Nuns on the drums! The bizarre world of 'superniche' cover bands

Elvis has his share of impersonators. Obscure 60s garage rockers and neo-Nazi punks, less so. We meet the weirdest tribute acts on the circuit – from an all-women Fall to a heavy metal Bee Gees

You wouldn’t say the place was packed. There are, perhaps, 20 people in the back room of the Unicorn pub in north London watching the first band on tonight’s bill. They seem wary at first, keeping their distance from the stage, but slowly they begin to follow the heavy, stoned groove of the music and their heads begin to nod, then shake, then finally bang.

There are several unusual things about this performance. First, although this is a metal band playing a metal show in a metal pub, there isn’t a guitar on the stage: three synthesiser players flank a drummer. Second, the musicians are only playing covers. Third, they are only playing covers of one band’s songs. This is the debut gig by Electronica Wizard, whose performances are devoted to recreating, on synths, the work of the doom metal band Electric Wizard.

“Most people we mentioned the band to said it sounded ‘interesting’,” says Mark Dicker, a 40-year-old who manages the mail order department of the bookshop Foyles by day, and plays in a bunch of bands – including Electronica Wizard – by night. “That was the adjective that came up the most.” Electronica Wizard are one of a slew of covers bands doing something that is, by Dicker’s own admission, “superniche”. That is, taking something already niche, then adding another layer of remove from the mainstream to it. There have long been novelty covers bands – reggae versions of classic rock from Dread Zeppelin, for example – but superniche cover bands are a step beyond that. Take Jewdriver, for example, who perform the songs of the neo-Nazi punk band Skrewdriver, reconfigured to remove the nazism – so Hail the New Dawn becomes Hail the Jew Dawn. Or take the Estonian early music group Rondellus, which recorded the album Sabbatum, featuring plainsong versions of Black Sabbath songs, sung in Latin.

Charley Stone was twice in bands signed to major labels – Gay Dad and Salad. Salad are back together these days, but Stone also finds time to be in Joanne Joanne (all-women Duran Duran covers), Ye Nuns (the work of 60s garage band the Monks, performed by women), the Fallen Women (live karaoke versions of the Fall, played by women, with audience members singing) and Misters of Circe (a genderqueer Sisters of Mercy covers band; the tunings are the same, their female singer just has to strain downwards a lot to hit the pitch of the songs).

How different are these bands from being the bloke in a white jumpsuit and shades singing Suspicious Minds to a backing track? “At heart, it’s totally different,” Stone says, “even though in essence it’s the same thing. The motivation and the way it’s approached is completely different. We home in on what we like, so it’s like creating an ideal mix of songs you love. When you go to see a band that have all the right equipment, and they emulate all the guitar parts, it loses the energy. I wouldn’t want to be in a band that was trying to do a 100% faithful replication.”

But when you take the work of a cult band with particularly obsessive fans, there are dangers. The Fallen Women, for example, have to tell the people who step from the crowd to sing with them that there are certain elements of Fall singer Mark E Smith’s act that they should not try to copy. “We make a point of saying no amp fiddling is allowed. You can be him up to the point of abusing other band members. People do tend to do it in the style of Mark E Smith – a lot of them have really nailed the gestures and the body language.”

Fallen Women.
Fallen Women. Photograph: PR

Electronica Wizard’s second gig, a few days after their first, was at the Supersonic festival in Birmingham, playing a Saturday-night party slot to a crowd of knowledgable noiseniks. In that instance, there was the fear that metal fans – who don’t like to think their music is being mocked – might think Electronica Wizard were not being entirely serious. Dicker thinks the fidelity of the music helps dispel that idea – “We didn’t really deviate from the source material too much; it’s not hard to summon the same heavy, distorted guitar tone that Electric Wizard have with a synthesiser” – but he also made sure they had the blessing of the original band before pressing ahead.

Maybe so. But doom metal synth covers in a party slot? Really? “Maybe with guitars it wouldn’t have seemed so appropriate for a party slot,” he says. “But in many people’s minds, synthesisers are associated with all that great pop of the 80s. Mix that with a cult metal band and maybe you do have a party. I spotted a few people singing along.”

