MARQUETTE - Back in the late 1980s, the guys in the Plaid Billy Goats were a diverse bunch united in a mission: Not to play the same music being performed by so many other bands at the time.
More than two decades later, each member has had a different journey, but the band still likes to present aural surprises to the crowds it entertains.
"In the late '80s, heavy metal was popular with everyone else. Not us," said Gregory Sandell, bass player. "We were a group with one electric guitar and one acoustic. People said that wouldn't work. We wanted to play The Replacements, R.E.M. and Elvis Costello, none of whom were popular back then. We did.
The Plaid Billy Goats, from left, bassist Gregory Sandell, drummer Scott Kusmirek, guitarists Paul Dornquast and Tom Vajda play a gig at The Blue Lounge in Marquette recently. (Journal photo by Renee Prusi)
"Here we are 22-some years later, still playing."
Sandell, a Marquette native who teaches at Sawyer Elementary School in the Gwinn district, said he was recruited to the Plaid Billy Goats by Paul Dornquast, who played acoustic guitar and sang lead.
"Paul had been part of the music scene for awhile and was back here from Minnesota," Sandell said. "He said he was playing music that night and could really use a bass player. I was going to do it one that one time ... and here I am."
Sandell said his taste in music meshed well with Tom Vajda, the electric guitar player Dornquast was working with in the band.
"My brothers are musical," Vajda said. "Everybody else played the piano. I got a guitar when I was 11 and have been playing ever since. I played in a variety of bands. I knew Paul since we were about 5 and have played in a band with him since we were sophomores in high school."
Dornquast grew up in Marquette as a musical theater kid.
"Marquette Community Theater... the Vista... I loved performing with those groups," he said. "Then I picked up a guitar and the girls showed interest and it was all over. I was going to be a musician."
Dornquast pursued a solo career in Minneapolis for a time, then was part of one of the most popular local bands ever, Orange Whip.
"I had done the solo stuff for awhile after high school. I made good money and it was fun," he said. "But after some heartache and pain, I came back to Marquette. I am glad I did."
He worked at The Melody Shop for a decade, selling instruments and giving lessons.
"And in '89, we started the Goats," he said.
The fourth original member of the band was drummer Jeff Sell, who died in July at age 42.
"Jeff was the one who gave the band its name," Sandell said. "I still can't believe he passed away."
With usual drummer Paul Neumann taking some time off, the band's drummer at present is Scott Kusmirek, a Munising native who moved back to the area from Arizona. Kusmirek has played with the national bands Bit O'Jane, Vinyl Station and the Gin Blossoms.
"I was always envious of the band Orange Whip," Kusmirek said. "I thought they were the best band around. Years ago, I was in (the band) Kicking Mr. Rogers and one time we were asked to open for Orange Whip. That's how I met Paul."
Kusmirek, whose company is Koosielight Entertainment, said he had met the other members of the band years ago as well. Just recently, he ran into Dornquast again.
"He asked me if I wanted to play some music because their drummer couldn't make it to some gigs," Kusmirek said. "So I have filled in and I love working with these guys."
The Plaid Billy Goats still enjoy presenting songs that are unique as they perform once again in the local music scene.
"We do just about anything from music written in the last 50 years," Sandell said.
"Well, maybe not Inuit throat singing," Vajda said.
But from Johnny Cash to Warren Zevon to Til Tuesday to a country version of AC/DC's "Shook Me All Night Long," the Plaid Billy Goats are entertaining audiences once again.
"We have taken some breaks through the years but we are back now, really energized as a band," Dornquast said. "We are back with a vengeance."
Renee Prusi can be contacted at 906-228-2500, ext. 253.