The members of Hairball proudly call their celebratory performance of arena rock hits “bombastic.” And that’s just the starting point, to judge by a conversation with the band’s lead guitarist.
Here are some of the other colorful phrases the singular-named Happy came up with on a recent morning while aboard a tour bus bound for Duluth, Minn.
• “Kind of a smorgasbord of what’s cool in rock ’n’ roll, in my opinion.”
• “A semi truck full of show business.”
• “There’s so much fireworks and video and lighting and surprises that it’s sort of where the Blue Man Group and Van Halen get into a car wreck and start a barbecue.”
Those comments all came in the first five minutes of the chat.
The Minnesota-based Hairball will bring its music and pyrotechnics to the Northern Wisconsin State Fair for a performance at 8 p.m. today. The band consists of singers Bobby Jensen, Kris Vox and Joe Dandy along with Happy, Brian on bass and Billy playing drums.
The first question Happy was asked involved the banker’s hours timing for the phone interview, set by the band’s media contact — not necessarily suited to rocking ’n’ rolling all night.
“Sometimes if you’re serious about rock ’n’ roll, you gotta get up in the morning and do the work,” he said. “Those big shows don’t just magically happen.”
The band has made its name through re-enactments of the classic songs by rock heavy hitters such as Aerosmith, Alice Cooper, Kiss, AC/DC, Queen, Journey and Motley Crue as well as the aforementioned Van Halen. But calling them a tribute band seems to fall short, as Happy explained.
“I just think we’re so much bigger than that because we deliver so much more theater than most bands doing that,” he said. “I think where we’re really good is creating the energy and the explosiveness that the artists we throw into our show did when they were making their impact.”
This is a case where familiarity breeds enthusiasm, Happy’s comments suggested.
“One thing about Hairball is you’re going to probably know everything that you’re about to see,” he said. “So the images and the music and the stuff that’ll be put into that show are so iconic and so identifiable that the minute it walks around the curtain you know that’s Dee Snider, you know that’s Alice Cooper, you know that’s Gene Simmons, that’s David Lee Roth. That’s just kind of the size of the personality and the type of show business that was going on during that period of time.”
Further articulating the difference between what makes the cut and what doesn’t, Happy noted the look as well as the sound.
“We do the stuff that you can tell from a mile away,” he said. “I mean, sure, there’s great Tesla and Night Ranger, but nobody dresses up like Night Ranger or Tesla for Halloween.”
The hits do keep on rolling.
“The cool thing about Hairball is that if you don’t like Motley Crue, it turns into Van Halen in three minutes, and if you don’t like that, it turns into Queen, and so on and so forth,” Happy said.
An example of when a Hairball concert became so real it was perhaps surreal involved a performance in February in Sioux City, Iowa. According to a report in the Des Moines Register:
During a performance of Kiss’ “Detroit Rock City,” Jensen’s hair caught on fire because of a “pyrotechnic mishap.” Jensen kept playing during the seconds the flames rose up before the crew snuffed them out, and Jensen sustained no bodily injuries.
Video of the situation went viral, and the band did interviews with media outlets as far away as Japan.
As Happy recalled his thoughts at the time: “I looked over and said, ‘Is his head on fire?’ It took a few seconds and, ‘Well, as a matter of fact it is. ….. I suppose I should go over and maybe do something.’”
The whole incident took 12 seconds, but, even though the crew responded immediately, it felt to Happy like 12 minutes.
“That’s the risky, dangerous game of rock ’n’ roll that we play sometimes,” Happy said.
In some cases, Hairball has earned the compliment of being joined on stage by the artists they’re covering. For instance, they performed alongside Alice Cooper, Gene Simmons, Vince Neil and Judas Priest’s Rob Haltford. Typically, Happy said, those occasions have been during fundraisers when an organizer wants a celebrity singer to help the cause.
“The logic of getting the entire band of Twisted Sister to reunite and come in to do that ...” Happy trails off in a chuckle. “Well, this is what Hairball does. So we can have Vince Neil get up and sing with Hairball.”
Asked which rock icon he’d especially enjoy taking the stage with, his first response was: “Anybody from Aerosmith would be cool.” He also mentioned Steve Perry and the members of Cheap Trick. But then, he added, such a topic speaks to what Hairball is all about.
“Part of the other reason why Hairball I think performs a useful role is I wish we could have Freddie Mercury come up and play with us, but that’s not going to happen,” he said.
The band especially enjoys lending their talents to those charitable endeavors. Among the efforts they’ve worked with:
• Camp Hometown Heroes, a Milwaukee area enterprise that runs a free weeklong overnight summer camp for children and siblings, ages 7 to 17, of fallen U.S. service members who died in any manner: combat, accident, illness or suicide (hometownheroes.org).
• Alice Cooper’s Solid Rock, a nonprofit, faith-based organization in Phoenix whose primary mission is to help meet teens’ spiritual, economical, physical and social needs by offering a safe, engaging environment during non-school hours (alicecoopersolidrock.com).
• Matter, based in St. Louis Park, Minn., which brings together “some of the best companies, experts, and partners, to take on some of the biggest health challenges our world is facing today” (matter.ngo).
“That’s been another of the rewards of kind of our success,” Happy said. “When you can go to work and have your following actually raise money or help bring awareness to good causes, it’s another thing I can go to bed at night and hang my hat on feeling like I could be doing worse things.”
Not to mention, he might have added, the ongoing rock ’n’ roll party awaits the next day.