When you read the name “Chambawamba” in the headline of this article, you almost assuredly thought something along the lines of “Oh, God!” or “Why?” Who knows, maybe both. The vast majority of the world knows the nonsensically-named British band by way of its infamous 1997 hit “Tubthumping”—the group’s biggest, and only true commercial success. A lesser known tidbit about Chumbawamba is that they were actually a group of anarchist punks who knowingly berthed that stillborn turd of a single as a sort of social experiment to see whether they could game the music industry into attaining one-hit wonder status, while laughing at the elaborate inside joke every with every rung of the mainstream music ladder they climbed. Believe it or not, Chumbawamba made music from 1982 all the way to the band’s breakup in 2012, and—are you sitting down for this?—some of it was actually good.
Seven people who are in on one of 20th century music’s best practical jokes are the members of Chimp Eats Banana, who consider themselves to be “Milwaukee’s premier Chumbawamba cover band.” Not only does the act (who adopted the original nomenclature of the band they cover) legitimately enjoy much of Chumbawamba’s pre-Tubthumper catalog, they also harbor a deep respect for the band’s ethics—down to donating money they make from playing shows to organizations they support. Before what’s perhaps the city’s most obscure tribute band plays at Boone & Crockett on Sunday, Milwaukee Record spoke to singer/keyboardist Mary Oglesby and singer/accordion player Nathan Hoffmann about the origin of their unconventional cover band, the reasons they truly love Chumbawamba, and why they haven’t played “Tubthumping” live (yet).
Milwaukee Record: Whose idea was this to begin Milwaukee’s exclusive—and maybe only—Chumbawamba cover band?
Mary Oglesby: I like to say “Milwaukee’s premier Chumbwamba cover band.”
Nathan Hoffmann: I don’t know who had the definitive “we need to do this,” but Erin [Hoffmann] who plays violin and does some of the vocals; Jamie [Lucas], who plays drums; Kyle [Richards], who plays guitar; and myself were all playing punk rock baseball one day. We were walking back from doing that and talking, and we’d all listened to Chumbawamba for a long time. We were all talking about how they play such a variety of music and how they’re a fun band. Kyle was the one who mentioned that they recently said somewhere that they were breaking up as a band, but they thought it would be great if it all came full circle where they were in Europe in their hometown pub and there was a Chumbawamba cover band playing there. We all got excited, saying, “We need to do that. We need to start a Chumawamba cover band!”
MO: Erin asked me about it one night because she knew that I loved Chumbawamba because Nate introduced me to Chumbawamba like 11 years ago when we were living in Kansas City. So she knew I loved them and that I could sing while playing very minimal keyboards very badly. She asked if I wanted to be involved, and it sounded like the funnest thing in the world.
MR: And you guys were all originally fans? There’s not a hint of irony?
NH: There’s a weird mix of us in the band. Myself, Mary, Kyle, and Erin are all from Kansas City originally, and we’d all discovered Chumbawamba years ago. I’m not sure where Jenna [Morrin] first started listening to them. Then Julian [Diel], who plays the bass, was squatting in Germany, and in the ’80s there were these squat parties where people would dance around to Chumbawamba. So he has all these memories of being in squat houses in Germany dancing to Chumbawamba. He got really excited about this band and wanted to do it.
MR: So seven people who know each other in Milwaukee all legitimately like Chumbawamba?
MO: And we all play the right instruments to start a band, miraculously.
MR: You see, like, AC/DC cover bands. There’s a Thin Lizzy cover band coming to Garibaldi soon. Stuff like that. But I think this is the most specific and obscure of all tribute bands I’ve ever seen before. Do you know if there’s another Chumbawamba cover band?
NH: We found a video of one in Seattle on YouTube. Another thing I think is interesting here is that people know Chumbawamba for one song, and that one song that people know them for is not a song that we’ve ever played live.
MR: Why is that? Do you feel they get a bad rap from [“Tubthumping”]?
NH: Well, they were a band for almost 20 years before that song came out. They started out as a political band in England who started up this band, and the whole point of the band was—one of their very first albums was Pictures Of Starving Children Sell Records. That came out in ’85 and basically made fun of the entire music industry, made fun of the hypocrisy of Live Aid. They had all these albums come out basically making fun of one-hit wonders and a compilation record called Fuck The EMI, where they basically covered EMI songs as close to the original artist as possible, trying to dare EMI Records to sue them. In 1987, they signed onto EMI Records and intentionally did this whole one-hit wonder band. They made millions of dollars, but donated almost all of it away to these causes that they supported.
For most people who have followed them over the years, [“Tubthumping”] seems like a very intentional thing that they did. After they made that one hit, they went back to making the style of music they wanted to make and flopped all their albums intentionally until they could get off a major label. Most people who come to see us are either people who love Chumbawamba and are super pumped to see dancy, poppy, political punk music…or it’s people who came to hear that one song because they think it’ll be funny, then they’re totally blown away by it being something totally different than they expected it to be.
MR: In terms of the music itself, I only know two Chumbawamba songs. I imagine most people at your shows only know one, and that’s a song you don’t play. I guess, what can the listener expect from your typical show? Would people enjoy it even if they came for one song they won’t hear?
MO: The response is, yeah, people do enjoy it. I’ve had several people tell me “I never thought I would like Chumbawamba.”
NH: At one point, [Chumbawamba] said they wanted to make punk music their grandmothers could listen to. So the music is actually loud and energetic, but it’s also very poppy and very accessible. It just makes you want to dance and have fun. It’s one of those bands that you laugh at and you dismiss right away, but [if you do that] you’re kind of the dummy who hasn’t heard the 20 years of history before the one song came out.
MR: It kind of makes me want to look back at Lou Bega. Maybe Mambos one through four are pretty good.
NH: It was a giant joke that very few people are in on. They have all this history, so if you’re laughing at that, we’re kind of laughing at you.
Chimp Eats Banana opens for Dead Soldiers and Whips on Boone & Crockett’s patio Sunday, May 10. The show begins at 5 p.m. and is free.