This article was inspired by a random text message to voice actor Jess Harnell. Over the years, the writer and Harnell have kept in touch – via the most random and sporadic of texts – after Harnell and musical partner Chuck Duran launched a curious, fun, eccentric and ultimately great project called Rock Sugar.
The band took two diametrically opposed genres – heavy metal and girly ‘80s pop music – and made joyful mashups.
The video for one of the songs, a Metallica/Journey mashup called “Don’t Stop The Sandman,” went viral mostly because of Harnell’s vocals. There is that moment of shock when one hears the first line and realizes that he nails a Journey vocal with shocking accuracy. But, hey, that’s what voice actors do: They do a good job at vocals.
The video led to the band getting signed to a major agency. It also led to Rock Sugar getting some cool gigs.
“Before you know it, we were getting offers to open up for some of our heroes,” Harnell told CelebrityAccess. “We played with Aerosmith, AC/DC, Linkin Park, Def Leppard. We used to have their posters on our walls! This was something we just wanted to do for fun.”
However, it was never meant to be the main source of income for the guys. Harnell has made his bones doing voice-over work. Some of his incarnations can be heard in the Transformers movie franchise and there is even a rumor he can be heard at bunch of Disneyland rides. All said, though, he is indelibly tied to one famed character: Wakko, one of the three characters of Warner Brothers’ beloved “Animaniacs” cartoon series. It is how he got his big break. It also means that when he goes to Comic-con conventions (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z7AQSQaIwqY), he’ll often be called upon to sing Wakko’s signature tune, “50 State Capitals.”
Duran also has a strong career involving voice-over production.
The band’s trajectory had some nadirs as life got in the way and an unfortunate legal matter that is discussed, below, if discussed obtusely.
Anyway, as was found out during a random text message, the band is back, with a new album and a Kickstarter campaign https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/rocksugar/jess-harnells-rock-sugar-beyond-mashups-beyond-covers. Here’s what Harnell had to say about all of that.
It seems Rock Sugar was rolling along, then hit a snag, and went on the back burner. Is that accurate?
Rock Sugar started with me saying it would be funny if there was a band from the 80s, like Poison or Def Leppard, and they got shipwrecked on an island and had nothing to listen to for 20 years but pop records from the 80s and became brainwashed into thinking that was the same as metal.
My guitar player, Chuck, said, well how would that work? “I dunno,” I said. “You play ‘Enter Sandman’ and I’ll sing ‘Don’t Stop Believin’?”We made a video and it took off.
It was something we just wanted to do for fun but in this day and age, fun is a much-needed commodity.
We ended up making this new record and video at the tail-end of what has arguably been the most challenging year in at least my life history. I’m sure many others feel the same way.
Also, “Animaniacs” just had its reboot on Hulu. There are many, many shows and movies I’ve been blessed enough to work on but it’s so weird that the timing of Animaniacs returning and Rock Sugar finishing up happened at the end of this year. As time has gone by in my life, I feel like the thing I want to do more than anything else is just make people feel a little happier, even for a few minutes.
Believe me, I’m not under any delusions. I know that a cartoon or a rock band or a fun video is not going to solve the world’s problems but what it can do, for 20 minutes in a cartoon show or 5 minutes in a song, is make you forget all the other crap. Just smile and maybe bang your head a little bit.
The timing of this couldn’t have been better for it to return.
As far as it going on the back burner, we did get hit with that lawsuit. We were exonerated. A singer I imitated thought it was his voice.
It was probably more comical than anything else, although it did cost a lot of money. It’s strange to have the person who made you want to be a singer sue you to stop singing.
It was always a “B career” for me and my partner in the band, Chuck Duran. I do my voice-over thing, he produces voice-over demos and other related things all over the world.
After we had this amazing experience, played the Download Festival twice, opened for all these bands, got on the radio, we just said, hey, it was really fun.
But then a few years ago, because I’m either blessed or cursed with getting ideas, I thought it would not only be cool to do a new album but this time introduce the idea of not mashing up classic metal with classic pop but mashing up classic metal with today’s pop.
What if we put Motley Crue and Adele together? What if we mashed metal with Bruno Mars and Katy Perry?
We did. And I have to say this objectively – being the first to say something was good, great, bad, or all right – as proud as I am of the first Rock Sugar record, this one blows it away. It blows it away in performance, scope, ambition, creativity. I think the maximum amount of tunes we put into one song on the first album was five. On this one if I’m not mistaken there are 12 in one song.
We just went nuts with ideas. If a mashup band had a “Bohemian Rhapsody,” it’s on this album.
