Black Mountainside came equipped with beer. A pyramid of cans was already starting to arrange itself on the counter when the band members finally arranged themselves in a circle around me. I made myself comfortable on the couch, as the lead guitarist’s dog made himself comfortable on my lap.
We were in the apartment of Daniel Cullen, aforementioned lead guitarist and proud dog owner. Katie Feeney (vocals) was the first to introduce herself, her smokey voice rising through a Janis Joplin mass of hair. Beside her sat bass player Andrew Morris, sporting a tie, youthful features, and a slingshot of puns. Slouched in a chair commandeered from the patio, drummer Michael Harkness emanated the cool ease and deep voice of a bearded Clint Eastwood.
It was a hodgepodge of personalities, all united by a love of Led Zeppelin.
Can you each start out by telling me a little bit about yourselves?
Dan: I own a music school by day and teach guitar, bass, and drum lessons. I wanted to use a Zeppelin band as a way to help promote the school, so I put an ad on Craigslist.
Katie: My boyfriend ridiculously trades amps on Craigslist. At the time I was doing only Zeppelin karaoke. He said you have to respond to this ad, all you do is sing Zeppelin songs. Go sing them with a band.
Dan: I was really scared at first. I said this is gonna be really great or really bad. The rhythm section was already secure, because the drummer was teaching with me at the time. He was roommates with Andrew and brought Andrew in. Brought Katie over once and the rest is history.
Andrew: Smoker [the original drummer] moved to Austin, so we got Harkness. We go way back. We were college roommates.
Dan, can you give me more background on your music school, Rawk U?
Dan: We’ve been in a private space in East Falls for three years. We do private lessons. We also do themed rock band classes for two hours a week, once a week. We’re just trying to not let rock music die.
Katie: I do the nonprofit version of what Daniel does. I work for Rock to the Future. It’s free rock music lessons for low income kids. I don’t usually work with the kids, I do development. My bosses went on tour, so I was doing day to day lessons with the kids. On Tuesday they have vocals. In their vocal workshop, they’re learning “Somebody to Love” by Queen. First thing I did, I said, “Who sings this song?” And the kids go, “We don’t know, we’re learning the Glee version.” I threw something on the ground and was like, “Not anymore!” I made them watch live videos of Freddie Mercury.
And what made each of you dive into music?
Harkness: Led Zeppelin.
That’s a little too convenient of an answer.
Dan: I found a guitar in my dad’s closet when I was 10. A pretty nice Gibson acoustic. He’d always play one Rolling Stones song, over and over, any time he’d pick it up. I asked him, “Is that all you can play?” He said, “Pretty much. I used to play bass in a band and kind’ve forget everything.”
I was mesmerized by the guitar. So I took lessons in the small town I grew up in in New York. It was in the basement of this smoke-filled music store. All the teachers used to smoke in the basement in this disgusting environment.
Fifteen years later my dad ended up taking piano lessons in the same spot.
Katie: My lessons were more like piano, singing musical theater tunes. I’m a Gemini, I’ve always needed a lot of attention.
Andrew: Oh, that explains it.
Katie: My parents made us all take lessons, we had to choose an instrument. I told my mom my voice is an instrument.
Andrew: My Chinese calendar symbol is the rabbit. That pretty much explains everything.
My parents felt strongly from an early age that I should be involved in music. I started the violin when I was five. then I switched to clarinet and saxophone. I was tired of being the band nerd in middle school, so I started playing bass. It’s been an important part of my life ever since. I went to University of the Arts, got a couple of useless degrees.
Harkness: I dropped out of music school. I made it half way and couldn’t do it again.
That’s how you know you’re going to make it.
Harkness: That’s what everybody tells me.
I’ve always banged on things with sticks. Had to bang all my pencils on notebooks. I took piano lessons in elementary school with a crazy guy in a closet. He used to eat oatmeal. It was really weird. Then I stopped piano lessons.
My dad wanted to be an 80s metal guitar player. So my dad always wanted me to be in music, but I was never good at guitar. I said I’d play the drums.
And then I went to music school because I didn’t want to go to real college.
So how did you come up with the band name?
Katie: We had such a hard time finding a name.
Andrew: I’m still pissed that it’s not Metal Blimp . I thought that was great.
Katie: I was just researching, like it was my job. Everything we thought of was taken.
Dan: We were throwing ideas back and forth for three months.
We were going to have one instrumental track or the other. So we chose Black Mountainside.
You have a female singer performing as Robert Plant, which seems like an out of the box choice.
Dan: It’s not typical. That was my idea, by the way.
Katie: At one of our first shows, before there were hardcore male fans, these guys pulled me aside after and told me about their glory days and how they actually saw Zeppelin. They said, “I actually like that you’re a chick because you capture all the effeminateness. The hip shaking. You really capture his nature.”
Because he was a little androgynous. As people were in those times.
Harkness: Robert Plant from behind in the 70s was kind’ve a hot chick.
Dan: All the tribute bands with male Robert Plants, none of them had the range. I thought a good female singer would bring that out.
And how do audiences generally react to your performances?
Katie: They head bang on the monitors and they make me spill my beer.
Dan: We’ve had some pretty interesting reactions. At the Kung Fu Necktie show, some people had been drinking for 12 hours straight before the show and were very excited by Katie’s vocals.
Katie: Or my short dress. They had to hug me seven times after the show.
He kept trying to give me low fives and I thought I’m not stupid. But at the end of the show they came up to me and they were hardcore Led Zeppelin fans. That’s been the best part of the audience reactions, meeting the hardcore Zeppelin fans.
Andrew: I would like to say that I was a little skeptical about joining a Zeppelin band. It’s kind of a niche thing. But it’s such a universal thing. We’ve played a couple of shows with cover bands, but everybody knows Led Zeppelin. It’s something that’s classic. It’s not gonna go away. We’re keeping it fresh. Because it still is fresh.
Katie: There’s some songs that we play that I’ve never heard before. And they end up becoming my favorite songs.
We refuse to play “Stairway to Heaven”. We don’t apologize for it.
Someone joked that if people ask for “Stairway” we should go into “Freebird”.
You can dare Black Mountainside to play “Stairway” at Art for the Cash Poor 14.