Spotlight Cover Band: Red Square
Interviewed by: Dorise Gruber
Red Square is not your average cover band. While they may make up a group of ordinary 9-5ers, their cover band savvy involves some pretty exceptional musical talent, which recently landed them a coveted spot as Official Runners Up in a Boston city-wide cover band competition. These local boys have turned their musical flair into a loving craft for us all to enjoy, and since their day-jobs pay the bills, you can tell while they play they are relaxed, silly, and truly in it for the fun of it all. I caught Jason and Haril before they rocked a full-house last week at the Burren (one of their main haunts), discussing the secrets to cover-band branding (can I copyright the term “cover-branding?”), and male-crooned chick anthems.
How long have you guys been at the Red Square thing now? What was the impetus for forming the band?
Haril: The band has been around in various forms for about 10 1/2 years and the latest iteration with Jason and Brian probably a good 4 1/2 or 5 years.
Jason: Yeah, I’ve been with the band for about 5 years. Brian is the most recent addition, he’s been with us for about 3 years. Renato is actually the only original member of the band itself as a unit. He sort of started the band, and members came and went around him but the current iteration of Red Square has been itself for about 5 years or so.
Was it always designed to be a cover band?
Haril: It’s always been a cover band since I can remember, the early early iterations of it. I think the styles and genres have changed a lot.
Jason: A lot!
Haril: A lot. When I was first with ‘Nato it was a lot of Pearl Jam and a lot of Puddle of Mudd and that kind of thing, and there’s only so much backward-baseball-hat-dude-wearing we can play.
Jason: Yeah, there’s only so many venues where backwards-wearing-hat-dudes hang out.
Haril: Well we played a lot of Faneuil Hall and the Trinity and a few other places over the years, and in its current iteration I think we’ve come to the realization with the advent of Jason’s horn abilities what we’re able to do with three-part harmonies that we weren’t able to do before. I think it’s opened the gamut to do a lot of different songs that really push Jay’s limits as a singer, the band’s limits and I think now the current iteration is very crowd friendly, it’s very dance friendly.
Jason: Yeah, it’s where we want to be.
Haril: Yeah, absolutely.
You mentioned the horns and I was going to ask: You use a lot of instruments during your show beyond just the basic band instruments, so I’m wondering if you could lay out what sort of instruments we’re likely to see in one of your shows, and if you guys have any other hidden instrument talents you might bust out one of these days?
Jason: Sure! Well, I was actually classically trained on the trumpet, I was a band-nerd in school, and played all through high-school, going to music festivals and that whole ridiculousness. So I’ve always been a wind-player. I picked up the saxophone just cuz nobody wants to see a trumpet player play, but saxophones are “cool.” So I picked up the saxophone and that was fun, and I just started singing cuz I couldn’t do anything else. And one day it was like “Do you play the guitar?” and I was like “No, but I can…I can sing” and so I kind of started doing that. But I mean, pretty much any woodwind: clarinet, I could pull out a note or two on the flute, we’ve used pennywhistle from time to time, I’ve got a set of congas that are moldering away.
Haril: Actually, we played a gig at Harper’s Ferry once where you used those.
What was the song?
Haril: It was “Long Train Runnin” and they did exist at the time. But again, we, from the early iterations of the band, it was just guitar/bass/drums with vocals, and now it’s really more often adding Jay’s work with the brass and the woodwind section. Actually three voices have become sort of an instrument we haven’t done before.
Jason: The big one is ‘Nato’s drum machine.
Haril: Yeah, Nato’s drum machine has been actually great because it’s allowed us to add a whole production level to our music that a lot of cover bands don’t get. So for example, we don’t have a keyboard player.
Jason: We don’t have a strings section!
Haril: But somehow magically we’ll do Coldplay and sample and resample a lot of the current songs to get little pieces and clips and you’ll hear that. I think that’s actually one of our biggest differentiators is that we’re able to bring that production value. I think there have been a couple of songs where Brian and I switched instruments half-way through so he plays bass and I play guitar. I’ve actually jumped in on drums for a song once when ‘Nato was in the bathroom I think, and now Brian and I are talking about doing songs solely on ipads and seeing what happens if we use the piano app or the guitar app on an ipad. Push technology to its latest and kind of see where we can bend.
Speaking of the things that make you guys stand out – you guys tackle numerous songs in different genres with strong male *and* female vocals. How does preparing for a classic chick-anthem compare to a male-led vocal?
