A Q&A with Jason Bambery
By Geoff Gehman
Jason Bambery holds the unofficial world record for most tribute bands fronted during a single gig. Last year a crowd at Radio Radio, an Indianapolis club, witnessed him perform the lead vocals of John Lennon, Prince, Axl Rose, the Cure’s Robert Smith and David Bowie’s goblin king in the film “Labyrinth.” As an extra added bonus he played himself in the Hardees, a trio specializing in originals. The extravaganza was dubbed, quite fittingly, as “The Bambery Bunch.”
The channeling marathon was a natural stretch for a veteran musical method actor. Bambery was an elementary schooler when he made guitars from wood scraps and fishing line, inspired by the string-flaming theatrics of KISS, who became infamous for wearing Kabuki makeup and Godzilla-in-Outer-Space costumes. He became intergalactic characters while voicing his “Star Wars” action figures, exercises that primed him to anchor a musical homage to the fantasy-film enterprise. Many people dress up as other people for Halloween; Bambery treats the night as a platform for playing Rod Stewart, the late AC/DC screamer Bon Scott and Prince, whose “Purple Rain” turned his world topsy-turvy.
Two months ago Bambery became the titular chameleon of “BowieLIVE,” which will render the likes of “Space Oddity,” “The Jean Genie” and “Rebel Rebel” on Nov. 30 at the Mauch Chunk Opera House. Armed with deft voices, gestures and personas, he’ll get under the outrageous skin, hair and auras of the glam rocker Ziggy Stardust, the androgynous semi-alien Aladdin Sane and the suave funkster of “Let’s Dance” vintage. Bowie is a lightning rod of sorts for Bambery, who began enjoying being outrageous after moving to the small town of Painted Hills, Ind., where he turned taunts into badges of honor as the resident “long-haired sore thumb in redneck land.”
Below, in an email conversation. Bambery discusses the rewarding challenges of tuning Bowie’s around-the-dial frequencies, roles he will and would like to play, and why he retired Axl Rose from his repertory company.
Q: Can you remember the first song that you couldn’t forget, that wormed its way into your ears, brain and soul?
A: The “Sanford and Son” theme used to get me jiving down the hallway! The three 45s I remember playing the most were “Revolution,” “[My Baby Does the] Hanky Panky’ and “My Ding-a-Ling.” Loved the Beatles first but later KISS sealed the deal in my decision to be a guitar player.
Q: Who was your first musical hero/mentor growing up, and what was the best lesson he or she gave you? And have you played Bowie or other celebrated musicians in your hometown?
A: I think you learn from everyone. A favorite teaching moment was my first time in a recording studio at age 15 tracking acoustic guitar and the engineer said: OK, now do it again, but pick it a little bit differently. Hearing both tracks together blew me away sounding so full. I applied the same idea to my vocals on later four-track recordings and learned how to sing harmonies by accident haha.
Every year I put together (or get asked into) a new tribute band for Halloween. Meant to be one-offs but we get offers to play again and it’s too much fun to say no. I’ve been Prince 30 times or so now. Doing the Bowie “Labyrinth” soundtrack is how I ended up being in this band from our doing a show together.
Q: What was the first Bowie number that grabbed you for good, and why?
A: “Into the Labyrinth” made me a fan in grade school but probably “Space Oddity” or “Suffragette City” with its “Hey man’s” and “Wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am” making adolescent me giggle.
Q: When was “BowieLIVE” launched and why was Bowie such a good fit that you decided to take your act on the road as a paying gig?
A: It started three years ago in Pittsburgh from a Bowie celebration show that turned heads and grew legs. I only recently joined in September with two shows under my belt, hungry for more. The music is fantastic and these guys really nail it so it’s always exciting to perform it for others who also love these songs.
Q: What was the hardest part about getting under Bowie’s pale skin, orange hair and prismatic personality, the key to unlocking his mercurial performing persona?
A: I love getting into a character, getting moves or facial expressions in. I guess it’s like method acting where I just try to visualize them in my head and then pretend to be them. The hardest part was learning lyrics to 30 songs I’d never sang before in three weeks for those first shows! Also, lots of that earlier stuff is pretty ambitious vocally, at that spot near the top of my mid-register. It ain’t easy haha.
