Feature Stories

Lounge Singer Richard Cheese Finds the Beauty, and Humor, in Any Pop Ballad

It seems like every time a new generation of music fans enter the mainstream, the generations that preceded them think the other generation's greatest hits sound like spoons in a garbage disposal. Richard Cheese, the leading crooner of the lounge-style Los Angeles cover band Richard Cheese & Lounge Against the Machine, has found a unique and funny way to bridge the never-ending generation gaps of popular music.

Cheese and his group have been taking the top pop ballads from the Billboard charts and turning them into swinging songs that would fit right at home in any mob-run casino bar. The thrashing guitars in Slipknot's "People = Shit" are replaced with the smooth piano tones of Cheese's ivory tickler, Bobby Ricotta. Bono's somber singing style in U2's "Sunday Bloody Sunday" gets a much-needed injection of peppery salsa when Cheese wraps his vocal chords around it. Cheese's take on Sir-Mix-a-Lot's classic ode to blubbery booties, "Baby Got Back," sounds like something Frank Sinatra would use to swoon a lady in his hotel suite overlooking the Vegas strip. 

"Most songs that are out these days, they're just like all the songs that came out in previous eras," Cheese says. "Everyone writes love songs and lounge singers generally interpret contemporary material and treat it as a song as opposed to a hit. If you look at a song like 'Hotline Bling' by Drake, for example, a lot of people might just think it's a silly DJ club son. But it really has some very good lyrics about relationships and it's the kind of song you would hear Bobby Darin sing if that song came out in 1962." 

The man in the tiger-striped tuxedo has been churning out comedic lounge reinterpretations of pop standards since 2000 with the release of his band's first self-titled album. Since then, he's amassed an impressive crowd of fans who can pack places like the House of Blues in downtown Dallas, where he'll perform live this Saturday. 

Cheese hasn't performed a live show in Dallas since 2009, due to a series of personal medical problems that kept him off the road. According to his website, he underwent six surgeries between 2012 and 2015 for a variety of maladies, including two blocked abdominal blood vessels, a hernia, a staph infection in his neck and a cornea that required a transplant and three more surgeries to repair. 

Cheese says he's doing much better thanks in part to his fans who helped raise money on IndieGoGo to pay for his most recent eye operation. 

"I'm glad to be able to do shows and we've been really having a great year of big crowds, and it's been great," Cheese says. "We had to cancel a bunch of shows a few years ago, but we've been making up for the cities we didn't play in and we haven't played in Dallas since 2009. So we're really excited to come back to Dallas." 

Cheese and his band are also hard at work on a new album of original lounge covers. Unlike other bands who release an album and perform songs after they've published them, Richard Cheese & Lounge Against the Machine like to test them at their live shows before they put them on a CD. 

Cheese says they can not only give the fans who come out to the shows something new to hear, but he and his band also enjoy changing up the act and testing out new material on a live crowd. 

"We're developing them as we do our live shows," Cheese says. "For example, 'Livin' on a Prayer' by Bon Jovi is in our show now. We've got an arrangement for it, but we're constantly updating it and we're going to try it a different way than we did it. We did it last week in San Francisco. We're going to do it a different way in Dallas and we're also playing in Houston on Friday, Sept. 9, and we might have a different arrangement for it then. We change it up for every show until we arrive at something that works for everybody." 

It helps to have a band that can play so many diverse styles within the realm of lounge music. Cheese says the members of his group are not only accomplished jazz musicians but they also "play in all sorts of different bands when they're not touring with me." For example, Ricotta, who's not only Cheese's pianist but also his musical director, plays in other jazz bands and arranges movie soundtracks. 

"Each of these cats brings different styles to the table, so when we get a new song we want to arrange, we start talking about what this song would sound like and what would be good to put in it," Cheese says. "It's just a collaboration of ideas and veteran musicians who can recognize a melody and say it should be in this style." 

Cheese says every time his band releases a new album, they send a copy to the artists they cover — and they've developed some famous fans over the years. Last year, B-52s vocalist Fred Schneider expressed his love for Richard Cheese & Lounge Against the Machine by joining the band on stage during a show in Boulder, Colorado, to sing the lounge cover of "Love Shack" that Cheese included on his live 2015 album Bakin' at the Boulder

Cheese says they also got a shoutout from Coldplay when he ran into them at a music festival long before Chris Martin's band became popular enough to be upstaged by Beyoncé at a Super Bowl halftime show. 

"They were one of the acts that were on before us and they ran up to me after the show and they said, 'Hey, are you the bloke who was singing in the tuxedo?' And I was like, 'Yeah.' And they were like, 'Oh, well we're Coldplay,' and I was a big fan because I had heard their first album," Cheese says. "How great is that? That Coldplay liked me before I liked them?"

Movie director Zack Snyder is also one of Cheese's biggest and most famous fans. Snyder first used Cheese's cover of Disturbed's "Down With the Sickness" in his 2004 remake of the George A. Romero zombie classic, Dawn of the Dead. Snyder also tapped Cheese to record a rendition of Cole Porter's "Night and Day" for a crucial scene in the summer superhero blockbuster Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice when the alter egos of the DC superheroes meet for the first time. 

"It's really crazy to be watching this huge blockbuster movie and hear my voice coming out the speakers," Cheese says. "It was an amazing experience and we're obviously very grateful. I wish that I had been on camera. I wish that I had been the star of the movie. I wish that Superman and Batman had beaten me up in the movie, but I was certainly honored. We're in a scene with Lex Luthor, Clark Kent, Bruce Wayne and Wonder Woman. All of them are on screen when I'm singing. I couldn't ask for a cooler way to have my voice on screen in one of the biggest movies of the year."

The true beauty of Cheese and his band's sound is that even though comedy is one of his group's main priorities, he's not cynical or critical of the music he covers. He's sincere and can see the beauty in just about any pop hit. 

"To be totally honest, the good part of my job is I get to sing whatever song I want and the songs that we choose are good," Cheese says. "We're lucky that there are good songs being written and we get to record them."

RICHARD CHEESE & LOUNGE AGAINST THE MACHINE will start swinging at 9 p.m. on the main stage of the House of Blues Dallas located at 2200 N. Lamar St. in downtown Dallas. Tickets are available online at HouseofBlues.com/Dallas
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Danny Gallagher has been a regular contributor to the Dallas Observer since 2014. He has also written features, essays and stories for MTV, the Chicago Tribune, Maxim, Cracked, Mental_Floss, The Week, CNET and The Onion AV Club.