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ROCK SUGAR: REVEALED! POLLSTAR INTERVIEW
Wednesday, March 10, 2010
Rock Sugar: Revealed!



We’ve had some fun writing about a band named Rock Sugar but we’re going to take a break now that we’ve had our questions answered by lead singer Jess Harnell.

We’ve been trying to figure out who these guys are because their YouTube video and music are so professional, but they seem to have come out of nowhere. There was no record company to speak of, nor agency, nor management.

That’s the case for a lot of artists, but this one made our spidey sense tingle, especially after the vocals kicked in. Wasn’t Journey looking for a new singer? Didn’t they have to go to the Philippines to find one?

Of course, the fun part is that the band got signed to an agency because they saw a post here at Pollstar.com. That NEVER happens. But everyone claims it’s really true – the band had prospects but this was the tipping point. To be clear, with about 310,000 views on YouTube, it was just a matter of time.

To get everyone (read: all 10 of you) up to speed, Rock Sugar mixes heavy metal hits with pop songs, like AC/DC’s “Shook Me All Night Long” with Madonna’s “Like A Prayer.” It’s infectious, especially because Harnell can mimic James Hetfield, Axl Rose and Joe Elliott, among others.

So what’s the deal? We lined up some questions for Harnell and just let him rip...

What the hell is going on here?

I originally was a rock singer, then studio singer, then a voiceover actor. My job as a studio singer was a result of clever marketing. I recorded “We Are The World,” the original, imitating everyone. That got a lot of attention. I thought, “Even if this is horrible, at least people would say it was interesting.” It turned into a very good career doing studio work. That broke me into the world of voiceover. [Harnell’s voice is not only in “Transformers” and “Finding Nemo,” but he’s the voice of Wakko on “Animaniacs.”]

But even while I was doing that, my love for rock music never faded. I’ve always loved to sing and every chance I get to go onstage with friends, I always jump at it. But I was frustrated because there was no way to do this and create any kind of interest anymore or get paid anymore unless you’re one of the “lottery winners” – one of the 10 bands that end up making a lot of money.

I didn’t want to be in a tribute band, or in a straight cover band because the best compliment you can pay a cover band is, “Wow, this sounds just like the record!” I wanted to do something more interesting that could lead to Rolling Stone wanting to talk about it, which could lead to People magazine. And most of all I wanted people to buy the record and see the band.

I didn’t know what that could be. But even “trendy Hollywood nightclubs” that I tend to avoid, they’ll be playing Lil’ Wayne and Beyoncé, and then “Shook me All Night Long” and the same people who were dancing would go twice as crazy. I though, “Hmmm. Interesting.”

Then, one time, I was literally on a small island; just me and four other people. I thought, “Wouldn’t it be interesting if an 80s hair metal band got stuck on an island because they had the misfortune of playing a bah mitzvah for a 13 year old girl, on a boat, where they never should have been, and they got shipwrecked and the only songs they had to listen to were those of the 13 year old girl?”

If that’s what they heard for 20 years, what would happen to them? What if we took heavy metal riffs and I sang pop songs over them? Basically we would have an album of greatest hits of show-stopping songs. I ran it by my musical partner Chuck Duran and he came back with the first single, “Don’t Stop the Sandman.”

It became like putting a puzzle together.

Once all the songs were done, what was the next step?

Well, we thought, “We’re going to keep it hush-hush.” Through the voiceover stuff, I know a lot of people, and a lot of people know me. So it was never, “How the hell are we going to get an agent?” Or, “How the hell are we going to get a publicist?”

I knew we wanted to have our packaging perfect. We wanted an amazing CD that we can sell through our Web site because we have to pay so much for publishing and writers’ royalties.

How did you afford the video?

It was kids of a friend of mine. They have a little band and made a video. I looked at it and said, “Well, obviously it was done in a day and a half for a buck-fifty but I’ve done videos before and this girl, Kelsea Davis, knows what she’s doing.” I contacted her and said, “Listen, we don’t have a video budget.” And she called back and said she’s never been more excited about something.