The last album certainly included the demographic of, for lack of a better term, “girls who like to sing along to songs in the car” and this one probably still has that demographic. Guys too.
Brother, that was beautiful: “songs you like to sing along with in your car.” That implies you’re having a good time.
That’s what this is about. Not only am I looking forward to getting out on a stage again and looking at people smiling (but wear your masks, ok? We gotta get through this), it’s an amazing gift to look out and see a father and a son singing along to the same song.
But with the new album we’re going to see fathers, sons and grandkids singing along. You haven’t lived until you sing a song on the first album, “Shook Me Like A Prayer” – a combo of “You Shook Me All Night Long” and Madonna’s “Like A Prayer” and see 80,000 headbanging rock ‘n’ roll dudes in Anthrax T-shirts and big mustaches singing along! They never thought they’d sing along to a Madonna song but now it’s cool because we’re wearing a heavy metal hat, you know what I mean?
So, the new video has all kinds of cameos. How did that come together?
We dropped one a few years ago called “Roll You In The Hurricane,” a combination of “Rolling In The Deep” and Scorpions’ “Rock You Like a Hurricane.” https://youtu.be/eMLhxHFhIsI with a little bit of Cindi Lauper’s “Time After Time” thrown in.
With this one, “Shout At The Devil Dog All Night,” it’s a mashup of Tears For Fears, Motley Crue, Led Zeppelin and Slaughter. We were really blessed to have the singer, Mark Slaughter, a friend of mine, do a cameo vocal on this tune.
When we were putting it out, we thought, How could we make this fun? Well, I’ve gotten to work with all kinds of people from all kinds of genres because of this weird rock ‘n’ roll/cartoon lifestyle, meeting TV people, movie people, music people. So we reached out to some of our favorites – not all of them or the video would go on for 12 hours. Everyone jumped right in. If you liked pop culture in the past 20 years, there’s somebody in this video for you.
Did any of your songs get played in court?
The song that got us into legal issues because the vocals were too close to the original artist did end up in the courtroom. We had to send a forensic audio track of me singing with no accompaniment to prove that it wasn’t that person.
However, at the end of the day, we were exonerated but we cannot sell our music online officially.
As a creative way to get the music to the people, for free, we came up with this Kickstarter campaign and, like everything, we are making it fun.
At the link, there are old videos, new videos, verbiage, funny things to keep you entertained and, hopefully, you’ll be entertained enough to want to donate and get some other merch. When you get that, we’re happy to send you the music as a gift.
There are so many costs making something high-quality, from engineering to studio time to videos and packaging, and not being able to sell the music made it prohibitive. We had to come up with a creative way to finance all that stuff while making people get the maximum bang for the buck.
Again, if you like anything about rock ‘n’ roll or cartoons, there’s something there for you.
So, any plans for next year? It’s hard to even ask that question these days.
We’re basically in the middle of Armageddon. The future is never written but you try your best in life and you’d like to believe people will notice.
Well, they noticed with the first album. It went viral, people loved it, and the press was so good to it. But I can tell you, I’m very hopeful this second record is going to make a lot more noise both literally and figuratively because it’s so much better. There’s so much “stuff.” We tried so hard to make it as close to perfect as we could.
And there are no samples. Every single note played or sung was by us. We hired a keyboard player for some parts, but that’s it.
What is the lineup?
Myself, Chuck Duran on all guitars and background vocals, Mick Christopher on bass and a powerhouse drummer named Kevin Kapler. He’s like a young John Bonham. He hits so hard. One time a sound man at a venue took him down in the mix by turning off all his mikes.
Wish there was a way to see you play these days without everyone getting arrested.
One of the things on the Kickstarter campaign is a virtual record release party. We’re going to play the album online and after each song we’re going to take questions.
As soon as we are able, and this is also on the Kickstarter, we’re going to have an official party in LA. We’re allowing people to come to this party. It won’t just be where you come and mingle and watch a band do 20 minutes. We’re going to mingle with you. We’re going to come out there and talk to you, and take pictures, and chat with you. And then we’re going to play and then we’re coming back out and talk some more.
I would have loved to have had that experience with some of my favorite bands! And hopefully you’ll make some new friends.
That is interesting. Country artists tend to interact but not rock stars.
I think it’s a carryover from my voiceover career. I do these Comic-Cons all over the world. I’ll sign things and meet people. I always try and take a lot of time with everybody. I give them all at least a few minutes. It’s the least they deserve after waiting a couple hours in a line to talk to some guy when there isn’t even a rollercoaster waiting for them, you know?
We want to bring that over to the rock ‘n’ roll experience. We’re all in this together. We just happen to be the guys holding the instruments.