Via Dove as AC/DC for An Under Cover Weekend [Interview]
Via Dove had just finished their final practice preparing for An Under Cover Weekend at a local studio in Midtown. Meeting at the studio, we reconvened at Sasha’s Wine Bar at Shaw and Thurman to talk. Sitting down on the patio with a few beers and pizza, Andy, Aaron and Reid discussed the challenges of playing this music and what the event means to them.
In the interview, I found the members of the band to be open, honest and forthcoming. They are genuinely interested in the band they are covering, but not in a purely devotional way. They respect the artist allowing the music to inspire them. This reverential look allows the members to be challenged and stay committed to the concept of the event at the same time.
Why did you make the decision to do AC/DC for An Under Cover Weekend?
Andy: Because we couldn’t agree on anything else. [Laughs]
Reid: Yeah, kinda. This is our third year to do it and the first couple of years we just kind of indulged ourselves. We did Pearl Jam last year and The Rolling Stones the year before and those were a lot of fun. So this time we talked about how our choice as a tribute could best serve the event and the music community. So we looked outside our desires to play a certain band.
Reid: We talked about The Who and some other bands.
Andy: The Who was basically 3 to 1 and in this band we generally try to work “all in.” The four of us have to really agree on what we’re doing. Sometimes you have to coach people along, but one of the members was staunchly against doing The Who to the point of “No, we won’t do it.”
Reid: AC/DC was kind of an afterthought honestly.
Andy: We had agreed on something else and there were two picks and at the last-minute we put in AC/DC.
Aaron: Ryan Adams was one and Black Sabbath was on there.
Andy: INXS was on the short list.
Aaron: Beck was on the short list.
Wow, a wide varied group of artists! A number of different directions you can go there...
Andy: I think that Beck has been on the short list every year…
Reid: We conquered the Rolling Stones and we conquered Pearl Jam and those are two juggernaut bands. Both have cult followings so we kept the bar high and decided to kill this juggernaut next.
The nice thing about AC/DC is a very iconic band with the Rock ‘n Roll pedigree, but without the rabid following that other bands might have, but everybody knows. Besides, they just rock, pure and simple.
Andy: One of the things that I didn’t realize in researching the lyrics on their website and they are sorted by album and then by year. So, I’m going thru and their first record is 1975 or 1976, I’m looking at the different eras [they have been a band]. Glam Rock was popular when they were really coming up. Then, they went through the whole Hair Metal thing unfazed. They lose a lead singer [Bon Scott], but apparently he had noticed Brian Johnson and basically ended up picking him as his replacement. The lead singer of Slade was the other guy.
Reid: That’s how they keep going without missing a beat.
As a band AC/DC loses its lead singer after recording their best album to date inHighway to Hell. Then they move on to recording one of the best albums of all time. That’s not easy to do. They put the sadness and grief into their work and release Back in Black which places high in lists of great albums of all time.
Reid: Back to the topic of rocking, as a drummer I have a little bit of a jazz style occasionally so it was fun to play Charlie Watts (The Rolling Stones) stuff. I just love him and have a similar playing style. Then you switch over to Pearl Jam and it’s all ride cymbal, bell and other elements. By comparison, AC/DC doesn’t even use a ride cymbal. Drums, hi-hat and crash cymbals. That’s it. They’re parts of an instrument and they’re not used…They work their songs around that and I never realized that until I started playing the parts. The first few practices I had the ride [cymbal] and realized I was never touching it.
You go back to your set up and how you normally play. It’s the same thing with guitar. You might end up using a different guitar that you don’t use most of the time – a back up – or you pull pedals out of the closet that you haven’t used in five years because you’ve figured out your sound.
Aaron: The biggest thing with Angus Young is that he does a lot of double-stop unison bends to where it has a screeching sound to where he gets a tense sound with your notes together, which, for me, I don’t do a lot of in my playing style. One of the songs we’re playing the whole end is nothing but that sound; that was a challenge for me. I play with jazz strings usually – thicker strings that have a rounder tone. I had to change my entire set up and go with slinkier strings that I had to string a special way to be able to pull those off. He has spent his whole life mastering that style and I have like three weeks.
Aaron:I do not. We’ve been looking around, but we couldn’t scrounge one up.
