Interview:Powerman 5000 and Megatronic Records
Interview by Cathy Genovese
What kind of interest did you have in music growing up? What were your influences?
Well, like most kids, at a really early age I just listened to anything that what was on the radio. The first thing I remember really developing my own tastes and excitement toward music was punk-rock stuff, early ska, like Madness, the Specials, and then the Sex Pistols, and the Ramones. That led to hard-core stuff like Minor Threat and Black Flag. That was when I got most excited about music and realized there was more out in the world besides Journey or REO Speedwagon, which was what all the other kids were listening to.
So you were a child of the Eighties?
How did you get started in the music business?
It happened in small ways. I started playing music in high school when I was about 14 in a small town in Massachusetts called Haverhill. A couple friends and I were like the three punk-rock kids in the town. We started a band, played the high school talent shows, got booed off the stage and had things thrown at us because we were so terrible.
Then I went to art school and dropped out because I really wanted desperately to be in a band. At that time, the whole hip-hop craze was exploding—Run-D.M.C., and Public Enemy, etc.—and that excited me just as much as punk-rock. So I started to bring that into what I did and make my own little demo tapes of me rapping and trying to sound like Ice-T. But I ultimately missed the live band thing and that led to forming Powerman 5000. That was my first real band that I had actually put together with all members.
What happened next?
We just started doing this weird hybrid of music that incorporated all these different styles like aggressive rock and some rap influences and some old school folk. Everyone in the band liked different kinds of music and we could never decide what kind of band we should be so the end result was something that really stood out in Boston at the time, which was sort of dominated by garage rock bands. Everybody wanted to sound like the Replacements. We really stuck out in that scene and the result was that we developed a huge following there and became the big band in Boston. We would just play tons of shows in that area and eventually record companies started sniffing around as they do— weasels.
How did they hear about you? Was it word of mouth, or were they coming out for the other bands and saw you?
We had released some local indie records, and I think that a lot of times they'll see Soundscan and see that all of a sudden in Boston this band has sold a couple thousand records, and say, "Wow, what's goin' on?" I think that's how a lot of them came to find out about us. The way we got signed was sort of odd because it wasn't through a Boston show. We were playing in a small club called Brownies in New York City. Ron Handler, who eventually signed us to Dreamworks, happened to be in New York interviewing for his job—he didn't even work there yet. He decided to walk to the interview because it was a nice day, and he walked by Brownies and saw a poster for us in the window. It rung a bell and thought he'd heard of us and that he'd check us out. I remember that show as being nothing special, maybe 10 people there, but I got back from New York and I got a call from this guy who said, "My name's Ron and I'm gonna work at DreamWorks. I don't yet, but when I do get my job, I'm gonna sign you. I of course thought, "Yeah, whatever." It just sounded like a bunch of nonsense to me, but the reality is that he did get hired there, and he did sign us.
Prior to that did you guys tour a lot? What did you do on your own to increase your visibility?
We did a ton of legwork on our own. We never did actual tours or band tours. We always felt that you should never underestimate building a big regional following. I always think that if it works in one city, it'll work in every city. Kids are the same everywhere, so if you become big in Boston, you can become big in New York. If you become big in Portland, you can become big in Chicago.
So that's what we focused on—just sort of building a fan-base from our hometown of Boston out. By the time we got signed, we could do well in Providence, New Hampshire, Connecticut, etc. We really just started one city at a time. We hand-drew a new flyer for every show. We spent a lot of time making sure people knew who we were.
You were saying that your sound came from all different types of styles. TAXI gets a lot of people who will call and say they don't really know where their sound fits. What can you say to those people?
The way that I always looked at Powerman 5000 when people asked me what it was, was to just call it "rock." I think that always putting things in these little holes and categories is sort of limiting because people are funny the way they decide what they like and what they don't like. If you say, "It's kinda funky-rock", they might say "well, I hate funk." I like to just think of things as rock. Rock should be many things, not just one specific sound.
That's a good point and it's important too....
Like who are the rock bands that everyone thinks of when they think of the genre? The Stones, Zeppelin, and all those bands incorporate blues and country and funk. You know, the Stones did some disco songs, but it was still rock. It's not like when The Stones did "Emotional Rescue" that suddenly they were a disco band. They were still a rock band.
How did you come up with the persona, the image of Powerman 5000?
