What It Feels Like to Impersonate a Rock Star Onstage
Learning lessons in truth and beauty from ABBA, Oasis, and Foo Fighters impersonators who make a living at the summer's biggest fake festivals.
This post originally appeared on VICE UK.
Just two weekends ago, for $13 and ten drink tokens, I saw the festival lineup of the century tucked away in an obscure Derbyshire field. You probably didn't hear about it, because you probably weren't invited. Sorry dude.
For sheer bombast, scale, and unalloyed star power, there's surely been nothing like it. Glastonbury? A boggy, hyperscale mess. T in the Park? A sordid affair. V Festival? I have never met an actual human who has been to V Festival. No, this was something else entirely, something infinitely larger: an experience transcending boring old concepts like space, time, and even mortality itself. This was the Derbyshire Sausage & Cider Festival. And here was Madonna, ABBA, the Spice Girls, late-period MJ, and Prodigy, each vying for adulation with the sausage-eating contest (an utter triumph), and a folk act from the East Midlands who'd brought its own Richard III-in-a-Leicester-top hologram.
Swaying in the mid-afternoon sun, six foaming pints of chestnut brown ale deep, it was surprisingly easy to utterly suspend disbelief, belt out "Wannabe" with complete abandon, and scream and stamp for a pre-ordained encore. It was quite a sight. Multiple generations co-existing in appreciation, as iconic hit belly flopped onto iconic hit, for hour after hour. Granddads lolling on exasperated looking garden furniture, incredulous toddlers, fist-pumping moms with the jitters, all present and correct, all utterly transfixed. In truth, the tribute festival experience is like no other.
Firstly, you have to leave acknowledged reality parked at the door. You know, I know, they know, that the figure on the stage isn't Bruce Springsteen, or Beyoncé, or Joy Orbinson, or whoever. Which seems to be immaterial, actually. For most people, the experience isn't about how much you actually believe what you're seeing is the real thing. It's significant because it's the next best thing. Who's got the money, or the time, to trudge down to the nearest city-based arena, for a night of 100 bucks plus tickets and quintuple mark-up Carlsberg. For many, this is as close as it gets, or will ever get, to seeing their favorite acts in the flesh.
But what of the performers themselves? It can't be a straightforward psychological place to inhabit. Your job is literally pretending to be a galaxy-size megastar or group, perhaps long disbanded or retired, perhaps long expired. Your job is literally to convince a crowd of braying enthusiasts that you are that megastar. There's a certain kind of responsibility in that, which must be disconcerting. And how soon before you start beginning to con yourself that it's the truth? How do you square it with the "real," prosaic world of jobs, mortgage payments, school runs, and shopping trips. How smudged are the lines between your own identity and identity of the act that you're paying tribute to? How do you even get into it? And how common is "doing a Lee Chapman," the Jamie Vardy impersonator whose "life has been ruined" since he wrapped his fortunes entirely around the root that the he looks quite similar to the England striker?
Well, I made a thousand phone calls and got in contact with three of the finest tribute acts in the UK to find out a bit more about life paying full-time tribute.
Paul Higginson—Liam, OASISH
VICE: The obvious, dull one. How did you get started in the tribute game? And is this your full time gig?
Paul: I initially got started almost seventeen years ago when I started a Stereophonics tribute act. I was in a local covers band, doing it for a bit of fun. We didn't see it as a job back then. We covered a few 'Phonics songs, and people kept commenting on how much I sounded like Kelly Jones. Tribute bands were becoming big business then, so we decided to try and jump on the bandwagon. Gig just followed gig, and they started piling up. Obviously, we became Oasish somewhere along the line. So, six months later, the gigs were taking over, and seventeen years on, I'm still out here!
Why Oasis? And—if it's because you're a massive fan—can you still stomach listening to them now, after it's become your literal job?
It was in 2002 when I was asked to join my friends Oasis-tribute band on guitar, while him and his drummer would join my Stereophonics tribute. I was beginning to have trouble with my band as there were too many gigs coming in, and the other two guys didn't want to take the plunge and do it "full-time."
So I joined this other Oasis tribute, and they joined my tribute band as well. This was only for a year or so, but during that time, we did a few "double-header" gigs, where we would do an hour of each band. These always sold really, really well. So after I left that Oasis tribute, I wanted to start another by myself. That's when Oasish was born, and it's gone from strength to strength ever since.
We've played Wembley, the National Indoor Arena, done plenty of TV slots, and met a load of famous, interesting people through it.
I'm still an Oasis fan, but I do find it hard listening to them these days unless it's a song that's not in our set list. It's a total love/hate relationship with those songs sometimes, but that always disappears when we perform them live and see the crowds reaction.
Do you ever encounter any professional jealousy or competitiveness on the circuit? What about the other Oasis acts?
Oh yes! There's quite a few other Oasis tributes out there, and we get along with most of them. I've even had two guitarists from another tribute help us out on a couple of gigs, so in the main, it's usually OK. That said, there's all the obvious jealousy. So this year we entered the National Tribute Music Awards to hopefully win the title of the UK's Official No.1 Oasis tribute band as voted by the Agents' Association. We knew there had been a few other bands that had entered it, so we kept it quiet about our entry. We ended up winning.
Now we're the only Oasis tribute that can use the words "Official No.1 Oasis tribute in the UK," so that's quite nice.
What's the strangest experience you've had? Does it ever feel like you're blurring reality a bit?
