published Thursday, November 15th, 2012

Costumed cover band brings '80s dance experience to Rhythm & Brews

IF YOU GO

• What: Rubik's Groove.

• When: 10 p.m. Friday, Nov. 16.

• Where: Rhythm & Brews, 221 Market St.

• Admission: $10.

• Phone: 267-4644.

• Venue website: www.rhythm-brews.

In the 1984 hit film "Karate Kid," Johnny Lawrence is not a likable character. He fights for fun and abuses those weaker than he is.

But man, can he sing.

Lawrence is one of several personas adopted by the members of Rubik's Groove, a Nashville-based '80s dance cover band.

The group was formed three years ago by Music City singer/songwriters Todd St. John, who dresses as Lawrence, and Brian Holiday, who dons the gray suit and red bow tie of Pee-wee Herman.

Fed up with the recording industry, the two set out on their own to, as St. John put it, "have fun playing music again." They put an ad in the paper looking for like-minded individuals and, in about a year, had assembled five others.

Wanting to entertain wasn't enough, though, St. John said. They needed to be talented as well.

"We didn't want to have to apologize for the music," he said. "We didn't want it to be a smoke-and-mirrors show."

Friday, Nov. 16, Rubik's Groove will take over Rhythm & Brews, bringing along a bevy of costumes of characters such as Mario, Robocop and Punky Brewster, as well as a 15-foot video wall and danceable music from the Reagan years.

With an emphasis on creating a dance-hall experience, the band's sets cover hits from a range of genres, from Bon Jovi's "Livin' on a Prayer" and Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean" to Run-DMC's "It's Tricky" and Vanilla Ice's "Ice, Ice Baby."

In addition to hits across a diverse spectrum of styles, the '80s also gave rise to some of music's biggest personas, from Madonna to MC Hammer. Rubik's Groove's spectacle is an appeal to those larger-than-life personalities.

Even if people hated Lawrence in the movie, they love to see him onstage along with all the other characters, St. John said.

"The costumes give it that '360' experience," he said. "People light up. They get real excited about the costumes. We've actually played weddings, and I've said, 'Gosh, you want us to dress formal for a while?' and people will jump up immediately and go, 'No, you've got to wear the costumes.' "


Chattanooga Times Free Press entertainment reporter Casey Phillips spoke with Todd St. John, co-founder of Nashville-based ’80s dance cover band Rubiks Groove, about how they selected their costumes, the reason ’80s music has such broad appeal and why Robocop is the band’s Mickey Mouse.

CP: Walk me through the origin of Rubiks Groove.

TSJ: Brian, who is our Peewee Herman character, and I used to write original music together for many years. He's a really fun guy, and we got together and were like, “Writing isn't as much fun as it used to be.” We decided that we should make it fun. That was the emphasis. The fun had lapsed, so we decided to put out an ad looking for people who had “given up” on trying to make it in the music business and wanted to have fun and entertain people. We wanted to have fun playing music again, and it turns out there were many other musicians who felt the same we did.

CP: Did it take a long time to find those people?

TSJ: We wanted high quality musicianship as well, so it took a year or two because it wasn't just about having fun. We didn't want to have to apologize for the music. We didn't want it to be smoke-and-mirrors show. We feel really good about the fact that we not only found people who were like minded and wanted to have fun and entertain people but who could also play really well.

CP: How long has this lineup been together?

TSJ: The band has been together for three years. We've been consistent for the last two years. Occasionally we have people who can't make it, and we have to find subs, but that's been the beauty of it, too. It's typically the same people every time.

CP: Did you have natural chemistry with the people who responded to the ad?

TSJ: That was absolutely a big part of it. We talked about attitude and aptitude. We did have some bumps in the road with people who didn't fit in, but over the last two years, we've found people who mesh on all fronts and we like to hang out with. When we travel out of state, we wanted people we get along with. It's been pretty remarkable. I think people notice that we genuinely like each other.

CP: How does that play out on stage?

TSJ: We're just playing off each other. We already know each other really well and what our tendencies are. We have similar senses of humor, and apparently that resonates with our audience. The other part is the interactive impact. We can see what they're doing and make them part of the show. Similar to our chemistry on stage, we try to have a chemistry with the audience, and you can't fake it.

CP: Does that interactive element add to the show?

TSJ: Absolutely. There are a lot of bands who get up there and play the music we do. The difference maker is that the audience is part of the experience. When we talk about “the total '80s experience,” it's not just our character and videos and songs, it's the fact that they're part of it. People in their 30s and 40s feel like they're 18 again.

CP: How old are you guys?

TSJ: [Laughs.] I would probably be advised not to say, but we've got people from mid-20s all the way up to mid-40s.

CP: Why focus on the '80s? Why not some other decade?

TSJ: That's a great question. We talked about the '80s a lot. We think it was hugely diverse and a very creative era that wasn't defined by just one sound. You had everything from hair metal to the techno pop. It was the birth of the keyboard era.

It's just a variety you don't see in a decade. Decades tend to be defined by a certain type of music, at least in the rock/pop genre. The '80s was the birth of diversity in music.

There were a lot of characters. We've looked at the '90s and now, and the thing that was so unique about the '80s was that you had these larger-than-life, almost comic book-like characters that came out like MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice and Madonna. You had a lot of the things that were creative and larger than life.

