YOU Can’t JUdgE a Band by its COvErs
by Bobby Steel
A question was asked about what kind of cover tunes did the members of Elm Treason play in the early years of development as musicians.
Andy and I have talked at length about our musical influences and how those influences became part of our creative DNA and, to this day, still manage to subtly weave their way through the fabric of our musical creations. These strands of musical material may be familiar, but the resulting weave is something quite new. The deeper the influences – or rather, the more variety of strands there are to work with – the more unique, distinctive and identifiable the stitching.
Well enough of that yarn. I think you get the idea.
Let’s go back….
I formed my first band with some neighborhood friends at the tender age of 13. At that time, I was already teaching the neighborhood kids how to play guitar, piano, drums and bass. It was only natural that these lads wanted to learn songs. That’s sort of how it started. I had to learn the chord structures, the solos , they whole nine yards.
All of us were in junior high and pretty much loved the same bands: Van Halen, Led Zeppelin, Rush, Cream, Black Sabbath. These bands provided our first covers. “Paranoid,” by Black Sabbath, I remember, was one of the first. We did covers from the first three Rush albums. We tackled Led Zeppelin – a whole lotta Zeppelin. I usually sang lead, because I had the range of Geddy Lee and Robert Plant. My bassist sang the Ozzy stuff.
It was a great way to learn how to play; but it was also a great way to learn how to write. Learning the songs—particularly when memorizing them—required us to learn the form of each song. We had to analyze how the song was put together. We broke it down then built it back up. Doing that gave us an orchestra-level seat view -insights- as to how these songs were written. It was all priceless information for budding songwriters.
In my high school days, I played guitar for many different bands with different friends from different neighborhoods. At that time, we were all getting into metal. We were also starting to play live; first, in my friend’s (the drummer) basement, then at backyard parties, then finally in actual clubs.
We played a lot of Metallica (first two albums), Iron Maiden, and a ton of thrash (Anthrax, Slayer, Overkill, Nuclear Assault). Interestingly enough, my drummer’s favorite drummer at the time was Stewart Copeland, so we played a lot of the Police as well (My vocal range had grown, so you can guess who sang lead on those songs).
I was heavily into progressive rock at the time. I was dropping the needle on Rush, Yes, King Crimson, Genesis and ELP albums. A lot of that was filtering into both my guitar playing and my keyboard playing.
We were young, hyper, vibrant, precocious and full of boyhood enthusiasm. We challenged ourselves – how fast we could play, how many time signatures we could play, and we challenged ourselves in our soloing through endless jams. These would evolve into writing sessions where we would piece together these long instrumentals, all based on the music that was entering our ears and taking deep root in our brains (and our fingers).
One afternoon , I found a cassette tape in my brother’s room of a guitarist i never heard of. He had a very strange name. Yngwie…. “Rising Force” it was called. At the time nobody really knew him in my neighborhood. I played it out of curiosity and was never the same again. At that time , it was just what I needed to feed my need for speed. So I started learning what the hell that guy was doing. I focused hard on my right hand technique and worked for hours trying to duplicate what this guy was doing.
By the time Yngwie got really popular – and clones were popping up from every direction – I had already moved on. But that’s how I was – perpetually looking for something new. Once I took what I wanted from a certain artist or style , I was on to the next thing. Many friends I knew would always be asking me, “So Bobby, what kind of music are you playing now?” They knew me well.
In my early 20s I landed myself a job playing guitar in a Rush tribute band. That was a ton of fun…. at first. I Was playing for larger audiences, but strangely enough, I got tired of playing covers, even of my favorite band. I walked away ( taking their bassist with me) and formed a progressive metal band called STEEL. (It was not my idea to name the band after myself, but the bassist said it was a great name for a band). With me, it was always about creating something new. A new song. A new sound. A new style. Perhaps even a genre.
When I was a kid I had this shortwave radio. I remember I used to camp out in my neighborhood friends’ backyards on different nights and spend the whole night listening to it. I heard music from all over the world. I tried figuring out these traditional folk sounds on my guitar – another influence that stayed with me for life. In a way, I was playing covers of those shortwave songs.
These experiences were a part of what made me into the musician and composer I am today. Every once in a while, when I’m not thinking about it, some of these things slip out, they make their way from my past into my present , into a song, and ultimately into the future.
It was as if all these strands of music were woven into a magic carpet which, in turn, took me to all kinds of places in my imagination. The culmination of all these sounds, of course, have converged in Elm Treason. All roads led me to that one place. The place you all now know.
When folks listen to our music, they cite a lot of possible likenesses to a variety of bands and artists. Some resonate. They sort of make sense. “Yes I can see that,” we might say. Others, by contrast, make me go “Hmmmm…..” or “Huh?” or even “Nah, we sound nothing like that.” But, at the end of the day, it’s all a compliment, because I’ve discovered that folks compare us to their favorites. That means, to them, we are of the same caliber as their favorites… and that is an honor.
In fact, Elm Treason has done their fair share of covers: Beatles, David Bowie, Rush, Rolling Stones, even Johnny Cash.
But you can’t judge a band by their covers. Or can you?