Driving down Grand off the 5 freeway, you leave the grime of the real world and enter Santa Ana’s Downtown Arts District. It’s chic. It’s swanky. Painters, photographers, writers, and part-time craft-dabblers flock to this hipster sanctuary. Saunter past an art studio, an aged brick building, sleek lofts and you arrive at The Copper Door where house band Amherst Aisle has been playing for the past month.
As you take the stairs down, it feels like you should be partying with T. Jeff and J. Adams. Or some 1920s Mobsters. To the right there’s a pair of wooden billiards tables. To the left are over-stuffed custom lounge chairs where you might conspire with a friend in the soft shadows. In the corner near the stage lies an upright piano and the ambiance is complete thanks to bird-caged candlelight and exposed-light bulb chandeliers. The mood is “electric.” This could have been Thomas Edison’s studio. Or, tonight, it’s where Amherst plays their cover of the Beatle’s famous Abbey Road.
There’s a decent crowd already meandering by the stage. Ben Kashuk, front and center on vocals and keyboard, yells, “That was a goofy song. Let’s play a good one.” We’re treated to their classic rock-esque version of “Oh, Darling” as bassist Kevin Leonard goes all out. The complete dedication of these (finely dressed) gentlemen oozes from every song. I feel, or rather SO WISH, they were singing it to me. If the ladies weren’t crazy by then, they were in love after.
They prefaced their seamless transitions with an appropriate mixture of dry and silly humor. You can tell that’s the way the band works together and can easily imagine yourself chilling with them in their former pad on Amherst Aisle, back in their UCI student days. Though they put a classic rock twist on much of the music, they stayed true to the spirit of the original album – so far as their occasional (frequent?) Pabst breaks would allow.
“Let’s get funny,” guitarist Michael Klein announces as he takes a swig and starts the guys off playing “Octopus’ Garden.” This is where the drummer, Derrick Chan really captures my eye. For such complicated songs in regards to changes in tempo and beat, he’s does a wild job of letting the beats take over his body (aka “thrash mode.”) Michael, dressed in a full tuxedo vest and tie with sneakers, tells us all to take another drink, and everyone does so accordingly.
Keeping composure through the heavier songs and staying completely faithful to the album, Amherst Aisle closes with the album’s famed medley. Between key changes, transitions, tempo, and harmonizing, the piece is a technical challenge. But the band’s energy and easy going nature make it look simple. They knock it out and leave us all wanting more. One more song! chants the crowd and we’re privileged to an original they’ll be playing at the House of Blues on June 16th. Though their cover show was thoroughly enjoyable, they really come to life playing their own material. As I prepare for meeting with them after the show I think to myself, I guess it won’t be so bad hanging out with them afterall… win.
My Badass Interview:
You all are from UCI… it’s the my Alma Mater! How did you all end up meeting?
Kevin: Well, not ALL of us went to UCI. Michael recently graduated from CSU Fullerton, but since he lived in the area, he was around just as much as any of us. Derrick and I met while we were in grade school, as did Michael and Ben. I met Ben while living in the dorms on campus at UCI and Derrick lived a couple dorms away. Ben and I moved in together for sophomore year and Michael came over to hang out and then Ben and Derrick and I moved in together for our Junior year and again, Michael came over and it was that year that we started the band.
Once you got down to deciding on Abbey Road, how did you decide on what the cover should sound like? It must have been difficult trying to balance the classic sound of the originals with your own flavor.
Kevin: For me personally, I tried to play it as close to the way Paul played it on bass. I personally think we tried to make it as close to the original as possible, but then put our own twist on areas where we couldn’t replicate what the album does. For example, we only had two singers for ‘Because’ and ‘Sun King’ and we did our own interpretation for the outro of ‘She’s So Heavy’ and exchanged a lot of guitar fills for piano fills to utilize Ben as much as possible.
Ben: The most important thing for me was keeping the songs’ meaning and feeling in tact when deciding to embellish and make them our own. In order to do that, it was important that we approached each song individually the way that The Beatles did to capture the integrity of the music. Once we were comfortable with that, we were able to be a little creative and have some fun with them.
Derrick: Learning the covers usually started with Ben, Kevin, and Michael. They would learn the chord progressions and structure of the song and that’s when I would come in. And it would all kind of build from there. Even when we try to stay as close to the original as possible, it’s impossible for our own sound not to come through, at least for a little bit.
I think across the board you all agreed that the medley was the most difficult to learn. Why is that?
Kevin: Instead of just one song that repeats verse chorus verse chorus bridge chorus, it’s a whole bunch of short songs that don’t really have a repeating pattern and they all blend together so there isn’t any time between songs to collect yourself and think about what you’re going to play. Just gotta go with it and hope you practiced it enough.
