The Bird and the Bee Enroll Beck as ‘Hot Teacher’ for Van Halen Cover (Track Premiere)

Greg Kurstin and Inara George talk about bringing Beck and Dave Grohl in as they turn the Van Halen catalog into jazz-pop, on record and on tour.

The Bird and the Bee Enroll
Alexa Nikol Curran

The Bird and the Bee are hot for Van Halen and all heated up for Beck, too, in “Hot for Teacher,” one of the key tracks off their upcoming tribute album to Dave, Eddie and company. Variety has the premiere of the indie-pop duo’s cover of the incendiary ‘80s rock classic, which precedes the August 2 release of “Interpreting the Masters Volume 2: A Tribute to Van Halen.”

Nine years ago, “Volume 1” in the series had Greg Kurstin and Inara George offering album-length props to the catalog of Daryl Hall and John Oates. The answer about who to salute next was right in front of their faces — they long ago recorded an original composition called “Diamond Dave” — but they might have been a bit too busy to see that staring them in the faces. George has been occupied with a solo career and her part in the female supergroup the Living Sisters as well as the duties of motherhood, while Kurstin has become one of the biggest-name producers in music, helming projects for everyone from Adele to Paul McCartney to two Elton John movie themes this year alone (for “Rocketman” and “The Lion King”). The Bird and the Bee was a side project for both of them in the early ‘00s, then became their main gig for a few years after that, and for most of the 2010s has been relegated back to side status — but hearing them riff on Eddie Van Halen’s riffs makes it worth the wait.(We’ll have to wait a while longer before the duo gets to a follow-up to their last album of original material, 2015’s “Recreational Love.”)

Variety caught up with George and Kurstin to discuss the tribute’s genesis, procuring Beck’s professorial services, their nervousness over how the album will be received by Van Halen members, and how Dave Grohl (who’ll sit in on drums on an Aug. 2 release-day gig at Hollywood’s John Anson Ford Amphitheatre) figures in.

Beck plays the teacher, or professor, on “Hot for Teacher.” How did he come to do it?

Kurstin: We’ve worked together, and it was very easy to just ask him, and he graciously said yes. He did such an amazing job, off the cuff — just went in there and came up with the whole thing, and it was amazing. It definitely took it up about 10 notches just having him on there and doing that. It was like, ahh, finally this thing is complete, this beast. It was really a challenging song to do. That’s one of the ones that if you were to break it down — just the song on the piano and a vocal or something like that — it’s a tricky one.

How did you solve it?

Kurstin: “Hot for Teacher” is very much all about the riff and about the drum part and the drive of the tempo. Without those elements, I don’t know if it works as well. So for that one, I wanted to keep that sort of drive but then also bring in an element of jazz, because there is kind of a swing feel to the whole thing. It’s reminiscent of ‘70s (fusion) — it reminds me of Billy Cobham’s (influential 1973 album) “Spectrum” a lot, that drum feel and everything. So I wanted to sort of reference some of the roots of where I thought the song came from, which is like Billy Cobham on drums and Jan Hammer on synthesizer and stuff like that.

When you did “Interpreting the Masters Volume 1” nine years ago as a tribute album to Hall and Oates, did you have names in mind for a possible second volume?

Kurstin: We’re sort of like the last band you would think would cover Van Halen in a way. So it’s kind of made it more interesting. We were always throwing names around trying to think of someone that we can cover, but nothing really stuck. And then we ended up with Van Halen and it seemed like “Oh, that’s perfect,” especially because we had the song “Diamond Dave” [a song about Roth written for their 2009 sophomore album, “Ray Guns Are Not Just the Future”].

If you were going to put it down to “Who have we already written a song about,” that would have narrowed down the choices.

Kurstin: Just David Lee Roth. That’s it!

There is a very conscious irony in the fact that Van Halen is very guitar-associated, to say the least, and this is not exactly a guitar album. Did you relish the chance to get as far away from the original sounds as possible? 

Kurstin: I mean, I do play guitar, but keyboards were my first instrument that I played. When I first heard Van Halen, I was in bands in junior high, and I remember learning the Van Halen songs on keyboards, so it goes way back with me. The idea too in doing this album was that the guitar playing is so amazing and incredible, I couldn’t imagine trying to recreate any of that on a guitar, but I felt like keyboards would be really interesting. I have a jazz background and have done a lot of jazz improvisation, so being able to use that and interpret what Eddie did on guitar on different keyboards was really a fun challenge.

It’s probably inevitable there would be a piano version of “Eruption” someday. It ends up being very classical sounding.

Kurstin: When I first heard it, it seemed to me like, “Oh, this definitely has some sort of classical movement to it, just the way that it’s arpeggiating on these different chords.” It seemed very much like a violin solo or something like that. And I thought I could take it further and try to add some left hand to it to reharmonize the chords a little bit, sort of like you would do on a jazz record. It’s so pretty, what he’s doing there, and I thought it would be great to sort of enhance that and try to push that even farther harmonically.

George: That’s one of my favorite songs on the whole record. Whenever I hear it, it’s really emotional for me.

There’s a jazz feel not just in the soloing but changing the chord changes up so that they sound more like jazz chord changes.

Kurstin: It’s something that we have always loved with the Bird and the Bee. That was one of the things that brought us together in the first place, an appreciation for pop songs that had sort of a jazz element to it, whether it was Burt Bacharach or Brian Wilson, all these people who grew up listening to jazz but then made pop music and would fit some of those more complex chords in. That’s what makes doing covers fun, too, is not just doing a straight cover. Some of my favorite covers that have happened over the history of time have been the ones where they’ve just reinvented the song, like “Satisfaction” when Devo did it.

