Pepper Rose, lead singer of the Salt Lake City rock band Spirit Machines, was sure that recording a cover of Tool’s song “Sober” would draw a lot of attention.
“I knew Tool fans would be outraged,” Rose said. “I thought it would just annoy people and cause controversy.”
The band posted a video of their cover — retitled “Zober,” because the band mashed up Tool’s hit with Led Zeppelin’s classic “Kashmir” — on YouTube in April, and got an immediate response, said drummer Michael Collins. In about six weeks, the video received 20,000 views.
Then, in early June, “that doubled in one week,” Collins said.
Collins looked around and discovered that on Monday, June 8, Tool’s official Instagram account linked to the video, and praised it as “a very tasty tribute to Led Zeppelin and Tool.”
“I just lost my mind,” Collins said, adding that the post netted Spirit Machines 20 new Instagram followers per second — and prompted stories in several music websites. The video now boasts more than 114,000 views on YouTube.
Tool fans, as Rose predicted, reacted strongly.
In the comments, Rose said, “there were two straight pages of just the word ‘no.’” Overall, she said, Tool fans seemed to be split 50-50 between liking the cover or hating it.
But “when they come to [our feed], they’re just super positive,” Collins said.
The viral moment came as Spirit Machines is promoting its first album, “Feel Again,” and navigating the complexities of being a performance-driven rock band in the time of COVID-19, when most live performances aren’t happening.
“People are looking at the internet now. They need something. There’s no sports,” said Dave Crespo, the band’s guitarist. “This record — it’s not really angry, it’s not sad. But it’s like something in the middle of that.”
Crespo, 34, uses the blanket phrase “alternative rock” to categorize Spirit Machines’ sound, but it’s more complicated than that.
“There’s a lot of grunge in it. There’s a lot of ’70s classic rock in it. And some emo,” Crespo said. “And Pepper’s vocals are just, like, sultry. It’s a different tasting that you’ve never heard on this kind of music.”
Rose, 31, cites her hard-rock influences, such as Led Zeppelin and Ronnie James Dio, but also her years singing choir. “It’s like rock ‘n’ roll, but with complex melodies,” she said.
The band’s origins go back to an open-mic session at Vertical Diner in fall 2018, when Crespo saw Rose performing. The two connected over music and the city of Boston; Crespo had recently moved to Utah from there, and Rose had gone to grad school at MIT. (“Pepper Rose” is a stage name; by day, she’s working toward her post-grad degree in pharmacy science at the University of Utah, and works in a lab there researching cancer treatments.)
“We started writing songs pretty soon after that,” Crespo said.
Not long after that meeting, Rose wanted to go to an open jam in a South Salt Lake bar that was a little sketchy, and asked Crespo along. Now, Rose and Crespo consider that their first date.
“I wanted to be accompanied, because I was feeling a little vulnerable,” Rose said. “We were really disrespected, which is why I wanted accompaniment. It was interesting to see how he handled it with good humor, and we really connected over that.”
Crespo met Collins, 29, at an open jam at a now-defunct Salt Lake City jazz club. Rose also had jammed with Collins, when she was contemplating starting a band to play her music — which she said is “very fun and happy,” compared to the “more serious themes” she and Crespo write for Spirit Machines.
“Mike was too rock ‘n’ roll for the Pepper Rose country-swing tunes,” Rose said. “We played some Spirit Machines songs after that, and it just seemed right there.”
They lured Sergio Marticorena, whom Crespo knew as a guitarist, to play bass. “I said, ‘I’ll come jam and try it out.’ And I fell in love with the music immediately,” said Marticorena, 32. “And I actually started off on bass before guitar, so it just felt natural.”
Rose and Crespo are the primary songwriters in the band, though “the sound comes from all of us adding to the songs,” Crespo said.
Rose credited Crespo — who also has a hip-hop band, Scenic Byway, with Collins — with setting the table for the band to contribute to each song. “He creates a lot of space, creates that atmosphere, creates the mood, the foundation of the songs. It’s not about, necessarily, the ego,” Rose said.
“The songs aren’t fun pop hits. They have a lot of emotion,” she added. “The music is meant to swell and be organic, and really clench you, kind of like a Zeppelin song.”
Collins added: “We’re trying to call back to those old vibes of rock, that confidence. [Pepper’s] voice is very soothing and stuff, but if you really read her lyrics, they’re very literary.”
The band took those songs to Boston to record “Feel Again,” because Crespo knows people there and they only could afford three days of studio time. “It was good to get away,” Crespo said.
They did some finishing touches in February and released the album in April. Since the album came out, the band has played a few small shows, with safety precautions implemented because of the coronavirus.
“It’s a good time to be a smaller band, with a smaller draw,” Rose said with a laugh. They also have filmed a video for their first original single, “Watch It Burn,” which they will release in the next few weeks.
But the band is looking forward to the day when they can perform live and see their fans enjoying their music.
“We can’t let this stop us,” Collins said. “Music needs to be had right now. At the same time, we want to be safe about it.”