The thought of watching a cover band makes a lot of live music fans immediately cringe, and usually with good reason. For some, memories of sloppy college party bands come to mind (ever hear a drunken 20-year-old fumble though “Run Like Hell”?). For others, maybe it’s having to sit through a band crucify a Pearl Jam song on Houston’s Richmond Strip in the mid-90s.
What’s interesting about Houston’s Ninja First Class is what songs the band chooses to cover in its live sets.
Sure, there’s the obligatory Cheap Trick cover (a brilliant “Surrender” sung by rhythm guitarist Jim Parish, who also tips his hat to the Chicago rockers with his checkerboard guitar strap), but there are also covers of songs by Tegan & Sara, The Go-Go’s, Veruca Salt, The Raconteurs, and San Antonio’s Girl In A Coma. For every song people can sing along with (“Surrender,” for example), the band plays another song that it loves–and that few in the crowd have likely heard before. The five-piece’s Houston band’s set list is steeped in 90’s alt-rock radio and Sirius’ indie rock catalog, with a few classic pop songs thrown in, but the band also performs songs penned by lead singer/guitarist Gelli Hunyadi–a recent high school grad with stage presence and charisma that urges attention.
I caught the band live twice last year, at its former weekly gig at the now-shuttered Wing Cafe in Spring. Live, bassist EJ Hunyadi mostly channels Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo when he sings, and guitarist Christopher Sharber doesn’t let his solos overpower the songs. Drummer Sherry Hunyadi (Ninja First Class is mostly a family affair, mind you) is a bastion of restraint, and does an excellent job of not blowing out the ears of patrons who’d rather eat wings and stare at TVs than watch live music.
This year, Ninja First Class has shifted the focus to creating its own music. A couple of weeks ago, I had the chance to hear demos of a few of the band’s recently recorded original songs, which run from subdued, Pixies-ish, stripped-down tunes to a catchy, sing-along pop song to a work-in-progress heavily influenced by Joy Division. I recently asked the band–three members of which I work with–about its origins, its influences, and the new songs. Read it after the jump…
Houston Calling: How did Ninja First Class get started as a band? I first interviewed Gelli back in 2007, when I think she was just starting out playing guitar…
EJ Hunyadi: We started almost five years ago when Jim Parish and Chris Sharber wanted to get together to play some songs together. As they both played guitar and I played bass, we decided to give it a go. While practicing, Gelli brought out her guitar and played and sang “Zombie” by The Cranberries. She then became our singer. After a few practices, my wife Sherry decided that she was tired of listening to us practice without drums so she learned to play drums over a weekend on YouTube and became our drummer.
HC: Your live sets, cover-wise, have a broad range of influences–although I get a sense that 80s alternative plays a bigger role than most. What do you consider to be your primary musical influences and how do you think they play into your original music?
EJH: Yeah, lots of 80s songs, but actually a lot of 90s and even more modern stuff. I would say that my own musical influences are The Smiths, The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, The Who, The Cure, Depeche Mode, Metric, Tegan and Sara, Silversun Pickups, and Abba.
Jim Parish: That eclectic taste we have in music shows up when we write songs. One song might have a Joy Division or She Wants Revenge sound, the next reminds you of early Police, then the next a Katy Perry tune, which we are writing now in expectation of selling out for the big bucks here real soon.
HC: How would you describe your music to someone who has never heard it before?
JP: Alt-rock with musical leanings to whatever gives us pleasure at that moment. Maybe our band name should be The Hedonists.
Gelli Hunyadi: Pop indie rock…
HC: How does the band approach the songwriting process? Is it collaborative or does each member brings ideas and it goes from there?
EJH: So far, the majority of our songs have been collaborative. I start with a bass line, Jim joins in with a melody, and Sherry kicks in a beat. Gelli then starts singing nonsense words, but the important (and cool) part is that she builds a nice vocal melody that ends up guiding the song. Add in some solos from Chris, and we’ve got a song. There are a few exceptions where a band member brings an idea, music, or lyrics to practice, but even then, we tend to collaborate on the song and build on it.
JP: We have had band members bring in fully formed tunes that we tweak or a musical idea that everyone enjoys and we add to it. Recently, our favorite way to write is to put the condenser mike in the middle of the practice space and start recording. We jokingly did a session the other night where we pretended we were telling the story of how some of our greatest hits came into being. Saying things like, “And during our rap phase, we wrote this song about Irish monkeys.” Then EJ would play a bass line, I would follow with guitar, and the others would join in. It was a way to joke and have fun, but it also allowed us to play in whatever style we wanted and it provided us with a lot of material to build songs that we genuinely enjoy playing and want to share. You know, our real greatest hits collection.
HC: You’ve had some steady gigs at a couple of places since you started, which I assume is a good way to hone your songs. What’s your plan for getting your songs to a wider audience locally?
JP: The steady gigs were so good for us. It kept us focused on practicing to get ready for the gig, practicing new material so our set lists would not get old, and it helped up grow as musicians and performers. It also is a great sounding board. What you think is genius in the practice room can seem, well, less than genius in front of an audience.
HC: Have you been pleased with the response you’ve gotten at your gigs so far?
EJH: Yes. The vast majority of people who hear us play like us and our music. The few who don’t like our music tell us we’re good musicians but that the music just isn’t their thing. That’s okay; the overwhelming majority of folks who come out to hear us play enjoy the music and we’ve been very lucky to have some very awesome positive feedback.
HC: You’ve started demoing some original songs. Are you doing this in your own studio? How is that process going so far?
EJH: Yes, we’ve been doing self-recording and it’s been a lot of fun. It’s also a lot of work, but it’s very rewarding. Of course, with every pass, there’s something else we learn and something else we want to fix or redo, but it’s all a part of the learning process, and the trip, so we’re enjoying it…
JP: We are doing this in our own studio. The process is slow because we are going with the flow each time we get together. So, some nights we might expect to record a specific song, but we get caught up in some ideas we had from the week before. We are enjoying the creative process as it happens, in whatever form it happens.
HC: Do you have a solid goal for getting the new songs tracked and recorded or are you taking your time?
EJH: We’d like to have the songs recorded within the next two months. We would like to put out a 6-song EP we’ve tentatively titled “Six in a Day.” The EP cover art will make the title make sense.
HC: What do you think is the most difficult thing for bands just starting out in the Houston area?
GH: The knowledge of knowing how many people have come from Houston, and you are on a different spectrum now. You have people expecting more out of you.
EJH: Getting consistently booked into good places with good crowds. For us, we were “house bands” at two venues, but one wasn’t the best match for us demographically while the other wanted bands that play blues or yacht rock. We’d love to play venues where the crowd was more into the alternative music scene, but we’ve yet to find that place.
HC: What are some of your favorite local (and/or Texas) bands?
EJH: I adore The Wild Moccasins. They are, to me, one of the very best bands I’ve heard PERIOD. I’m also a huge fan of Girl in a Coma, and we’ve even got a pinky promise to open for them the next time they headline here in Houston. Tody Castillo‘s stuff is beautiful, and his music makes me feel inadequate as a songwriter.
GH: Girl in a Coma for sure!
JP: Wild Moccasins, Southern Backtones, Bright Men of Learning (who doesn’t love “Right On”?), Holy Fiction (I can’t stop listening to “Iron Eyes”), Tody Castillo, Arthur Yoria, and Pale. As a band, we LOVE Girl In A Coma. Though their music does not influence the band, I personally enjoy the songwriting/storytelling of Nanci Griffith, Lyle Lovett, and Robert Earl Keen…and Spoon.
Thanks to Ninja First Class for taking the time out to answer these questions for Houston Calling.