Honey when you can learn a tune from Amnesiac?

 

BACK INSIDE THE Lake Vadnais Church, the guys are heading into the fifth hour of their rehearsal. Everyone looks fresh, though, the result of pacing themselves with smoke breaks and a case of the omnipresent Monster.

The length of the rehearsal is due to the business of their lives. At this point, most can only dedicate so much time to the Radiohead Project, and it's usually in a marathon session.

Their goal is to deconstruct each song and build it anew. With Radiohead, it gets tough. Some parts of their songs can't be described in words.

After playing "Cuttooth," Marc Z stops to ask Wycoff if he could bump up the background noise during the build to the final section of the tune.

"Nate, I think we need to add more of that sound."

"The part that sounds like a flock of birds?"

"Yeah, but I think it should sound more like a train terminal."

"Um, okay. Train terminal."

"Yeah, really go off on it, don't hold back."

"Cool. Does this sound right?"

A symphony of echoes loops out of his Kaoss Pad, a digital effect processor.

"Yeah, but bump it up even more. I saw in a video that Radiohead has one of their guys sit on the floor mixing through the tune."

"Cool. Could we run that section again?"

"Sure thing. Guys? Ready? Let's go from the top of the second verse."

The band launches into that section of the song. When it comes time to produce the sound of a train terminal, Wycoff kicks up the volume and ethereal echoes emanate from the speakers. The guys glance at each other and nod. They solved another piece of the puzzle.

The success leads them to celebrate with another smoke break.

While most of the guys are outside, drummer Hill shows off a little booklet he keeps next to his drums. It stores crib notes for each song. While most bands keep a common meter, Radiohead tosses aside predictable phrases and beats. On "You," they drop a beat every four measures. So Hill has to remember to play a set of 6/8-6/8-6/8, then 5/8 counts. Sometimes, he gets bucked. "You can lose your place really quick in these songs," he says. "And that's actually the exciting part about it. If you're going to play someone else's music, it might as well be worthwhile."

At their first show, he forgot to drop the note off "You." Such a small slip could turn the balanced chaos of the tune into pure noise. And when dealing with the loyal fans of Radiohead, screwing up a song is sacrilegious. "Luckily," he says, "Scott noticed the error and we played our way back without anyone noticing...I hope."

Difficult as the job of drummer is, the most stress of recreating Radiohead seems to fall on vocalist Fox. His job requires him to mimic the sound and style of one of the most distinctive vocalists in music, a voice that throws singers like an angry bull and ruins four minutes of every night at karaoke bars across the world.

 

Since joining the band, Fox made the decision to take private voice lessons. While he could already hit the same pitches as Yorke, he had a hard time directing the notes with resonance.

"I really had to change where the sound comes from," he says. "While I normally sing straight out, when I sing like Thom I have to position the notes in my naval cavity. It allows me to attain a similar resonance. But again, I always have to remind myself that I'm not Thom Yorke singing. But still, when you're singing his songs, it's hard not to compare."

This band is also a secret hobby for Fox. Close friends and family know he's in it and support him, but none of his co-workers have any idea. One surprise supporter of his endeavor is his mother. She's a big fan of Christian rock music, but when Fox left In Rainbows playing at her house one day, she started to fall for the secular band. Now, whenever the band plays "Weird Fishes," she's the first to scream.

Back inside the church, the band is pushing the six-hour mark when Hussain finally acknowledges that he's got a fever. Marc Z asks if they need to just stop; he says it's already been a productive night. But Hussain won't bow out. He says they need to go over "Paranoid Android" before the practice ends. The guys try to act like they don't want to and plead with him to go home and rest. But Hussain replies that he's okay. "I already have my acoustic guitar tuned for it, so we might as well go."

With that, the guys pick up the tempo again and lose themselves in the music one more time. After the last note, they pack up their gear, pick their cigarette butts off the church property, turn off the tiny plastic candles, and go back to their regular lives.

 

TWO MONTHS AFTER this rehearsal, the guys find themselves setting up their gear at Station Four, a hard-rock bar near the river in downtown St. Paul. This is a place where Pabsts are bought two at a time, where whiskey is poured rather than mixed, where the crowd is mellow if only one of the three urinals gets puked on by night's end.

Getting to the music room requires one to step down a short set of worn wooden stairs. It's nothing more challenging than stepping down into a garage, but the level of intoxication among patrons makes this endeavor the most difficult part of the night for some.

The band is trying an experiment tonight. They want to play a single two-hour-and-20-minute set, no breaks, and minimal pauses between songs. It's a test to see if they can keep an audience glued. "We noticed people leaving between sets," Marc Z said before the concert. "So we thought we might as well just play one giant one and push ourselves to see how far we could go."

As the band rocks through their first few songs, Fox no longer hides. Instead of sheepishly singing the vocals, he gives angst-riddled winces just behind the mic, spreads his arms wide, and passionately imbues emotion into every lyric. At times, he looks more like Michael Stipe than Thom Yorke, but no matter, his soul is in it and his movements elicit whoops from the crowd.

One listener goes nuts when the band leads into "You." Toward the back of the room, two guys bounce in place, shaking their heads on beat while singing along to the tunes without missing a word. One turns to his friend and shouts over the music, "These guys play all their hardest songs!" The other guy nods. Upon approach, he reaches down and lifts up his pant leg to show off a Radiohead tattoo on the back of his calf: the bear logo, a cuddly Ursus with bared teeth.

The guy introduces himself as Joey Kearney. Two years ago, he waited for eight hours in the middle of Chicago's Grant Park to watch Radiohead play the Lollapolooza music festival. It was scorching that day as he stood in the sun in a grass field without trees. By the time Radiohead finally took the stage, another 75,000 people had joined with him to see the same act.

"But when they finally came on, I forgot about standing all day with no room to move my arms," he recalls. "It was the best live show I've ever seen. I'd do it again."

 

For Kearney, it doesn't matter that the song is being recreated live by guys with backgrounds in accounting and data analysis. "Look, if I was Thom Yorke and saw these guys playing my own songs in the manner they play them, I would be pretty happy."

He mentions how Radiohead encourage their fans to mess with their music. With In Rainbows, the band made stems of each instrumental track available for download so fans could remix the songs on their laptops. And recently, the band announced the winners of a music video competition that had fans create their own animated interpretations of songs off the album. The band was so impressed by the quality of the submissions they provided an additional $30,000 in prize money and awarded first place to four videos.

Back inside the St. Paul bar, a small group stands beneath the stage to watch Fox flail his arms. Behind the keys, Marc Z has his eyes shut as his hair bounces around his head. On the bass, Kee continues to concentrate on the beat patterns along with Hill, who is busy keeping rhythm along with Hussain. Meanwhile, Wycoff focuses all his attention on his guitar, punctuating each note with self-assured control.

It's not Radiohead, but tonight, it's the next best thing.


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