If you want to hear high-octane covers of your favorite Walt Disney classics, the Man Cubs are your men. The five-piece pop-punk/alternative outfit — named after Mowgli's character in The Jungle Book — is playing songs from Mulan, The Lion King, The Little Mermaid and a dozen or so movies, trading orchestral arrangements for rock-and-roll exuberance.
Guitarist Will Timbers — who's joined by Chris Fruci, Cody Troyer, Collin Sitgreaves and Joe Mondragon — says the project is a hybrid of two Colorado bands, Compass & Cavern and Creature Canopy. The collaboration began during dinner after a joint show in 2017, when the musicians were discussing the possibility of a cover band that would play ’90s boy-band standards — think Backstreet Boys, NSYNC — and other bubblegum pop, like Spice Girls. Timbers says he still likes the idea of covering pop tunes, but someone at the dinner threw out Disney, and everyone just said, “That’s perfect.”
“Generally speaking, the songs are really impressive,” Timbers says. “They’ve got really good songwriters, consistently. Some of our favorites are from the Renaissance-era Disney, which is like The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Pocahontas.... Most of those songs were written by Alan Menken. I honestly think he's one of the best composers of all time.”
At first no one thought the plan to cover Disney songs would actually happen; most figured it was just a remark made in passing. But after that fateful dinner, one of the musicians took the initiative to book a show. Suddenly, they all had to come up with a long set — which wasn't easy, as Disney tunes tend to be fairly short.
They split the arrangement of the songs between the two bands and came up with some to be played together in what would later become the Man Cubs. It can be a challenge to make the originals work in a rock format, because they're often folded into the dialogue of the movie. For instance, “Poor Unfortunate Souls,” from The Little Mermaid, has long segments of Ursula talking with Ariel that had to be removed.
“You have to be smart,” Timbers says, "but musically, it’s not too difficult. You just have to cut out sections and jump to the next verse, things like that.”
“We arranged a ton of songs” during that time, he adds. “Since then, we’ve been doing it together.”
Timbers likens his contributions to a blend of Foo Fighters and "Blue Album"-era Weezer — which seems reasonable, as many of the songs the group chose to cover are from ’90s-era Disney.
“It’s just these sharp dynamics, where you’re just chilling, everything is quiet, and then you're just hit in the face with a wall of guitars and some synth bass,” he says. “I like this on-and-off feel. … I think [in] most of the songs with my arrangements, you can pick up on that.”
Of course, not all Disney songs would fly nowadays. For example, “When I See an Elephant Fly,” from Dumbo. It’s catchy, but also incredibly racist. The buck-toothed singing Siamese cats from Lady and the Tramp also spring to mind.
“That kind of stuff we definitely try to avoid,” Timbers says. “The ones we like are usually fine.”
The Man Cubs have played only a handful of gigs, including Nerd Prom and MASQ, as well as a show at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science for its PIXAR exhibit last year. They had planned to play at the Alamo Drafthouse for the premiere of the live-action Mulan movie, but COVID-19 put the kibosh on that event.
But their limited live experience, though cut short, has been positive. Timbers notes that so far, “I’ll Make a Man Out of You,” from Mulan, seems to be the number-one crowd pleaser. It just takes a few notes of the opening melody, and the crowd usually goes wild.
“Everyone was screaming along,” he says. “It felt like we were cheating, like we just jumped all the way up to ‘We’re now a famous band because everyone’s screaming our lyrics back at us' — but they aren’t our lyrics."
Still, he adds, "As soon as you start a song and they recognize it and lose their minds, it’s a great feeling.”
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