It's just like the music. It's always changing and evolving. When we started out it was much more organic. I always like when there's a line drawn between the audience and the band. Some people might say that's not very punk-rock, but it is if you think about the Clash and the Sex Pistols. There very much was a line between who they were and who the audience was, but there was also a connection and the crowd could see themselves in the band.
We always try to make and effort to make sure you knew who the band was. When we got signed and had a little more money to play around with different ideas, then I got to sort of indulge in some things that I've been interested in. I'm a huge science fiction fan and we made one record that was very much based on a lot of those concepts.
When we did the next record, I made sure to sort of make a clear statement that we were heading in a different direction. That's where I sort of indulge my early influences—much more of a like a '70s-Vivien Westwood-Sex Pistols vibe. That's the fun part of being in a band—being able to change and experiment. Most bands don't do that ever. They lock themselves into one thing. And sometimes that works. I mean you have bands like AC/DC and the Ramones who have done the same thing on every record. And for them it's great because they've hit on one particular thing that's just so powerful. That's hard to do, so why not change and try some new things?
Whether it's consistent or changing, how important is image?
I think everything matters. I'm of the opinion that you can't just assume that because you write a wonderful song that it's going to be enough to excite people. You have to find a way to sort of enhance who you are. I think the visual, the music, it all just makes an interesting package. Everybody that you think of that comes to mind when you think of popular music has been able to do all that.
People forget. They think that Hendrix was about just pure music. No, Hendrix set his guitar on fire, had a giant afro, and wore crazy clothes. People forget that the Stones and all these bands that are thought of like purists are all about image. The important point is that it's okay to be somewhat calculated in what you do and how you present yourself. A lot of musician types think that that's cheating. It's not cheating, it's just a part of your personality and you find a way to magnify it so people can make sense of who you are. Some people think that their musical talent should be enough. If that's true, then go play jazz or classical where it's enough. But rock music is not about that; it's about making girls happy. I can always tell when a band doesn't have any clue what they're doing image-wise because they look like the roadies.
Walk us briefly through what it's like to get signed.
For me it was exciting, but we came up in a time where getting signed was really never the goal. I think a lot of kids in bands now are way more savvy about how things work. They know about getting showcases, they know about producers, and they know about all this stuff. We never did that. We just had a band and we did everything ourselves. The record deal thing was just sort of, "Wow, this could happen too." The way we functioned as a band has never really changed, because I always found that even after we got signed we still were doing everything ourselves. In fact, the workload became way more difficult because now you have all these people involved who could potentially screw up your career.
That's a big mistake that bands think. They sort of point themselves at this ultimate goal of a record deal and they think that that's it. And it's sort of the opposite, and in some ways that's when you're in trouble. When you're not signed, at least you're sort of in control of your destiny. If you want to play every weekend, you can play every weekend. But once that record deal comes, people tend to fall into lazy mode, and by the time they wake up and realize that what just happened to them, it's too late. The fact is that when the system works it's great. It worked for us. We ended us selling all total a couple million records for DreamWorks. We sort of all know it's a broken system, but again, when it works, you just have to take advantage of it while you have the opportunity. I've always been the kind of person that will do anything within reason for the band. Play a show the night before, got to get up at 5 in the morning to do some morning show. "Okay, let's do it." And a lot of artists who haven't had near the success that we did would never do those things, and then they're surprised at why it didn't work.
Is the only way for an artist to make it these days is to get signed?
I actually think that right now is sort of the resurgence of the indie label, especially for rock bands. If you look at the charts and you watch Fuse, Rock Countdown, the majority of bands now are indies like Victory and Epitaph, even smaller labels I've never heard of.
I think that video games really are probably another effective alternate way to get people to hear your music. Video games sell millions of copies and kids play them all day long. We have three songs on this new wrestling video game, which will probably sell 2 million copies. A kid will sit for six hours straight and hear our songs five times. A lot of kids come up to me and tell me that's how they've heard of the band. We had a song on a Tony Hawk, and I know we got a lot of fans through that video game.
Do you think that the majors are going to remain then a defining force within the business?
Well, the majors will always dominate because you can't really compete with that kind of money. Unless they change their priorities, there's definitely going to be a clear separation between super-star artists on majors, and bands on indies.
How did Megatronic come about?
Megatronic actually started when I was on DreamWorks. I was really sort of excited about trying this imprint label over at DreamWorks, find some cool young bands. Then I found this band that I thought was really great, Halfcocked—three girls, two guys, really catchy, fun, but aggressive rock. It was prime time for something like that to come out.
