There’s an art and a skill to the cover song. First, a band must choose a song it likes well enough to explore, to live inside, and hopefully to discover something new within, something for the band to bring out of the song, a new angle from which to see an old song.
The title track of The Strokes’ 2001 album Is This It is the rare new millennium song that has become something of a standard because it has been covered so often by so many different bands with so many different approaches. Royal City’s forlorn, banjo-led version comes recommended. There’s something about its open-ended melody that lends itself readily to reinterpretation.
Reno rock band Precariously Stacked’s version highlights the reggae inherent though subliminal in the original’s bouncy bass and syncopated guitar parts.
“That reggae thing was already there,” says bassist Gabe Sheehy. “We just brought that to the forefront.” He sings the song slowly and deliberately, though less lazily than Julian Casablancas’ sleepy-eyed approach.
In the early days of rock ’n’ roll, large portions of bands’ sets were covers—even big bands like the Stones and the Beatles. At some point, probably around the advent of punk rock, the well-chosen, interesting cover became uncool, and many contemporary bands only play original tunes. Precariously Stacked are agreeable throwbacks in the sense that 50 percent or more of their material is covers.
“We choose songs we like and want to play,” says drummer Luke Fuller. “People want to hear songs they know.”
The band’s cover repertoire includes some classic rock, like Jimi Hendrix, as well as current stuff, like Cage the Elephant, and a lot of ’90s material, like Blur’s “Song 2.”
The band members have the attitude that musicians should learn to play their instruments first, then learn songs they like, then develop their own approach to those songs, then start to write their own songs, and then only perform those songs in front of an audience once the songwriting is solid. (Their first show was almost all covers.) It’s a refreshing, if thoroughly unpunk, attitude.
One original is “Offbeat,” a hooky power pop song written and sung by guitarist Jake Mausling. He and Sheehy divide vocals duties about equally. Mausling’s guitar playing sometimes sounds like the poppier side of Kurt Cobain, and sometimes has a more spacious, reggae-influenced quality.
Sheehy’s slippery, jazz-trained style evokes the John Entwistle Rule: A rock band needs only one guitar player if the bassist is willing to get busy. In songs like their cover of Cake’s “Love You Madly,” Fuller holds down the groove and throws in some tricky fills.
The band takes its adverb-laden name from its practice space in Mausling’s mother’s home in suburban Reno. It’s a former playroom, with old stacks of VHS tapes, board games and other familiar miscellanea, the walls now also adorned with Sex Pistols, Nirvana and Bob Marley posters. The band members are all still in their late teens, but talented and educated, so it’ll be interesting to see how this band develops.
“Most of it’s about girls,” says Mausling about his lyrics. “It’s either a love song or a hate song. But I try to make it cryptic.”
Sheehy says most of his songs are autobiographical.
“I can only write about how I feel,” he says. “I can’t really know how anyone else feels. … It’s the same with the covers. I can’t know how Julian Casablancas felt when he wrote something, I only know how I feel when I’m singing it.”