Picture a typical ‘cover band’ in your head. What are you seeing?

A bloke with a passing resemblance to Bono donning a leather jacket and the signature shades doing his best (and failing) to hit those high notes? Or maybe it’s the guitarist sitting on a stool at a local pub with an acoustic on their lap, taking requests before launching into that same tired Powderfinger cover they bust out every week.

Sydney outfit Furnace and the Fundamentals are none of that – not by a long shot. Instead, they’re a group of musos who are changing perceptions of what a ‘cover band’ is, one hugely entertaining gig at a time.

Rather than just cruising through the same old crowd-pleasers each and every night, they use each hit as a building block in what are some of the most energetic and engaging live music experiences you’ll come across, toying with each track and combining them to create a show far more than the sum of its parts.

Like any other band, they’ve had their challenges along the way as they’ve forged a pretty unique path through the music scene, but their attempt at flipping the cover band stereotype on its head has thrown up as many opportunities as hurdles so far.

As they prepare to get the party going once again at Melbourne’s Max Watts on Saturday July 1 and Sydney’s Enmore on Saturday July 8, we were eager to talk with Furnace & Co. about their quest to take the humble cover version to new heights.

Furnace and the Fundamentals describe what goes into their unique take on a covers show

Why play covers?

First meeting up at school over a decade ago, Furnace (yep, he goes by Furnace off the stage as well) and his Fundamentals were just like any other group of musos, writing their own material with covers a bit of a sideline. The spirit of invention and fun was there from the beginning though, and right from their first gig, they were thrust into the role of genre-bending party-starters that they’ve been refining ever since.

“We were just great friends who used to write songs for each other on our birthdays,” says the relentlessly energetic frontman, “usually very harsh, offensive songs – made with love! We naturally evolved into a band writing songs aimed more generally, but they kept the slightly silly, tongue in cheek attitude, and naturally gravitated to a sort of rock pop styling.

“Doing covers was something we always did to a degree, even playing a few parties that way, but we didn’t really pursue it until our managers pointed out we could make money while we worked on our originals. So we were like, sure, why not?

We have all slogged it out for years… so we know it’s a rare thing to have opportunities to do the kind of thing we do

“Our first gig was at 2am at Oxford Art Factory, in place of a late night DJ, so we tried to mix and mash our songs like a DJ, and that’s basically the formula we’ve stuck with ever since. That was also the gig where we first met our keyboardist Pluto – it was all fate it seems.”

With international tours on the cards this year, including Hot Dub Time Machine support slots playing to 10,000 people a show, the band have turned those early live mashups into a full-blown music career. But despite their clear ability as musicians and chemistry as a band, it’s taken plenty of work to get there.

“I think we’re very fortunate,” says drummer Mike Solo. “I certainly count myself lucky to have the opportunity to play with this group and have so many fun shows. We have all slogged it out for years and years in different combinations, playing originals, covers, sessions – whatever. So we know it’s a rare thing to have opportunities to do the kind of thing we do – we do work super hard though.

“Of course, there’s always someone else out there who’s had it all gifted to them, but I’m rarely envious of such things. We’re doing well and loving it for however long it lasts, however far it can go.”

The sheer amount of effort shines through in their live gigs

Making covers cool

One of the main missions for the band, aside from transforming each and every gig into a party, is to give covers some of the credibility they deserve. After all, any band that heads to Australia can immediately grab headlines by belting out a brilliant cover on triple j’s Like A Version, while a perfectly-executed cover can make for one of the best moments in any band’s set.

But while the effort that goes into creating a cover version is being appreciated more and more but while covers are getting a bit more cred, Furnace & Co. reckon they still have a fight on their hands to scrub that idea of the dodgy Elvis impersonator from people’s minds.

There’s always going to be a stigma towards a cover band no matter how good they are… it drives us to make our show as amazing as possible

“There’s always going to be a stigma towards a cover band no matter how good they are, I think,” says lead guitarist and sax-man Digby. “Festival bookers and the press always take a lot of work to get over the line because they’re more interested in original music.

