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This Rock Scene's Saving Grace 

What inspired somebody to start a cover band to play an obscure Fall album? A dislike of cover bands, for starters.

Wednesday, Jul 12 2000
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Matt Jervis is sitting at the kitchen table of his Noe Valley apartment, explaining how he came to embark on an experiment in musical masochism. The ex-singer for local bands the Clarke Nova and Kingdom First is animated, intelligent, and appears to have a very informed idea of what he and his current collaborators -- ex-Faith No More bassist Billy Gould, ex-Fudge Tunnel guitarist Alex Newport, singer/guitarist/ keyboardist Miya Osaki, and ex-Horsey drummer Jon Weiss -- are in for. The perilous task at hand is performing the Fall's 1988 album This Nation's Saving Grace in its entirety for two local shows at Kimo's July 14 and the Covered Wagon Aug. 3. While it's safe to assume that some people will be less than impressed by this feat, it's also safe to assume that those people have not heard the Fall. "Look at this," implores Jervis, 31, in an exasperated but whimsical tone, pointing to a four-page, single-spaced printout of the lyrics to "What You Need," taken from one of the Fall's many fan-run Web sites. "He's making it up. He must be. Or he's reading out of a book."

"He" is Mark E. Smith, founder, singer, and enigmatic leader of the Fall, the Manchester, England-based group that stands as a monument to defiant idiosyncrasy. Since forming the band in 1976, Smith -- aided by an ever-rotating cast of disciples -- has issued nearly a hundred albums, singles, and compilations, all of which contain song and album titles that make indie heroes Guided by Voices' often surreal word couplings sound like an engine repair manual. In fact, it's difficult to convey not only the enormity of the Fall's recorded output, but also the influence that Smith has wielded among the universe of alternative rock acts both in Europe and the United States. Pavement, the Jesus Lizard, and Girls Against Boys have all paid tribute to the lanky Mancunian, whose bizarre lyrics and patented caustic vocal delivery have inspired fandom that extends far beyond rabid -- into a realm where four people from San Francisco cover an impossible album like This Nation's Saving Grace in its entirety. Twice.

Yet, Smith himself can't even recall making the album. "I don't very much remember it," he says, speaking from his Manchester home following a brief tour of Scotland with the Fall. Despite his contrarian reputation, on the phone Smith is polite, attentive, and about as intimidating as a teddy bear. And while legions of Fall enthusiasts will consider Jervis and company's project a musical running of the bulls, Smith sees it as no big deal, an amusing lark perpetrated by yet more die-hard fans. "I think it's great. I think it's lovely," he says with genuine enthusiasm. "I'm happy that it's not [recorded for] an LP." Smith relates the story of the Dust Devils, an American band that used to cover "Paintwork," one of the most challenging songs on Saving Grace. "They were really bad," he laughs, speaking in short bursts. "I had to tell 'em to stop."

Jervis' band, christened Triple Gang after a lyric from Saving Grace, has no intention of outstaying its welcome. Jervis was first inspired to take on the project after reading a now-infamous Wall Street Journal article this spring which placed the much-exaggerated death of the SOMA music scene at the feet of hit-parading cover bands whose members, fished in by big money (by musician standards), chose to ply the hits for dot-com carpetbaggers instead of nurturing their own artistic visions. Disgusted but intrigued, Jervis -- who used to work the door at Bottom of the Hill and is now music content manager at music download site mjuice.com -- knew something must be done.

"It seems that every band, in order to get people out, had to lure them with some sort of candy," he explains. "I thought, 'Fine, let's do a little call to arms here. If we're going to try to lure people with covers, let's challenge them at least -- let's do something.'" A hard-core fan of the Fall since discovering them as a DJ in his native Colorado at age 16, Jervis knew that Saving Grace was perfectly suited for upping the cover band ante. "It was like, if that's what people want then I'm gonna go to that level and piss them off, or challenge them when they're not expecting it," he says. "When you go to see a cover band, you're not expecting the Spanish Inquisition. You're not expecting [Saving Grace songs] 'L.A.' or 'I Am Damo Suzuki' or any of that shit."

Jervis admits that the people who most need to witness Triple Gang -- the upwardly mobile drones who patronize traditional cover bands -- probably won't be in attendance at the band's two shows. But, he says, "we don't want those people; this is for the family, so to speak." While Newport -- a huge Fall fan who's recently produced records for Knapsack and At the Drive In -- claims no interest in the cover band phenomenon or Triple Gang's role in it, Gould shares Jervis' disdain and appreciates the opportunity to perform a piece of music which so obviously flies in the face of the conventional cover band repertoire. "I think there's so many fucked-up cover bands around here making people feel good," says the easygoing bassist and longtime Fall fan. "I don't know if the people that need to hear it are going to hear it, but it's just kind of a good thing to do, if anything just for personal bile-releasing."

