Untangling Hairball: How a Minnesota-based arena rock tribute band draws in millions each year

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PART TWO: When arena rock tribute band Hairball plays Prince at the Minnesota State Fair

It's Wednesday morning, and Bobby Jensen is making final tweaks to his guillotines.

His hanging devices and "things that blow up" have to look just right for his Friday night concert in Hastings.

At Levee Park, Jensen's band Hairball will play for the United Heroes League concert, which fundraises for military families. There, six men will break out hits from rock greats like Alice Cooper, KISS and Journey — but not as a cover band, Jensen is quick to clarify.

"I would call us a tribute band," he says before positing, "We're not even a tribute band. It's like God hasn't given us the word to describe Hairball yet."

Industry peers concur.

"Every time I look at them, I say, 'It's the damnedest thing I've ever seen,'" said Phil Potter, who has booked the Minnesota-based band in Nebraska, Colorado and Kansas for several years. "I've never come across anybody else doing what they do as well as they do it."

Since first playing suburban dives in the early 2000s, Hairball has become a multi-million dollar project. They play about 150 state fairs and arenas to crowds of thousands across the country each year, predominantly in the Midwest.

Sometimes, their shows draw in the rock stars they impersonate — including Gene Simmons and Vince Neil of Mötley Crüe. Outside of playing with stars at their own shows, they've also shared the stage with the likes of Alice Cooper and Rob Halford of Judas Priest.

"There's just not a tribute band like them anywhere in the world that i'm aware of. They're such incredible musicians," said Halford of Judas Priest.

He added that on top of their master-level musicianship and acting, the chemistry between bandmates — who all met as teenagers playing rock shows in the Twin Cities area — cements them as a one-of-a-kind act.

"Playing with them, you just feel very confident in their presence," he said.

Saturday, Hairball made its debut at the Minnesota State Fair's Grandstand, joining a weeklong lineup that included the Beach Boys' Brian Wilson with John Stamos and Earth, Wind & Fire. The show drew nearly 8,000 people.

"We get to live the life of rock stars without really having the problems that rock stars have," Jensen said.

'The world of rock 'n' roll'

Hairball's top-notch impersonations regularly bring in $70,000 per show, with typical ticket prices hovering around $20.

"We pay ourselves a little bit," Jensen said, "And the rest of it goes right back into making a bigger and better show ... Everything has to be better the next time around, or else we're not going to come back next time. We're very concerned about having a successful evening."

With the help of the rock stars Hairball plays, they've connected with some of the best designers and prop masters in the industry, collecting hundreds of thousands of dollars in material. For instance, Jensen's KISS get-up comes from Simmons' costume designer.

The band sometimes pitches in with their own craftsmanship, sewing on buttons and patches or tweaking pyrotechnic boards.

Jensen says he's perfected his rock-star impersonations down to the mannerisms by regularly watching live footage since he was a kid.

"It becomes second nature to me," he said. "It's a piece of me."

With his dark wig slicked back and a jumpsuit nearly identical to the iconic outfit from Freddie Mercury, Kris Vox twirled his bottomless mic stand as he captured the Queen frontman's vibrato in "Under Pressure" at their Saturday state fair show.

Vox also delivered a Prince tribute, in which he wore a "Purple Rain" outfit and dark makeup to appear black, the band confirmed.

"We took the concept of wanting to be a replica of many concerts so that people are drawn into the world of rock 'n' roll," Jensen said. "We want to make you believe it was really Alice Cooper ... or whoever we're impersonating at the time."

At the Minnesota State Fair show, nearly everyone in the predominantly white, multigenerational crowd pumped their devil-horned fists in synch to the pulse of Black Sabbath's "Iron Man."

"It's probably one of the top five nights of my year so far," said 22-year-old Hunter Zurn in the front row.

Moments later, one band member swaggered across the stage within feet of Zurn and his brother. After stopping to rock out with the audience for a verse, he tossed them a guitar pick.

The two swirled around, jumping and pointing at the catch to their dad — who they said suggested the show — a few rows back.

"It's pretty exciting," he said afterwards.

Zurn was among the majority who cheered when Jensen asked about first-timers. But the show also drew dozens of hardcore Hairballers, sporting gear like a white tank with "Hairball" in pink lettering, or a black tee with "Hairball made me do it" in white in the back.

One of those fans said she had been to about 20 shows since first seeing them three years ago.

"They act just like them, they sound just like them," said Stacy Nyberg, 47. "They're all local boys too, so that's nice... the guys are so genuine and real."

She said she drove from an hour away to support their Grandstand debut.

"There's a special energy tonight," she said, adding the guitarist "Happy" was playing his first show in months amid getting treatment for cancer.

Humble beginnings

At its start in 2000, Hairball was nothing more than a side project for extra cash and some laughs.

They'd play at bars like Sharky's in Columbia Heights. Sporting Halloween wigs, they'd mix in parodies with the original songs, sometimes exaggerating features for comedic effect.

"It was more about timing," explains Mike Findling, who started the band before becoming their longtime agent. "When we started, the '80s were looked at as a joke."

But around 2008, the band noticed cultural shift.

"With Guitar Hero coming around ... people started picking up the '80s again, and we were there at the right time," Findling said.

Right around then, Findling switched his career focus to booking. He recruited his longtime friend Jensen — who, like himself, first met all the bandmates playing at gigs in the suburbs as teenagers — as his replacement.

Influenced by Jensen's serious approach he had refined over 10 years touring in a KISS tribute band, the band committed to keeping their impersonations authentic and their musical chops sharp.

"It's about respect. We respect them and their music. We're not making fun of them," Jensen said.

Jensen says he runs ideas by the stars, and has yet to hear a "no."

"I ask, will this upset you if we put this in our show?," Jensen said, "and lucky for us, they've always been like, 'Go ahead and do what you want because we love you.' They know we're not messing around. We don't play games."

Finding that his respect for the rock stars was mutual marked a turning point in Jensen's career.

"I always felt like somewhere there has to be someone saying ... 'Are you OK? Do you need a doctor?' And so I always had a hard time with it until we played with the real guys ... They said, no, you're showing the world a whole genre in two hours — something we could never do," Jensen said. "So we're blessed. We're extremely blessed to be a part of that."

At the State Fair show, Jensen reflected back on his career as he thanked the crowd:

"This is for everyone who was with us in those dive bars. The ones that smelled worse than anything you can imagine," he said. "For us, every night was the Madison Square Garden, the Minnesota State Fair."