The Low Czars on 10 years as a (good) cover band

The Madison power-pop/garage-rock/R&B/psych institution plays December 12 at Mickey’s.

Low Czars members Bob Koch, Larry Braun, James Leaver, Adam Zar, and Peter Fatka. Photo by Michelle Damitz.

Low Czars members Bob Koch, Larry Braun, James Leaver, Adam Zar, and Peter Fatka. Photo by Michelle Damitz.

The whole tribute-thing band has gotten a bit out of hand in Madison lately, with local musicians playing one-off cover sets on not only Halloween but also New Year’s Eve and even dates that aren’t big amateur-night occasions. And some of those are fun, but through all that there’s been one Madison cover band that’s consistently worth looking forward to: The Low Czars. The band formed 10 years ago to play a one-off show celebrating member Adam Zar’s wedding, but since then it has amassed a 179-song repertoire rooted in power-pop, garage-rock and R&B, with sources ranging from well-known (The Who, The Kinks, Cheap Trick, Elvis Costello) to more esoteric (Big Star, Guided By Voices, Flamin’ Groovies, Bubble Puppy, Swamp Dogg). The Low Czars have also amassed a rotating membership that’s hard to keep track of—the core members include bassist James Leaver, drummer Larry Braun, guitarist/vocalist Peter Fatka, guitarist/vocalist Bob Koch, and guitarist/keyboardist/vocalist Aaron Scholz. Also in the mix occasionally are guitarist/vocalist Kyle Motor, sax player Nate Tredinnick, and guitarist/vocalist Justin Aten. The lineup varies from show to show, but Leaver says that no one’s ever really “out” of the band.

The Low Czars don’t go in for any theatrics or preciousness, but do play the material with nerdy affection and a workmanlike attention to detail. They’re solid instrumentally, but the biggest difference between The Low Czars and your average cover band is a wealth of good singers. Scholz, Koch, and Fatka can hit the highs needed to pull off the band’s occasional full-album cover set of Love’s 1967 psych-rock classic Forever Changes, or the bright harmonies of Flamin’ Groovies’ “Shake Some Action." Zar supplies a rugged, bouncy baritone that makes the band’s cover of Elvis Presley’s “Little Sister” pretty charming in spite of those kinda-creepy lyrics. Ahead of their “Hanukkah Hoedown” show on December 12 at Mickey’s Tavern and a January 5 show at the High Noon Saloon, five of The Low Czars met up with me at their practice space to talk about what’s kept them at it for 10 years, songs they’ve cut from their set, and while they’ll never play a Rush song.

Tone Madison: When you started this, was it with the idea of having this really specific repertoire of power pop and garage-rock?

James Leaver: The criteria was, "What do they like that we would like to play?" Because we knew them [Adam and his wife] well enough that we knew that there were a bunch of songs that if we could pull them off, they'd be either surprised or it would be—

Adam Zar: I was ecstatic. I was not expecting to hear Swamp Dogg that night.

Larry Braun: Right, because we knew he loved Swamp Dogg, so it's like, we gotta try to learn Swamp Dogg.

Aaron Scholz: And "The Nile Song," by Pink Floyd. Not a wedding song. Bobby Fuller. Spinal Tap. We did "Flower People."

James Leaver: "A Legal Matter," by The Who.

Adam Zar: That was my request. That was the only song I requested. Because I thought that would be funny.

Tone Madison: As far as what you've added since then, do you have a criteria? Do you try to get things into the set that will challenge you, or just stuff you like?

James Leaver: It's usually just stuff that we like. If somebody's like, "You know what would be badass—I was listening to this album and we should do this song," and then somebody puts up a YouTube link or something, and yeah.

Larry Braun: And if it's something we all agree on, essentially. If somebody doesn't want to play the song, we just don't do it.

James Leaver: It's pretty much tyranny of the minority, because if somebody goes, "I'm not gonna play that fucking song," then we can pretty much just move on. There enough songs.

Aaron Scholz: Some of the stuff that came out of the early years was weird stuff that Bob knew that he brought to the band that we were like, "Wow, this is a great song," and no one had ever heard the song except for Bob.

Bob Koch: Yeah, it's more the weird garage-rock stuff.

James Leaver: And sometimes it's just like, "Oh my god, this song is so goddamn easy and it's a great song—we can knock this out in five minutes." And sometimes it just happens in practice. Somebody just starts to play a song.

Larry Braun: Yeah, there are songs that somebody will start playing and then two of us will know it, so the rest of us just learn it.

Tone Madison: What are some of the songs that you've rejected over time?

James Leaver: I have a policy that we won't play "Brown-Eyed Girl" at a wedding unless you pay us an extra $500.

Aaron Scholz: We did play it at a wedding.

James Leaver: We have, and it's never happening again.

Adam Zar: "Crimson And Clover" is no more.

Bob Koch: That needs to come back.

James Leaver: No, it doesn't. It doesn't need to come back.

Larry Braun: There's so many parts, it's so long.

James Leaver: But we've learned "A Quick One." We sort of do the live version.

Aaron Scholz: In the live version, they shorten the song at the beginning, they shorten the Ivor the Engine Driver part, there's a second verse in the studio version, but they don't do that live. And we've played that second Ivor verse.

