- David Urmanski / Concert Close Ups / provided
- Tribute act Smells Like Nirvana plays 8 p.m. Jan. 11 at Diamond Ballroom.
Smells Like Nirvana
8 p.m. Jan. 11
8001 S. Eastern Ave.
As a kid, Paul Wandtke wanted to be Kurt Cobain, but Wandtke’s brother had another idea.
“To tell you the truth, I grew up listening Nirvana, and when I saw Kurt on TV, I said, ‘I want to do that when I grow up. I want to play guitar. I want to be in my own band,’” Wandtke said, “but growing up, my brother made me play drums. I was forced to play drums, so I was always, like, a closet frontman.”
As vocalist and guitarist for Nirvana tribute act Smells Like Nirvana, Wandtke is still playing grunge covers like he did in his brother’s band at the age of 11, but now he’s front and center.
Smells Like Nirvana plays 8 p.m. Jan. 11 at Diamond Ballroom, 8001 S. Eastern Ave.
Wandtke has had high-profile success drumming in a metal band and a jukebox musical, but he started the tribute band hoping to have more steady work.
“I was sick of looking for gigs, professional gigs,” Wandtke said. “It’s not every day you can find them. I played for the famous metal band Trivium, and before that I was doing Rock of Ages. I was doing my last Rock of Ages contract, and I was like, ‘Shit, man. After six months, I’m going to be home, not making any money, looking for gigs.’”
Nirvana cover bands are less common than Beatles or Rolling Stones tribute acts, but Wandtke said the Seattle grunge band was the obvious choice for his interests and vocal range.
“If you go check me out on karaoke night, I do not sound good unless I’m singing Nirvana,” Wandtke said.
Drummer Nick Rich — grandson of legendary jazz drummer Buddy Rich — agreed.
“He was meant to be the singer for this tribute band,” Rich said.
Cobain, who took his own life in 1994, had a complicated relationship with rock stardom.
come up to me crying like,
‘Dude, I relived my childhood.’”
—Paul Wandtke click to tweet
“When we’re back stage and the lights go out and the manic roar of the crowds begins,” Cobain wrote in his suicide note, “it doesn’t affect me the way in which it did for Freddie Mercury, who seemed to love, relish in the love and adoration from the crowd which is something I totally admire and envy. The fact is, I can’t fool you, any one of you. It simply isn’t fair to you or me. The worst crime I can think of would be to rip people off by faking it and pretending as if I’m having 100% fun.”
Despite the band’s somber end, Wandtke said people have fun at Smells Like Nirvana shows.
“Everybody sings along,” Wandtke said. “The last time we were at the Diamond Ballroom, there was like 1,200 people there. … Everybody’s in there just having a good time. … It’s been over 20 years since Kurt’s been gone. It was a different time and a different era. At the end of the day, it’s about entertainment. … People go crazy, man. They’ll jump offstage and they’ll crowd-surf. They’ll get kicked out of the venue. It’s partially like, ‘Is this what it was like when Nirvana was there?’”
The people in the audience range from “teenagers to people in their late 40s, early 50s,” Wandtke said.
“I’ve had 50-year-old men come up to me crying, like, ‘Dude, I relived my childhood,’ and then they’ve got their kids with them,” Wandtke said. “It’s weird because on social media, half our followers are kids. It’s crazy to see that, but I think kids gravitate towards it because it’s real music. … People just like that Kurt was really honest and didn’t give a shit. He just put his heart and soul into everything he did. I think that’s what people miss in modern-day music.”
Dead OriginalWandtke and Rich also play Wandtke’s original songs in the band Dead Original, which Wandtke said draws comparisons to Alice in Chains and Tool as well as Nirvana. The band recently toured as support for Candlebox.
“On the surface, right away, you’re going to be like, ‘Oh my god. That singer’s influenced by Kurt,’ but if you dig into it musically, we have different elements like odd meters,” Wandtke said. “Our ultimate goal is to keep Smells Like Nirvana but have Dead Original be the one that’s touring around the world.”
Rich thinks fans of one band are likely to enjoy the other despite their obvious differences.
“If you were to compare Nirvana and Dead Original, it’s such a completely different sound, a completely different structure, songwise,” Rich said. “It’s not even similar, except for the fact that we’re trying to make America grunge again. … They’re two different monsters that will appeal to the same crowd.”
Like Nirvana-drummer-turned-head-Foo Fighter Dave Grohl, Wandtke has stepped out from behind the kit to take on frontman duties, but he thinks his drumming experience is evident in his songwriting.
“The thing is with drumming, whether you’re a virtuoso or you’ve just got the basic skills, you understand how to make people move,” Wandtke said. “Then you add a sick melody, but if the groove’s not there, it doesn’t matter what kind of melody you’ve got.”
As a drummer, Rich appreciates Wandtke’s approach.
“That’s the great thing about having Paul, obviously, writing the original songs — he uses his drum background,” Rich said. “For a drummer like me, it’s so evident that that’s there because the songs just flow in such a groovy way.”
Because Smells Like Nirvana crowds might appreciate Dead Original songs, Wandtke said he uses the tribute act to “cross-promote.”
“We’ll just book Smells Like Nirvana and sneak an original song in the set just for fun,” Wandtke said.
Not sticking to the traditional rules of a tribute band is, in a way, a better tribute to Nirvana than a note-for-note reproduction, Wandtke said. Live, Nirvana would sometimes unexpectedly cover Kiss or Boston (whose “More Than a Feeling” bears more than a passing resemblance to “Smells Like Teen Spirit”) or even prank the audience: In response to tabloid rumors about his drug addiction, Cobain took the stage at the 1992 Reading Festival dressed in a hospital gown and sitting in a wheelchair, for example, and the band began its MTV Video Music Awards performance playing the opening chords of “Rape Me” before launching into hit single “Lithium” to scare the executives in the audience.
“That’s why we aren’t so rigid,” Wandtke said. “That’s why we tell people about the original project, because it’s like, ‘Hey, we’re real dudes. We’re playing Kurt’s music. Let’s remember Kurt.’ … I’m not going up there wearing the exact shoes he wore. … We say whatever’s on the top of our minds in real time. It’s kind of like a punk rock show to be honest with you.”
“That’s what makes a Smells Like Nirvana show so interesting, that you know what you’re going to get in a sense just like you would with a Nirvana show,” Rich said, “but you never know what you’re going to get when the band plays.”
Tickets are $13. Call 405-677-9169 or visit diamondballroom.com.