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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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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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