HT Interview: Steez Pays Tribute to MJ at Night of the Dead

For the fifth consecutive year, Madison’s historic Barrymore Theater hosted their Night of the Dead Halloween celebration, which selected the best local jambands to perform a musical costume set. This year, the Barrymore invited HT friends Steez to add some Halloween Creepfunk to the party. Naturally, given their affinity for the King of Pop, the band decided on a Michael Jackson set. We caught up with bassist Chris Sell to talk about preparing for their first full tribute set, the song selection process, and their inspired Michael Jackson costumes and props.

[All photos by Adam Miszewski]

Hidden Track: Knowing your collective love for MJ, I assume the decision was pretty easy, but were there any other serious contenders of bands to cover for the set – Madonna or Bob James perhaps?

Chris Sell: Well, this is the first time we’ve ever really tried to cover a whole artist, so we were pretty stoked initially and tons of ideas were floated out there. We have such eclectic taste that our collective mouths watered at the opportunity to learn a whole set of an artist, but when we started to think about what was actually feasible in the little time that we had available and thought MJ would be do-able. Of course we are mostly instrumental band, so being able to learn all the vocal melodies on either saxophone or talk-box etc were important factors in the decision as well.

Workin’ Day and Night

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Obviously, we had learned Thriller in the past so that also was one less song we would have to learn. Plus we’ve been able to extend Thriller jams up to 30 minutes, so we figured worst case if we didn’t get enough learned in time we could just fill the rest of the set with Thriller [laughs]. But in the end, we learned plenty of material and instead of jamming out an abnormally long Thriller with the traditional steez treatment we decided to segue it in and out of the classic Halloween tune, Somebody’s Watching Me, by Rockwell which features Michael Jackson on the chorus. We thought it was fitting and a little different which is something we think our fans always appreciate.

HT: My compliments across the board to all of you guys for the costumes, but I have to say yours in particular was off the charts funny. For people who weren’t there or haven’t seen pictures, can you share the details of the various props and costumes you employed?

CS: Oh man, well first of all, I have to give a lot of props to keyboardist Matt Williams who put an extremely unnecessary amount of time reading up on really random MJ facts. It got to the point that he would spew “inside jokes” about MJ that no one else would even understand without an explanation from him [laughs]. It was classic. But in the end, we all kind of agreed there were enough different phases of the late great MJ that we all could portray sort of a different era of Michael.

But I guess I don’t think I could do justice in giving an explanation of our set up and we were honored to have Adam Miszewski of Adjomi Photography and Design document the night, so I guess I’ll just have to plug our Facebook page and people can see for themselves [laughs].

HT: In terms of the various MJ songs, which ones got the best reception from the crowd?

CS: I think a real sleeper song that I have heard a lot of comments about was our rendition of Dirty Diana. We play a lot of up-tempo dancy songs so this was definitely viewed as kind of risky for us, but once we started playing around with the structure of the song we thought we could put a little spin of our own on it and hoped it’d be a good change of pace packed in the midst of an MJ dance party. Matt Williams again deserves a lot of credit for his synth work on this song. We don’t do dubstep, but this is about as close to dubstep remix as we’ll probably ever do [laughs]. Not many bands can pull off dubstep like a DJ can, but the dubstep-ish breakdown in our version of Dirty D did the genre a little justice.

Andrzej Benkowski (Ron) also was stellar playing the extremely catchy vocal melody on the saxophone. He arguably had the largest workload as along with learning the majority of MJ’s vocal parts, he also for the first time incorporated his keyboard playing ability which was much needed for the many layers that were laid down on the studio versions of these songs. Matt and Ron also worked diligently on getting samples from the albums to try to re-create as close of a carbon copy to some of those studio tracks as possible.

HT: Not having heard the show, could you describe some of the more interesting songs to reinvent with your sound? Which ones worked particularly well with either with Ron playing the vocal melodies on sax or Matt’s synthesizer talk-box?

CS: I’m not the best judge of what possibly turned out the best or what have you. Plus all I know is the volume on stage through the monitors, so you’d have to ask someone there or take a listen yourself. We just tried to make each song as good as possible, if that meant trying to replicate little layers of guitar exactly from the album or trying to put our own spin on something. I think we achieved a little of both.

Earth Song

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Regardless of how well the songs were played etc, that doesn’t matter in the end to us. Its not that we aren’t anal as hell and want to play perfectly, but rather it’s the fact that 400+ people came out in costumes in our hometown and had a great time at an amazing venue. That’s what makes it all worth it. It was also special for us to pay tribute to someone who has been so influential in the music industry for decades, and we hope we helped people have a special night.

HT: Which tune was the most challenging to learn?

CS: Hmm, I think that would vary on which band member you ask. It’s always a challenge to replicate in a live setting a song that was recorded in a studio. Luckily we have a lot of good ears in the band and we pay a lot of attention to the little details.

HT: Finally, what would you classify as the pinnacle of Michael Jackson’s career?

CS: Well, that’s highly debatable and I doubt 3/5 of Steez could even agree on that one. I do know if I take the bait and say what I think the pinnacle of MJ’s career is that my steez-mates will undoubtedly give me crap about it. So I’ll just say this, after going thru MJ’s catalog like we did in preparing for this set, there is an unbelievable amount of great music that he made that is timeless. I don’t see these songs losing their relevancy anytime soon. And that’s probably one of the coolest things a musician or artist can accomplish in a career.

Setlist:

Set – Black or White, Dont’ Stop ‘Til You Get Enough, Banter, Dirty Diana, Beat It, Shake Your Body, Earth Song, Workin’ Day and Night, Thriller -> Somebody’s Watching

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