His Cover’s Blown: A Chat with A.V. Club Editor Josh Modell
What constitutes a good cover? Over the last five months, the endearingly opinionated commentariat over at The Onion’s A.V. Club have publicly debated their merits and pitfalls below each installment of Undercover, its 25-week web series. The premise: Bands cram into a quaintly claustrophobic studio to perform selections from a list of preselected A.V. Club favorites that range from the obvious (Journey, The Rolling Stones) to the relatively obscure (The Wedding Present, Archers of Loaf). The later the band participates, the fewer choices it has. Behind the project is A.V. Club editor Josh Modell, a man whose labor of love saddled him with the unenviable task of navigating the volatile schedules (and temperaments) of indie-rock bands. Modell answered a few of Arts Desk’s questions via email as the series draws to a close, discussing the possibility of another season, Jeff Tweedy's nonparticipation, and the (potentially) misunderstood genius of Fall Out Boy.
Talk a little about the selection of the songs for Undercover. The focus on new "classics" made the series such a unique undertaking. Was there a veto process involving the AV club staff?
The criteria were really loose and simple: We wanted songs that we liked and/or thought would make fun covers, and that hadn't been covered a ton of times before. We originally had a list of 50, which was how many I thought we'd do, but that turned out to be a little overambitious. I'm not sure I agree that the focus was on "new classics," though there were certainly some of those (like "Two-Headed Boy"). It turned out, in my mind, to be a nice mixture of familiar songs with a few surprises and deeper cuts. One that I chickened out on was "What's On Your Mind (Pure Energy)" by Information Society. I'm still sort of on the fence about it, because we don't want Undercover to be parodies or gimmicky, and it might be tough to take that song seriously. Some others on the short list included "If I Can't Change Your Mind" by Sugar and "The Bitterest Pill" by The Jam. Maybe those will make it into next year's series, assuming we do one.
Were there any bands that you absolutely wanted to involve when you first conceived of the project? Did anyone agree that never made it in?
I approached probably ten bands that said no, and those were mostly for scheduling reasons. Since we shoot these at our office in Chicago, we're at the mercy of touring-band schedules. Sometimes they'll have a couple of hours to spare, other times it just won't work. The Antlers couldn't do it when they came through in March, but were able to when they came back through in April, for example. Nobody ever got as far as agreeing to do it and then backing out. As far people who turned us down, the only one I'll mention is Jeff Tweedy. Jeff, it's only a 10-minute drive from your house!
Jeff Tweedy is officially on notice. You made mention of "What's On Your Mind (Pure Energy)" as an example of a cover that might seem like a novelty. What makes for a good cover? Were there any improbable pairings that turned out better than expected?
It's tough to say what will make a good cover. For purposes of this series, it seems to be songs that people are already pretty familiar with, like Hall and Oates' "One On One." But I think somebody could do a great cover of "What's On Your Mind" if they, ahem, set their minds to it. I was curious about who would tackle "Paper Planes" and what they'd do with it, and I think The Clientele's version of it—which sort of wussifies it without making it a joke at all—was amazing. On the other hand, you can also have a great band—like Ted Leo & The Pharmacists—do a really straight-up cover and it'll turn out great. So maybe it's luck, or magic. Maybe a more direct answer to this question would be an interesting band plus an interesting song will make a great cover. One idea at the beginning was that the "silly" songs (like "We Built This City" and "Kokomo") would present challenges to bands, and that they'd be picked much later. That didn't turn out to be the case.
The final three selections were by Superchunk, R.E.M., and Billy Squier. What observations are there to draw from the last songs standing?
Only that what I imagined would happen—the “silly” songs be chosen last—didn't really happen. The R.E.M. song is such a big one, and would seem a relatively easy choice, but there it is in the final three. Superchunk I figured would be a tougher sell, because I think it takes a specific type of band to do it justice. Billy Squier was sort of a wild card in my mind, and I guess I'm not surprised it lingered on the list for so long. I bet if we had picked "The Stroke" instead, it would have been chosen sooner.
How far in advance did bands have to pick the songs/ practice before coming into the studio? It seems like some had a real enthusiasm for the idea whereas others seemed downright confused.
Bands would generally pick the song 3-4 weeks before they'd come in to play it, so they had plenty of time to practice it if they wanted to. Some clearly practiced a lot, while others kinda winged it. I think both approaches yielded some great results. Owen Pallett told us he hadn't really prepared his song (Guided By Voices' "Game Of Pricks") at all, yet it sounded fantastic. Wye Oak had played their song (The Kinks' "Strangers") at a bunch of shows leading up to the taping here, so they were all set.
You mentioned that Undercover might return next year. Having gone through it once, would you do differently next time around?
A few things. I think we learned something about song selection—what seems to work and what doesn't. I think in general we'll probably push more for full-band setups over acoustics (though Frightened Rabbit and Clem Snide were two of my favorites, and those were acoustic). There are some sound things we can work on, like providing in-ear monitors for bands that are going to play loud. And I think we're going to try and involve the readers in choosing the songs next year. Maybe sports-style brackets and eliminations.
"What works" in terms of the song selection? Songs that people are more familiar with?
I think the best answer is just that we consider it a good song, regardless of genre/era, etc, and probably one that people are at least passingly familiar with.
Is the A.V. Club right or the world wrong in their impression of Fall Out Boy?
I can't really answer that, because I'm woefully uneducated about Fall Out Boy. I know "Sugar, We're Going Down Swinging," and some vague tabloid-y stuff about Pete Wentz, but I actually don't know much about their music. There are just a few vocal fans at The A.V. Club. That said, Patrick Stump was an incredibly nice guy, and I thought he turned in an amazingly soulful version of one of my favorite songs of all time!
Enough already. Who was your favorite?
I honestly don't know. I am truly fond of pretty much all of them, and they're all tied to the process of shooting them as well—the bands were all really cool and patient and nice. Everybody gets an A+, just like in real life.