Mockstars are the new rockstars.
For that they can thank Mark Wahlberg. Some of the general acceptance of tribute bands, Kurutz contends, can be traced to the movie Rock Star, a Wahlberg/Jennifer Aniston vehicle from 2001.
In it Wahlberg's character is plucked from tribute obscurity to front a group he idolizes. The plot was inspired by the real-life story of Tim Owens, an office-supply salesman from Akron, Ohio, who, in the mid-1990s, went from singing in a Judas Priest tribute band called British Steel to actually singing in Judas Priest.
The overriding theme to all this is, of course, if the band you're paying tribute to doesn't have a problem with what you're doing, why should anyone else?
The jump from mockstar to rockstar is happening more and more frequently. Following Priest's tribute-leaning lead in recent years has been Yes, Boston and Journey, who have all cherry-picked their new frontmen from acts that serve as tributes to the original music they wrote.
In Like a Rolling Stone, Kurutz runs down several tribute acts that have been joined onstage by the members of the bands they were paying tribute to. Often times the original artist feels more honored than put off. Paul Hammond knows for a fact that Jimmy Page is a fan of Get the Led Out. (Hammond delivered a custom-built Martin guitar to Page's home for his 63rd birthday.)
Kurutz believes the current musical climate is a perfect petri dish for breeding tribute acts that will never know the scorn of purists. "My sense is--and I hate to say this--that the bar has been lowered in a big way," he laments. "Music is so dispersed now, and no big artists like U2 or Springsteen are coming out. And so much original music is so derivative anyway. What's worse--Badfish, who play tribute to the music of Sublime, or a ska punk band playing originals that are influenced by Sublime?
"There's a whole generation of kids who don't even know what selling out means. They hear Led Zeppelin songs in car commercials or hear this music in video games. We're looking at a future where the stigma of being in a tribute band will be all but completely erased."
There's unmistakable joy in Brian McTear's voice when he talks about the Pauls. McTear is one of Philadelphia's most highly regarded producers, and has worked closely with the Pauls for almost a decade. "They're totally unknown gems," he says. "They have such remarkable talent."
McTear's not talking about the Pauls' performances as Get the Led Out, but instead the countless records they've mastered for him over the years.
Mastering is the final stage of the recording process--after recording and mixing. Like the scene in Napoleon Dynamite in which the movie's protagonist chugs milk and analyzes its flaws ("This cow got into an onion patch"), Hammond and Sinclair listen to fully mixed recordings on their vintage analogue equipment in Fat City and pick out any flaws, equalizing it and pulling out distortion imperceptible to most human ears (and, presumably, even to some deer). It's a very specialized talent. It also happens to be the Pauls' day jobs. They master music every week from all around the world, and their reputation for quality work continues to grow.
"Both of them have incredible ears," McTear says of the duo. "They can hear things in a mix that makes you think they're not human. They've taught me a lot."
Their list of mastered output is a virtual who's who of Philadelphia independent music--the Cobbs, the Brakes, BC Camplight, Blood Feathers, Hail Social, the Swimmers, Golden Ball, the A-Sides, Capitol Years, Meg Baird, Birdie Busch, Creeping Weeds, Photon Band, Ex Reverie. The guys have also been at the helm of two records by Will Oldham, a Louisville, Ky., artist who records under the moniker Bonnie "Prince" Billy. They've mastered releases from as far away as Ireland, Sweden, "even Utah," Hammond jokes.
"Howie Weinberg has mastered a record for me," says McTear (Weinberg is one of music's most lauded mastering engineers, responsible for such work as Red Hot Chili Peppers' Blood Sugar Sex Magic, Beastie Boys' Licensed to Ill and Public Enemy's It Takes a Nation of Millions). "I can say, without a doubt, the Pauls are better," McTear says.