Q: What do you appreciate and/or understand about him that you didn’t before you began channeling him in public? And is there something you admire about him that you’ve channeled into your non-Bowie acts and maybe even your offstage life?
A: There are some great documentaries out there. Lots of eye-opening, fascinating stuff about his youth, marriages, early music endeavors and such. Even how he got his dilated eye condition. I’ve always felt a kindred spirit with him because he was unafraid to try things and be experimental and boldly himself. I was the weirdo freak in school, especially once we moved to a small town for junior/high school. A long haired sore thumb in redneck land but I took their taunts as a badge of honor, proud to be an individual and do my own thing.
Q: Quote unquote tribute acts can go way over the top in their impersonations, becoming cheesy copycats. What won’t you do as Bowie at the risk of embarrassment or just plain wrongness?
A: Well, there was talk of me wearing the yellow suit from the “Modern Love” era. Not so jazzed about that idea to be honest haha. We’ll see.
I dunno. To me tribute performers should try to impersonate their subject so I try to go all out. It’s fun and if people are having a good time then we did it right.
Q: Speaking of deep cuts, would you be tempted to perform my following Bowie favs: “The Man Who Sold the World,” “Sorrow,” ‘DJ,” “This Is Not America,” “Lazarus”?
A: We might be able to tackle one of those for you. Great songs!
Q: What’s your most personal, inspirational Bowie line/lyric, one that’s suitable for T-shirt and bumper sticker?
A: “Let yourself go” from “The Jean Genie” is a good one. Very freeing that.
Q: What burning question would you have asked Bowie to solve a puzzle about him?
A: Oh, I wouldn’t have wanted to pester him about anything lol. I kinda like that he’s a puzzle, don’t you?
Q: Were you happy with your marathon night of fronting tributes to the Beatles, the Cure, Guns ‘N’ Roses, Prince and Bowie as Jareth the Goblin King in “Labyrinth”? Were there any unusual preparations to save your voice, stamina and sanity? And would you repeat a similar Olympian program?
A: Oh man, you’ve done some sleuthing! Yes, I had the absolute time of my life. Every show I play feels like it’s over too soon. I love playing all night so that one felt extremely satisfying (tho I’d have kept going lol). Make-up considerations did factor in the order a bit. Beatle John and especially Sir Rose were strategically saved for last, being the hardest on my voice. Singing like Axl is bad for you. That one is now retired. The best part was playing with so many friends in one night; it was incredible and very humbling. Yes, I would do it again in a heartbeat!
Q: You’re gifted at personifying charismatic, capital-C musical characters. Are you equally gifted at personifying non-musical characters, whether they be celebrities or friends?
A: Thank you! Doing impressions probably starting with voicing my “Star Wars” action figures with friends on the playground. I would actually love to try acting someday, maybe in a musician/band biopic? Somebody put me in a “Star Wars” movie, please!
Q: Have you launched, or do you plan to launch, tributes to Rod Stewart, Lenny Kravitz and Bon Scott’s AC/DC? And are you trying to get into the Guinness Book of World Records for most popular musician personifications?
A: Rod Stewart and AC/DC were a couple Halloweens ago. Lenny Kravitz is next on my list! Hopefully next year. I’ve already been tapped for a Motley Crue set. (What have I gotten myself into now?!)
It was never a conscious thought to become this tribute guy. I play in original bands and do solo stuff (new album coming this month!) along with recording other bands in my home studio. These Halloween “one-off” bands just keep adding up! I feel very lucky and honored that they get asked to play more shows.
Q: So, Jason, what tops your Bucket List? Musicians have told me everything from touring the world to world peace.
A: I want to sell my house and buy a building to live upstairs in and have more space to record in downstairs. Ideally large enough to sometimes host shows and make videos, have a local music YouTube show maybe.
Q: And what tops your Fuckit List? Musicians have told me everything from ending oppressive religions to assassinating all snakes.
A: I was gonna name some names here haha. Greed is a fucker. Let’s start there.
Geoff Gehman is a former arts writer for The Morning Call in Allentown. “Space Oddity” made him a David Bowie follower, he never tires of hearing Bowie’s“Heroes,” and he can’t believe that Bowie didn’t kill his career by recording “The Laughing Gnome.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.