George: I think it’s also a testament to a song when it can handle being reimagined. Even if we reharmonize some of the chords or there’s more vocal parts or whatever our slant is, the song might take a different turn, but the essence of the song as a great song still remains.

Lyrically and vocally, some Van Halen songs can be done very sincerely because they have some real emotion built in, and there are others where maybe there’s a little bit of ironic distance in having them in this setting. “Jamie’s Cryin’” is in the former category — it always demanded a quieter version.

George: What I think you realize is that David Lee Roth really loves women. When you start to really delve into the music, yes, it has a macho feel to it, but it’s there’s also a great love and passion for females. So when you hear a song like “Jamie’s Cryin’,” it’s really getting into that thing of a dilemma that a female can go through so much of the time, of wanting something more, and it’s not going to be anything but just that one night stand. You hear a song so many times, but then when you actually have to sing it, you’re like, wow, there’s a lot more going on than I had initially interpreted just by listening to David Lee Roth do it.

But then with a song like “Hot for Teacher,” that’s a song you probably get the first time you hear it, and not probably something that easily lends itself to like the feminine perspective. How did you like approach a song like that, that’s tongue-in-cheek?

George: Maybe this is a touchy subject, but it’s an age-old topic. That’s sort of written in our history, that there’s always been a flirtation between a teacher and a student, especially at the college level. And in most cases obviously it is very inappropriate. It’s so funny looking back on things like this from today’s perspective. I remember in the ‘80s it was like, oh, yeah, that’s just what happens. The way that we did it, we definitely went tongue in cheek, but in a totally different way. With the talking bit, Greg really had like the genius thing of sort of taking that out of the students kind of harassing the teacher but more of a reversal of that. It’s a funny song, and I think it should be looked at as funny. But I feel like there’s a reality to it as well, which is part of our culture.

Do you know if anybody from the band has heard this?

George: I feel like our policy is we’re not going to talk about it. But we do know that David Lee Roth has heard it and liked it.

Kurstin: Yeah, we’ve sort of heard through the grapevine that he liked it. Which is great. We’re a little nervous, because obviously we reimagine these songs in a way that’s very different. We’re so thrilled.

You would imagine that a guy who you did “Just a Gigolo” and things like that probably has a cross-genre appreciation for different things.

Kurstin: I think he’s a pretty well rounded guy. I was listening to an interview with him on Joe Rogan, and they were talking about jazz, and I think it was one of those things where Joe Rogan didn’t really understand jazz, and just (Roth’s) explanation of it was really cool. You could tell he’s checked it all out and really gets it.

Do you follow or even enjoy the soap opera that is perpetually attached to Van Halen, even in the years when they’re not working? The latest was that maybe they were going to offer to let Michael Anthony in on the next reunion, but then it never happened.

George: When you’re in a band and you get that big, it’s got to be having a child. You’re so connected, and even if you don’t like the person you still kind of have to be engaged with them. It is sort of sad, but you have to see some sort of humor in it as well. I’m just glad that Greg and I get along.

You probably can’t relate to that drama.

Kurstin: We just get along. It’s crazy. It doesn’t happen that often. There’s not a lot of pressure on the band. We have other things happening, and I think we really just do it purely because we enjoy it. I mean, don’t know about you, Inara, but the making money part of it, that doesn’t even come into the equation. It’s just very satisfying to do, artistically, and it’s also really fun because Inara is awesome.

George: Thanks, Greg. You too. I mean, I think that’s a really…. I don’t want to say like a high-class problem. But there’s a lot of bands that have to financially keep playing because otherwise you can’t live. And Greg and I don’t have that at all. We’ve never had that pressure. It was always this side thing that we were doing that sort of suddenly became the most fun and the loveliest and the most sort of beloved thing that either of us had ever been a part of. Right, Greg? Or is it Geggy Tah for you?

Kurstin: No, it’s Bird and the Bee, for sure, not Geggy Tah (his original group, which had three albums on Luaka Bop).

You have a tour coming up, but Greg is only doing the L.A. show. Is that because you have too many other work commitments to do the whole tour?

Kurstin: Yeah, exactly. I have a lot of things on my plate in L.A., so that makes it really tricky for me to do more than L.A. But I’m so thrilled that we figured it out that Inara can still do shows without me, and I think it’s great. It works out, and I try to do what I can. It’s fun to play. Especially touring, it’s hard being away, for me. But I’m looking forward to the show that I’m doing.

George: I feel like there would not be a lot of other bandmate members that would be okay with not doing the shows, even if they couldn’t do it, and it’s sweet that Greg is supportive of it. And I can’t tour that much myself, anyways, but it’s just a nice outlet for me to be able to play live. I have three kids, so I don’t get to do it that often.

Dave Grohl is playing drums at your L.A. show, and it’s fascinating that he’s such a super fan of a group like yours, with a sound so far afield from anything he’s known for.

Kurstin: The whole reason I’m friends with Dave is because of the Bird and the Bee. I was having lunch and he just ran up to me and said, “I’m the hugest Bird and the Bee fan.” I was so floored, because I was looking at him thinking like I’m such a big fan of Dave. It’s cool that the Bird and the Bee is the thing that brought us all together. Yeah, Dave has been involved… We’ve done a few shows here and there, some fundraiser stuff, where we played a couple of Van Halen songs. We had so much fun, and he was up for it. Playing with Dave, he’s such an insanely great drummer, and I can’t believe it, that we can have him on stage now.