The label deal at DreamWorks was kind of a disaster. They sort of said yeah, they'd love to do this and sign the band. But then everyone sort of ran away from the project. Unfortunately a missed opportunity.
What was you involvement at Megatronic then compared to now?
I don't feel like I got the chance when it was part of DreamWorks to do anything. After that, I never really thought about much of it again until recently. I just decided to see what happens. I've started it up on a very limited basis and tried not to do too much at once, to go step by step, to start leaking product. The first record we're putting out is a rarities record called The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, and it's just all the early recordings of Powerman before we signed to DreamWorks.
What do you think of home demos as submissions to labels, and how important is the recording technique? How up on the new gear should people stay?
It's funny because I think most people would tell you that it doesn't matter because a great song will shine through. That's true, great performance and songwriting doesn't necessarily need great production. But, having said that, I do think that most people can't see beyond that. Most people want to hear something big and huge that sounds spectacular. You've just got to trust yourself and hope the person listening to it understands. I always like to get things as done as possible.
It also depends on what kind of music you do. Obviously, if you're doing some kind of technology based, dance, something that supposed to sound really slick. That's hard to do on a cassette four-track. If you are doing acoustic, singer-songwriter stuff, it shouldn't really matter. You don't need anything spectacular to make sure people get the idea.
What kind of impact do you think something like iTunes is having?
I think it's a good thing and a bad thing. It's great because everything is so convenient and you can pretty much find whatever you want. But what it does is take away the experience of buying music, and I think it ultimately takes value away from music. I think that's why kids can justify not having to pay for music because it's not like a physical thing anymore. I think it's taking away some of the fun of music. You know, you're just downloading a song. You're not getting the experience; you're not getting the artwork and the whole thing.
The way I see it is that it's sort of the responsibility of the artist now to become something that is more important to kids, so it's not enough to just download the song. You need the whole experience; you need the t-shirt; and you need the artwork. But if artists aren't interesting enough, then who cares? Some things will never change—the way people make music and play live. That'll always remain. It's just a matter of whether or not they actually go out and buy CDs anymore.
If you're an 18 year-old lead singer of a new band, just played your first gig at a local bar in your hometown and got a great response and want to take it all the way, what do you do? What's the very next step you take?
Book another show for the next night or the next weekend. Build a momentum. If you're playing in your town and you had 20 people there and they all loved it, make sure that they can come see you again next weekend so they'll bring two of their friends. Then there are 40 to 60 people there. That's really the trick.
If you were a 36-year-old musician with a family and you're in love with music and would only do music if you could, what would you do?
The cool thing about music is, just when you think something can't work, somebody will do it. But, generally speaking, when you get to a certain point in your life and you can't devote the kind of energy it takes, and you're not necessarily a marketable commodity—because pop/rock is a youth-oriented thing—you really have to take a close look at yourself, and say, "Is this realistic?" It doesn't mean you stop playing music; doesn't mean you can't play weekends at the local coffeehouse. But you have to get straight with the fact that this might be it, and that that's enough. If you are 35, 36, 40-years-old, do you really want to be like lugging your amp at 4 in the morning at some club on a Tuesday playing in front of four people? At 17 that's exciting; that's a fun night out. I think that's a realistic thing people have to think about—is it something they really want to do and is it something they have a shot at? In the climate of the industry now, I wouldn't say to go for stardom. I'd get whatever enjoyment you can out of it.
What about your future? Are you still doing the band?
We're writing a record now; shooting for it to come out early 2005.
Do you think music will ever get back to a sort of purity or of just being about the music, like it was?
I don't think so. It's like saying do you think TV will ever get to be back to four channels. Things change. For a 12-year-old kid, he doesn't know any different, so for him that's the norm. There are kids that have probably never been to a record store, who may have bigger record collections than both of us. We just fight it because we knew it when it was different and to us it was cool. But maybe it's cooler now. Maybe it's cooler that a kid can sit in front of his computer and steal a thousand songs in a day.
I just worry about the worth of the music, that it becomes sort of the weird, disposable thing because there's no real value put on it. As you get companies like, "Our songs are 99 cents," "Ours are 69 cents," it starts to devalue it even more. You asked me about where it's going, maybe ultimately it will just be a free product, and there will be other ways to make money off of it.
I had an idea to start a record label where you never charged for the records, and you just sort of hope that the kids were into the music so much that they would buy the t-shirts and the posters. That's where your revenue was and the music was free. Who knows, maybe that's where it's headed?
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