Local sextet Detholz! has always had a penchant for deconstructing and rearranging music—”Frankensteining” is what frontman Jim Cooper calls it. The band’s own albums have drawn comparisons to avant-garde outfits The Residents and Talking Heads, but they aren’t content to merely emulate their forebears. So much is clear to fans of “Jukebox of the Dead,” the Halloween show that Detholz! has curated since 2001. The legendary weirdness of this Top 40 cover set has at times threatened to eclipse the band’s full-time efforts, but Cooper and bassist Ben Miranda welcome the attention. After all, it’s not every day they get to dress up like zombified Michael Jacksons. We talked to the guys about what to expect from this year’s “Jukebox of the Dead … Reanimated!” at The Hideout (Thursday, October 31, at 8 p.m.), which finds them up to their old tricks after two years of silence.
GROUPON: So what is “Jukebox of the Dead,” and whose idea was it in the first place?
JIM COOPER: “Jukebox of the Dead” started in 2001. We were living in Logan Square at the time, and I was really into The Residents. They had an album called The King & Eye. ... It’s not their greatest, but it’s an album of Elvis covers done in this very creepy, kind of unsettling style. Musically, it’s not groundbreaking or anything, but it kind of captured my imagination, and I thought, ”Well, we’ve got this weirdo band, why don’t we try approaching songs like this?”
BEN MIRANDA: The first year we did it, it was almost like we did it out of necessity. This band called Apartment asked us to do a Halloween show, and it was really nothing we had ever considered before. The idea hadn’t completely formed yet.
JC: It was just like, “We’ve got to do something fast.” And then it kind of took on legs of its own. We kept getting asked back year after year.
G: And every year, you focus the show around a specific theme. Do you usually try to stick with a single band or genre? I noticed that you’re advertising this year’s “Jukebox” as “adult-contemporary soft rock.”
JC: Well, that’s kind of been our go-to over the years. But we’ve done a ton of different themes. One year, we did the Wheel of Jeopardy, and it was set up as a game show. A friend of ours—this 6'6" computer programmer who’s been a part of our band for years—he was dressed as Vanna White and spinning this wheel. One year we did Detholz Flex, which was kind of a faux exercise infomercial. There were stuffed animals all over the stage—
BM: And bodybuilders, at one point.
JC: Yeah, we had friends up there flexing. And we had an exercise video we had made projected behind us. It got kind of ridiculous.
G: The last time you guys did “Jukebox of the Dead” was back in 2011, and by that point it had become something of a Chicago tradition. What was that last show like, and how did you find a way to keep it fresh after 10 years?
JC: That last show was at Lincoln Hall, and I did this episodic podcast leading up to it. The last episode in the story was the show itself. Michael Jackson had died that year, and there were a lot of other celebrities who had also died—Farrah Fawcett, Patrick Swayze. Basically, the story traces this Twin Peaks investigative journalist–type guy who transforms into the new Michael Jackson as the ghost of Michael Jackson takes over his body. So we all dressed like zombie Michael Jacksons on stage.
G: Did anybody come up to you after the show and say, “Maybe it’s a little too soon to be making fun of Michael Jackson?”
JC: [Laughs] No, the people at the show seemed to enjoy it.
BM: It actually seemed like they kind of expected it from us.
JC: And I didn’t get any hate mail or anything. I’ve gotten hate mail before, but for other stuff.
G: Were a lot of the people who came out to the Halloween shows already fans of the band?
BM: Actually, there were certain people we would really only see at the “Jukebox.”
JC: [Laughs] Yeah, they don’t care about the rest of the stuff we do. They just like coming to the Halloween show.
G: So for all intents and purposes, they thought of Detholz! as a cover band.
JC: Well, here’s a good story. One year at South by Southwest [in Austin], we were slated to play with Andy Dick’s band. Of course, if you know anything about Andy Dick, you know he’s kind of a coked-out maniac. So, he managed to get himself arrested that afternoon, and the promoter came to me with her head in her hands, saying, “Oh my God, what are we going to do?” And we said, “Well, we happen to have this ready-made set of cover songs we’ve been playing for years. Do you want us to play those?”
BM: And we were talking about another full set, in addition to our regular set.
