No Standard Standards: The Pherotones turn cover songs upside down and inside out
Versatility is key to a covers band's success, but The Pherotones' repertoire really takes that idea to the next level. In its Thursday night standing gig at The Last Word, the group puts a jazzy spin on a wild variety of musical eras and genres. A recent show found the group covering material ranging from a jazz standard ("These Foolish Things") to a century-old spiritual/protest song ("Down By the Riverside") to an '80s pop hit ("Everybody Wants to Rule the World") to a classic TV theme (The Muppet Show).
The Pherotones' catalog rewards a deep and diverse appreciation of popular music in its numerous incarnations, and the band's musical approach to the material is similarly enjoyable. The jaunty arrangements add a dignified but fun twist to familiar tunes, with the whole band shouting out unamplified vocals on some selections. The players themselves form a distinguished local supergroup of sorts. Trumpeter Ross Huff and bassist Brennan Andes are well-known for their roles in The Macpodz (and countless other groups), and drummer Wesley Fritzemeier is known for his more folk-influenced work with the Ben Daniels Band and Thunderwude. Locals may know pianist Giancarlo Aversa for his proficiency in quite a different art: The Last Word's principal bartender.
Although it's now been over five years since The Pherotones originally got together as Giancarlo and the Wedding Rehearsal Singers, the band's story remains something of a mystery. There's very little publicity on the band and little online record of its work. We tracked down Huff to ask about The Pherotones' origin story, how they've developed their repertoire, and how they respond to audience requests.
Q: How did the band come together in the first place? Did you really play any weddings before getting started at The Last Word as your Facebook suggests, or is that apocryphal?
A: When The Last Word first opened, Giancarlo played solo piano on some nights. Brennan and I used to play there when it was the old place. We did a few one-offs for The Last Word for some special events. Sometime around Valentine’s Day 2013, Giancarlo wanted to play with a band and so there we were. I’m not sure when it was determined that we would play every week. I was against it, thinking it would limit our touring. Which it has, and which was probably the right choice. It’s so much safer and less stressful to just go downtown as opposed to Chicago or New York all the time. Brennan lobbied me to do the weekly gig. I thought we’d flood the market here, which we have, but people don’t seem bored of it yet. We’ve worked to keep bringing in new songs [and] guest musicians, celebrate holidays, and other things to keep it fresh.
All the while we’ve been playing weddings. That first summer we played many. We worked up the material on Thursday nights and then played it on the weekend at someone’s reception.
Q: It sounds like the impetus for putting the band together was fairly spontaneous. What was it about the group that clicked so well that you've been maintaining the weekly gig for five years now?
A: The short answer is that we know how to have a good time. Cut from the same cloth, if you’ll entertain the platitude.
We’re musicians and proud to live and work as such, but we’re not rolling in dough. Giancarlo is the head bartender at the Last Word, which gives us a pinch of job security out here in the “gig economy.” (He’s a genius bartender, mixes a fine cocktail.) So the boring reason is that we’ve maintained the weekly out of necessity. Gotta work, gotta eat, gotta keep the horn on your face. If you know when you’re going to do that, it takes a load off your mind.
We also love each other. It was a real eye-opener for me to actually have a “regular” job, and go there whether I felt like it or not. Regular in the sense that it happens at the same time and same place once a week. It’s pretty irregular in terms of the hijinks. It’s all about the relationships. Other musicians and staff would lift my mood when I felt down, and hopefully, in the vice versa, I could cheer them up if they felt low. It showed me how to give my best when I felt different week-to-week … tired, hungry, sad, burnt out, or whatever, not always happy-go-lucky. I learned that through the music, I can burn through my feelings and have a great night no matter what. You get by with a little help from your friends, you know. The discipline of going in every Thursday night has been good for me.
Q: You reportedly spent a year working on the band name. How did you end up coming up with it in the end?
A: It was shorter than “Giancarlo and the Wedding Rehearsal Singers,” it was goofy, and it describes our vibe. Really I think I ramrodded it in. The majority liked “Giancarlo and the Wedding Rehearsal Singers,” but that looked weird on a business card.
Q: Your setlist is so diverse, ranging from jazz standards to TV themes to more contemporary pop hits. How have you built the band's repertoire over the years?
A: We play anything we like, no matter what style or genre. Much of it is something we remembered from childhood or youth that we realized we now have enough skill to play. Like Powerhouse, a tune that was used in Looney Tunes any time there was a scene with industry or machinery. Great song. There is a WCBN promo that cops a riff from the tune "Tico Tico." When I finally learned what the name of the tune was, I was able to find other recordings of it, learn it, play it. It’s a staple of our set.
At first, we just needed about two dozen love songs for Valentine’s Day. Then we added "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" for baseball season. "Little Brown Jug" for football season. "April in Paris" and "Joy Spring," "Summertime," "Autumn Leaves," "Winter Wonderland." There are so many songs about trains, boats, planes, travel; so many songs about astronomy; so many songs about towns and cities; songs about food; "Wooly Bully" for Groundhog Day; "Auld Lang Syne" for New Year; "A Child Is Born" when a friend has had a baby; Just a Closer Walk With Thee when a friend dies. Really, the thing defines itself. There is no limit to songs. They tell you when they need to be played. Everyone has tunes they like, tunes that they remember from happy times. We learn ‘em all.
Q: You all seem to have a passion for jazz, but are there favorite genres or artists that individual members of the band bring to the table when working out new songs to cover?
A: Musicians are responsible for knowing and understanding the entire history of music. All musicians, all music. We love it all. We’re working on tunes by Donald Byrd, Wu-Tang, Charles Mingus, Soundgarden, and Gershwin, to name a few. We’ve been doing more mambo, bossa nova, salsa, and Latin jazz tunes lately. It makes for a good vibe.
Q: Do people make requests often, and are you inclined to take them?
A: We’re inclined to take the ones we know. Sometimes, for a laugh, we’ll hack through one on the spot, kinda learn it by ear. Some of the most common requests are Take Five and Summertime, from people who name the one jazz tune they remember. That’s OK though because if someone really knows what they’re talking about they’ll request something obscure that we haven’t learned yet. The best requests are when someone suggests that we learn some obscure song, comes back week-by-week asking if we’ve learned it yet. Eventually, we do and then they hear it every time they come in.
Patrick Dunn is the managing editor of Concentrate and an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer.