Bron Don talks Cartoons, Chords, and Cover Songs

Bron Don From left: Mitchell Cardoza, Michael Cangemi (sideways), Colin Mohr, John Cattini

Bron Don
From left: Mitchell Cardoza, Michael Cangemi (sideways), Colin Mohr, John Cattini
Photo by Claire Roche

At 10pm on a Thursday in Valencia, Spain, I buy myself a Pepsi at Bocalinda, a restaurant in the building I live in and that half of the rock reggae band Bron Don has agreed to meet me at. As I sit down and set my change on the high top table, Bron Don bassist Michael “Wolfgang” Cangemi picks up my coins and starts placing them into a circle formation, trying to balance each on its side. The recording of the conversation I took to ensure proper quotations is peppered with the clinks of euros tipping over.

We’ve sat down to discuss cover songs and, in true Bron Don fashion, a myriad of other topics come up—many of which had to be omitted from this article since this is a school-run blog. (Keep an eye out on their Facebook page for the uncensored version. Just kidding. Maybe.)

I ask my first question: “What is your favorite cover song to play as a band? You can answer individually.” With that in mind, Mitchell Cardoza—lead singer and guitarist—dramatically leans over to Mike, covering his mouth from my view and whispering to Mike about what their answer should be. “No, you’re convening? Okay,” I say. I once again remind them they can have different answers just as they come out of their huddle, pleased looks on their faces. “Do you both agree on one?” They answer confidentially, half a second after each other, “’Fire’ by Jimi Hendrix.”

The first time they played “Fire” was during the Valencian holiday of Fallas, which celebrates Saint Joseph by setting fire to giant, elaborate sculptures all throughout the city. They had wanted to add the cover to their set for a while, and decided a festival of fire was the perfect time to do so. Mitch remembers the show vividly. “At the end of the song, like, the peak of the song, I [accidently] kicked my chord out of my pedal, so it just made a ‘zzzzzzzzz’ sound and I was like ‘What the fuck?’ but it was kind of in the key, so it was all good.”

The coins Mike was placing all crash down as someone knocks into the table. Mitch and I start cracking up as Mike throws his hands up in the air, defeated, before he beings to laugh as well. They have a contagious energy about them, so I quickly try to bring focus back to the interview before any of us can get too distracted. “So, ‘Fire’ is your favorite?” Of course, their minds have changed now. Mike is a fan of their cover of Bob Marley’s “Zimbabwe”, as well as Marley’s “Waiting in Vain” which Mike says is the first cover they learned as band.

You guys just released a cover on your Facebook and SoundCloud, right?
*Author’s note: The cover is a mash-up of “Get Up, Stand Up” by Bob Marley & the Wailers, and “Welcome to Jamrock” by Damian Marley. Bron Don titled their live cover of the mash-up “Get Up Jamrock”.
Mitch: Si.
Mike: Yes, we did.
Mitch: [It was of] “Zimbabwe”. No!
Mike: “Zimbabwe” and “Get Up, Stand Up”.
Mitch: No, nope. It was “Get Up, Stand Up” and—
Mike: “Welcome to Jamrock”.
Mitch: That’s by Damian Marley. Bob’s little son. *Laughs*
Mike: Or the rap medley. The rap medley is always cool. Yeah, I kind of like the rap medley one.

What’s it a medley of?
Mitch: So, since I was a little baby boy I’ve made this rap medley of all the best—all my favorite—like, rally songs.
Mike: 90’s rap songs.
Mitch: 90’s rap. Like, Biggie, Tupac, “Gin and Juice” by Snoop Dogg, and I just put it all on I-vi-ii-V.
*Author’s note: I-vi-ii-V is a chord progression commonly used in jazz music.
Mike: Look at that! Cardoza is learning chords!
Mitch: Little jazzy, a little doo-wop, and then I just go off.
Mike: It’s literally just verse after verse and then chorus. He just hits you with the classics.

What’s a cover song you love done by another artist?
Mike: “Mama, You Been on my Mind”. Jeff Buckley’s cover of the Bob Dylan song.
Mitch: “Higher Ground” by the [Red Hot] Chili Peppers. Well, by Stevie Wonder [originally].

What cover song has garnered the most positive response from a live audience?
Mitch: “Waiting in Vain”.
Mike: Any Bob Marley song, but yeah, “Waiting in Vain”—
Mitch: Mostly “Waiting in Vain”.
Mike: “Zimbabwe”.
Mitch: We’re so tight with [“Zimbabwe”]. We’ve been playing it for like a year and a half. We’ve played it ever since we were a band pretty much.
Mike: We played it at our first show, I think.

Any plans to add new covers to your live set?
Mitch: “Voodoo Child” by Jimi Hendrix.
Mike: Covers are cool. We’re always kind of looking for new shit to spice up the set.
Mitch: The hardest thing about covers is that we like songs that not everybody likes.

When you choose cover songs to play, do you keep that in mind? Do you try to introduce your audience to new music or are you looking for a song that will get everyone singing along?
Mitch: We kinda play covers just to like—sometimes, just [for ourselves]. Not in like, a self-centered way! We just like playing songs. Like “Fire”, I wouldn’t expect all the girls to like “Fire”, but they do because we’re passionate about it.

Do you think the somewhat heightened value of cover songs in the Internet age is a good thing or a bad thing? What do you think about artists like Justin Bieber and Karmin getting discovered through YouTube?
Mike: Well, in the case of Justin Bieber, that sucks.
Mitch: He’s hated more than Kim Jong Un.
Mike: Just because you can do a good cover of a song doesn’t mean you’re a good musician.
Mitch: Yeah, because they get a [record] deal and then they can’t write their own songs. So, personally, I don’t know if it’s a good thing or a bad thing. It’s easier, I think, to get discovered on YouTube doing only cover songs. This happens all the time: I’ll look up some song, and it’s like five cover songs and then it’s the song. And there are people who just chill on YouTube all day just watching those things, I guess. Somebody has to watch ‘em. It’s good to get exposure by posting songs people already know. If it’s a killing cover they’re like “Oh, I’ll check out their original stuff.” But they usually don’t have any original stuff.
Mike: It’s usually like, “Oh, check out all my other twelve covers of Taylor Swift.”

I’m out of questions, so the conversation drifts to television. Mitch is a fan of 1990’s cartoons, while Mike opts for more recent hits, such as Game of Thrones and The Americans. However, they both agree that SpongeBob is the holy grail of TV. They also agree that the 2001 film Shrek was nothing short of masterpiece. Seeing this as my opportunity to organically guide the interview away from topics such as the inappropriateness of the late 90’s children’s cartoon Johnny Bravo and back to music, I ask what their favorite song from the Shrek soundtrack is. Mitch gasps excitedly at the question, while Mike immediately responds with “Hallelujah”.

Mitch: I never liked Hallelujah in the movie. I like it now.
*Author’s note: John Cale’s version was used in the film, while Rufus Wainwright’s cover was used on the official soundtrack.
Mike: Jeff Buckley’s [cover] is the best—even better than the original. Anyway, I don’t know my favorite song from Shrek. There’s so many. “My Beloved Monster”…I like that song because it’s a happy part of the movie.
Mitch: What are you talking about, dude? “I’m a Believer”. That’s my favorite song.
Mike: Yeah.
Mitch: And “Accidentally in Love”.
*Author’s note: “Accidentally in Love” was in Shrek 2.
Mike: In context with the movie, [“I’m a Believer”] is probably my favorite song. But if I listened to all the songs separately, it’d be “Hallelujah”.

Anything else you want to say about cover songs to wrap up the interview?
Mike: I like cover songs that are original.
Mitch: Me too. [I like] covers that can express your originality. I don’t like it when you just play it note for note. Like, vibe for vibe.
Mike: Or literally transcribe every part and not play it as your own.
Mitch: That ain’t no fun.
Mike: The whole fun part of doing cover songs is taking a song you really like and making it your own.
Mitch: Unless you’re playing a Bob Marley song, ‘cause then it’s just fun to play.
Mike: But we kind of make it our own, because we aren’t Jamaican.

Any final words to the readers?
Mike: We’re just decent dudes.
Mitch: Yeah, decent dudes.

The Unlikely Evolution of “Hallelujah”

In starting a blog column focused on cover songs, I would be remiss to not begin with perhaps the most famously covered song of all time: “Hallelujah”. Originally recorded by Leonard Cohen and released on his album Various Positions in 1984, “Hallelujah” was not the immediate hit it would later prove to be. In fact, the arrangement of the song we hear most often today is not even the version Cohen originally released.

John Cale, (known for his solo work, as well as for cofounding The Velvet Underground) had heard Cohen perform the song live using different verses than were sung on the recorded track. Cale asked Cohen to send over the alternate verses he had—upwards of eighty—and with that, Cale pieced together the version we hear at every coffee shop around the world. For comparison:

Original studio version:

John Cale’s version, performed by Cohen:

Despite the song’s metamorphosis which took place between Cohen and Cale, most people associate “Hallelujah” with Jeff Buckley who recorded a cover of the song for his first and only album entitled Grace, which was released three years prior to his untimely death in 1997. However, the song really hit mass-market appeal when John Cale’s version was used in the blockbuster movie Shrek in 2001. Oddly, this still wasn’t the version that charted. The soundtrack to Shrek (which sold two million copies) used Rufus Wainwright’s version of “Hallelujah” instead of Cale’s, despite featuring the latter version prominently in the film. This was the catalyst that launched “Hallelujah” into a level of popularity it had not yet managed to achieve since its release almost two decades before.

