Washington D.C. is a little like West Germany in the 1970s: We’ve got beer gardens, Olympic ambitions and pretty decent roadways. Come Dec. 14, this town may even sound like ’70s-era Deutschland, too, when local indie-rock outfit Paperhaus embarks on an ambitious effort to cover Trans-Europe Express, the revolutionary 1977 album by Kraftwerk, at U Street Music Hall.
Like the legendary electronic ensemble from Düsseldorf, Paperhaus’ members are audiophiles who can recognize a good sound system. Frontman Alex Tebeleff—who’s put in years playing through crappy PAs in basements and rock clubs—came up with the idea to cover Trans-Europe Express around the time he played a Madchester-themed DJ set at the U Street club in September. After his set that night, he spent some time admiring the venue’s sound system with U Hall co-owner Will Eastman.
“Me and Will were talking and I made a comment like, ‘Can you imagine something like Kraftwerk coming out of these speakers?'” says Tebeleff, 27. “It just came out of a conversation between two music nerds, basically.”
A Kraftwerk superfan, Tebeleff cites the German ensemble’s influence on pop music of all kinds, from hip-hop forebear Afrika Bambaataa to dance-punk ensemble LCD Soundsystem to his band, which usually plays a fairly straightforward strain of indie rock. When he spins music for his pals, “I always enjoy surprising people playing ‘Trans-Europe Express’ into [Bambaataa’s] ‘Planet Rock,'” says Tebeleff. Plus, Paperhaus used to cover “Neon Lights,” a melodic cut from Kraftwerk’s The Man Machine.
Paperhaus doesn’t plan to alter the record or put a unique stamp on Trans-Europe Express, save a few minor tonal adjustments. He says the group will play 85 percent of the melodies on the record, but expects to add live drums and bring new timbres and textures to the songs. The Petworth band recruited neighbor and Br’er keyboardist Erik Sleight to play a synthesizer, and they’re plotting to stack the stage with twice the amount of normal Paperhaus gear, including drum samplers, bass synths, poly synths, a vocoder and effects pedals.
Tebeleff says Paperhaus wants the audience’s focus to be on the music and not the band’s image onstage, but it wouldn’t be a Kraftwerk-inspired act without a light show. Accordingly, Tebeleff says, there will be one—though something more low-key (and low-cost) than Kraftwerk’s spectacular recent performances.
The one-off December show promises to be a dramatic detour for Paperhaus, which is currently recording its new album, scheduled for a Feb. 10 release. All of this electronics-tinkering probably won’t show up on the record; Tebeleff says that the band’s latest songs represent “some of the dirtiest, nastiest rock ‘n’ roll that we’ve done.”
While Paperhaus has already started practicing for the Dec. 14 gig, the group still isn’t sure how it’ll turn out.
“Part of the fun of getting to see us play it is seeing how the [hell] we pull this off,” Tebeleff says. “I’m not even quite sure how we’re gonna do it yet.”