To Matt Stephens, conventional is just another four-letter word, especially when it's applied to his music.
Even though the five-piece The Matt Stephens Project covers other artists, the songs that make it through the filter are what set it apart from other cover groups.
Stephens, a Chattanooga native, said he's partial to upbeat, synthesizer-heavy dance anthems by artists such as Usher, Lady Gaga and Rhianna, many of whom don't get much attention from cover artists, despite their material's popularity on the radio.
"If it meets all that [criteria] and it's something you're not going to hear another band play live, that falls into our category," he said. "I want people to come to our show to see something they haven't seen before out of a cover band.
"When you're a cover band, that's one of the big challenges: How do I differentiate myself from everyone else?"
Stephens, 28, founded the Project in 2006 shortly after the collapse of his previous project, Frankly Scarlett.
Originally, Stephens said, the goal was to work up covers for about 40 pieces. The group began habitually adding new material after each show, however, and its catalog now includes more than 70 funk, rock and pop songs from the 1960s to the 2010s.
"It gets to where you have to have a separate list of songs because you begin to forget what you know how to play," Stephens said, laughing.
Offering up such a wide range of material brings in an equally diverse audience.
"You don't have anyone sitting in the crowd thinking, 'This isn't all that fun for me,' " Stephens continued. "I don't like seeing people sit down. I like to see them standing up and having fun.
"If you mix it up and keep the audience guessing what you'll play next, that's rewarding for us to watch, seeing that many different people listening to vastly different styles of music and having fun equally."
Tonight, Stephens will take the stage at Rhythm & Brews to perform a Christmas Extravaganza.
As fans of adding spectacle to their shows, Stephens said he and the other members of The Project have several special twists planned for the Extravaganza, including special holiday-appropriate material in their 20-song set list and costume changes.
"We always love playing holidays or special events because it gives you a chance to look different or play something different," he said. "It gives you ideas automatically."
Contact Casey Phillips at email@example.com or 423-757-6205. Follow him on Twitter at @Phillips CTFP.
IF YOU GO
* What: Matt Stephens Project: Christmas Extravaganza.
* When: 10 p.m. today.
* Where: Rhythm & Brews, 221 Market St.
* Admission: $7.
* Phone: 267-4644.
* Venue website: www.rhythm-brews.com.
* Related links at current.times freepress .
Casey Phillips has worked as a features reporter in the Life department since May 2007. He writes about entertainment, young adults, technology and people of interest. Casey hails from Knoxville and earned a bachelor of science degree in journalism and a bachelor of arts in German. He previously worked as the features editor for Sidelines at Middle Tennessee State University. Casey received the East Tennessee Society of Professional Journalists Award of Excellence for Reviewing/Criticism in ...