Jason: That’s a very good question. One of the things I try to do in singing any song is to sing it…not try to reproduce the original singer’s voice, but try to just be a little bit faithful to it. And, over the years, these guys have pushed me to stretch with a lot of different songs. One of the first songs that we did that was a female song was “Somebody to Love,” Jefferson Airplane with Grace Slick. Man, it was a killer! But I just tried to get it out, and once I got to the place where I felt comfortable with it, then I was able to add sort of my own version to it. So I try, when I’m singing a girl-song, you know, the Carrie Underwood or something, I try to stay faithful to the spirit of the song. I don’t change any of the gender pronouns or anything like that cuz that’s just silly, but I try to just put my own voice into it and it always comes out kind of fun.
Haril: In fact, it’s actually turned into a little bit of a game. We’ve actually tried to see how we can push Jason and see where we go, like he said we’ve done the Carrie Underwood, we’ve done the Patti LaBelle Lady Marmalade.
Jason: We used to do Pink.
Haril: We’ll do Pink, or Katy Perry, or Lady Gaga or Duffy. Anything that kind of really pushes the range and it’s great because, you know, a lot of dance songs today are done by female artists and I think if you want to stay current you either add a female singer or you find a guy who can reverse-dial.
Jason: And if you want to succeed and get gigs, remember as a cover band, because let’s face it cover bands are thick on the ground in the city of Boston, you’ve gotta have as much unique stuff as possible to bring to the table, and that’s just one of the things that I think sets us apart.
Similar to your playing with female vocals, on your website you talk about “Red Squaring” songs. Can you talk a little bit about what that means?
Haril: We do our homework. We try to really go around and see the other cover bands in the area. Obviously we’re not going too far but in Eastern Massachusetts we’ll go and find out who’s playing what. I think every band’s got their 10 songs that are the same across the board and we got to a point where we really needed to differentiate our “sound” or “image” for our band that would set us apart from any other band and keep us coming back for more. It made us sort of take these cover songs that we’ve been doing for years and say “What can *we* do to put our own spin that’s unique to it?” We’ve all been playing music for probably a combined 80 years if you add it all together, and that said we had to bring musicianship to the table. I think it’s pretty easy to take a CD and copy a song verbatim and make sure your guitar sound sounds just like that guy, or Jason sings it just like that person, and I think we’ve kind of stopped doing that and said “What can we do?” and I think that’s where we “Red Square” a song.
Jason: And one of the other things that drives it, too, is there are songs out there that people want to hear, but we are so sick of playing, that we’re like “Alright, we are SO tired of playing it like this, let’s do something different and fun to it.” We make it new to us, but people will still enjoy hearing it, and they’ll still say “Oh that’s a really cool song,” but they’ll also remember it as that song they like to listen to.
Haril: “Red Squaring” something, “Red Square Nation,” I think we’ve come up with these little buzz-y terms to really set us apart.
Jason: Brand ourselves.
Haril: I think every band, even cover band, needs an image, because a lot of cover bands will be like “Well, do you play weddings or corporate events?” We’ve done them for close friends and charity, we’ve done a lot of charity shows, but I think to be like every cover band out there is kind of tough.
One of the charity shows you guys just did was a Pan Mass Challenge Fundraiser. How did you guys get involved with playing for different charities in the area?
Haril: They kind of come to us, because I think a lot of it is fan-base driven. We’ll have a few guys that will come to a show, and they’ll be like “Hey, I work for so-and-so!” So for example, the Pan Mass Challenge is a guy who works for the Red Sox, and he was at a show and was like “You guys are great, you want to play this show for us? We’re trying to raise money.” In that vein, we’ve done shows for Children’s Hospital, we’ve done shows for Teen Voices, we’ve done shows for Pan Mass, Jimmy Fund, we just did one for MS this last weekend, so a lot of these charities are close to our hearts, or at least to our fan’s hearts, which is equally important.
Jason: And as much fun as we have playing music, that’s the thing. It’s always nice to play music, have fun, and get paid, but sometimes it’s nice to play music, have fun, and do something nice for somebody else.
Absolutely. What’s your favorite thing about being in a cover band?
Haril: We draw a lot of inspiration from watching our fans getting really into it.
Jason: I was going to say the same thing, watching people have a good time, entertaining people, and doing something that causes other people to be so happy and have such a good time.
Haril: I think a lot of musicians are out there working really hard to write music and get out there and get the fans to be into their music, and I think we have an easier edge, because we’re playing stuff that’s out there already and already popular. So I think there’s a familiarity to our audience that they know the song, and then we put our own twist to it, so I think they get a little originality out of it, they get a little “Oh, I know this song” and it’s just sort of a fun surprise. They dance, and everything’s about having a good night out.
Jason: Yeah. I think the other aspect is that Haril is an architect, Brian is a contractor, Renato is a fitness instructor, and I work at a law firm. We have day jobs, we can’t do this full time, but we are all musicians. If we didn’t play music we’d all go insane. So this is a great way to have fun, play music, have a creative outlet, give people something to smile about, so everybody wins. We have a great time, as well as everyone else.
