MORE

Proxy Music

Photo by Marty Temme

Perhaps original rock & roll is dying. Maybe songwriting — the very essence of the art — is being marginalized by a tidal wave of cover tunes. It’s as if listeners, faced with soulless “original” bands who’re but thinly veiled clones of their influences, are revisiting those sparks of composition genius that inspired the copycats. At least that way they’re guaranteed great songs.

For years, rappers and dance acts have shamelessly sampled other artists’ hooks. More recently, tribute bands — mimicking everyone from ABBA to the Smiths to Tool — have become an epidemic, to the point where many venues have all but abandoned original acts. And now American Idol is stuffing the charts with interchangeable songbirds mouthing classic hits. Guitar-driven rock is not immune to the trend: Hollywood all-star cover band Camp Freddy has rapidly grown from local party novelty to a national, theater-filling phenomenon.

Enter Cardboard Vampyres, L.A.’s latest luminary-based covers outfit, which, ironically, is built around two of the most accomplished rock songwriters of the 1990s, the Cult’s Billy Duffy and Alice in Chains’ Jerry Cantrell. Teaming with ex–Motley Crue voice John Corabi, former Cult bassist Chris Wyse and drummer Josh Howser, they’ve played a handful of choice shows around the country over the past six months as part of a studied anti-plan.

The seed for Cardboard Vampyres was sown by Camp Freddy (whose core lineup of Dave Navarro, Matt Sorum, Billy Morrison and Donovan Leitch invites a revolving cast of celeb names onstage during their shows).

“We’d done a couple of shows together with Camp Freddy,” Duffy recalls in his thick northern English brogue, “and it was a lot of fun, and Jerry approached me to do something in a similar vein.”

Compared to C.F., Cardboard Vampyres are heavier on the riffs and lighter on the special guests, while favoring less-than-obvious songs by classic acts. “Definitely tunes that you’ve heard, but instead of, say, ‘Paranoid’ by Sabbath, we play ‘A Hole in the Sky’; instead of [Aerosmith’s] ‘Walk This Way,’ we play ‘Sick as a Dog,’” Cantrell says, lounging at the breakfast table of his Hollywood Hills home.

And, yes, Cardboard Vampyres do delve into the Cult’s and Alice in Chains’ back catalog, as Duffy and Cantrell are ardent mutual fans.

“It’s not about albums or contracts or singles,” Duffy insists. “There seems to be a lot of forcing and selling in the music

business at the moment. We’re kinda trying to take an

alternative path.”

With Cantrell currently minus a recording contract and the Cult on open-ended hiatus while singer Ian Astbury indulges his Jim Morrison fixation with the reincarnated Doors, cynics might say this pair have nothing much else to do. And both Cantrell and Duffy admit that they’d rather still be playing with the bands in which they made their names.

“I was a little hurt when the Cult broke down for the second time [after 2001’s “comeback” album, Beyond Good and Evil],” Duffy says. “It was like I had the rug pulled from underneath me.”

Unlike Cantrell, who writes constantly and can carry lead vocals, Duffy is reliant on and motivated by collaboration: “When I get in a creative environment, I become prolific, but on an average day I don’t come up with stuff. I’m not a man of words, and I can’t really sing and play [simultaneously].”

But Cantrell sees parallels in their respective situations. “Like Billy, my solo career was due to the inactivity of my own band, so in a way it was a painful process.” (AIC was in limbo for years due to singer Layne Stayley’s drug addiction, before he fatally overdosed in 2002.)

 

Though known as ax heroes, Cantrell and Duffy are among the most influential rock composers of their generation, whose tunes still grace the airwaves daily, so it’s a surprise that they’re yet to collaborate creatively. “If we did it I’m sure it would be interesting,” Duffy enthuses, “because creative tension is important. I certainly know that from the Cult, and I think Alice was probably the same.”

“We’re both very individualist in sound and the way we write,” Cantrell says, “but where we come from is really similar: straight-ahead riff-rock.”

On the one hand, a brace of ex-stars forming a cover band seems like a defeated, lazy cop-out. But considering that Jerry Cantrell and Billy Duffy could be banking easy moolah by trotting bastardized versions of their previous groups around the globe, Cardboard Vampyres seems the more honorable option. There’s no doubt, however, that fans of these two genre-shaping musos are hoping they’ll be redefining their own songwriting signatures soon.

Cardboard Vampyres play the Roxy on Friday, July 16.