Ready to get the party started

Heuristic can't wait for New Year's Eve in the City, Douglas Fry writes

Mitch Canas is a big man with a big voice, hard to miss under any circumstances - not least because he fronts Heuristic, one of Canberra's most prolific and pre-eminent cover bands.

With Heuristic set to play New Year's Eve in the City for the second year in a row, Canas reveals that he's had a decent head start when it comes to performing music.

Stock photo of people celebrating New Year's Eve. Thinkstock.
Stock photo of people celebrating New Year's Eve. Thinkstock. 

''There's a photo of me in my diapers holding a ukulele,'' he says. ''Apparently I was always musical as a young baby - I always wanted to play and hit instruments.''

Canas attributes this early interest to his mother, who was ''huge into music'' and encouraged Canas and his two brothers to express themselves this way.

''We used to make shows for my parents and put them on a tape to send over to my grandparents, who were in Chile,'' Canas says.

''We used to sit down and put the Beatles on and sing along … I was always Paul McCartney, my brother was John Lennon, my other brother was Ringo.''

Canas also recalls a little electronic piano he had at about age nine, which he would use to play along to songs by ear. Though simplistic, the instrument was enough to give Canas an early insight into picking songs apart and hearing each component.

In that sense, then, Canas has been covering music for roughly three decades - though it hasn't all been other people's music.

''In high school, I was in a band called Retro, which won the high school music competition back in the day - I think it was '86 or '87, I'm showing my age now. And then in college I had a few different bands,'' he says.

Despite a lack of formal training for his vocals and guitar-playing, Canas managed to pick up work as part of a nine-piece Latin band, which would ultimately lead to the formation of Heuristic in 1999.

''I saw an ad in the paper for Floriade having music on at night time, so I rang up and inquired about it,'' Canas says. ''Funnily enough, I went to college with the guy who was organising Floriade … he knew that I sang in college bands, and he goes, 'Yeah, yeah, I'll put you on'.''

Canas's band was given eight gigs to play over the Floriade period. There were a few problems, though: the band had no drummer, no keyboard player, no set list and no name.

''When I put the application in, my friend rang me back and goes, 'We need a name for the band', because I'd left it blank,'' Canas says. ''So I rang up [bass player] Jason [Varlet], and he's come up with the name Heuristic.''

The name came about through an entirely random selection process - Varlet had simply opened up the dictionary, put his finger down, and chosen the first word it landed on.

''If you look up the meaning of heuristic, it's the teacher allowing students to discover for themselves, or it's a type of learning - learning by trial-and-error. So it was quite appropriate,'' Canas says, before adding with a laugh, ''I had to learn how to spell it, because I'd never heard of the name before.''

In the three weeks before Floriade, the new band picked up a drummer, keyboardist and settled on a set list that, according to Canas, journeyed through ''a big mixture of genres - funk, disco, rock, pop''.

Eclecticism is the name of the cover-band game, but Heuristic played their hastily arranged Floriade gigs with enough aplomb to earn plenty of praise and attention. ''There was a stall right next to the stage that was run by P.J. O'Reilly's,'' Canas says. ''So they heard us play and they said, 'We're a new pub in Canberra, can you come and play for us'?''

The band agreed, and the gigs began to snowball from there - though they spent several years without a permanent roster.

''In the early days we had different members of Canberra coming in and joining us,'' Canas says. ''It wasn't until about eight or nine years ago that we settled down and got a regular drummer, Alex Ruiz, who's been with the band [ever since].''

Ruiz, a New York City native, joined Canas and Varlet to form the initial nucleus of the band. The line-up was completed about three years ago, when Wayne Withers filled the lead guitar spot.

Withers migrated from local band TONK, which unwittingly became mired in controversy earlier in 2012 when television series How I Met Your Mother plagiarised one of the band's tracks.

''Wayne was the guy who actually wrote the song … but when he left [TONK], he signed over all his royalties and everything to the band, but his name is still on there,'' Canas says.

Though Varlet has departed and been replaced by Jason Broers, the current Heuristic line-up has gelled tremendously well, Canas says, which he expects will be reflected in the band's performance on New Year's Eve.

''Last year we just killed it, we had such a fun time, we played with Ian Moss - he was such a great guy - and just using the energy off that, we just came out rocking and … it was just a party for us, we thoroughly enjoyed it.''

To earn the favour of the ACT Government is nothing to take for granted, Canas says.

''It's a good feeling, it's very humbling. We don't want to let it get to our heads or anything, we just need to work hard to come up with something fresh and be that good atmosphere party band that people are known to love.''

Not content to rest on their laurels, Canas says the band has learnt several new songs for the New Year's Eve show, including the Foo Fighters and Guns N' Roses - though it's Australian material that always gets the best crowd response.

''When we play any AC/DC song, like You Shook Me All Night Long, that always gets a good reaction,'' Canas says. ''Towards the end of the day we do Are You Gonna Be My Girl by Jet, that's one of our favourite songs to play because, the way we do it, we just rock it out and then … have a big finish at the end. It's a big song to play.''

The key to a good cover performance, Canas says, is to remain true to the original version, while also bringing an original interpretation to the song, although not every song works in the cover band context.

''It's pretty hit and miss: sometimes you learn a song and they're really good and you play it really well, but it doesn't please the crowd or it just doesn't come out right. So you play it once or twice and then throw it away, it's always a learning process,'' he says.

Appropriately enough, Heuristic have a new year's resolution: to start performing their own original material, which they have tentatively started writing.

''It's always a big jump that you take from a covers band where you know songs work, to an originals band, where it's your own stuff, and it's always a bit scary putting it out there,'' Canas says.

''It's always a different avenue to take, but it's something I think we want to get into within the year, it's the next logical step for the band to take.''

New Year's Eve in the City

WITH: Diesel, Heuristic, Tuchasoul

WHEN: December 31, 7pm

WHERE: Civic Square, London Circuit