Jeff Miller & Black Crystal Wolf Kids | The Art of the Cover Band
Black Crystal Wolf Kids are a great cover band. Black Crystal Wolf Kids are also a great band. Those two statements are not mutually exclusive. It almost seems like cheating—taking nostalgic hits, subverting an expectation or two, and orchestrating a sing-along. BCWK are not for the stand-in-the-back-of-the-club-with-a-beer crowd. They want you belting out your favorite lyrics and drunk dancing in the front row.
Jeff Miller, BCWK’s bubbling frontman, is a jack of all trades. He’s a singer and guitarist. He’s a walking music encyclopedia. He’s a journalist who’s written about music, food, and events for The Hollywood Reporter, Thrillist, and Billboard. He’s a true L.A. expert. And, most impressively to me, he’s a rare modern performer who puts fun—not artistic pretensions—first and foremost in his music.
MIller’s bandmates aren’t schmucks either. Miller, guitarist Mark Pedante, and drummer Gregg Levinson had all previously worked together in the now-defunct band City Museum. Keyboardist Valerie Taylor was an accomplished backing musician who toured with Charles Neville, and bassist Marc Gasway is the musical director at The Varnish in Downtown LA.
The meaning of BCWK’s name reflects the creative seed, and current advertising, of the group: “The world’s first Indie-Rock tribute band.” Miller told me that as the band was being conceived, “‘Black’, ‘Crystal’, ‘Wolf’, and ‘Kids’ were very overused on the Indie-Rock circuit. The Black Keys, Black Kids. Crystal Caverns, Crystal Castles, Crystal Antlers. Wolf Mother, Wolf Parade, Peanut Butter Wolf. Cold War Kids, Cool Kids.”
But BCWK’s song list doesn’t look totally Indie. It’s monstrously large and impossibly varied. “Electric Feel.” Ok. “Take On Me.” Odd. “Nothing But a G Thang.” What? How?
Miller explains, “We play different songs depending on the venue. Sometimes on the fly we change [the songs] at the show. It’s very different to play at a beer festival than a nightclub where people paid to see you and know what they’re getting… As a tribute band, you want everyone to recognize every song. Your job is to create a party.”
I decided to test him on his feet. “You’re playing at a wedding in The Valley for two twenty-five year olds. What songs do you choose?”
“At weddings you have to please the parents, so you need to choose songs that cross generations. In addition to our classics like ‘Take Me Out’ and ‘Float On’, we would definitely play ‘Burning Down the House’, ‘Sledgehammer’, ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’. We would also play American Authors’s ‘Best Day of My Life’, which has crossover appeal. It’s questionable if it’s Indie-Rock—it’s a pretty corporate alt-rock song—but at the same time that song can generate a huge crowd sing-along.”
“How about a bar in Santa Monica on a weekend?”
“It’s got to be all hits. The Killers’s ‘Mr. Brightside’, Jimmy Eat World’s ‘The Middle’. ‘Use Somebody’ would definitely be on that setlist. We bust out ‘Uptown Funk’ sometimes, to get some crossover appeal. That’s a venue that definitely wants to party, so we’d play what we call our ‘all-bangers set’.”
Every year, BCWK’s arsenal grows even larger after their popular, annual Coachella-themed performance. The band digs through Coachella’s past to play some oldies, while adding songs from the most recent Coachella to the mix. They let an LA Weekly quote do the talking in their advertising: “like seeing all of Coachella in one band.”
“It’s the root of our song catalog,” says Miller. “The bands you think of when you think classic Coachella—Arcade Fire, Florence and the Machine, and Modest Mouse—it’s music people treat like a party, but still holds an important place in a lot of people’s lives. There’s a lot of people who are nostalgic for that period of time, since Coachella has grown out of it.”
Covering songs and making them your own is a skill in itself, especially when you have to adapt to the venue and season. But the real trick is tweaking each song to be played for a live audience. BCWK have mastered the stage; in every performance, there is a visible sympatico with every choreographed dance move and coordinated jump. Their music is familiar, yet constantly surprising with every twist and turn they take to bastardize the original. It’s refreshing and often hilarious.
“For every song, we try to imagine the feel of the most amazing way to see it live,” says Miller. “If you are missing a part [of a song], that’s ok as long as you emulate the feel of that part and make sure the key pieces are there. It’s not the studio version, and that’s ok. When we first practiced ‘Don’t Look Back in Anger’, we were trying to explain the drum break to our drummer, who wasn’t nailing it... We decided to leave us singing the break instead of playing it in, and now every time we play it we get a laugh. People who have seen us before even sing the drum part along with us.”
“You’d never see Oasis do that. They take themselves way too seriously. But that’s not our job. Our job is to make it super fun.”