“So in the end it drives us to make our show as amazing as possible, and to make sure it’s equally if not more entertaining than anything else out there. We want to ensure fans and especially the skeptics leave having had the time of their life.”

Don’t let the pop hits fool you – these guys definitely put on a rock show

Like A Version is awesome,” Mike adds. “It’s still so far removed from what people typically think of cover bands so it’s done a lot for improving the reputation of covers. You know, most successful pop artists out there don’t write their own songs – so when you think about it, they are essentially a covers act. But no-one minds – because those big pop acts deliver an awesome show… at the end of the day, people just want to be entertained.

“I suppose the stigma around cover bands comes from a lot of sad, uninspiring cover bands around the place. But it’s all just music – if you’re playing originals and have a boring show, it’s still the same thing.”

Most successful pop artists out there don’t write their own songs – so when you think about it, they are essentially a covers act

So how do the band feel about traditional cover acts? You know the ones: dressed up in the costume, doing the voice, the whole shebang. Well, like any sort of band, Mike explains that there are good and bad examples.

“Some are fantastic, it just depends how well you do it,” he says. “The Australian Pink Floyd show is epic. There are some pretty good ABBA and Michael Jackson shows around. I think those kind of acts you have to really nail it. If you have the budget to pull it off, it can make for a great show.

“I think being a sleepy Elvis impersonator might get a little boring, but it depends what you like. I saw a dude who does Freddie Mercury full-time, and he looked so happy… I was happy for him.”

Winning over the arm-crossers

Furnace and the Fundamentals are pretty much the exact opposite of ‘sleepy’, and you only need to take a look at footage of one of their signature ‘Furnapalooza’ shows to see how quickly the crowd get going, whether they’ve come back for the fifth time or are getting stuck in for the first time.

Even a crowd-pleasing set like this can be met with its fair share of arm-crossers lingering at the back of the room, though, and its these punters that the band work hardest to win over – by pretty much making dancing the only reasonable option.

I’ve had friends who were apprehensive about coming because it didn’t suit their ‘musical palate’… After 20 minutes, their guard had dropped

“Hats off to Furnace and the guys who basically dance non-stop for the whole set,” Mike says, probably understating how much exercise he gets behind the drum kit himself. “The longest I’ve ever seen before the dance floor got started was a few minutes.

“I’ve certainly had a few friends who were apprehensive about coming because it didn’t suit their ‘musical palate’,” Digby admits. “After 20 minutes, their guard had dropped and they shyly admitted they genuinely enjoyed it. It’s hard not to get swept up in the energy, whatever your taste… but it can be a guilty pleasure for some.”

“If people are slow to get into it, we go even harder,” Mike adds. “Eventually we are so over the top that it’s hard for anyone to feel self-conscious because we are probably more ridiculous looking than anyone who’s shy to dance!”

You can’t help but have fun when there’s a pink flamingo involved

It’s not as easy as it looks…

While there may not be any songwriting involved in playing covers, there’s just as much musicianship required, and one of the first things you notice about Furnace and the Fundamentals that puts them above a lot of their contemporaries – cover bands or otherwise – is the unique energy they bring to the stage.

Rather than falling into impersonation, they inject their own personality into every track, while holding on to what made it so popular to begin with.

“I don’t think we do it intentionally,” Digby says, “but rather we all have quite different influences in our playing from a variety of genres so when we come together it becomes our own sound. For me I’m more in to my hard rock and metal so when something like ‘Royals’ was put together, for example, I played more of a chunky chorus than the recording, which doesn’t have any guitar.

You need to have a love and appreciation for all music, or at least to be open to as many genres as possible

As Furnace explains, the overwhelming question behind every decision comes down to one thing: is this fun?

