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Lizard Head is coming to an indie venue near you

UNI Students play tribute to King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard and Radiohead
Ben Neessen
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Lizard Head on stage at Octopus College hill. The band band covers the music of King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard and Radiohead with brass instruments.

A newly formed tribute band from Cedar Falls pays homage to King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard and Radiohead. Yes, you read that right. We talked with them about how they pulled it off.

A lone tenor saxophone crooned nonchalantly, strolling across notes as if whistling down a sidewalk. Slowly, band members joined the brass player up on stage. There was a bass rumble here, some cymbal taps there, providing some momentum for the improvising saxophone or maybe just to test the waters. The solo ended with a distantly familiar refrain, which was mirrored by a heavily distorted guitar as the band broke into their first song: "Doom City" by King Gizzard and The Lizard Wizard.

The tone was set, and it was going to be a heady night of music at the Octopus in Cedar Falls. Newly formed jazz fusion tribute band Lizard Head were going to spend the night pushing their creativity and exploring multiple genres of music covering songs by King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard and Radiohead.

The heavy breakdowns of Doom City kicked off the night, showcasing the cascading solos of saxophone player Johnny Hartleip and trombonist Paul Lichty, complimented nicely by a bruising rhythm section. The group took no time to start flexing their musical prowess, following up with "15 Step," which Radiohead fans will know for its idiosyncratic 5/4 time signature. The song kept stayed in perfect time thanks to drummer Jackson Schou. The highlight was a brain melting solo from guitarist Luke Sanders, before smoothly transitioning into the chilled Work This Time. Bassist Jacob Giddens flew all over the fretboard during "2 + 2 = 5," the song’s enthralling energy bringing a satisfying end to their first set.

"Weird Fishes" had the band firing on all cylinders in a twelve minute epic which let each member shine thanks to a beautiful arrangement which explored all avenues and more of the Radiohead classic. Commanded by trumpet player Dan Meier, "The National Anthem" had a squawking, cathartic climax that made their rendition a highlight from the night. They also played "Creep."

"Open Water" brought a furious conclusion to the set, each member receiving the spotlight during the high velocity nightcap to the two hour show.

"It's what I love, but fresh and new," I thought to myself.

About Lizard Head

Lizard Head was formed by saxophone player Johnny Hartliep out of appreciation for both King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard and Radiohead, as well as for pre-existing big band Radiohead arrangements from the Radiohead Jazz Project, which is a collection of big band jazz arrangements of Radiohead songs released in 2010.

“That was the experiment,” Hartleip said. “We knew Radiohead would work fairly well. So King Gizzard was like, 'Let’s just try it, and see if it works out well.’”

So Hartleip and guitarist Luke Sanders spent the summer immersed in their discographies, determining which songs to include in a tribute. They sought out songs with a hard groove that would still be musically interesting without lyrics. “Like, if they’re singing in just one pitch, it’s not really interesting to listen to instruments play that,” Hartliep explained. “What kind of beat does it have, would I pay to hear this in a bar? If I could hear horns playing that melody and still be interested, then that’s how I decided.”

Sanders, who co-arranged for the band, expressed similar thoughts about his own writing process. “One challenge was to figure out which tunes needed to be close to the original in terms of form, key, style, etc, and which tunes could be ‘stylized’ so to speak.”

The importance of retaining the original material’s magnetism while keeping the performance interesting for the audience and themselves as musicians was not lost on the band. “Because Radiohead is often ambient noise-rock at times, it was sometimes tricky to communicate that intention in a chart,” Sanders said. “Fortunately, all the guys on this gig are incredible musicians in their own right and so they were easily able to fulfill their roles without issue.”

The band came away from the performance ecstatic by the reception.

“There was a lot of energy in there, people really enjoyed it, and we gave them something that was different than what they might expect to hear on your average Saturday night,” Hartleip shared. “Every tune that we picked I really loved. That’s why we played it with the kind of energy that we did. It’s because everyone really dug those tunes.”

The group is eager to see how far they can take the project, even stating a desire to venture into the works of Pink Floyd, Queen and Jimi Hendrix. But for now, they’ll be looking to land some more gigs around Iowa and even add another set of Radiohead tracks. Keep an eye on the upcoming schedules for Gas Lamp in Des Moines and The Bohemian in Cedar Rapids! Lizard Head says they'll be taking the act on the road soon.

Ben Neessen