Ben: The transitions are the most difficult part. Nailing those down was the hardest challenge. The Beatles own their transitions seamlessly and when they weave in and out of the songs it almost goes unnoticed. …so we to had spend a lot of time on those small 5 to 10 second sections.
Derrick: What also made the medley difficult was that fact that most of us were not really familiar with them. I mean who hasn’t heard the tunes Oh, Darling, Something, and Here Comes the Sun? Even before we learned those songs, we could at least hum them in our head and knew what they generally sounded like. Since we’ve started this project, I probably listened to the second half of the album (Disc 2) twice as much as the first.
On that note, which song was your favorite to learn and why?
Kevin: Mine was “She’s so Heavy”. It’s just a fun riff to play and there’s a lot of dynamic within the song and that was the song that I was able to put the most creativity into.
Ben: Yup, “I Want You” was my fave.
Derrick: I’d have to say “Octopus’ Garden” for me. It’s not often that I get to sing haha
Kevin said it only took two months to learn the whole album? How in the world did you guys learn it so fast? What did your practice look like?
Kevin: It was a lot of dedication and time outside the practice room learning the songs. We all had to agree to learn a song or two before each practice before we went in to jam it out because we didn’t want to waste our practice time learning the chords. Once we got the idea of the song down, it was just repetition and making small changes. We learned it so quickly because we wanted to learn it before the residency started so we could focus on practicing for the other shows where we would perform our original material.
Ben: I think Abbey Road was in all of our CD players for the month of April before the residency. When learning the songs, we all knew generally how they were supposed to go and after learning them we would make decisions on what we personally wanted to do with them which would keep the integrity of the song intact while putting our own twist to it.
Derrick: It also helped that we had the sheet music too
Have you done a large cover show like this before? If you were to do another, what do you think it might be?
Kevin: This was our first full album we decided to cover, but we have played bar sets where we would play a dozen covers from different artists. If we were to do another album, I know we are thinking about doing something more contemporary. I would like to do Kings of Leon, Radiohead or Muse.
Ben: Justin Bieber’s new album is at the top of my list. Classic.
Derrick: I’ve had dreams of doing an acoustic rendition of a Slipknot album.
The albums you threw out when you were deciding on your cover were pretty classic. Pink Floyd. Radiohead. How would you describe your sound? Where do you draw your inspiration from? And how has it evolved since you’ve been together?
Kevin: We are still sort of finding our sound right now. Our two most recent songs are the two most popular on the new album (Marionette & Coaslescence) so it’s hard to classify ourselves when our best work is showcased on a fraction of the album. I would say alternative piano rock.
Ben: The cool thing about music and creating it in a band like ours is that everyone brings in ideas and inspiration from so many different areas. Everyone has their own tastes and sometimes those tastes match up and the result is reflected in the songs. For instance, as Kevin mentioned I feel we really hit stride when we wrote our singles from the album, Marionette and Coalescence. The cool thing is that with a closer look at them, (I feel) they clearly derived from a Muse heavy influence with other ideas sewn throughout, which is a direction that I think we were all happy with and can see more progress like it in the future. To briefly explain, in Coalescence I derived the vocal melody in the verse from a Thrice influence, the keyboards in the solo and outro from the Killers influence, and the girl choir from a Manchester Orchestra influence. All of these ideas are structured around what was ultimately a Muse influenced chord progression.
Your HOUSE of BLUES show is coming up soon. You gave a little preview of what to expect during your encore. How are your original shows different than the show on Thursday? How have you guys been preparing?
Kevin: Our original shows are definitely much shorter and I think we have a little more energy on stage since we wrote the songs ourselves and have a little more conviction in them. We actually haven’t been preparing at all for it, but we’ll practice a couple times between now and then to get back into the groove of playing our own material.
Derrick: I think it all depends at the venue we’re playing at. At a large venue, such as the House of Blues, we can play completely plugged in and be much louder. Expect us to play with even more energy at the House of Blues
What are you looking most forward to with your band’s music over the next year or so?
Kevin: We will be going back into the studio over summer to hopefully record some new music and after that just bigger and better shows. I think it’s a general goal for all of us to be nominated for the 2013 OC Music Awards next year.
Derrick: I’m looking forward to seeing the direction our music goes. We wrote the songs for Man Among Gods more than a year ago, probably around a year and a half ago. It will be interesting to see what comes out next.
Ben: We have taken a lot of time to produce, record and now, promote our newest album, Man Among Gods. We have been pushing the darn thing so hard for the last year it seems, and I am beyond excited to get back into the studio to write some new music and step back from our most recent release. We have all gone through a lot in the last year (inside and outside of the band) so writing and getting it all out will be fun and hopefully yield some great sounds.
Do you think we might hear a Beatles song at the House of Blues show?
Ben: Only if you’re good.
Derrick: If by Beatles you mean Lady Gaga then yes