For us it’s about trying to achieve the most entertaining effect; what sounds the best, what is the most fun,” he says. “Everything we do stylistically is born from that idea, and that usually requires a good mix of making a song sound like the original so the crowd appreciates it, and mixing it up so it’s interesting.”

Bringing so many varied styles and genres into one cohesive set is one of the main challenges, and as Digby explains, it takes a unique skill set.

The trademark ‘Furnapalooza’ gigs are custom built to get entire rooms dancing

“You need to have a love and appreciation for all music, or at least to be open to as many genres as possible,” he says. “When you’re young you always imagine the music you like is the best and focus on it, but as you get older you realise how to appreciate musicians in many different ways and in different mediums.

“We all have quite different tastes in music to a degree, which I guess means when coming together to work on a particular track we all bring our own vision and the best bits of what we love whether it be the vocal, or the drum groove, the flashy dancing, guitar riff etc.”

What works, and what doesn’t?

Having an appreciation for so much different music brings its own set of challenges, however, and putting together the perfect setlist involves more than just reeling off a list of bangers. In fact, with six members in the band, it can be a bit of a process at times.

“When bringing something to the table it has to really excite all everyone,” Digby says. “Just because one or two of us love the song isn’t enough to get it in the set. If the whole group loves it then there is a high probability that the audience is going to love it too. It also means that we are going to play it with way more passion – which means a better performance all round.

“Sometimes it’s not just the song you need to get right,” he adds, drawing parallels to what a DJ has to be mindful of to keep the floor moving. “The right mix of tracks can really make the crowd pop – it’s amazing the big changes some of the subtle adjustments to the mix have made in the past.”

It went through about five different length changes… if we didn’t love the song it probably would’ve been cut immediately

Some songs have now become staples in the band’s sets, as they’re guaranteed to hit the mark no matter where the band take them. But at other times it’s taken a lot of work to get tracks working, even if they felt like sure-fire winners.

“There have been so many fun and unexpected moments,” says Mike. “‘Shout’ is always great. ‘Call Me Al’ is a big moment. ‘Take Me Out’ by Franz Ferdinand or the “shake it” break down in ‘Hey Ya’ by Outkast. But then there’s Nirvana, The Lion King, Whitney… all so much fun.

“We really wanted to do ‘Africa’ by Toto for ages,” Digby adds, “but every time we did it it never got the reaction we really hoped for. We all loved the song though, so it went through about five different length changes, and we tried it at the start and end of other songs until we eventually found the right version. If we didn’t love the song it probably would’ve been cut immediately.”

Throwing in a cheeky Lion King cover among the hits is always a sure-fire winner

The crowd is king

No matter how great the music may be, Furnace and the Fundamentals hang their hats on one key principle: make sure the audience is happy. With plenty of fans coming back to see the show over and over again, the band work hard to keep things fresh from one show to the next, and make sure that they’re as engaging as they can be both on and off the stage.

“Man, the number of crazy ideas this band has is unstoppable,” Mike says. “Whether that’s crowd surfing in a giant inflatable flamingo, having Furnace singing from inside a Zorb ball, or shooting our own retro ’80s-style fitness videos – it’s all on the table. There’s always something new around the corner.

It’s the audience who keep it fresh for us… We feed off their energy and the stuff we pull out at a show is based on wanting them to have a good time

“As we are heading to the UK in August we will definitely be editing the set to adapt to our location,” Digby reveals. “Certain songs work better in some places and not so well in others. Furnace always makes a big effort to edit mixes as much as possible to ensure the show doesn’t get stale. We continue to add new mixes or switch songs with something similar in older mixes.

“Regardless, it’s the audience who keep it fresh for us,” Mike says. “We feed off their energy and the stuff we pull out at a show is based on wanting them to have a good time. We just try to think of what we would like to see from the audience and it grows from there.”

Sure enough, the entertainment of Furnace and the Fundamentals doesn’t end when they get off the stage

The band obviously take their musical inspiration from all sorts of genres, but with their live performance being such a vital part of the set, they look to just as many different sources when it comes to their moves onstage.

