Q: What were the pivotal moments that led to you being in a Neil Diamond tribute band?
A: I started back in ’89. I was at a party once and some guys were playing a guitar. They were playing “Brown Eyed Girl.” The guitar got passed to me and I didn’t really know any sing-alongs.
Shortly after that I learned “Sweet Caroline.” Then, I wanted to play it for somebody. I was playing an acoustic night once a week for a while. I was playing my own songs, my original music, and I threw in “Sweet Caroline” one night. It just brought the house down. People loved it.
I learned a different Neil Diamond song the next time. Then, I learned another the next time. All of a sudden it was like a fever.
Q: At what point did you start calling yourself Surreal Neil?
A: I came up with “Surreal Neil” maybe a year later when someone asked me to do a party and dress up like Neil and do all Neil Diamond songs. They put on the flier Neil Diamond and I wasn’t comfortable with that.
I said I’m not going to do this. I’m not going to be an impersonator. That’s what made me come up with the name Surreal Neil. I never wanted to be an impersonator. It’s more of an interpretation, more of a surreal interpretation.
Q: Can you define the difference between interpretation and impersonation?
A: An impersonator acts like they’re the person. I don’t act like Neil Diamond. I dress kind of like him. I’ve never tried to look exactly like him. I’ve never worn a wig or grown my hair like him or parted my hair like him.
I’ve always had my costumes made with more of a contemporary or alternative twist. I always like to mix it up with my interest in alternative music or alt-rock or modern rock — a lot of the music I liked in the ‘80s. I was a big fan of ‘80s modern rock, new wave.
Q: Have you ever met Neil?
A: Yes. Neil sang with us two different times. It was incredible. The first time we had no idea he was going to sing with us. He came to see us play at the Hollywood House of Blues.
He came backstage to meet us before our show. We met and we talked. Then, I asked him if he’d like to sing a song with us, expecting he’d say “no.” But he said “yes.”
He came out for the encore and sang “I am I said” in its entirety. The house just exploded. I can’t imagine if I was in the audience to see Neil walk out for the encore.
He sang again with us for the premier party of “Saving Silverman,” a movie he was in where he played a cameo. The main characters of the movie were in a Neil Diamond cover band and they kidnap him. After the movie there was a party at the same place, the House of Blues.
We played a 90 minute set. Neil and the main cast members of the film were on stage with us. They sang “Cherry, Cherry” and “Forever in Blue Jeans” with us somewhere in the middle of our set.
Q: Could you see yourself having a tribute band to any other musicians?
A: Oh yeah. We started Super Diamond 20 years ago. Other than karaoke, I’ve never song anybody else’s songs in front of people. But I often think about singing Johnny Cash or BJ Thomas or Boingo, Boingo.
I love a lot of bands. Leonard Cohen is certainly worth of a tribute. I would love to do that. I have a lot of artists in my iTunes. I love lots of different kinds of music.
Q: Neil Diamond lends himself to fanatics, people that adore and borderline worship him. Why do you think that is?
A: Not long after I started singing, I remember a friend of mine, an older woman I worked with who was a big Neil Diamond fan, invited me over to hear a lot of her collection. It was so vast. There was so much I’d never heard because all I had was some greatest hits albums. That was my first taste of Neil Diamond fanaticism.
Q: Do you guys have fanatic fans that follow you around?
A: Neil Diamond fanatics? Yes. We’ve met a lot of the Neil Diamond fan base. Some of the Neil Diamond fanatics, we’ve become good friends with them. Luckily, they’ve embraced us and they come to our shows when we’re in our areas.
I like to call some of the women fanatics our den mothers. I was in the Boy Scouts growing up. We had den mothers. They educated us over the years about Neil.
Q: Can you describe the biggest Neil Diamond fan in the world?
A: The biggest fans that I’ve met have been to over 100 Neil Diamond shows. They have rooms in their house dedicated to collecting Neil Diamond things. Their massive collections, filling these entire rooms, are almost like shrines.
Q: What are in these collections?
A: I’ve never actually seen one. I’ve just heard them described. I think they usually have every record, every CD, every tape, every 8-track, every medium of music. They’ll have every tour book. Sometimes if they have duplicate tour books, they’ll give me some.
I know some of them collect Neil Diamond guitars and shirts. Some of them manage to get ahold of shirts he once wore on stage.
Q: But you don’t keep a collection?
A: No. I have a collection of my own shirts that I’ve had made.
Q: What makes a good Neil Diamond shirt?
A: I usually go find the fabric somewhere. They’re made like Neil’s, but I found the beaded material is too hot. I like to find the sequin material, super sparkly sequins. I generally try to find fabric on the lighter side.
Sequins on more of a see-through fabric is much better on stage under the lights because it breathes better. I’ve made a lot of mistakes by buying sequins or beads attached to black velvet. For a while, I thought that was really cool.
It took me a while to realize I was sweating so much that my inner monitors would short out. I was going through inner monitors like crazy.
Q: What are your favorite songs to listen to and to play? Are there differences between the two?
A: My favorite songs to listen to are the ballads. I learned in the early years that only a few people in the audience are going to appreciate the really great songs in my opinion. Like “Glory Road,” I’ve never played with Super Diamond in front of an audience. I’ve played it a few times solo. That’s my favorite song.
Then some of the other favorites that I have like “The Singer Sings His Song” and “I’ve Been This Way Before” I’ve never attempted to sing those. I love those songs. And I think maybe it’s better off that I don’t learn to sing them. Something changes when you know the recipe of the song compared to when you don’t. Some songs are better that I don’t learn, just for my personal enjoyment.
“Brooklyn Roads” is one of my favorite songs to play. We’ve played it like the original, which is a ballad. We also have a version we developed a few years ago that’s much more upbeat and contemporary.
Also, 12 years ago we came up with a kind of Social Distortion-esque version of “Play Me,” which is one of Neil Diamond’s quintessential love songs. It’s a lot faster and a lot more aggressive. So we have fun with doing our own versions of Neil’s songs when we’re inspired by something else.
Q: And Neil appreciates the way you interpret his music?
A: So far so good. The first time we met him, he thanked us for doing what we do and then sang with us. And a lot of the Neil Diamond fans that we’ve gotten to know over the years seem to like it as well. We like it, too. I’ve never imagined that when I started singing Neil Diamond songs I would be able to retire as an engineer. It’s great. I’m really lucky to have been able to do that.