Rock anthems with a glass of Martini
and a tiger-stripped tuxedo
Profile on Richard Cheese
L-R: Bobby Ricotta, Richard Cheese, Buddy Gouda, Gordon Brie from I Love Richard Cheese
by Christian Leduc"I want to penetrate you" are not exactly the kind of words you would normally put into the mouth of a crooner, but Nine Inch Nails' "Closer" is part of the alternative rock hits transformed into Jazz standards by lounge singer Richard Cheese, alter ego of comedian Mark Jonathan Davis.
But why make a cover of such a dark band as Nine Inch Nails while dressed in a tuxedo, with an old beat-up microphone in one hand and finger-snapping with the other? "Closer is just a really good love song," says Cheese in a telephone interview from his home in Los Angeles, three days after his first show in London. "It's the kind of song about heartbreak and longing that Sinatra would like to sing," he adds.
From Beck's "Loser" to System of a down's "Chop Suey," Cheese and his band Lounge Against the Machine created a huge repertory of songs that take new dimensions with their approach. "We try to find songs that have good lyrics, good music and that special feel," explains the singer. "Sometimes, the choices are easy and obvious, but sometimes they are not," he continues.
The process of turning a rock song into a jazz tune is also often quite difficult for the band since Jazz generally involves more complex harmonies. "It is hard, but we try to be as faithful as possible to the original songs. If a song has a good melody and good arrangements, then it is easier," says Cheese.
He met his musicians in a bar in Las Vegas where they were playing. "I got them drunk, and now they are playing with me," explains the singer, though you are not quite sure whether to take him seriously or not. "I have some of the best musicians that ever existed," notes Cheese about Bobby Ricotta on piano, Gordon Brie on upright bass and Buddy Gouda on drums.
When they are on stage, the musicians of Lounge Against the Machine seem to enjoy every moment with big smiles on their faces, while Cheese stands in front of them, singing the songs with confidence and a tiger-stripped tuxedo that makes a show of its own.
Since their beginning in the music business, Richard Cheese and Lounge Against the Machine have released two albums full of their covers: Lounge Against the Machine (2000) and Tuxicity (2002), echoing Rage Against the Machine, System of a Down's album Toxicity and Cheese's tuxedos. A new album is planned for April (I'd Like A Virgin), but the singer seems reluctant to speak about it: "The one that I can answer questions about is Tuxicity. The other one is pretty much finished, but we're still in the studio, mixing it."
The feedback of most of the artists covered by Cheese and his jazz orchestra is positive. Outside of doing the wedding show of Blink 182's drummer Travis Barker, Cheese received good comments from Beck, Limp Bizkit's singer Fred Durst and the band Puddle of Mud. "What they appreciate is that their songs are being recognized as songs," Cheese emphasizes.
But some of his covers can also take a more ironic twist like Britney Spear's "Crazy": "You drive me crazy/I just can't sleep/Me and Britney/I'm in, so deep." When asked if he has received feedback from the young pop idol, he answers with his soft voice and a double-meaning sentence full of libido: "No, but if she reads your article, tell her to call me".
Benoît Garneau, a long time fan who lives in Canada, is more attracted to that humorous side of Cheese's music and personality: "What I like about him is that he takes songs with a large initial impact, transforms them in such a cheesy way that they lose all their power and become really funny."
Mark Jonathan Davis made his Richard Cheese character out of his early interest in crooners: "Everybody loves lounge music at some point of his life," explains the comedian and voice-over artist. Davis told CNN in 2001 that "Cheese" stands for the Martini-swilling feel and that "Richard" is "just a nice Fifties name."
Davis was born in New York City in the Sixties, but was raised in Phoenix. He attended Arizona State University, but dropped his courses rapidly. At that time, he was already doing song parodies or funny voices, sending them to various local radio stations.
In 1990, he moved to Los Angeles, was hired at KROQ radio station and was in the production team behind the Kevin and Bean morning show. His first character was a 55 year-old intern named Paul who was a big fan of Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett, but was stuck in this alternative rock radio station.
Davis then worked for NBC creating Johnny Chimes, another lounge singer behind some of the most successful NBC jingles, taking the music themes of NBC's Sitcoms and giving them a lounge music feel.
But Richard Cheese represents his most important character yet with appearances on NBC, CNN, Fox News, the Howard Stern Show and MTV's Say what Karaoke as the house singer.
After the release of the new album, Cheese will probably go on tour in the United States and maybe do a couple of weddings: "We love weddings, but we are not doing them right now probably because a lot of people marry in June," concludes the singer.
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