When fans of Mark Jonathan Davis say, “It’s the cheese,” they’re not talking about fermented California dairy products. They mean Richard Cheese, Davis’ alter ego and lounge singer extraordinaire.
The recently released CD Lounge Against the Machine (Oglio Records) is under the name Richard Cheese, not Davis. The disc features covers of contemporary rock, rap and techno hits, but these aren’t anything like Tori Amos’ cerebral deconstruction of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” — all these tunes are done lounge-style, tongue firmly in cheek. There’s a photo of Cheese in a burgundy smoking jacket on the front and a warning on the back: “There are new performances of these songs, and not renditions by the original artists!” That’s a severe understatement.
The humor is as pungent as a wheel of camembert left in the sun on a summer day. It’s like Weird Al Yankovic — if only he were ever actually funny. It’s all faux Rat Pack, a bit like the obnoxious and atrocious lounge singer Bill Murray once played on Saturday Night Live, with a splash of Paul Shaffer thrown into the mix.
The CD, which “Features 16 Swingin’ Covers of Alternative Standards,” lists Cheese featured on “vocals and vodka,” while other musicians (with last names including Brie, Gouda and Ricotta) get credit for “strings and strums,” “sticks and skins,” and “charts and ivories.”
So who is Cheese, and where did his odd humor and musical sensibilities originate? Mark Jonathan Davis was born in New York and grew up in Phoenix, attending Arizona State University “for about fifteen minutes,” he says, before diving into the working world. “I went right to the street and learned everything I know,” he explains, “from working at radio stations and going to strip clubs, which are basically the same thing — fun!”
Davis began performing strange songs early on. “I’ve been doing wacky songs since high school — like the song parodies you hear on Dr. Demento. And I would call in to radio stations and do funny voices and create songs about current events. Other people,” he now notes, “noticed I was strange before I did.”
He arrived in Los Angeles in 1990 to work at KROQ as the producer of the morning show, working with DJ team Kevin and Bean. It was there that he created the first incarnation of Cheese in Paul, a fifty-five year old intern — “an old guy who was stuck working at alternative rock station,” Davis explains, “and was always trying to convince people that Sinatra was where it’s at.”
In character as Paul, Davis would perform KROQ staples in a Sinatra/Tony Bennett style. “Paul on 45” was his swing medley of more than a dozen songs, including “Hungry Like the Wolf,” “I’m too Sexy” and “Personal Jesus.” Picked up by stations around the country, it became a huge hit as a novelty song.
Davis later produced jingles for NBC, creating Johnny Chimes (after the NBC chimes), a schmoozy, cheesy lounge singer who performed (and continues to perform to this day) swinging versions of the themes to NBC’s “must-see” sitcoms.
In Davis’ calculus of cheese, Paul (the fifty-five year old intern) plus Johnny Chimes minus Leonard Maltin equals Richard Cheese.
“All the great lounge music has been recorded by that one great singer with a microphone,” Davis says. “So here’s a guy who’s a typical martini-swilling, microphone-holding lounge singer. I thought the name Cheese would communicate the schmoozy style. Richard? I just thought it was a nice Fifties name.”
Lounge Against the Machine was recorded during the summer of 2000 with local musicians who fit the groove. Davis studied the charts, picking out the tunes that were the best of the era, filling the disc with such diverse covers as NIN’s “Closer,” Sublime’s “Wrong Way,” U2’s “Bullet the Blue Sky” and Rage Against the Machine’s “Guerilla Radio” (and thus the CD title).
Of the Trent Reznor track, which he performs like a torch song, Davis (in character as Cheese) says, “It’s one of those romantic love songs. Such a beautiful song about love and emotion, and we let the lyrics speak.”
And the lyrics do indeed come through, much more than on the original, and it’s almost painfully funny to observe Cheese crooning lines like “I want to fuck you like an animal/I want to feel you from the inside” — especially with his parents in the audience, as they were at his club debut at the Cinegrill in Hollywood a few months back.
“The one person you don’t want to sing ‘Closer’ in front of,” Davis admits, “is your mother. But there she was, and fortunately she’s extremely cool. Mom is a very, very nice, proud stage-mom type. I think she gets the joke.”
As do Cheese’s followers. He’s moved quickly from the small club to headlining larger venues like the House of Blues, both in Los Angeles and Anaheim.
It’s a fun stage show, with the band decked out in black suits and shiny silver ties. Cheese starts out in a typical black tux, and returns for his encore in a tiger skin tux complete with matching pants. “Man, do the chicks love it,” Davis says, inhabiting Cheese. “I am an endangered species.”
Which begs the question everyone wants answered: do lounge singers have groupies? “I was just in a fromage a trois,” reports Richard Cheese.