JC: So we billed ourselves as the Andy Dick B Band. We got up there and were like, “Hey, the A Band couldn’t be here tonight, but we’re the backup band that goes on tour with him on smaller dates. We’re really glad to be here, though.” And the Associated Press picked it up because somebody from AP was there in the audience and loved it. It was the biggest piece of press we ever got, and it wasn’t even about our band.
G: So you guys have been on hiatus for a couple years now. Is there any compelling reason you chose Halloween as time to dust off and play again?
JC: Yes. Our close friend Derek Becker over at Strange Victory Touring is retiring from the music business, and he was our booking agent for many years. He asked us to get back together to do this for him as a sendoff, which we were glad to do. He’s the rare booking agent with a heart of gold.
G: And is there anything about Halloween in particular that speaks to the band? You guys come from a fundamentalist Christian background and you’ve been known for criticizing religion, so I wonder if Halloween is a way for you to explore the tension of that double life.
JC: I suppose, yeah. I always gravitated toward Halloween, even as a kid. It was a chance to be someone else—to be bad and not have to worry about feeling guilty about it or whatever. But really, it was the sort of the thing where we were asked, “Hey, can you guys do this Halloween show?” And we were like, “Uh, duh.”
G: A lot of the artists you cover—Michael Jackson, Madonna, Johnny Cash—are larger-than-life figures. Are their big personalities what attract you to the songs, or is it something else?
JC: As the show developed over the years, the criteria for what was an appropriate song became a lot more stringent. We did a lot of songs in the earlier years—like that Johnny Cash song—that probably wouldn’t have made the cut in the later years. There was this sort of line of demarcation between those songs and the songs that you kind of feel guilty for liking—like you’re sitting in the dentist’s office and it comes over the loudspeaker and you think, “I hate that I’m here, but there’s a part of me that loves this song.”
G: So you look for the guilty pleasures.
BM: Exactly. The more insipid, the better the target. I think there’s a lot of commonality in the bands that we all personally have guilty pleasures about.
JC: And as we’ve gotten older, we’ve sort of come to the conclusion that there is no “guilty” in pleasure. You like it or you don’t. And I think that’s why people gravitated toward [“Jukebox of the Dead”] and seemed to enjoy it. After a few years of doing it, I could see people in the audience kind of squinting and leaning in at the beginning of each song. And there is this moment when the chorus kicks in, when the lights just turn on and they start laughing and having fun.
BM: We tried to make the music obtuse at the beginning. It was like a fortune cookie that you couldn’t see what was inside quite yet. When we were approaching the arrangement, we tried to find ways to keep the blinders on until the last possible moment, when finally the song that people know is revealed in the lyrics or melody.
JC: And that was part of the fun of it. Making it recognizable, but making it our own in a way. Like, how would “Invisible Touch” by Genesis sound if Detholz! had written it?
G: Can you think of any songs that were particularly difficult to learn? Any that made you throw in the towel?
JC: There were some arrangements that just didn’t work. … The one that should’ve worked but just went over like a lead balloon was Don Henley’s “Sunset Grill.” I mean, that is just a ponderous, pretentious turd of a song.
BM: And in the case of a song like “Tom Sawyer” [by Rush], we already had an overly complicated song. So the approach to that was to cut it up into little pieces, and then tape those pieces back in there.
G: This is a long shot, but have any of the bands you’ve covered reached out to you and commented on the songs?
BM: We hope not. [Turns to Jim] You should tell the story about the guy from Basque Spain.
JC: Well, this is kind of related. We got an email from a guy in a remote Basque region of Spain, saying, “You guys don’t know me, but where can I find your cover of ‘Hot for Teacher’? I was in the pub the other day, and I overheard these two guys arguing over which version was superior—yours or Van Halen’s. I came home right away to email you about it because I must hear this.” And these are sheepherders in the middle of nowhere in Spain. How in the world did they find us?
G: OK, final question. If you guys could get any band—living or dead—to cover Detholz!, who would it be, and which song would you choose?
JC: If Phil Collins did a cover of “Mr. Electricity” [from 2002’s Who Are The Detholz!], that would be unbelievable. I could also hear Lionel Richie doing a pretty convincing version of “Cast Out Devils” [from the 2006 album of the same name].
Catch “Jukebox of the Dead … Reanimated!” at The Hideout on Thursday, October 31, at 8 p.m. Tickets are $12, and costumes are encouraged.
Photos courtesy of Jim Cooper