This, of course, was just the start of things. With hundreds of covers recorded and performed live by artists spanning almost every genre out there, it’s hard to choose the best renditions, or even personal favorites. The versions I’ve come to know best are the two mentioned above: Wainwright’s and Buckley’s. However, the song continues to reach new ears through each artist who performs it.

Imogen Heap’s haunting a capella version scored a main character’s death in the popular teen drama The O.C. in 2006. Two years later, Kate Voegele performed the song on One Tree Hill—a teen soap known for launching the music careers of artists such as Wakey!Wakey! and Gavin DeGraw. The use of the song in shows whose audiences are predominately teens and twenty-somethings undoubtedly brought, and continues to bring “Hallelujah” to an entirely new group of listeners.

For fans of country, Willie Nelson’s take on the song seamlessly adds steel guitar; his voice quaking on the refrains. He’s also one of the few artists to use Cohen’s original lyrics in his cover. Other notable versions include Beirut’s ukulele cover, in which he uses a playing card to strum. Brandi Carlile’s addition of strings (courtesy of the Seattle Symphony) underlines her loaded and lovely voice, while Bono’s version is at its best when it is ignored entirely. These artists and many more—ranging from Bob Dylan to Paramore to Renée Fleming—have done covers of the song. So what it is about this particular tune that resonates with so many different artists?

I’m inclined to believe it’s the mystery of the lyrics that draws so many people to it. Is the song about religion, sex, lost love, abuse? Cohen won’t be the one to tell you, offering little explanation of the song throughout his years of performing. Perhaps it means something different to each artist who covers it, infusing his or her own experiences into the performance and creating an entirely different song each time it’s sung. Although, it’s possible I’m just overthinking it—something Cohen certainly doesn’t do anymore. When asked what his opinion of the song is nowadays, Cohen offered, “I think it’s a good song, but I think too many people sing it”.

Point taken, Mr. Cohen. Point taken.

Music as a Muse: “I’m not There”

I’m Not There is a biographical musical film inspired by the music and many lives of Bob Dylan, among the most quintessential figures of the music world. i'm not there portada Among the key motifs of the film is the idea that Bob Dylan is everyone.  That Bob Dylan is no one.  This is best epitomized though the portrayal of the protagonist through six different actors, including women and small African American children, who all communicate different aspects of his life, personally and musically.  Incidentally, after the caption at the introduction of the film, his name is not mentioned in the entire film. The film narrates the plot with non-traditional techniques, most notably the intercutting of the stories from the six different characters (who are all in their essence Dylan, even though they all sport distinct monikers.)  At several distinct moments, the protagonist is placed at a crossroads, at which point he transforms and becomes a new actor, an innovative cinematographic concept, contributing to the films reputation and the overall exposure.

The film derives its title from an unreleased recording that Dylan made in 1967 from “The Basement Sessions”, “I’m Not There”.  It was not until the release of this film and the accompanying soundtrack that this song was ever published. (Allmusic.com)

The soundtrack, as the film, is in its vast majority composed of recreations by other artists, sporting artistic contributions from budding artists and superstars alike, including The Million Dollar Bashers, a rock supergroup composed of Sonic Youth members Lee Ranaldo and Steve Shelley, keyboardist John Medeski, guitarist Smoke Hormel, and Wilco guitarist Nels Garnier.  Other artists who contributed to the album include Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam, Calexico, Cat Power, Los Lobos, Willie Nelson, Sufjan Stevens, Mason Jennings, and The Black Keys. (Allmusic.com)

i'm not there cdAlbum cover for the soundtrack

 “I’m not there” was generally very well received by critics, with numerous accolades including Golden Globes and an Oscar nomination for Kate Blanchet’s performance, although the film was widely criticized for its lack of accessibility to the spectator who was not intimately familiar with the life and works of Bob Dylan.  Beyond the opinions of critics, the true test is Dylan’s own opinion.  Dylan was interviewed in Rolling Stone magazine by journalist Mikal Gilmore in the September issue of 2012 about his opinion of the film.  He commented, “Yeah, I thought it was all right. Do you think that the director was worried that people would understand it or not? I don’t think he cared one bit. I just think he wanted to make a good movie. I thought it looked good, and those actors were incredible.” (Rollingstone.com) Regardless of the film’s critical reception and box office success, the most notable effect that the film brought about was an increased awareness to Bob Dylan as an artist and performer.  After the release of the film, he enjoyed a noteworthy spike in album sales as well as royalties from the soundtrack itself, of which he was the sole composer of all 34 songs on two disks.

The film concludes with a clip of Dylan on the harmonica from a documentary, “Eat the Document” and fades out.