denis gullickson | talking titletown | march 2015
Time flies — sometimes punctuated by clanking alarms and a bellowing headmaster; sometimes soothed by the comfortably-numb strains of a bending B string.
Still, it's surprising that six years have passed since Project Pink — Green Bay's own top-flight Pink Floyd tribute band — first took the Meyer Theatre stage.
It was a mixed bag at the group's premier back in 2009: Edgy Floyd-natics anxious to see if this thing was “for real." Curious onlookers familiar only with the band members' output in other venues — including, of course, local party-band legend Johnny Wad and entertainment upstart Frank's Dinner Theater.
What folks have enjoyed ever since is something quite extraordinary — a venture that's evolved into a two-night extravaganza of lights and sounds that's about to put Titletown in the rear-view mirror for a while.
In 2013, Project Pink was named the Wisconsin Area Music Industry's Best Tribute Band.
Success like this is no accident; it results from painstaking perseverance. Obvious barometers are a 20-foot projection screen, an armada of lights, world-class sound production, and the flickering gleen of a stage-full of shining musical instruments.
Beneath that glisten, however, toil eight award-winning musicians absolutely dedicated to replicating the Pink Floyd sound and experience: Jeff Arnold, keyboards; Christopher Dame, guitar/vocals; Luke Heckel, drums/percussion; Jason Jelinek, guitar/vocals; Rick LaJeunesse, bass/vocals; and Lisa Andre, Amy Riemer and Emily Terrell Paulsen, backing vocals.
That “Pink Floyd Sound"
Ensemble members meld classical training and road-band roots gathered from environs near and far. Their individual and collective appreciation for Pink Floyd is heart-felt and unrelenting in duplicating the vibe — a task all agree is both rewarding and demanding.
It requires intensive research and, then, tweaking each instrument to get it right. Dame figures he has “listened to 'The Dark Side of the Moon' 500 times or more."
“You have to do the homework," said keyboardist Jeff Arnold, whose first-ever album-purchase was “Wish You Were Here" in 1976 and, again, in 1980, “Because I wore the first one out."
Okay, oodles of people have heard the albums; for project members it's a two-fold experience: joy as a fan and rigorous study as a musician.
“I've listened to 'The Dark Side of the Moon' and 'Wish You Were Here,'" said Heckel, “just to get into Nick Mason's head. To see why there are triplets where they don't belong. Mason's style is almost the opposite of most drummers. They just start banging. But with Mason, it's oddly-placed notes. It's the absence of notes on tracks like 'Us and Them.' Lots of Floyd songs have huge open spaces."
“Richard Wright's keyboard style is all about the texture and the timing," said Arnold. “It's not Beethoven. Often it's about what not to play. It's actually hard to do. Another challenge is duplicating a lot of those basic analog sounds."
While Heckel and Arnold focus on their respective roles as Floyd drummer and keyboardist Nick Mason and Richard Wright, the parts of Floyd guitarists Roger Waters and David Gilmour ebb and flow from song to song between front men Dame, Jelinek and LaJeunesse.
“We've all worked hard to get into Waters' and Gilmour's heads," said Jelinek. “I've listened to the music and searched the internet. The information is out there, if you dig for it. There's even a website called 'Gilmourish' that discusses the pedals and amps and pickups and phrasings and his [Fender] 'strat' and so on."
For Jelinek, there's added pressure — many suggesting that he looks and sounds the part of Roger Waters. “That's okay," he says, “Waters is one of my favorite artists ever … I just play. It's a chance to go out there and go out of your head and not get in trouble. It's brutal, it's daunting, and it's a story."
Putting It All Together …
While Jelinek and Dame often garner the focus, Heckel holds the show together. His onus is aligning the music to the laser and film show by adjusting his pacing on the fly.
“Tempo is everything when you're playing Pink Floyd," said Heckel. “A lot of times it's what you don't play. So the pauses are as critical as the actual notes. And with the visual part of the show, I can't actually look, but I am watching out of the corner of my eye, taking visual cues and making sure the timing is right."
