A singular band with multiple sounds, Rock Sugar, from left: Chuck Duran, Jess Harnell and Alex Track. The new bass player is Ken “Sugar” Cain.
As a studio singer in the 1980s, Jess Harnell made a demo recording of “We Are the World.” And who of the dozens of singers on the iconic song did he emulate? Each of them.
Harnell has the gift of being able to copy voices. Setting sights on a rock 'n' roll career, he and a lifelong friend, guitarist and singer Chuck Duran, formed Loud and Clear, a band that played original songs. But eventually Harnell came to a disheartening realization: “It's literally easier to win the Mega Lotto than it is to make a lot of money in the music business.”
So the band members decided to quit banging their heads against the wall and, wait, here's an idea, keep banging their heads but in a novel way: a rock band for the attention-deficit-disorder generation.
“We came up with his crazy idea of taking '80s metal and putting it together with '80s pop and we sort of became the Reese's Peanut Butter Cup of music,” Harnell said.
Calling itself Rock Sugar, the band made a video of “Don't Stop the Sandman,” a combination of Metallica “Enter Sandman” and Journey's “Don't Stop Believing.” It has been viewed 2.5 million times.
Other Rock Sugar combinations include the songs Madonna-AC/DC “Shook Me Like a Prayer” and Aerosmith-Led Zeppelin-Super Tramp “Dreaming of a Whole Lotta Breakfast.”
Shortly after creating Rock Sugar, the band found itself sharing a stage with Aerosmith, AC/DC and Queensrÿche at the Download Festival in Donington Park, England, in front of 120,000 fans.
“It was kind of like the chocolate in my peanut butter, peanut butter in my chocolate kind of thing,” Duran said. “It worked, and it tastes good.”
Harnell said the Rock Sugar idea came after “playing in bands my entire life, sloping it out in clubs and, no matter how many people show up, splitting $800 with three other guys.”
He had used his versatile vocal chords to build a career. From Burr Rabbit to Roger the Rabbit, Harnell does voices for cartoons. He also is the announcer for “America's Funniest Home Videos.”
“I'm talking funny for money and life is a groove,” he said. “It's the only occupation in the world where the words ‘blood-curdling scream' come up almost daily.”
Harnell's peers are impressed with his rock singing impressions of Axel Rose, Steve Perry and Bryan Adams.
“One voice-over guy said his key was that he won't yell,” Harnell said. “If I had that rule we'd be homeless in a month. Voice-over buddies will come to a show — ‘Ren and Stimpy,' ‘Teenage Ninja Turtles' and ‘The Simpsons' — and say, ‘You do this and then you do cartoons all day and you're still alive?' ”
Harnell has so much voice work, it can be difficult to find time to tour with Rock Sugar, which will perform Saturday in the Harrah's Lake Tahoe South Shore Room.
‘We want people to leave saying that was the most fun I've ever had a a rock show,” he said. “I teach the audience how to imitate Axel Rose and Steve Perry. I bring people on stage, and I go into the crowd. There is no wall between us and them, it's just us.
“The best way to describe a Rock Sugar show is you walk out of there going, ‘What in the hell just happened?' ”