Larry Braun: But that's a good example of—some songs, Aaron has in his head. He just knows it, and we pretty much can't play the song without Aaron, because he's the one that knows the song. The rest of us can follow his leads, but we can't really attempt it without him.

Tone Madison: Has there ever been an instance where someone was really excited to suggest a cover, and then everyone else just shot it down?

Larry Braun: So, Peter and I know some Rush songs, and we think Bob would fucking nail them. However, Bob happens to hate Rush. He would sound better than Geddy Lee.

Bob Koch: Not gonna happen.

James Leaver: For the record, I'm not really a Rush fan either, but if Bob said, "Let's do it," I would have no choice.

Aaron Scholz: I would be able to get off stage because it's only one guitar. I could go have a beer during the Rush songs.

Tone Madison: How do you keep it interesting for yourselves? What's made you keep doing this over the years?

James Leaver: I haven't been in another band for years. When we first started, it was supposed to be a one-off, and I was in two bands at the time. And then I think by the time we were doing it really regularly, The Runners-Up [a band Leaver and Koch were in together] were pretty much on their last legs. The New Recruits [Leaver's band with Eric Schinker of Uzi Ferrari] hung around for about a year after that, I think. For me, it's not only a great exercise in keeping up my chops—and in fact, I'm better now, probably, than when I was playing in three bands—but it's like weekly therapy, sort of. This is usually the time of the week where I'm not thinking about anything else, and I get caught up in what's going on in the room.

Aaron Scholz: The thing for me was always that I've been in a lot of bands and gotten a varied response, but people seemed to really enjoy what we did, even though we didn't take it very seriously. We worked on it and we played, but we were having a lot of fun, but strangers were enjoying what we were doing, which was a whole new thing for any project I've ever been in.

Bob Koch: It can be in the middle of the set, and somebody will run up out of nowhere that we have not seen the entire night and be like, "I can't believe you just played that song! Nobody knows that song!" And we're like, "Well, we know it. We just played it." And they'll freak out and disappear.

James Leaver: Just this weird club apparition. And the other thing is, it's a great group of people to play with. I mean, Pete, who's not here, is a really low-key person and I mean he wouldn't want to hear this, but he's just an amazing guitar player. He's just a very humble guy, but he has incredible skill on the guitar, and control of tone and dynamics that a lot of guitar players just don't ever have. He's another encyclopedia of stuff. He knows tons of songs. It's just always challenging to play with really good players. It's fun being in a rhythm section with Larry.

Larry Braun: I used to make mistakes a lot when we first started this band, because I was like, "Alright, I don't even need to listen to this guy [Leaver]. I'll listen to Bob, Peter, and Aaron sing harmonies," and then I'd totally lose my place in the song.

James Leaver: It was sometimes easy to get lost in the three-part harmonies.

Bob Koch: Peter['s skill on guitar] essentially balances me out, because I really should just be singing and not playing guitar.

Tone Madison: How do you know when a cover is good enough to put out there?

James Leaver: I'm not sure that we're real great in the quality-control department. [Everyone laughs.] But as long as we're having fun. We've gotten really good at learning songs. There are some where you'll hit that part where we just don't have it yet, and it's usually a mutual thing. There's just a point at which we kind of know. In practice, once we've been able to rock it a few times consistently.

Larry Braun: Or, there are a few songs, like that Masters Apprentices song, where we learned it, we played it live, and we went, "We're never playing that song again! We suck!" And then we tried it months later, and it was like, "Well, now we've got it."

James Leaver: There are some songs that take a good deal longer than others. When we were doing the Kinks thing, when we were learning "Victoria"—I'm not sure we ever mastered that song. [Laughs]

Bob Koch: I know I haven't.

James Leaver: But we played it a bunch.

Tone Madison: OK, but I mean it seems there's a decent threshold for this band, which people might not expect when they go to see a cover band.

James Leaver: I think we've all been doing this long enough that there's a sort of innate professionalism. I think if you ask the people we work with—clubs and sound people—they'd probably say we're pretty easy to work with. I don't think we put a lot of thought into it, but once in a while we do. A lot of our gigs are, we have time to do a couple of sets, and we usually sort of overbook them so we have flexibility to just call stuff or strike stuff during the set. But then there's other times where we've got a pretty strict 45 minutes or something and we figure, let's put together 10, 12 songs that really just kinda work. Once in a while we actually do get down to playing through a set a few times and really fine-tuning stuff. There's a lot of email back and forth and people saying, "Good god, don't put that song next to that one or you're gonna kill me"—

Aaron Scholz: Or people in the audience saying, "Hey, I really want to hear this song!" and us saying OK.

James Leaver: Lately there's been more suggestions for stuff we should learn, and we're always open to that.

Tone Madison: What do you have planned for this Hanukkah show at Mickey's? Adam's kind of locally known for making a big Christmas music mix CD every year, so will there be any holiday music in the set?

Adam Zar: It's only because it's actually during Hanukkah. I'll make it clear when I invite people that the goyim are welcome too.

Aaron Scholz: [To Zar] Otherwise it's just gonna be you.