Getting a niche cover band in front of the wrong audience is a recipe for mutual incomprehension, as Sean Rowley discovered when he booked the Bee Gees cover band Tragedy for his long-running Guilty Pleasures club night. All good, except that Tragedy perform the Bee Gees canon as metal. “I’ve never ever put on a straight covers band,” Rowley says. “What’s the point? Cover bands with a twist, that’s my thing, and the heavy metal Bee Gees was the icing on the cake.”

The problem was that a large proportion of the club-goers didn’t feel the same way when Tragedy played at Guilty Pleasures last May. “We split the room with them. There was the slightly aghast: ‘Oh my God, they’re playing Bee Gees songs as heavy metal.’ And there was: ‘Wow! This is amazing! They’re playing Bee Gees songs as heavy metal!’ I tend to put live bands on early, for half an hour. But the boys in Tragedy did insist they play for an hour. And that last 45 minutes – sorry, that last 15 minutes – did feel like it was dragging slightly. Too much of a good thing. And let’s face it, with a lot of this stuff, it’s a one-trick pony, and once that trick has been revealed …”

Ground zero for the superniche covers band was probably Thee Headcoatees, the all-women 90s band who performed only the works of Billy Childish. One member – Deborah Greensmith – is now, fittingly, in Ye Nuns, keeping the garage rock flame alive. And, goodness, Ye Nuns are careful about paying due respect to their inspirations. Two of the seven members have copied the Monks and shaved their heads into tonsures for gigs – one successfully, one less so. And they’ve won the approval of the originals, too.

“We’re rehearsing some unrecorded songs that were written by Eddie Shaw, the Monks’ bass player, around the time of the Monks,” says Ye Nuns bassist Kate Hodges. “That’s amazing, isn’t it? We’re going to play unheard Monks songs! He sent them to us. We must be the only tribute band where we can email one of the members and ask what the lyrics are.”

Hodges is proud that Ye Nuns are “seven women north of 40” who are playing fierce music rather than picking up ukuleles. All of them are lifelong band members, of varying degrees of success (as well has Thee Headcoatees, Salad and Gay Dad, there are former members of Echobelly and Mambo Taxi in the band) and she says there’s something liberating about being in a band where there is no need for ambition. “There’s zero pressure to progress in our career. There’s no trying to get record deals, though we have had an album out. And there’s no pressure for songwriting, so you don’t get that weird political dynamic where people are pushing their own agenda. There’s no internal politics.”

But who actually likes superniche covers bands without being an obsessive fan of the original group? Hodges assures me Ye Nuns’ audience is not just po-faced garage rock devotees, so I go hunting online for Nuns fans and track down Andrew Heenan, a 65-year-old retired nurse living in north Kent.

After leaving London, Heenan found himself with lots of time and not much company, so he started going to see live music, something he hadn’t done to anything like the same extent when he was still in the capital. At one show in Whitstable was a band he’d never heard of, and he was bowled over. “The thing about Ye Nuns was the excitement and immediacy of the sound – and the fact it was so different from so many other people. And they’re such good musicians. It was mind-blowing. When I got home, the first thing I did was go on to YouTube to track down all their other stuff, and then track down all the Monks stuff. So there’s a double benefit: they’re a great cover band of the Monks, but they’re a very exciting band themselves.”

He’s since started travelling around the country to see Ye Nuns making their occasional appearances (one thing about superniche covers bands is that their niches are too small to support playing more than a few shows a year). And they have inspired him to try even louder, angrier music. “What I have done since seeing Ye Nuns is start going to a pub in Canterbury called the Lady Luck a bit more often than I used to. They have a lot of punk and variations thereof. A lot of very modern music compared with what I would usually listen to. And I now enjoy bands I wouldn’t have enjoyed five years ago.”

So, should a friend suggest to you a trip to some strange venue to see, say, a band covering Pentangle in the style of Guided By Voices, don’t brush them off. You never know, it could be the gateway to another musical dimension.

Fallen Women play the Lexington, London on 1 December. Joanne Joanne are at the same venue on 21 December


Michael Hann

The GuardianTramp

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