In an era when many long-defunct bands are settling differences (or simply realizing how much money there is to be made) and reuniting for bigtime tours, music fans can at least rely on one thing: The Smiths are never going to get back together. The egos of the folks involved are still too big, the dismissal of the band's rhythm section by frontman Morrissey too painful, and the ink on those lawsuits still drying.
Perhaps that's the reason that the ardor that Smiths fans feel towards the band only grows stronger every day. And the fact that dozens of young men and women around the world want to play some role in filling the gap by starting a Smiths tribute or cover band.
And seeing the mass of bodies that piled into Bunk Bar this past summer to hear one of Portland's only Smiths cover bands, This Charming Man, shows that the demand isn't going to slow down any time soon. Part of that, too, could be that this particular cover band is fronted by a fixture on the local scene: Jeremy Petersen, host of OPB's weekend music program In House Radio.
It helps too that the band--with Petersen as Morrissey, Rich Millward and Ben Alberts on guitars (either a nod to Johnny Marr's unnatural facility with a guitar or to the post Queen Is Dead live lineup that featured Marr and rhythm guitarist Craig Gannon), and Susan Reilly and Emily Hall in the roles of bassist Andy Rourke and drummer Mike Joyce, respectively--do a great job in recreating the Smiths' mix of glam, bubblegum pop, and post punk.
Petersen and Reilly were kind enough to answer some questions about their love of the Smiths, other tribute acts and the warm embrace that they've felt from local music fans prior to their show on Tuesday at Bunk Bar.
Promotional video for The Smiths' "This Charming Man"
Watching this video, what sort of connections does it stir up from when you first heard this song?
Susan: It reminds me of being in high school and hanging out with gay teenage boys who dressed like Morrissey and goth chicks who were in love with previously mentioned gay boys. And how strong the sense of being alone can be at that age, especially if you are into "weird" music like the Smiths and live in a smallish town.
Jeremy: I wasn't old or cool enough to catch up to The Smiths while they existed, so my experience was one of working backward. "This Charming Man" was the first Smiths song I ever listened to with intention since it was track one from Best I. This was 1992, and there was a girl there, too, but I digress. Then, as now, those opening guitar chords were immediate and exhilarating, and it was like hearing a sound that my brain had been longing for without knowing it. Watching this video now makes me nostalgic for a place and time I wasn't part of in the first place.
Why did you decide to take your fandom of the band that next step further and start playing their songs?
Susan: When the gods of PBR made it so (more on that below).
Jeremy: For me it was just right place, right time. Though it sounds like I'm overstating it, it's been nothing less than the realization of a 20-year dream.
How did the band get together?
Susan: Like many great ideas, it started with beer. I had been helping a friend figure out how to plan a benefit relating to LGTBQ youth. We tossed around a couple ideas, and my friend agreed that a set of Smiths covers would be perfect. So then I started asking different musicians I knew if they'd like to do it, and that's how we put it together. I asked Ben and Rich, and they both suggested Jeremy, citing his love of the Smiths as a great reason to have him join us. Emily is a huge Smiths fan so she was a natural addition.
Jeremy: And Ben and Rich and I had been in bands together before, so that was the connection for me.
Why did you choose This Charming Man as a band name rather than something like United Shoplifters of the World?
Susan: Because we had no idea that we'd be doing more than that one show, it didn't seem necessary to think long and hard about a name. Plus, being naive about Smiths cover band protocol, we had no idea that there were already so many Smiths cover bands out there, and that they all had names that were clever plays on Smiths songs. We were naive!
Jeremy: I believe I chose the name and I'll stand by it. It just seemed an obvious choice to me and I thought it was important that people know what the band was about by simply reading the name. I have no use for cutesy puns!
The Smiths performing "Still Ill" live on British TV in 1984
You're a rare cover band that doesn't work hard to ape the look and stage moves of the Smiths. Was that on purpose?
Jeremy: To me it comes down to the difference between a cover band and a tribute band. It might be semantics, but we're purposely the former. If there's a grouping of people who would fail miserably at the "look" of The Smiths, it's the five of us, myself in particular. I just don't have the coif. I think it's difficult enough--without running all over town looking for the right gladiolas--to capture the sound as well as we can. The rest seems like a lot of effort that always comes off to me as silly. That said, we're not up there in t-shirts and flip-flops. We do at least try to maintain an appearance that's in line with the songs being played.
How hard is it to capture the essentials of the band's recorded/live sound?
Susan: It's pretty challenging. All of the musicians in the (real) Smiths have distinctive sounds, and are great musicians, so all our members have their work cut out for them. It can be tricky, but that's part of what makes it so fun.
Jeremy: I've been continually amazed at the musicians in this band and what they've been able to do. We're missing some elements simply because we're trying to keep it simple, but often one of the guitars can pick up a missing keyboard line or something like that. My role is definitely the easiest (although my tambourine-ing is getting pretty hot and I do play a harmonica solo).
Does watching clips like this help you to get the sound down right?
Susan: Absolutely, it's incredibly helpful to see/hear how they are playing something. It's also helpful to watch YouTube videos of other people learning the songs, and the guitar players use a site called Smithsonguitar.com to get help cracking the Johnny Marr code.
Jeremy: At the same time, I think it can be unhelpful if everyone if learning from a different recording of a song. I encourage sticking to studio album versions except for where we don't.