In performing the album, Triple Gang will be tackling many Fall fan favorites, including the aforementioned "L.A.," "I Am Damo Suzuki" (Smith's perplexing homage to the Can singer of the same name), "Spoilt Victorian Child," "Gut of the Quantifier," "Paintwork," "To NK Roachmen: Yarbles," "Petty (Thief) Lout," "My New House," and eight other slices of Smith's patented aesthetic psychosis. Deemed by many fans to be one of the Fall's best albums, This Nation's Saving Grace clocks in at 65 minutes. While an hour's worth of music might not appear terribly daunting to most talented musicians, learning just one Fall song could be the death of many bands; learning a whole album is akin to killing oneself by washing down a bottle of elephant tranquilizers with a case of Moët. Still, Newport, Gould, and Weiss are relieved, mainly because they're not Jervis. "I would mention to people that I was doing this band and they would immediately say, 'Are you singing?'" says English native Newport, 29. "And I was like, "Oh, no. Oh, no.'" "I was scared," Gould says, recalling what he felt when Jervis first approached him about the project. "But hey, I'm not the singer, you know?"

Singing This Nation's Saving Grace isn't simply a matter of learning verses and keeping them straight in one's head. In fact, the average bar band bawler would last about 30 seconds with one of Smith's tangled tomes. There's the issue of cadence to contend with -- where to sing, how to place Smith's avalanches of bizarre verbiage just so. There's also the issue of Smith's legendary vocal tic, adding an "-uh" to the end of select words or phrases ("I'm free range-uh," goes one of the band's choruses; "Arms control poseur-uh," goes another). Jervis will not be employing Smith's inflection. "God, that's been the bane of this whole project," he laughs. "As a vocalist, I've committed crimes against Mark E. Smith and I'm here to come forward as an abuser. There are a lot of places in these songs where it's so important to sound like Mark E. Smith that I've refused to sound like him. Because I don't want that, 'Oh, he did it OK, until he hit the last word' thing. I told Alex, 'If I fall into an English accent just slap me in the head.'" Chances are that Newport won't have any reservations carrying out his friend's request. "I think Matt will admit that he's taken many ideas from Mark E. Smith in the past; I could hear that in Kingdom First," says Newport, who met Jervis while producing that band. "But he doesn't sound like Mark E. Smith singing these songs. He's not trying to do that and I'm really glad."

In fact, the members of Triple Gang decided early on that attempting to capture every nuance of Saving Grace would be not only impossible, but insulting to the original. "The big question was, 'Are we going to emulate it or are we going to do a tribute to it?'" explains Jervis. "The first time we got together to listen to it we realized that there's just no common thread through anything but maybe the rhythm tracks. So emulation just went out the window. Because if we tried that, any Fall fan would have been appalled at us destroying the album." Newport believes the trick to doing the record justice is to rewrite the songs to fit Triple Gang's chemistry. "[Covering the album] is far too ambitious for mere mortals," he says. "I don't see it as much of a cover band as our own take on it. So, basically, we're taking those songs and rewriting them." "You have to find a way to make it work where it's not an embarrassing mess, which could so easily happen," says Gould. "It's like getting drunk and getting into a Formula One race. You're gonna get butchered and bloodied, but you do it anyway."

When asked if he has any words of advice for Triple Gang, Saving Grace architect Mark E. Smith simply laughs and says, "Just get a very clear tone on it. The simplicity -- don't be frightened of the simplicity of it. I remember having to run it into the group's head. A lot of bands can play something like 'My New House' and it'll sound just like, you know [lazily hums beginning riff of the song]. It's only gonna work if you keep at it. You just have to keep at it and keep at it until it's almost automatic."

Jervis claims to have gained a newfound respect for Smith in taking on this project. "As crazy and out-there as he appears, he's extremely focused and knows exactly what he wants," says the singer. "He has a very astute awareness." And while some -- including Newport -- might call it a stretch, Jervis and Gould see obvious parallels between the subjects Smith tackles on Saving Grace and the economic boom taking place in San Francisco. "On 'My New House' it's almost like he's talking about San Francisco right now," says Jervis. "'Cause we're in a position where we're being culturally cleansed. I see a lot of parallels. I really had to keep myself from making [the performances] a slide show." Jervis cites other Saving Grace songs like "L.A.," "Spoilt Victorian Child," and "Couldn't Get Ahead" as containing lyrics that can be directly related to the fallout of San Francisco's new economy. "I know what he's talking about," says Gould, upon hearing Jervis' theory. "In a weird way, [the album] is kind of like [the Fall's] ode to yuppies."

Smith himself recalls that This Nation's Saving Grace was recorded amid the late-'80s economic boom in Britain. "I think it's very relevant now," he says, lamenting the fact that increased economic expansion continues to impact him and the Fall. "Half the new group live in London, which is really hard nowadays. It was easier to travel from Manchester to London in 1989 than it is now. It used to take two hours and now it takes four and a half."

Parallels and concepts aside, Jervis, Newport, Gould, and Weiss are simply looking forward to performing one of their favorite records all the way through. While the task might be daunting and infinitely harder than standard cover fare like "Boys Don't Cry" and "1999," the dividends have been much greater. "It's gotten me re-energized about music," says Jervis. "It's gotten me in this position of like, 'If I'm going to continue in music, I want to challenge myself as well as the people out there.'" Gould is confident that Triple Gang's heart is in the right place. "You have to do it for fun," says the bassist. "You can't do it any other way."

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Lloyd Langworthy

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