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This Rock Scene's Saving Grace 

What inspired somebody to start a cover band to play an obscure Fall album? A dislike of cover bands, for starters.

Wednesday, Jul 12 2000
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Matt Jervis is sitting at the kitchen table of his Noe Valley apartment, explaining how he came to embark on an experiment in musical masochism. The ex-singer for local bands the Clarke Nova and Kingdom First is animated, intelligent, and appears to have a very informed idea of what he and his current collaborators -- ex-Faith No More bassist Billy Gould, ex-Fudge Tunnel guitarist Alex Newport, singer/guitarist/ keyboardist Miya Osaki, and ex-Horsey drummer Jon Weiss -- are in for. The perilous task at hand is performing the Fall's 1988 album This Nation's Saving Grace in its entirety for two local shows at Kimo's July 14 and the Covered Wagon Aug. 3. While it's safe to assume that some people will be less than impressed by this feat, it's also safe to assume that those people have not heard the Fall. "Look at this," implores Jervis, 31, in an exasperated but whimsical tone, pointing to a four-page, single-spaced printout of the lyrics to "What You Need," taken from one of the Fall's many fan-run Web sites. "He's making it up. He must be. Or he's reading out of a book."

"He" is Mark E. Smith, founder, singer, and enigmatic leader of the Fall, the Manchester, England-based group that stands as a monument to defiant idiosyncrasy. Since forming the band in 1976, Smith -- aided by an ever-rotating cast of disciples -- has issued nearly a hundred albums, singles, and compilations, all of which contain song and album titles that make indie heroes Guided by Voices' often surreal word couplings sound like an engine repair manual. In fact, it's difficult to convey not only the enormity of the Fall's recorded output, but also the influence that Smith has wielded among the universe of alternative rock acts both in Europe and the United States. Pavement, the Jesus Lizard, and Girls Against Boys have all paid tribute to the lanky Mancunian, whose bizarre lyrics and patented caustic vocal delivery have inspired fandom that extends far beyond rabid -- into a realm where four people from San Francisco cover an impossible album like This Nation's Saving Grace in its entirety. Twice.

Yet, Smith himself can't even recall making the album. "I don't very much remember it," he says, speaking from his Manchester home following a brief tour of Scotland with the Fall. Despite his contrarian reputation, on the phone Smith is polite, attentive, and about as intimidating as a teddy bear. And while legions of Fall enthusiasts will consider Jervis and company's project a musical running of the bulls, Smith sees it as no big deal, an amusing lark perpetrated by yet more die-hard fans. "I think it's great. I think it's lovely," he says with genuine enthusiasm. "I'm happy that it's not [recorded for] an LP." Smith relates the story of the Dust Devils, an American band that used to cover "Paintwork," one of the most challenging songs on Saving Grace. "They were really bad," he laughs, speaking in short bursts. "I had to tell 'em to stop."

Jervis' band, christened Triple Gang after a lyric from Saving Grace, has no intention of outstaying its welcome. Jervis was first inspired to take on the project after reading a now-infamous Wall Street Journal article this spring which placed the much-exaggerated death of the SOMA music scene at the feet of hit-parading cover bands whose members, fished in by big money (by musician standards), chose to ply the hits for dot-com carpetbaggers instead of nurturing their own artistic visions. Disgusted but intrigued, Jervis -- who used to work the door at Bottom of the Hill and is now music content manager at music download site mjuice.com -- knew something must be done.

"It seems that every band, in order to get people out, had to lure them with some sort of candy," he explains. "I thought, 'Fine, let's do a little call to arms here. If we're going to try to lure people with covers, let's challenge them at least -- let's do something.'" A hard-core fan of the Fall since discovering them as a DJ in his native Colorado at age 16, Jervis knew that Saving Grace was perfectly suited for upping the cover band ante. "It was like, if that's what people want then I'm gonna go to that level and piss them off, or challenge them when they're not expecting it," he says. "When you go to see a cover band, you're not expecting the Spanish Inquisition. You're not expecting [Saving Grace songs] 'L.A.' or 'I Am Damo Suzuki' or any of that shit."

Jervis admits that the people who most need to witness Triple Gang -- the upwardly mobile drones who patronize traditional cover bands -- probably won't be in attendance at the band's two shows. But, he says, "we don't want those people; this is for the family, so to speak." While Newport -- a huge Fall fan who's recently produced records for Knapsack and At the Drive In -- claims no interest in the cover band phenomenon or Triple Gang's role in it, Gould shares Jervis' disdain and appreciates the opportunity to perform a piece of music which so obviously flies in the face of the conventional cover band repertoire. "I think there's so many fucked-up cover bands around here making people feel good," says the easygoing bassist and longtime Fall fan. "I don't know if the people that need to hear it are going to hear it, but it's just kind of a good thing to do, if anything just for personal bile-releasing."

In performing the album, Triple Gang will be tackling many Fall fan favorites, including the aforementioned "L.A.," "I Am Damo Suzuki" (Smith's perplexing homage to the Can singer of the same name), "Spoilt Victorian Child," "Gut of the Quantifier," "Paintwork," "To NK Roachmen: Yarbles," "Petty (Thief) Lout," "My New House," and eight other slices of Smith's patented aesthetic psychosis. Deemed by many fans to be one of the Fall's best albums, This Nation's Saving Grace clocks in at 65 minutes. While an hour's worth of music might not appear terribly daunting to most talented musicians, learning just one Fall song could be the death of many bands; learning a whole album is akin to killing oneself by washing down a bottle of elephant tranquilizers with a case of Moët. Still, Newport, Gould, and Weiss are relieved, mainly because they're not Jervis. "I would mention to people that I was doing this band and they would immediately say, 'Are you singing?'" says English native Newport, 29. "And I was like, "Oh, no. Oh, no.'" "I was scared," Gould says, recalling what he felt when Jervis first approached him about the project. "But hey, I'm not the singer, you know?"

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Lloyd Langworthy

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