UnderCover Presents Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band at Zoo Labs, by Jon BauerLyz Luke (photo: Jon Bauer)

Thank God Lyz Luke realized she hated Care Bears.

She says this — almost exactly this — one sunny Sunday afternoon at Zoo Labs in West Oakland. Just over a decade ago, she left her job at a PR firm in New York — that represented, yes, American Greetings — and decamped to the Mission when family matters brought her to California.

Luke is the co-founder of UnderCover Presents, an organization dedicated to galvanizing the Bay Area music scene around reinterpretations of classic albums. Luke wants to make it clear she’s not a musician — “music enabler” is, officially, her job title — but together with an ever-rotating team of local musicians, producers, directors, and artists, she helps facilitate tributes to classic records, produced entirely by and for the San Francisco Bay Area.

UnderCover came into being one night seven years ago. She was up late, really late, like after-midnight late, and found herself in a GChat conversation with a friend from the neighborhood — Charith Premawardhana, also the founder of Classical Revolution. “I do my better writing after midnight, and he’s awake super late ‘cause he’s got gigs all the time.” She asked him, by way of smalltalk, what he was doing for his next residency. He was thinking of doing a whole album, he said. Luke floated the idea of incorporating local vocalists into the project. “And then we stayed up for like four hours, and we wound up listening to the Velvet Underground and Nico album over and over again.” They eventually went to bed, slept for the few hours of night that were left, then met up at Revolution Cafe to develop a game plan.

It turns out, people liked their late-night idea. “All of a sudden, this giant buzz started building around it,” says Luke. “The first show sold out immediately, we added a second show, and that sold out immediately.” It was held at Coda, now Brick & Mortar Music Hall. On opening night, the line extended around the block. “We had to turn people away, it was crazy.”

Seven years later, UnderCover Presents is no longer a sleep-deprived idea hashed out over GChat, but a fiscally supported nonprofit, having produced at least one show a year since their inaugural event. In the past, they’ve paid tribute to works like Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited and Bob Marley’s Exodus. This weekend, they’re taking on a different animal entirely: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

UnderCover Presents Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band at Zoo Labs, by Jon BauerFlyer for the event (photo: Jon Bauer)

It’s by far the most well-known album they’ve ever done, but even as the city is choked with events celebrating the 50th anniversary of 1967 (in addition to Sgt. Pepper’s’ release, the Summer of Love drew thousands to San Francisco), they’d be remiss if they skipped it for something else. “It’d be this or it’d be the White Album next year,” says Luke. UnderCover has so far stuck to records that straddle the line between critical adoration and mass appeal, like Sly and the Family Stone’s Stand! and Bjork’s Homogenic. “For a lot of people, either you’re super-into Bjork or [she’s just the] swan dress,” she laughs. The Beatles, in their ubiquity, mark a pretty significant departure for the team. “This is gonna be interesting,” says Luke.

Music director Joe Bagale demurs at first when he hears that Luke has called him “the biggest Beatles fan I know.” “I don’t — I know — I do reference them quite a bit, whether it’s recording projects that I’m doing or classes that I teach,” says Bagale, who, in addition to his solo career, has been involved in projects like Jazz Mafia and Lee Bob and the Truth, and teaches at the California Jazz Conservatory. For the last four years, he’s directed San Anselmo’s Beatles in the Park festival. His studio, he says, contains numerous reference tomes on the Beatles. They’re in his kitchen, too. “All my coffee mugs are Beatles. I’m just a nut.”

Mug collection notwithstanding, Bagale credits Sgt. Pepper’s with kickstarting his interest and understanding of recorded music. “They are what truly made me want to become a musician,” he says. “This album was the first album that [made me understand] what it meant to make a record, rather than it just being a collection of songs.”

Bagale is in the studio with Luke today to oversee 11 hours of recording for the accompanying tribute album. On the schedule for today are Raz Kennedy and Colin Hogan, recording their versions of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” and “Within You Without You,” respectively.

The album is a facet of UnderCover productions that was never really part of the plan. “The first one we did it live, but at least two of the tracks’ artists weren’t happy with their live performance so we had to re-record them in the studio.” From there, it rooted itself as a part of the UnderCover experience. Recording is a painstaking process — in the span of about 1.5 hours, Kennedy covers just a brief pinch of backing vocals from two singers — and it’s an added financial investment, too. But it's why UnderCover exists: One familiar album at a time, it allows local artists space to really live, breathe, and luxuriate in their music, an extravagance not normally afforded in a region where most musicians have to work day jobs to fuel their passion. The days are long, but they're likely much more creatively satisfying than writing press releases about cartoon bears.

UnderCover Presents Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band at Zoo Labs, by Jon BauerKennedy coaches singers in the studio (photo: Jon Bauer)

Whereas a touring band can, in theory, perform the same show several times in several cities, UnderCover is a fairly ephemeral event — months of venue tours, recording sessions, and Google docs are arranged for shows that are one (or two, or four) and done. But that doesn’t mean it all goes to waste: UnderCover’s stated mission is to foster collaboration in the often fragmented Bay Area music scene, and that’s something they’ve succeeded at since they began. “I thought [the first show] was gonna be a one-off thing, but then backstage, all these musicians were introducing themselves to each other.” The musicians admitted to Luke that Bay Area bookers have a tendency to book similar genres on similar nights. “[They] get siphoned into these holes,” Luke says. “Between the first show and the second show, all of these collaborations started happening...within 24 hours, it really beefed up the Bay Area music scene.” A lot of them are still in contact. “[Next thing I know] they’re recording on each others’ albums, they’re going to each others’ birthday parties...it made me realize this can’t just be a one-off. This needs to happen again and again and again.”

And it will. She’s in talks with Yerba Buena Center for the Arts about tackling A Tribe Called Quest’s Low End Theory in 2019, and she has a Google doc of albums she’s eyeing for future projects. “I’d love to do a talking heads album. Um...Beach Boys' Pet Sounds, David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust...” She reaches for her phone. “I could pull up the list.”

Click through for a full gallery of photos by Jon Bauer of Raz Kennedy's recording session, and buy your tickets for their June 3 show below.

UnderCover Presents: Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band
The UC Theatre
June 3, 2017
8pm, $20

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