Fanatics, by definition, are obsessive. Take the bedroom inventory of the front-row fans at a concert by No Doubt, Korn or Metallica, and you're likely to hear a rattled-off list of tchotchkes featuring items as varied as Gwen Stefani-designed purses or Lars Ulrich-inspired toilet-seat covers.
But ask David Haerle, head of Los Angeles-based Vitamin Records, and he'll say true fanatics can't rest until they've heard Kirk Hammett's screeching guitar solos rendered by a classical viola or Fieldy's lumbering bass line played by a cello. For the last five years, Vitamin Records' String Tribute Series has orchestrated homages to artists ranging from U2, Radiohead and Coldplay to Disturbed, 3 Doors Down, the White Stripes and System of a Down, to name just a few.
"It's for fans who love a band's compositions and want to hear them in an eclectic way, with a twist and sometimes in a startlingly different manner," he said of the series.
Imagine the beats and abrasive guitars of Limp Bizkit's "Rollin' " or Linkin Park's "One Step Closer" replaced with instruments better suited for an orchestra pit than a mosh pit, and you'll get an idea of a string tribute album's sound. But just because it's devoid of conventional metal and hard rock elements doesn't mean all that's left is tepid Muzak. Strings for the Deaf, a Queens of the Stone Age homage, trudges determinedly through murky riffs. Say Your Prayers, Little One, a Metallica tribute, is a fleet-fingered freak-out. And the untitled White Stripes tribute retains all the rocking, tension-filled melodies of Jack and Meg's original compositions.
"Obviously, a pretty song like Eric Clapton's 'Wonderful Tonight' works well, but it winds up sounding like wedding music," said producer, arranger and violinist Eric Gorfain, who has more than a dozen string tributes to his credit. "It translates easily. But it becomes more interesting when you get to Radiohead's 'Exit Music for a Film' or 'Just.' They have ridiculously good melodies, obviously, and bass lines that bring a cool counterpoint to the whole thing. The guitar parts add another element. With so much going on, it's a challenge to reduce it to just four voices for the quartet."
Vitamin Records (www.vitaminrecords.com) has released nearly 100 string-quartet tribute albums during the last five years. They range from chronological cross-sections of an honoree's catalog — including tributes to Aerosmith, Pink Floyd and the Cure — to more topical fare such as Chevelle, Evanescence and Clay Aiken.
Vitamin's parent company is the 28-year-old, primarily bluegrass imprint CMH Records, which, in addition to releasing albums of original material, made initial headway into the tribute arena with its "Pickin' On" series of bluegrass interpretations. The first, 1994's Pickin' on the Beatles, met with moderate success. But the surprising sales of Pickin' on the Grateful Dead three years later gave Haerle the idea of releasing albums to an already established audience. After all, what self-respecting Deadhead could call himself a completist without adding an album of bluegrass Dead covers to his audience tapes?
"It was my first experience of having an album that didn't really need to be sold," Haerle said. "Distributors and accounts just came at us for this record because it was a good idea and it clicked."
A 1999 quartet tribute to Led Zeppelin got the Vitamin label off to a fortuitous start. While looking for classical musicians to play on the album, Haerle and partner John Lindland received an e-mail reply to their post on a Zeppelin newsgroup from Gorfain, who, as it happened, had recently come off the road as part of Jimmy Page and Robert Plant's reunion tour.
"We read his résumé and were completely blown away," Haerle recalled. "Like, 'If this wasn't meant to be ...' "
Since then, Gorfain and the three other players that round out his quartet, called the Section, have recorded more than a dozen string tributes to Radiohead, U2 and Incubus as well as the label's best-selling release, the Tool tribute titled Third Eye Open, which has moved nearly 65,000 copies.
The Tool album appeals to classical-music aficionados as well as Tool fans. Gorfain said his parents are now into Tool, and it even passed muster with Maynard James Keenan, who enjoyed the music so much he asked Gorfain to record with him.
"Maynard called me up a year ago," Gorfain recalled. "He said, 'I heard your tribute. I have a little band called A Perfect Circle. Do you want to play on the record?' "
Gorfain and the Section — which also features violinist Daphne Chen, violist Leah Katz and cellist Richard Dodd — wound up recording "A Stranger" and "The Nurse Who Loved Me" for APC's second album, Thirteenth Step. They've also performed onstage with Christina Aguilera. The group periodically performs entire albums, such as Radiohead's OK Computer and Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon, at the Los Angeles club Largo. On Tuesday they released their debut album, No Electricity Required, which includes songs by Coldplay, Iron Maiden and the Darkness. Then they head to Europe for a series of tour dates with Coachella awaiting their return.
The Section's music (www.thesectionquartet.com) and Vitamin's string tribute series may not appeal to every pop fan, but it certainly squelches the prejudice that anyone who picks up the violin is a stuffy, uptight snob.
"People think you have to be old and gray to play in a string quartet," Gorfain said. "The reason I put the Section together was to be the group who can go to a Tool session and say, 'You know what? I have three of your albums. I know exactly what you're all about. Let's do this thing.' "