As fans, is it a source of disappointment that you'll likely never get to see the band reunite?
Susan: YES! I think we have that in common with all the Smiths fans. I've heard a few stories from fans who have seen the Smiths live, and it's flattering that they approve of what we're doing.
Jeremy: Of course, but I will always hold out hope for a reunion. I also think their short existence is at least one reason why the music has aged well and is still held dearly by so many.
Promotional video for Morrissey's "The More You Ignore Me, The Closer I Get" (from his 1994 solo album Vauxhall & I)
You also dip into the Morrissey catalog with songs like this one. Why do that rather than stick to just Smiths stuff?
Jeremy: My, this is a surprisingly touchy thing for some. I think it originally had to do with the fact that we were trying to put together a setlist. I knew this one ("The More You Ignore Me") and it was relatively quick and simple to put together musically, so we did it (although we've recently placed it on hiatus for our set). We continue to do "Suedehead" because we like it and we just against all odds learned "November Spawned a Monster" specifically to play at Bunk Bar on November 29th, then probably never again. In our defense, we're far from the only Smiths cover band to play Morrissey songs, and Morrissey "covers" Smiths songs, too, so....
I feel like Morrissey's solo ventures - especially post Vauxhall & I - aren't held in as high regard as they once were. Why do you think that is?
Jeremy: His star definitely fell for a bit there, no doubt. For one, there were just some not very good records (Southpaw Grammar and Maladjusted come to mind, though both still had their outstanding moments). It seemed it just wasn't his time for a while, stylistically or as a personality type (never mind the music), but it was bound to come back around and it did. Suddenly there were all of these young bands and singers pointing to Morrissey and The Smiths as influences. Morrissey was cool again and Marr started making records with some of the young turks.
What do you think about the last few Morrissey solo albums?
Jeremy: It was interesting that Morrissey immediately started releasing better records when this happened, almost as if he was feeding off of it. I think You Are the Quarry and Years of Refusal are both quite good. Ringleader of the Tormentors fell off from those a bit, I think.
A Smiths tribute band tackling "This Charming Man" in concert
As folks who play Smiths tunes - how do you feel these guys handle this tune?
Jeremy: As our band's Morrissey, you're trying to get me to say something witty and cutting about them, aren't you? I think it's obviously very solid-- especially musically. To me, the singer makes it sound more like a band doing a "This Charming Man" cover (yes, I know, that's what it is) because his style is ways off from Morrissey's and he doesn't appear to be trying to affect it. But then, the same might be said for me since I only know how I sound in my own ears.
Have you heard/seen many other Smiths tribute bands? If so, what are your thoughts on them?
Jeremy: I've listened to a few on YouTube and they range from kind of bad to quite outstanding. They obviously have taste, so I'll give them that. Some feel a little weighed down by the theatrics of appearance. A few apparently make a living touring as a Smiths tribute band, so good for them. I heard a story about one based in New York who apparently had Mike Joyce show up at one of their shows unannounced. He eventually ended up sitting in them with them. This is either really awesome or really sad and is perhaps both. Given that Johnny Marr is a some time Portlander, we've fantasized (and also had nightmares about) something similar. We're waiting for our Marr Moment, Johnny.
Jeremy: It's interesting to hear the subtle differences that these bands bring to the same songs. I don't know, I mean, it's fine. The singer has the gladiolas but his phrasing is off, so there's the trade-off.
Why do you think people still hold The Smiths and their music in such high esteem to the point that tribute acts like yours and this seem to crop up all the time?
Jeremy: Like I said earlier, I think it has a lot to do with the band not overstaying their welcome. It's allowed their relatively small output to stay forever young--like James Dean or Dorian Gray. The fact that most people will never get to see them has a lot to do with the number of tribute bands and their popularity. Beyond that, and I'm obviously biased, the music is special. The songs have aged spectacularly well and themes like the awkwardness, disillusionment, and longing of youth will always be relevant.
This Charming Man performing "William, It Was Really Nothing" live
Yes, this is footage of you guys playing. Seeing this now, are there things that you love/hate about it?
Jeremy: I love that I didn't know it existed before this. Let me trip over myself in rushing to say that this was a private party (in a living room, no less) and this was the first time we ever performed "William..." after working on it for some of one practice. Notes are missed. Vocal lines are started too early. Falsettos are off key. Not all-together terrible, though. Yes, we were working on it. It's much better now.
The Portland music community has embraced This Charming Man rather quickly. How does that feel?
Susan: It feels amazing! When Smiths fans are happy, we're happy. It makes it all worth it. These songs mean a lot to so many people, and we want to do them justice.
Jeremy: It's felt really great. It's kind of a shock how well it's gone, really, and strange to be playing with some of Portland's real bands that we like a lot. I think we're just enjoying it for what it is while it lasts. I think we'd all secretly like to morph into a real band, but starting out with no one knowing the words to any of your songs is tough!
Would you guys ever do something crazy like record an album of your versions of these songs?
Susan: I doubt it - there are so many great recordings of the Smiths, it seems redundant. However, there has been talk of playing full albums (i.e. The Queen is Dead) in their entirety, and that could be really fun if people want to hear it.
Jeremy: Only if some of our Portland musical heroes would agree to take part with us (maybe a song each?) with all proceeds going to charity. Hey, what a good idea!