We do some '90s stuff and stuff from now, but we're largely defined by the '80s.

CP: Do you feel like that music only connects with people who grew up hearing the music or does it resonate with younger listeners, too?

TSJ: That's been probably the most remarkable thing. We knew we'd do well with people in their 30s and 40s, but the most surprising thing is how well we've done with people in their 20s.

We can credit the Jack FMs of the world with that. They hear this music on the radio, and it still sounds current, for whatever reason. We play quite a few universities and have quite a few younger fans who come out to our shows.

CP: How many shows do you put on every year?

TSJ: We do tend to limit. We're not a bar band, so while we can play four or five times a week, we typically play once per weekend and do more of the high-profile, corporate shows. We do shows at venues that can really highlight our show. Because we have seven people and a 15-foot video screen and the movement we do, so we can't do smaller places. We're more of a “show” than a bar band.

CP: How did you guys settle on who got to be what character?

TSJ: There wasn't really one approach. We actually all trialed different things. Sometimes, it was as simple as looking online at a costume place and seeing what jumped out the most. We had different characters and some were too generic, and we decided very quickly that it needs to be something that people could identify.

CP: Was there a fight to decide who got to be Robocop?

TSJ: [Laughs.] Nobody wanted to be Robocop, but it turns out that he is the most iconic of all. I joke that we're kind of like the Disney World for adults. Adults stand in line after shows to get their picture with Robocop. I guess he's the Mickey Mouse of Rubiks Groove. His resistance to the costume was mainly to the comfort, but he's fine. He's the one who stands their robotically and is cool.

CP: Do you all stay in character while on stage?

TSJ: We absolutely try to. It's a mesh of the character and our natural personalities and that desire in all of us to entertain.

CP: Why did you choose to be Johnny Lawrence, the bad guy from “Karate Kid?”

TSJ: I found a blond wig and while looking online at costume places, I thought, “Wow, that guy would be good.” I loved the movie, and I actually found a really expensive replica of the costume from the place that claimed to have the original. I've been surprised by how many people love the character and shout out all the phrases from the movie. I thought it would be more of a behind-the-scenes character, but it's been a very popular one.

CP: Do you share a lot in common with Johnny?

TSJ: I think it's acting to channel him. I think that applies to the original actor from interviews I've heard. He's a pretty nice guy, so hopefully, I'm a nice guy who's acting. [Laughs.]

CP: What do you think the costumes add to the show?

TSJ: You see a lot of bands that come dressed in street clothes, and the costumes give it that '360' experience. We've all seen the movies or the remakes, and many kids have seen them as well. People light up. They get real excited about the costumes.

The funny thing is that we're sound checking in plain clothes, and people come up to us nervously at almost every show, and they'll say, “You're going to wear the costumes, right?”

We've actually played weddings, and I've said, “Gosh, you want us to dress formal for a while?” and people will jump up immediately and go, “No. You've got to wear the costumes.” That's surprising to me, but people love it.

CP: Do you have any other trappings to the show? Special effects, lights, props, that sort of thing?

TSJ: Part of that total '80s experience is not just the costumes and our music but capturing pop culture on the screen. We'll introduce some songs with clips from movies. We'll show a scene from “The Breakfast Club” before we do “Don't You (Forget About Me)” or “Footloose” before we do that song. We'll do funny stuff from “Saturday Night Live.”

Other times, it's just back drop. It's giving people our Facebook information or advertising. I talk about being a songwriter, and people in that realm might think, “You're doing a cover band; you're not being creative,” but really, the creativity comes out of putting the show together. It's anything and everything. Really, the sky is the limit. We can put anything creative from '80s pop culture on the screen.

CP: What's your goal when you're on stage? What do you want audiences to walk away feeling or having experienced?

TSJ: I want them to have the best time they've had in years. That's it. I want them to escape and go back.

CP: What songs are in your repertoire are particular crowd favorites?

TSJ: “Ice Ice Baby,” “Livin' on a Prayer,” “Billie Jean,” “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “Don't You Forget About Me,” “Humpty Dance,” “Jungle Love,” “Electric Slide,” “It's Tricky.” What distinguishes us from a lot of bands, we do a lot of hip-hop and rap that people love.

CP: Did you mold the set list to the songs the band members already knew or felt comfortable with or is there a lot of stretching going on?

TSJ: We all had to stretch and go outside of our comfort zone to totally match the fun vibe of the band. I might have tended to like more of the Euro-pop stuff, but it tended to be more serene and melancholy, so I had to really push myself into more of the hip-hop and rap, which we all love.

All of us are stretched in that way, but it matches the fun vibe of the band. It's quite whimsical and danceable. I have to give a lot of credit to Brian Holiday, my partner in the band and the Peewee character. It's his personality. We've stretched him, too, but he stretched us more to that background. That's why we call it the live '80s dance party. We keep it upbeat to keep everyone moving.

about Casey Phillips...

Casey Phillips has worked as a features reporter in the Life department since May 2007. He writes about entertainment, consumer technology, animals and news of the weird. Casey hails from Knoxville and earned a bachelor of science degree in journalism and a bachelor of arts in German from Middle Tennessee State University, where he worked as the features editor for the student newspaper, Sidelines. Casey's writing has earned numerous accolades, including first and second place ...

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