"So I'm about to call up Peter Hook and hopefully also talk to Ian Curtis," I recently told two friends.
"That's amaaaazing," they cooed back — and then we all laughed, because we knew I was lying, sort of. Because if it looks like Ian Curtis, sings like Ian Curtis, and dances like Ian Curtis ... and it's onstage and it's 2008 and you're in Florida, well, it's not Ian Curtis. It's Aaron Branch, the frontman of 3 One G, who plays Curtis in the state's (and maybe the whole Southeast's) only working Joy Division tribute band. But I was still a little excited to ring him. See, Curtis famously hanged himself in 1980, four years before Branch and I were born.
Tribute bands are sort of rock and roll's cosmic joke, often mocked, but also providing a pretty lucrative gig for frustrated musicians willing to wear someone else's costume. There are dwarf versions of Kiss and all-girl AC/DCs. But the most popular bands to imitate on the tribute scene (with the exception of the Beatles, among a few others) are often those who could possibly tour again, albeit in older and slower form.
The rest of Joy Division's members are alive and kicking. They became the wildly popular New Order in the Eighties. (The real Peter Hook, bassist for both bands, even DJs in Miami at least once a year.) But by booking his own entry into the Forever 23 club (a smaller and maybe sadder offshoot of rock's well-known Forever 27 club), the young Curtis dispensed with the possibility of a dinosaur Joy Division ever hitting the nostalgia circuit. And, of course, he gained instant perma-icon status among legions of clove-smoking, Camus-reading types predisposed to the band's icy, spare yarns that obliquely chanted of human cruelty, pressure, and creeping anxiety. In other words — ripe fodder for imitators, and audiences happy to see such imitation. Because it's the closest they'll (we'll) ever get to touching the real thing from across the distance of death and time.
As such, there's a small global network of Joy Division tribute acts. There's Joy Revision, from L.A. And there are others, named for the band's songs, such as Transmission, from Birmingham, England. There's even one in Croatia, with which 3 One G keeps in touch, named Interzone. And 3 One G itself (the name cribbed from the refrain of the song "Warsaw"), hails from an unlikely place — the smallish Central Florida town of Winter Haven. It's there that founding member Danny Scott, the band's resident Hook, was already playing in an electronic project as well as a "Dark Wave" (read: heavily Joy Division-influenced) band. But his lifelong love affair with the gloomy, Manchester, England-based postpunk legends still felt unconsummated.
So he recruited a drummer (faux Stephen Morris) and a guitarist (faux Bernard Sumner). But the final piece, someone to channel Curtis, remained missing. That is, until this past December, when Scott's friend Branch, who had only previously played in what he describes as a "shitty Christian rock band," wandered into a practice session and heard the other three playing. "I'd heard [Joy Division] before, but I'd never really dug in," Branch says. "I went home and started learning the songs one by one, and it's become a huge obsession."
At first, it's almost disconcerting to talk with Branch. Although Curtis's speaking voice was never recorded, he certainly did not have that Central Floridian hint of Southern accent. But Branch is a quick and uncannily adept study; Scott plied him with a personal collection of videos, and Branch hit the Internet (YouTube specifically) hard. It paid off.
Now the videos on 3 One G's MySpace page show an almost creepily authentic facsimile of Joy Division, from the minimalist graphic background projections to the musicians' minimalist stage wear (oxford shirts, slim pants). Branch looks more than a little like Curtis and has perfected the latter's deep vocal intonations and famous spastic, herky-jerky dance. So much so that one worries he might have one of Curtis's infamous epileptic fits, for historical accuracy. The rest of the band, meanwhile, hangs in a loose, angular pocket, the guitar slices and turned-up bass moving Joy Division's classics and deep cuts along over their signature tribal drumbeats.
As such, although each of the bandmates plays in other groups, Scott says 3 One G has garnered possibly their largest and most geographically diverse crowds yet. He recalls meeting audience members from as far away as Gainesville and even Miami. "A friend of mine from Tampa is 42 and an old Dark Wave fanatic," Scott says, "and he came to see us and said it was like seeing Joy Division in 1978. And it was the biggest compliment of my musical career." Sure, it seems a little weird for that biggest compliment to come in the context of copying someone else's music. "In a way it's funny, I guess," Scott says. "But hey, this is Joy Division." Fans will agree: 3 One G isn't Joy Division, but in South Florida, without a time machine, it's the best we're ever going to get.