If you think that Black Crystal Wolf Kids just smashed together the most commonly used words in indie rock band names, you're right. Inside a Hollywood coffeehouse, co-frontperson/guitarist/”captain” Jeff Miller runs down the list of groups who inspired his own band's name: Black Keys, Wolf Parade, Cold War Kids are just a few. If you're going to start an indie rock tribute band, your name better reflect it.
“I want people to kind of not get it initially and then get it,” says Miller, “and I want it to be the most stereotypical indie rock band names.”
Around five years ago, Miller, who is also a music journalist (and former L.A. Weekly contributor), threw his annual pool party, called City Stock, at his parents' Encino home. His band, City Museum, had just called it quits, but Miller already had the idea for a new project in his mind. He put together Black Crystal Wolf Kids with former bandmates and friends from the L.A. indie scene. The idea was to play the old indie rock hits, like Sonic Youth and Pixies songs, mixed with covers from newer artists, like The Hold Steady.
Originally, Miller intended to rename Black Crystal Wolf Kids as trends shifted. That all changed when the band became in-demand. Once they bought a URL and printed up T-shirts, the name stuck.
As for the selections they play, that's changed too, as the band members grew to understand what it means to be a cover band.
“Your job in a cover band, often, is to throw a party,” says Miller, “which is different from being in an originals band.”
Over the years, Black Crystal Wolf Kids have thrown a lot of parties. They play beer festivals and club nights and even the occasional wedding. Each gig calls for something different.
The club gigs are where they have the most freedom to dig deep into a repertoire that includes over 100 songs. At festivals, they have to stick to the songs that everyone will know. As for weddings, they'll work with what the couple wants, but they don't play the traditional reception jams.
Not any indie song will do when you're a cover band. That's where Miller's expertise as a music journalist comes in handy. “There's a fine line there,” says Miller. “Music Fan might like it, but if Person at Bar doesn't at least recognize it, it might not be the right song for us.”
That's why Black Crystal Wolf Kids decided not to play “The Mother We Share” by Chvrches. It didn't cross over the way that Lorde's track “Royals” did.
The audience for Black Crystal Wolf Kids is largely in their twenties and thirties, which is reflected in the big hits for the group. No matter where they play, their covers of “Seven Nation Army” and “Last Night” will be popular. White Stripes and The Strokes are amongst the first indie-minded groups their fans may have heard, making these songs roughly equivalent to playing New Order or Depeche Mode at an '80s dance club. Often, their big covers are songs that still haven't left radio, like Florence and the Machine's smash “Dog Days Are Over.”
It's not just about picking the song; mastering the art of the cover song can be tricky, too. “We'll have arguments about four bars of a song where we disagree on what happens in the four bars,” says Valerie Taylor, who plays keyboards and co-fronts the band with Miller. The rest of the band consists of guitarist/co-frontman Mark Pedante, bassist/co-frontman Marc Gasway and drummer Gregg Levinson.
Their goal is to keep the cover as close to the original as possible, but, sometimes, they make a few creative changes. Taylor sings lead on their version of Cold War Kids' hit “Hang Me Out to Dry,” even though the original features a male voice. When they play La Roux's synth-pop hit “Bulletproof,” guitars are at the center of the cover. “It's more that the integrity of the song is still there,” says Miller, “but we use the instruments and the tools that we have as a band to present it in a way that makes it really fun.”
On April 3, Black Crystal Wolf Kids will play their annual Coachella-themed show. This year, they'll focus on the history of the massive music festival, with songs selected from every Coachella going back to 1999, including tunes from this year's artists. The show will feature special guests. In previous years, members of fun., Akron/Family, M83 and Ben Harper's band have joined the group on stage.
Black Crystal Wolf Kids started out as a reaction to the seriousness of indie rock and the quickly moving world of nostalgia. Along the way, though, the band has forged its own identity, even if they are exclusively playing covers.
Miller recalls meeting a woman who remarked that they were her favorite band because they played her favorite songs. “What a huge compliment,” he says. “That's what we're going for. A person who loves White Stripes is also going to love The Strokes is also going to love Florence and the Machine, is probably also going to love Lorde.”
Note: An earlier version of this article failed to identify all five members of Black Crystal Wolf Kids. We regret any left-out feelings this may have caused.