This Must Be the Band

prof_tmbtb_sm.jpgCover bands amount to little more than glorified karaoke…or so I had come to believe.







For me, the most difficult aspect of being a music journalist is staying relatively objective in the face of my own entrenched opinions. After a lifetime of listening to music across a wide spectrum of genres, it becomes tricky to approach new bands, new songs and new styles without a preconceived notion of how any of the above should sound. During my formative years as a critical listener, I had no problem absorbing the music buffeting my ears. I could get lost in a song, fully focusing on the moment. Not anymore. New music garners comparisons to older songs, often getting tangled in a giant web of "it’s been done before." I find myself yearning for something completely different, if only to be able to lose myself again.

With this attitude in mind, it is little surprise that I’ve often held cover bands in low esteem. Cover bands take the stage when a venue fails to find a real act. They imitate other groups because they lack the talent to write compelling music of their own. Cover bands amount to little more than glorified karaoke…or so I had come to believe.

So when This Must Be the Band invited me to their performance in Chicago, I was more than a tad skeptical. Chicago is a long way to go to hear dated music. What’s worse, I knew virtually nothing about the Talking Heads, the focus of the group’s efforts. As I rode into Chicago with a few friends, I resigned to the fact that I probably wouldn’t enjoy the music, and vowed to drink myself into a more complacent state of mind.

What ensued was nothing short of amazing. This Must Be the Band took the stage at Martyr’s Nightclub, and proceeded to thoroughly dominate a two-hour set. Their look was unique (and I would later learn, quite representative of an original Talking Heads show), and their live sound breathed new life into a catalogue of songs over 20 years old. Perhaps it was my unfamiliarity with the Talking Heads, or perhaps it was the energy of their onstage performance, but This Must Be the Band managed to sell me on the idea of cover bands. Still, shaking off the idea that cover bands are inferior to an original band would be difficult. I was determined to address these feelings as I interviewed Charlie Otto, singer for This Must Be the Band.


First off, why the Talking Heads as opposed to any other band out there?

At one point, I remember sitting here at Martyr’s (because I work here), and watching a tribute band. I thought, "Wow, that looks like a lot of fun," and was thinking of bands that I like, and this one is the only one that I could do.

Dozens of bands cite Talking Heads as an influence, and many of these bands play covers of their songs. Do you find yourself compared not only to the Talking Heads, but also to cover songs they may be famous for in a different sense? When you approach a song, do you find yourself thinking not only of the original, but also about a cover someone else has done?

Yeah. Our drummer especially keeps bringing up that we have to do stuff more like Phish does it, and I tell him that’s a horrible idea….well, Phish is a bad example because they do horrible covers of Talking Heads. There are also good versions of things, and I really like them. Honestly, I work at this place and I see three bands a night, and Talking Heads are covered more than anybody else by far.

I was told that Talking Heads incorporated elements of multimedia into their performances. Do you have plans to do this in the future if you continue with This Must Be the Band?

We started doing that tonight, not multimedia, but bringing other musicians onto the stage later in the show, which is one thing the Talking Heads did. As soon as we can, we’re going to try and do anything that they put together.

Give me your thoughts on the lyrics, because Talking Heads are known for their abstract lyrics.

[David Byrne] said this himself, but he’s not very good at writing traditional songs, and this is the way it came out for him. He’s just weird enough that normal people are all about it. He just says anything that sounds good. It’s not about what it means but more about what it sounds like. I don’t know why. As far as his lyrics go, he’s like Beck. Beck is much more of an eloquent version of him.

My friends and I were talking about this on the way up. He would make random sounds with his voice and found words that sounded like the random sounds. Do you think that happens for a lot of their songs?

I have no idea. I don’t need more words to define what he’s saying. I just feel the way I feel and that’s good enough.

Where do you see this going in the future? To be honest, I don’t know where it would go because (I would think) a cover band’s ambitions tend to be limited to the band that they cover. You can learn every song by a particular band but you can’t play new songs.

I’m going to get sick of it at one point because of that music, but right now it’s so much fun. Think of it this way: In the past month, all I’ve had on in the car is Talking Heads to make sure that I did things right. I’m not sick of it at all, but I will be at one point and I understand what you’re saying about not being able to do anything new.

Do you think playing in a cover band is more or less difficult than composing and playing original songs?

It’s so much less difficult because it’s not hard to learn. It’s just hard to nail it as well as you can. It’s a lot easier to do cover [songs] because there’s no doubt about things. I don’t come in to practice and say, "Hey guys, I worked on this song. I hope you like it." We come into practice with a particular set of songs, and you have this part you need to work on.

When a band composes an original song, they have the liberty to freestyle even after it has been recorded. When you play a cover song, do you have that liberty? How true to the original do you have to be?

In all honesty, when you’re playing with three other people, it doesn’t matter whether the songs are originals or covers. You’re bound to it unless you want to play a really shitty show. Talking Heads have a lot going on that’s up for grabs and that they did differently every time. I can do whatever I want. There are things that people have pointed out and said, "Man, you didn’t do it like this," but for the most part it’s up in the air. With solos, I try and match the style and do it my way.

So you match the style more than the exact thing being played?

Yeah, sometimes. I don’t know.

Describe a typical audience. I’m sure you get people who are old school about Talking Heads as well as people who are just being introduced to it. If there is a typical audience, how would you describe it?

All sorts, but mostly my friends. [Laughs] The funniest thing is if I go to Kinko’s and make a flyer, there are some old people who say, "No way! I’m coming!" I can’t think of another word for this, but the hippies really love Talking Heads, the hipsters really love Talking Heads, the indie dudes love the Talking Heads. The only people who don’t like the Talking Heads are…Nazis, I guess. [Laughs]


By the end of the interview, I had come to a realization that had eluded me to that point. Cover bands are about the enjoyment of music. They perform a much-needed task by casting off the idea that music must break ground with every note, and bring the focus back to fun and entertainment. With enough talent and bravado, a cover band can reawaken a person’s passion for music, introducing a band to an entirely new audience. This Must Be the Band accomplished all of this in a single night. And to think I almost stayed home. | Joshua Vise

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