Andy: There might be the purchase of one tomorrow. [Laughs]
Aaron: I wish I had the extra funds just to buy one, but I play a Les Paul with similar pickups, but it’s just a heavier guitar. I watched an interview with Angus Young where he discusses playing the SG and the Les Paul. He said the Les Paul sounded good, but beat the hell out of his hip. That’s another challenge with moving around as much as he does with the heavier guitar. That’s the biggest challenge for me at least is living up to the energy level that Angus Young brings. Each performance that we do there’s a certain ethos that you have to capture. It’s not just playing the chords and the notes.
Andy: We go all in. We try to at least.
Meeting you in the parking lot tonight I figured that was the case especially since you’ve added event organizer Michael Tomko on guitar. I’m assuming there will be an element of dressing up, etc…
Aaron: We like that aspect of An Under Cover Weekend. Not just playing the songs, but embodying the band and letting the audience imagine what it would have been like to see that band in a small club at our age. We’re trying to get as close as we can at least.
Reid: Look at all those signature things like the way that Bon Scott is always flexing and full of emotion with eyes kind of crazed. People don’t always get that… The way that Phil Rudd plays drums he’s always doing this the whole time [gently bouncing up and down simulating a standard drum beat]
Then you’ve got Malcolm Young standing back there in front of the amps, not motionless, but fairly stoic and banging out the chords. He seems to be the embodiment of the band and Angus is the real talent and Malcolm becomes the fellow songwriter and leader of the band.
Andy: It’s kind of funny that you say that because in some ways, even though Tomko is not in the band, he has that observation point that normally in our normal configuration I normally have. He’s been the one in this process to steer us and correct us. He’s aware of a lot of what’s going on because we’re all focused on our parts - him and Mike, our bass player.
Aaron, you were talking about breaking outside the box of playing someone else’s guitar style. So, Andy is this sort of a different singing style for you? Is this comfortable?
Andy: I am a big fan of INXS. I have based a lot of how I sing off Michael Hutchence. So, personally this is a lot different. The only similarity is that all three lead singers – Scott, Johnson, and Hutchence – are all from Australia. It’s quite different, but I’ve learned a lot about where to sing from. The first year we did the Stones by the time we got to the set I was nearly horse because Jagger has those razor vocals. Now, I’ve sang Jagger a couple of other times in tribute projects. I’ve learned how to change my voice without losing it. Whereas, Eddie Vedder is low. It’s hard to sing his parts because I’m a true tenor. I’ve had to be careful, but I’ve been surprised and I’ve been strong. Right now I’m singing every night of the week. I have rehearsals every night.
Plus, I’m assuming you’re crossing over between both periods of Bon Scott and Brian Johnson which has to be a challenge because they’re two completely different singers.
Aaron: [To Andy] That’s what I’ve been impressed with the most. You’re ability to sing the songs and go between both Scott and Johnson.
Andy: We did build the set to sequence songs in such a way that there are chunks of one singer and then the other. The set is book ended by songs that Johnson sings, but there is a set of Scott songs all together. When I’m going after notes, Bon Scott’s style is very similar to the way I sing. He’s not a stretch.
Aaron: You haven’t had to work as hard to get there…
Listening to Scott over the years, it doesn’t sound like he came from a great singing background. He seems like a working class guy that ended up singing for a band. Whereas when Brian Johnson came into the band he had been doing it a while before he came into the band.
Andy: …and he has a distinct vocal style.
Aaron: The Brian Johnson songs have been more challenging in our practice. Andy nearly blacked out the other night from pushing [too hard].
Andy: After singing his stuff for the first time I woke up with pains in my chest. Last November, I had a collapsed lung and I had very similar feeling and I woke up and thought “Oh my gosh, my lung has collapsed again.” This is not good. It just gets sore right here [points to his chest]. I can’t describe it. It’s weird, but you get muscles from singing like that. There is so much power pushing from your stomach into your chest.
Aaron: That’s one of the reasons we like playing this event because it forces you not just to play a cover song, which we do from time to time, but to play a whole set where you have to take on a whole new set of challenges.
Andy: That and it’s honestly a wonderful break from playing our own stuff! It’s funny… We heard that a lot of bands didn’t do it this year because they didn’t want to take the time out, but for us it’s like… We love our stuff, for sure, but
I can see where it is a nice break. You’ve got a set list and you’re mostly going to be playing a 45 minute set as an opening band. There’s a set list that works for you and material that you want to showcase and it can get a little tedious after a while. Especially if you’re not writing a lot of new material all the time or trying to promote that album that came out 9 or a year ago.