“We all have our individual influences ’cause of the instruments we play,” Digby explains. “As a whole I think we look at bands like Queen ’cause of the power they present onstage, but we also love to dance and take elements of what MJ was doing back in the day. Having to dance with instruments alongside Furnace has turned into more of a Bruno Mars thing, too – and it’s quite a challenge dancing with instruments.

“Then there are the more showy elements that come from more unusual places, such as musicals and movies like Singing In the Rain and other show styles outside of just the regular band thing.

The biggest gigs – and the messiest

By now, Furnace and the Fundamentals have played gigs as varied as their setlists, from big festivals like Falls and various Fringe Festivals, to live TV and all sorts of private events. Looking back, they’ve been at the helm of some pretty great parties – although there were a couple of shockers in there too.

“The first ever show I did with the band was at Deni Ute Muster, on top of some shipping crates…” Mike recalls. “That was nuts. Way out in the country, so there were plenty of classic rock hits thrown in for that one – but that was a one-off!”

“The Hamilton Island staff party was a great, sweaty, fun gig. I particularly enjoyed playing NYE last year at Dawes Point, too – what a view. Some of the most fun shows aren’t necessarily the biggest; we had some of our most fun nights doing intimate shows at The Soda Factory in Surry Hills… It’s always down to the people who are there.”

Some of the most fun shows aren’t necessarily the biggest… It’s always down to the people who are there

Having left the highlights to Mike, Digby wastes no time in highlighting one of the rare low-lights – and admitting a little bit of the blame for it.

“Our worst gig was probably the Christmas after party for (music agency) Falcona in 2013,” he says. “We were at the actual Christmas party being clients of theirs, so we had plenty to drink. By the time we got to the after party they wouldn’t let me in ’cause I was so drunk, and so I told them in my arrogant drunken mess that “I guess there won’t be any entertainment then”.

“I then fell over setting up my pedals and restarted the opening song midway through. Our bass player also went for a toilet break mid-set, so our other guitarist had to fill in while he was gone. It ended up going surprisingly well other than that though!”

“The biggest one is coming up soon!” Mike adds, the excitement evident. “Enmore Theatre, what a buzz this’ll be.”

While the band are all about the party onstage, we were curious as to whether they were all party animals offstage too – or is it just Digby?

“See the story above,” he laughs. “Depends on the night for most of the guys… Except me, I’m always up for a party – although this is common knowledge.”

“We all have our vices…” Mike teases, “…mine is dessert. I’m pretty tame otherwise, but once that plate of brownies is on the table with a side of ice cream, watch out.”

As befits the bloke with the wildest hair, Digby is the resident party animal when they’re offstage

What’s next for the humble cover?

With far more victories than drunken mishaps under their belt, the band have worked for years to make a rep for their cover-fuelled brand of entertainment, and despite the hurdles that come with the territory of being a ‘cover band’, their efforts are about to pay off in a big way.

“Our great pal Hot Dub Time Machine has invited us to join him on tour again to perform at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival,” Mike says, sounding appropriately stoked. “These will be the biggest shows we have ever done in our career by far, with over 10,000 people at each show!”

“We’re also about to announce a bunch of our own UK tour dates, as part of the Propaganda parties. The upcoming Melbourne and Sydney shows at Max Watts and The Enmore will be our last big shows in Australia for some time before we head off – although we have some surprises coming up in December too.

“It’s a pretty exciting thing for us to go play overseas for the first time – and hopefully people can help us spread the word so there are a few friendly faces around!”

You can catch Furnace and the Fundamentals playing their ‘Furnapalooza’ shows next week, starting at Melbourne’s Max Watts on Saturday July 1, and then kicking on at Sydney’s Enmore on Saturday July 8, with support from indie pop outfit Pluto Jonze, Daft Punk tribute duo Discovery, and comedian Jude Perl (Melbourne show only).