I've had a couple really. The first one was going to watch the Stereophonics at the Garage in Islington. On the day I went to watch them, it was a great gig in such a small venue. At the end of the night, when everyone had gone, I was waiting for my girlfriend to come back from the toilet, and Kelly Jones walks out. So I went and said hello and told him that "I'm in a tribute band called Stereotonics," and his reaction surprised me when he turned to me and laughed, "No way! We've been talking about you and listening to you guys today!"
It turns out that during the afternoon, he'd been interviewed by Ben Jones of what was then Virgin Radio, and he asked Kelly what he thought about tribute bands. They played a couple of our versions during the interview, and it went out the following week on the radio and it was a bit surreal hearing "your" version of "their" songs, then hearing them say "yeah, they sound good. Just like we did years ago!"
The other one was when we were asked to play at Wembley Stadium as Oasish on the day of the FA Cup Final when Man City were playing Wigan. We weren't on the pitch or anything, but we were in the hospitality bit. I'm stood there singing Wonderwall, and I can feel our guitarist prodding me in the back as I'm singing. I turn to see what's up with him, and he points to Noel Gallagher, who's going up the escalator, cheering and clapping us as he heads to his box. Then a few minutes later, Liam Gallagher does the same. That was a bit surreal as well, but they both seemed to like what we were doing.
As for the blurring of lines, I'm very grounded, so I never let the lines get blurred. I arrive and a leave a gig as Paul. The second I walk onstage, I'm still Paul but in costume and playing that Liam character. I stay in that character until the end of the last song and I leave the stage. Paul leaves the stage while Liam stays there. That's the way I like to think about it.
Sarah CHERRY—Agnetha Faltskog, ABBA ARRIVAL
VICE: How did you arrive at the point of being an ABBA tribute act? It seems like a very particular juncture to arrive at in life.
Sarah: We've been doing this since 1998, or a bloody long time anyway. It's all the same lineup aside from the sound engineer and the guitarist swapping over. Initially we were just a fairly generic functions band, but it got to the point when we realized that we were playing a disproportionate amount of ABBA in our sets.
It just took off from there, really. We pride ourselves on our total commitment. Mark (Benny Andersen) has always had a beard, and I keep my hair blond. We always wanted this to be a tribute in the truest sense, paying respect both to the complexity of the music and our audiences.
How much do you put in? Are you full time?
Yeah we're mostly full-time, although we all do a few bits and pieces on the side as well. This time of year is obviously mega, mega busy. We all put in a lot of work. Like, a lot of work. Personally, my thing is costumes. I went to London and spent an absolute fortune on the outfits. They are the proper, original fabrics, though. Just like the band would have worn in the 70s.
I trained as an actress when I was younger, as well as singing, so I see this as a massive privilege, being able to do what I love and tour around the country gigging. It's amazing. Before this I was a holiday rep, an assistant booker, and a Butlins blue coat. But I see this as following my dream.
A couple of the others might get a bit sick of the tunes, but I'm maybe the freak of the group. When we started, we had to do intense sessions in front of these videos. Everyone else hit their limit pretty quickly, but I'll still listen to the CDs in the car.
Is there anywhere in the country that you see as "ABBA-centric"? Do you see loads of bookings in any one area, for example?
Umm, not really. We literally head all over the place! Scotland one night, down in the south east. We live in the midlands so it's easy to get anywhere in the country. The touring definitely keeps your feet on the ground. We play a lot of theater shows, as well as the festivals.
I just want to stress again. I feel so lucky doing something I love. Not that many people can honestly say that.
Iain ANGUS—Dave Grohl, FOUR FIGHTERS
VICE: You said it's been quite a manic weekend. What have you been up to?
Iain: We just played to three thousand people in Germany, then drove back here. Knackered mate. Looking forward to a well deserved rest.
That's festival season for you, though. It all culminates with Glastonbudget, the tribute act Glasto. There are thousands of people there. It's a great laugh.
We've been doing this thirteen years. I used to—and still do—make my own music, and this sort of started as a bit of a laugh, just me and three other lads who just loved the Foo Fighters. We started off playing in pubs and local venues (we're based over in Bradford/Leeds).
I remember picking up a guitar and learning the songs, which made me think, Yeah, I can do this, make a bit of extra income. Christ mate, that was 2003.
Do you ever get a bit jaded with it? It must be energy-sucking sometimes, and utterly bizarre at points.
Honestly, nah. It is knackering, of course. And yeah, it can be mad at points. It's like people wanting selfies with me, I always want to make sure they do actually know I'm not Dave. Like, for real. Before selfies, it was autographs. Why would you want my autograph? It's mad. But it's all a total laugh and a real buzz. Playing in front of crowds, entertaining folks who might never get a chance to see a band like the Foo Fighters.
We just offer some fun at a fraction of the cost. You can have a sing along and a jump around, it's great. There are honestly no egos in our band. I mean, how can you not keep your feet on the ground? I'm not naming any names, but there are some people on the circuit who have trouble breaking character, and you just want to shake them and say, "Come on, mate!"
We do take it seriously, though. Folks have paid money and deserve the best you can give. There are others that take the piss, which isn't on. But ninety percent of people we meet are great.
Are there rivalries? A couple of other people I've spoken to mentioned that.
Oh, yeah, I mean gig-snatching and stuff does go on. But we're not really involved in that nonsense. We just keep our heads down and roll with it. I just hope we're being faithful to the original, and I hope normal folk can come and have a good time. Music has always been a massive part of my life. The way I see it this is a great second prize to the real thing.
Follow Francisco Garcia on Twitter.