Aaron: We’re pretty good as a band about mixing it up. I think that's one of the things that makes us stand out from other bands where we’re mixing up our own songs. We’re improvising or changing the arrangements on the fly so we don't get bored.
Andy: Of late we've taken some of our earliest songs that we wrote and started playing them again. They're back in the rotation...
Aaron: ...and they sound completely different now.
Andy: The older stuff I played a lot of guitar and the newer material has more of me just singing. [In the future] I think we're probably going to split the difference a little more.
In your formative years did you listen to AC/DC a lot or has this been more of a research project?
Andy: I think it's different for all of us. I'll speak for our bass player, Mike, because I just heard him say it. He went through a phase in late high school or early college where he listened to a lot of [AC/DC]. For me, I was a little late to the game, but I like the early stuff. Like "Jailbreak", "Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap" and everything up to Highway to Hell. I like that period more, but I also think that "Thunderstruck" is one of the best songs ever.
Aaron: For me, I grew up in a small town where there wasn't a lot of progressive radio. There was basically country and Classic Rock, so I heard a lot on the radio. I'd never owned any of their records and still don't. So, for me, it's more of a research project, but I was still aware of Angus [Young] and his playing style. Which is part of why we chose them and what makes it a good Under Cover Weekend selection. It's a band that everybody knows even if they don't own their records or know their songs.
Reid: We think that it serves the event. I guess I was a little late to the game, too. I definitely prefer their earlier stuff. But it was a research project. I was familiar with their songs, but I didn't have their music really. I had Back In Black and a couple songs from T.N.T. plus I had "Dirty Deeds" - it's like the greatest song ever - that was my big pick for the set. When we picked it I went and downloaded a lot of it to hear it. I always thought from a drum perspective that it was snares on the two and four and accents on every couple of two. That's what the drums feel like until you really start to listen them.
Andy: Yeah, I think that's the biggest thing. We all entered this project thinking this was going to be easy. [Laughs]
Reid: I didn't think that [Aaron's] part was going to be easy.
Aaron: Guitar chord wise... what are the chords? A, E, D? Typical blues chords, but what order and they do some really cool, interesting things with them for doing the same thing. I'd be hard pressed to say that I could write that many songs with that limited chords and keep going.
You guys are all in your late 20s now. I started listening to AC/DC in grade school when Back In Black came out. This was the music I grew up on. I gave friends copies of Highway to Hell for their birthday. My friends and I all listened to that stuff from the early 1980s. This music is ingrained in my psyche.
Reid: You'll be our harshest critic then...
But, I come from the same perspective that from an outsider's view this music seems easy. Cliff Williams has these simple bass lines and the same thing with drummer Phil Rudd - how hard can this be? Do you really need to practice?
Andy: Yeah, you do! Especially some of their later stuff... "Thunderstruck" and "For Those About To Rock" - both of those songs are in our set - they're intricate.
Reid: Like "Thunderstruck", there are a couple of parts that don't repeat. These are little moments that only happen one time.
Andy: This is a band that conquered everything that they set out to do, but the still need to go forward and keep putting out hits.
Aaron: Each year has been a challenge, but each time it gets progressively harder and harder.
Andy: I agree I don't think that they get enough credit for being as talented a band as they are.
I don't know if you know this, but the older brother of Malcolm and Angus, George Young produced all their older material. He was in a band called The Easybeats who were the Beatles of Australia. They had the song "Friday on my Mind" and he was the mentor with his younger brothers following along on the coat tails worshiping the fact that their brother is in this really great band. So, early on they were still using the 60s mindset. They were a rock band from a small town in Australia...
Andy: Where they were from - Fremantle is a suburb of Perth - while Perth is a large city it's still isolated and they probably didn't have access to a lot of high-tech studio techniques.
They probably didn't get to use some of those techniques until they started working with Robert "Mutt" Lange. That's the fun thing about this weekend is that you get to dive into the details of these bands and some of the bands like yourselves probably get more out of it than the fans.
Andy: Yeah, I think the fans get a great show. Last year, we played as Pearl Jam and there were all these people there in their mid-20s or my age who were really emotional about the music, singing all the lyrics with tears streaming down. I had a lot of trouble singing that last year. I was wearing a wig and inhaling fake hair. At one point I tossed the wig because I realized that I had to do this justice. There were people here see this. You realize you have to raise the bar. The adrenaline starts going and you feel like you're playing a sport. It's a rush!