The rest of the band is synched to Heckel and to LaJeunesse. “Given all the variables, we can't use 'click tracks,' on everything" said Dame, “So, Luke and Rick are our click track, our metronome. They have a huge job. The audience might not even realize it, but if you listen to the original Floyd recordings often enough, there are mistakes and those mistakes are scripture now and you have to duplicate the mistakes, too."
Dame figures there's about forty hours of rehearsals put into each show. The vast visual portion of the show alone runs into the thousands of dollars. Other costs include the dozens of crew members. “But you can't do this halfway," Dame said.
Individually, members have invested hundreds of hours in practice and thousands of dollars in equipment to nail the Floyd aura. One challenge is replicating the sounds of an earlier, less-technologically-advanced era and finding the gear to do it.
LaJeunesse, for instance, plays a Fender P Bass — just like Waters — right down to the pickups. Jelinek forayed for a used Fender tube amp, circa 1974, with six 10" speakers in the bottom. “I finally found it," he said. “It was like God wanted me to have it." Arnold continuously adjusts his keyboards to conjure that 1970s-analog sound. Due diligence led Dame to channeling Gilmour “right down to the electronics in the guitars."
Heckel's search for cymbals to replicate Mason's setups on both “The Dark Side of the Moon" and “Wish You Were Here" was especially challenging. “Floyd is all about 602 high hats. I knew from listening that Mason had a different cymbal setup on each album and if I was going to recreate both sounds in one show, I'd have to find the right hybrid. I finally arrived at a 15" 20-Series Paiste 'hat' as the answer. Later, when I was talking to a rep from Paiste Cymbals, he said that he had talked to Nick Mason a couple of weeks before and Mason had identified that as exactly the proper choice."
“Gilmour had the luxury of having the original pedals," Dame added. “I had to go find the stuff. The mistake most guitar players make is that Gilmour's tone is based not as much on overdrive as it is on fuzz. Much of his sound comes from pedals that are fuzz-based — similar to Hendrix. Rarely did Gilmour play a guitar lead without a fuzz pedal of some sort." Dame has also worked hard to encompass Gilmour's singing style from the “gravel throatiness of 'Young Lust' to the light, airy approach of 'Breathe.'"
This kind of intensity could easily dissolve into eight high-speed automobiles crashing as they tried to merge onto a British roundabout, but the flow has been relatively smooth. “True to form," chuckled LaJeunesse, “the guitar player and the bass player have been known to argue, just like Waters and Gilmour. But we've figured it out in the end."
For Arnold, the camaraderie has been very satisfying. “The show continues to get more popular," he said, “for me, it's a perfect fit." Vocalist Amy Reimer said she was “ecstatic to perform with a group of tremendous musicians and just plain great people."
“It's been amazing," said Jelinek. “And each time has been a different experience."
Tickets on Sale
This year's Project Pink menagerie takes place at the historic Meyer Theater, 8 p.m., on Friday and Saturday, March 20 and 21. Friday night, it's “The Dark Side of the Moon" and “Wish You Were Here" with a few added gems from “Animals" and “The Final Cut." Saturday, it's the “The Wall" in its entirety … wall and all.
Tickets are available at the Meyer Theatre Box Office, 800-895-0071, meyertheatre.org, or from Ticketstar online. Individual performances are $30; the weekend package is $50.
“We've added some pretty high-def lasers," said Dame. “So the laser show is even-more elaborate. There's plenty new stuff for people who've seen this before."
With twenty shows on the band's docket for 2015 — including casino gigs and outdoor festivals across the Midwest — frankly, it might just be a matter of time before local fans are left to remember the good old days when the whole thing started and they had Project Pink pretty much to themselves.
2015 finds educator, author, farmer and horseman Denis Gullickson engaged in writing and producing “The Vagabond Halfback" — a stage play based on his biography of Packers great Johnny Blood McNally. Other books include “Before They Were the Packers" and “The Monfils Conspiracy." He is working on several other books and a nomination to the National Register of Historic Sites for Lakewood's Gingerbread Houses.