The first day, we didn’t know what to expect. But Kelsea had a sound stage, she had trucks, she had 25 people. She had things running like a tight ship. Everything went smoothly. There were no heartaches, no drama. She got the job done beautifully.

Now we had the video, the Web site, the record, and we said, “OK, let’s start looking for people. We’ll throw the video up and see what happens.” Well I had a feeling something viral might start but I didn’t know it was going to be as dramatic. Last check it was 310,000.

[Note: YouTube dropped the video for about 24 hours then reinstated it, so the count was restarted at zero]

Most everyone who’s seen the video cracks up when your vocals kick in.

You’re so used to hearing songs a certain way, it really kind of knocks your head for a loop. And even if it’s not your style of music, you’re going to go, “Whoa, what the hell is that?” A lot of people want to buy this so they can show it to their friends and watch their faces. And that’s a pretty great thing. I’m really happy about that.

We understand the absurdity of it. But we hope they’ll laugh and then realize it’s done really, really well. It was done with a lot of integrity.

How did you record this?

We recorded it at our drummer’s little studio in Sherman Oaks. Nothing glamorous. No samples except for standard drum samples that everybody uses to augment the drums. We didn’t take anything from anybody’s records. People think things are on a loop or my voice went through special filters. None of that’s true. It’s all organic.

For all the people who say we can’t do this live the answer is we absolutely can.

We did it on the most minimum of budgets. We met a guy named Yossi Shaked - traditional spelling - who mixed the record and this guy was unbelievable. He was easy to work with and if anybody wants to do a rock record and have it mixed to sound like $10 million, this is the guy. Just listen to the record and you know what I mean.

There’s an “ad” for Rock Sugar on the Web site. Is that your voice on it?

I’ve been doing a ton of that in the real world but I thought, “If I do it on the Web site, it’s like here I am talking about myself and how awesome I am.” That would just be silly. So we got a guy named Scott Laverty, a promo announcer. He’s got pipes for days and I’d like him to record the intro to our show, too, make it sound like a movie trailer.

How much live experience does this band have?

We have a lot of experience individually. [Our previous band] Loud & Clear played a melodic rock festival in Europe called Firefest and it was filmed for DVD. We have attendance records on the Sunset Strip at the Palace, The Roxy and the Whiskey – all these other places. It was a great melodic rock band, great vocals, great sound but it was either you’re going to get it or you don’t.

Rock Sugar is unlike traditional mashups that DJs have been doing forever, we’re going to keep this tight. It will be mainstream metal like Def Leppard and Metallica, which sold a lot of records, along with pop songs. But we’re not going to do is real kitschy stuff. It should sound good on an acoustic guitar. Good songs.

I know it will be the best show I’ve ever done, or we’ve ever done, and I can promise anybody who’s so inclined – the best comparison I can make is it’s a rock and roll surprise party that just keeps going and going.

It’s the ultimate music for people with ADD. Everybody in the ADD generation gets bored after 45 seconds and starts looking for the next shiny object.

You have 60 minutes of material. How will that play out?

If we had a headlining show, which is about an hour-twenty, hour-thirty, I’ll patter with the audience, do some stuff spontaneously. We’ll teach people how to sing like Axl Rose. It’s going to be a fun, fun show. As an audience member, I’ve always liked shows where it’s like we’re all at the same party and those guys on stage just happen to have instruments.

So what do you foresee for the summer?

We want to do a residency in Las Vegas on weekends. We know we can pull big numbers consistently. We’d like to get a residency in Los Angeles. I know we can pull that off too. And we’re interested in doing large shows, like festival shows with the most amount of people. Also interested in doing some opening spots for major acts that want to add something new to the bill. And TV talk shows, as many and as often as possible.

Because the band grew without the help of a record company, etc., a lot of people out there are taking ownership in it.

There are two radio DJs in Memphis, Drake and Zeke, who took a chance and started introducing our music. Now we’re in regular rotation in Memphis. And I’m hearing we’re in regular rotation on radio all over the country, a grassroots kind of thing. It’s very cool because I love bands like that, stories like “This band broke in Scranton, Pa.!”

Everybody in their own way is responsible for their piece of the rock, if you will. We’re very grateful for that.

Click here for the Rock Sugar Web site.

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