Careers can come out of nowhere.
Five years ago, a group of Pennsylvania musicians got together for a one-night only gig to cover the music of The Talking Heads. Five years later, the band has become a highly sought-after tribute act, performing and packing at venues likes The Brooklyn Bowl on a regular basis.
Pop-Break caught up with the proverbial “man in the big suit” Jon Braun about how the band was able to take the music of a critically-acclaimed yet not overtly mainstream band and turn it into in an extensive and profitable venture.
The band will perform this Saturday at Mexicali Live in Teaneck, N.J. with their sister band HmfO: A Tribute to Hall & Oates.
Pop-Break: The Talking Heads are not the first band that comes to mind when it comes to forming a tribute band for. What was the inspiration to form a band based around this iconic New York group?
Jon Braun: Accidental inspiration. There’s a great bar in our hometown of Bethlehem, P.A. called The Funhouse. Live music 7 nights a week! On a side note, show me a place that does that in this day in age. Even in NYC and LA that’s a hard thing to find. We’ve all played at the Funhouse for over 15 years or so (some of us much longer) It’s like our home base. Anyway, Tina, the owner suggested we put together a group of local musician’s to perform Talking Heads material for one night. 200 people showed up and one night has now turned into five years. Luckily, we are all huge fans of the music, otherwise we would have never done it in the first place. Also the band is made up of a bunch of musicians and friends who have either known or worked with each other for a very long time. I feel like this gives us a bit of a musical advantage in some ways. There’s a bond both musically and offstage that allows us to truly share and enjoy what we are doing.
JB: As I was starting to say, getting the players together was actually quite easy. We all thought it would only be for one night, so everyone was game. As its developed over the last couple years it has been slightly challenging at times. We’ve had some people move on, or literally move across the country. But, we’ve been blessed with such an amazing family of musicians in the Bethlehem area (and beyond) that we’ve been able to replace or substitute every musician that wasn’t available with someone most or all of us already know (so, no hired guns or Craigslist ads). This keeps that feeling of camaraderie alive, even when one of the core members isn’t there. It also helps that I’ve never met a musician who didn’t absolutely love the music of Talking Heads. No shortage of people willing to play this music.
The learning and execution is a never ending process. We are constantly fine tuning things and finding different live versions/arrangements we can take from. This music is so deep. There are so many different arrangement possibilities it’s taken us a while to find the best ones with the amount of instruments and voices we have available.
PB: How difficult was selling the concept to audiences at first? The Talking Heads are a legendary band, but they aren’t on the level of bands you normally see tributes for say like The Beatles, Pink Floyd, Bruce Springsteen or The Rolling Stones.
JB: I think the fact that we aren’t one of the standard tribute acts actually helps us as opposed to hurting us. This being essentially and accidental band, we never really had an attack plan. It happened pretty organically. So wherever it goes is fine by us! There’s one other Talking Heads tribute out of Chicago (This Must Be the Band) that does a similar thing to what we do. But otherwise there is really no one else doing this. So that actually makes it easier to sell. Granted we’re not going to be filling huge theaters and doing world tours like The Machine (Pink Floyd tribute), but that’s okay. It allows us to keep things even more closely tied with the aesthetic of Talking Heads. That DIY, punk rock, left of center avant garde thing isn’t supposed to be for the masses.
PB: Has the reaction from crowds and the fact you guys regularly headline venues like The Brooklyn Bowl surprised you?
JB: Without a doubt. We’re blown away every time. I mean we love this music and we know there are a lot of other people who do as well. But we never expected to be playing it and sharing this experience with so many people. But I guess playing the music with passion and a genuine love of it translates to people who feel the same way.
The crowd we play to is the best. They obviously love Talking Heads and it seems they truly enjoy the way we present it. Most of the clubs we play even make it a point to tell me at the end of the night how happy they are when we come through. Not because of us, but because our crowd is one of the best one’s they see. Everyone is happy, dancing, drinking and genuinely enjoying themselves. I guess not everyone is lucky enough to have such a well behaved, fun loving fan base!
PB: What’s been the song that gets the crowd’s amped the most?
JB: The obvious hits definitely get the crowd going. “Burning Down the House,” “Once in a Lifetime,” “Psycho Killer,” etc. But believe it or not some of the more obscure one’s can have the same effect if they are energetic enough. We play “Not In Love,” “Moon Rocks,” and “The Great Curve” quite often and those songs seem to really get people going, despite not being a “hit.”
PB: Talk about the experience of a Start Making Sense show. If someone who’s never seen you perform before wanders into Mexicali in Teaneck, NJ this month to see you, what can they expect?
JB: Well I guess we try to perform Talking Heads music as true to what we believe it should be as possible. The Music, the sound, and energy come first. Then we’ll add in some theatrical aspects whenever it’s possible.
PB: What does the rest of 2014 have in store for Start Making Sense?
JB: A whole lot more shows! We’ll be doing some larger venues in NYC and Philly this summer and fall. We’re always adding in new songs from their catalog. So some songs you may have not heard us play before. And I also plan on adding in “The Big Suit” sometime this year.
Start Marking Sense (Talking Heads Tribute) will be performing with HmfO: A Hall & Oates Tribute on Saturday April 26 at Mexicali Live in Teaneck, NJ. Click here for tickets.