What was your favorite cover band gig?
Haril: I think always the fun ones are the New Year’s Eve gigs, for me.
Jason: Yeah, New Year’s Eve or Halloween. Halloween tends to be fun because a) everybody already shows up drunk, and b) they’re all dressed in wacko costumes. Everybody’s just in pre-loaded party-mode. So we could just go up there and spew dog shit over our amps for two hours and they’d still have fun.
Haril: …but we don’t.
Jason: The spirit that people bring when they come out to a bar on Halloween or New Year’s Show is that they’re just there to PARTY. We are one of many catalysts in that. So yeah, I think the Halloween shows or the New Year’s shows.
Haril: We did a New Year’s Show a year or two years ago at the Skellig, it was probably 9:30, here you are 2 1/2 hours away from the New Year, there were probably like 8 people in the bar. So we were like “There’s no way this gig is going to be fun at all,” and I want to say within an hour, you could not even move. Jam-packed to the point where cops, the whole thing, it was just a party. They loved us, we loved them, it was just a fantastic evening.
Now you guys do some non-cover band related stuff too. I heard that a song that the two of you guys wrote together is going to be airing in a major motion picture?
Haril: Hah! Well, I called on Jay’s skills one night. We wrote a song that was sort of upbeat and hip, and we wrote it for a commercial, actually, that I did for my office, that ended up winning a national marketing award. The song was in it, and one of my friends who’s a script writer for a movie who’s getting his movie done heard the song and goes “I want that in my movie.” And so, we’ve yet to see what happens. Hopefully something happens but we haven’t heard yea or nay quite yet, and I think we’re excited – it’s just a great opportunity to hear that it’s even a possibility.
Jason: Yeah, it was written by Haril and I, it was recorded by one of our…it was a really sort of weird coincidence. Neither one of us knew that the other one knew Ruth Peterson from The Wild Sea, but we both knew her and my voice just didn’t work on the song. We said, “Whose voice would work?” We both thought of it, and she sounds brilliant.
Haril: It needed a sexy-chick sound.
Jason: It needed a sexy-girl voice and she has a sexy-girl voice, she’s a great singer.
Haril: And it’s half French! Half French, half English.
Jason: And she really did the pronunciation well, so we’ll see where it goes!
Do you know the name of the movie?
Haril: I think it’s “Let the Game Begin.”
We’ll need to watch out for it! What about Red Square? Would you guys ever consider putting out a cd?
Haril: Jay and I have talked about it and the interesting thing we’ve always talked about is doing acoustic covers, and doing them kind of “Red Squared,” and putting those out. Not necessarily for sale, per say, I don’t know, who knows.
Jason: It creates some knotty problems, legally. We’d definitely like to get some more promotional material out there into the hands of people that would be potential fans who would come to see our shows and who would want to become fans of Red Square. It’s been a long time since we’ve recorded anything, and our website is definitely due for an upgrade.
Haril: That’s happening at the turn of the year – we’re going to get a brand new website, new image, the whole deal.
Jason: And I think one of the things that we’re going to do is lay down a few tracks, maybe put out an EP, maybe press a few copies and give them out at shows, you know that kind of thing. I think that would be fun to do.
Cool! And so besides perhaps an acoustic EP, what else does the future hold for Red Square?
Jason: Bigger gigs.
Haril: I think we’d like to get involved in doing gigs in the city. There are just amazing events and charitable events that happen in downtown Boston. We’ve all grown up here and there’s so much to give back to the city, whether it’s an event in City Hall or something at Faneuil Hall that involves large-scale band/music/production, that’s something that we’d really love to get involved in.
Jason: And we love playing at the Skellig and the Burren, we won’t ever stop playing here, cuz these guys really gave us our start. They gave us gigs when we were still monkeying around with Barenaked Ladies.
Haril:…which we still monkey around with.
Jason: But we’ve grown, and our fan-base here has grown as a result of their belief in us, their faith in us, and they continue to book us. So we’ll never stop playing here, but I think we’d like to start reaching a bigger audience, because we feel like we’ve got a lot to offer people in the way of entertainment.
Haril: Bigger-venue gigs and more fans on Facebook, I think we just want to get ourselves known out there. The getting-known is half the battle, and I think we offer something really unique that, I can say almost any band, doesn’t do exactly what we do. I think that’s something extremely unique to us that would hopefully launch us into larger venues.
## To check out the Haril/Jason co-written song to be aired in Let the Game Begin, check out the commercial the song originated in here.
You can check out Red Square’s current website here for upcoming gigs!