They don’t have revenge on their minds because these Nerds are grateful for the success they’ve enjoyed the past 30 years. This Sunday, Jan. 17, you will have a fun day if you head to the Pickle Barrel to see the Nerds, who are the ultimate cover band. There is not a genre they don’t play and every song will have you singing along. I have seen and worked with the Nerds many times. The gimmick is one thing, but musically, they are a tight and talented band. They are the king of the medleys and it’s a show not to be missed. The Nerds are: Jim “Spaz” Garcia, vocals and bass; Peter “Stretch” Oltmanns, guitar and vocals; Mike “Mongo” Spiro, keyboard and vocals; and Jack “Biff” Yocum, drums. The Nerds original keyboardist was Ed “Felix the Guy” Casanovas, but he sadly passed in 1995 a day after their 10 year anniversary, and then Mongo joined. For a band to survive a death of a key member, says a lot for the band.
Yocum met Garcia back in 1983 when they both answered an ad for a band looking to fill its rhythm section, which is its specialty—drums and bass. They hit it off instantly. Yocum says, “When you talk with someone musically, another musician, you can tell by the conversation whether or not you’re going to be compatible and we hit it off immediately as far as musical taste and what we grew up listening to.” They both passed the audition and played together in a top 40 band called Romance. The band only lasted a year and a half with them in it but they remained friends.
The two of them joined up with Casanovas and Oltmanns, who had a rapport already having played together in lounge-type sophisticated funk bands. They added a female singer and tried being an original band named AKA. That didn’t pan out, but the four guys realized they had some chemistry. Speaking of chemistry and nerds, Yocum originally wanted to be a chemical engineer. Yocum says, “Go figure, nerds right?”
In 1985, a friend of Garcia’s, Steve Tarkanish, came up with the idea for them to start the Nerds band. Tarkanish is kind of the fifth Nerd. Tarkanish, at the time, owned a rehearsal studio complex that the guys were using with their various bands. Now, Tarkanish owns one of the largest booking agencies in New Jersey, S.T.A.R.S. Productions, thanks to the Nerds. Tarkanish suggested they dress as nerds but play hardcore disco, funk, dance music. Garcia presented the idea to Yocum who was intrigued. “We didn’t want to play music that was the opposite of us. If we’re going to dress like nerds, why can’t we do anything?” This is when “Biff”, “Spaz”, “Felix the Guy” and “Stretch” were born. So the Nerds was really two groups of two. They decided they were not going to be a cookie-cutter type of band playing normal stuff—they were going to play whatever the hell they wanted. In the late spring of 1985 they rehearsed at the studio to figure out what angle they wanted to try and build their repertoire. The drinking age had jumped to 21 and that killed the bar scene. They needed to figure out how to get their peer group (mid- to late-20s) back out to the bars. Yocum say, “It came down to a simple question. If we were going out to see a band what would we want to hear them play? That is how we chose our repertoire. Being musicians, we loved everything from late 60s to power blues rock. Everything from Deep Purple to Jimi Hendrix to Cream to Led Zeppelin to Motown. With this type of gimmick we can do whatever we want. We could play the obvious Devo or the polar opposite Led Zeppelin. As long as we keep the quirky image and have fun with it, we didn’t care if it worked or not. We just wanted to get out and play. That is the premise to how the original set list started. Playing seriously but not taking ourselves seriously has remained for 30 years.” August 15, 1985 was their first gig at the White House Bar in N.J.
Their early set list would contain TV theme songs, everything listed above, and they would span the decades. Plus they would pick a handful of tunes that were playing on the radio at the given time. That’s been the way they’ve kept it for a quarter of a century. They will joke around on the stage but they always take the music seriously. They didn’t plan on it being successful, they did it because they loved to play.
They may not have planned on it, but success found them. They started out playing a few times a month and built a little following. People would say, “You have to see these guys; they’re funny but they play well.” They promoted the hell out of their shows. It gradually grew. The few times turned to six times and the Friday/Saturdays gigs added Thursdays and Wednesdays and before they knew it, it became a full time job. It took them about four years to get to the point where the Nerds became a legitimate business. But during those four years, they all had day jobs as well. Yocum had a woodworking business and a family. His first son, of two, was born two months after their first gig and his second came shortly thereafter. He closed the business and never looked back. Garcia was a carpenter, Oltmanns was teaching music and driving a limo and Casanovas was also a teacher. Yocum says, “Four years in we just went for it. Go, show up and play your balls off. Don’t count on anything, just connect with your audience, play a good show and things will work out and they did.”
The Nerds show is a concert in itself. It’s fun to watch, but amazing to hear. They make songs their own. Yocum says, “It’s not about the song, it’s about the presentation. There is a lot of leeway dressing as nerds. You can be goofy, fall on stage and play a bad note but nothing is more important than the vocals. If you can’t sing it, you can’t play it. Whatever we choose to play, we have to be able to sing. I don’t necessarily play the exact drum part as long as Jimmy and I are tight and as long as the feel of the original song is there. If people hear accurate vocals and the band is tight rhythmically, that is the only thing that matters. A lot of bands think they have to play the song note for note or people won’t like it. That’s absolutely not true at all. If you’re playing cover music, right away you’re not unique because you didn’t write the stuff. Why not take the liberty to stylize the song? As long as you don’t wreck the integrity of the song.”
The cornerstone of a Nerds show is their medleys and that is my favorite part. Many bands play medleys but the Nerds play them the best. They will make you forget that you are in a medley and then go back to the original song. They come in and out all the time—it’s awesome. Yocum says, “The funny thing is if we play the first two-thirds of ‘Living on a Prayer,’ that’s enough. Let’s move on to something else. We give the people all the important parts of as many songs as we can fit in the course of an hour. That segue/medley thing became a part of our signature. The other point we wanted to do in a funny way is juxtapose songs that don’t necessarily fit together but obviously certain contemporary artists listened to that song to write their song. We show that’s not a completely original song because obviously this band heard this original song before they wrote their song. We don’t mock anybody—you can’t mock a guy who’s writing songs and making millions of dollars—but you can pick at it.”
All the members of the band are very talented at what they do. They just want to keep it simple and solid, pay attention to the audience and keep the night going. Yocum says he pilots the ship and everyone else understands what it is that they do in the band. “The hour or two that we’re on stage is a sacred time that we don’t take for granted. We are grateful of the opportunity to do it. We know of what level of musician we are but that has never been there off the stage. You have to have an ego to go on stage. You have to be confident like you belong. There are tons of drummers that can blow my doors off from a technical stage but I feel that my particular style is suitable for what I’m doing with the Nerds and I belong up there. We are appreciative and grateful but we check the egos at the door. The egos are there when we’re performing but that’s it. I told my son, who plays in a band, your professionalism is more important than your talent. Don’t get too inflated with your abilities because there is always someone out there that can kick your butt. Just have an honest appraisal of what you can do and go out there and deliver it. That is my approach and everyone’s in the band. We treat every gig like it’s our last. You never know what is going to happen next.”