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The Boston Phoenix Space Case

Powerman 5000's sci-fi new wave

By Carly Carioli

JULY 19, 1999:  In this summer of Star Wars, it seems inevitable that it would occur to someone to release a full-blown rock-and-roll space opera. Enter Powerman 5000 frontman Spider, who may or may not be from Mars. With Powerman's proper major label debut, Tonight the Stars Revolt! (DreamWorks), he's done for the sci-fi aisle at the video store what his brother Rob Zombie has done for the cutout-horror bin. It's a brief history of futuristic cheap thrills -- from the black-and-white future-shock fantasies of 1940s Hollywood to the post-no-future roboticized dance-floor eroticism of '80s new wave up through the glowering Mad Maxified stammer of industrialized heavy metal.

"I definitely wanted to make an otherworldly kind of record," says Spider on the phone from Catalina, California, where he's taking a working holiday before setting out on a promotional tour that brings PM5K to Tower Records in Boston on Tuesday. "Not only in the artwork and the concepts, but the sound as well. It's definitely a rock-and-roll record, but some of the sounds are very -- well, you don't know what they are or where they're coming from. It kind of puts you in a different place, you know what I mean? It's funny, 'cause in the interviews I've done for this record, people have begun to ask, 'Is this a concept album?' I guess that has negative connotations -- people think of '70s Styx or something -- but I don't know. I'm beginning to believe that maybe it is."

Tonight the Stars Revolt! is likely to come as a shock for anyone who remembers PM5K's Boston days, which yielded an EP (True Force on Curve of the Earth) and an album (The Blood-Splat Ratings System, on the NYC label Conscience) of hodgepodgy hip-hop-inflected metal that seemed a bit too limp and frat-funkish to appeal to anyone beyond, say, the Pot Rally crowd. But Blood Splat did well enough that the band relocated to California in hopes of a major label deal, which they got when DreamWorks reissued Blood Splat as Mega! Kung Fu Radio and sent the band on the road with a succession of heavy-hitting headliners. But that was pretty much the end of PM5K as we knew them. They've since added a guitarist, who goes by the astronomical handle m.33 (born Mike Tempesta, whose brother John just happens to be the drummer in Rob Zombie's band) , and reinvented themselves as something like a cross between the early Flash Gordon serials and Devo.

"We've definitely added new wave to the list of styles that we combine," admits Spider.

With a few exceptions -- the closing "Watch the Sky for Me," a kitschy cocktail-jazz number with Marilyn Manson's Ginger Fish sitting in; the trip-hoppy interlude "System 11:11"; and a savage screamfest duet between Spider and Rob Zombie on "Blast Off to Nowhere" -- Tonight's best moments come from the new wave side of the list. Form and function fuse with clipped, mechanized riffage and Kraftwerkian assembly-line electronics on the Asimovian "Automatic." The natural choice for a second single, "Nobody's Real" begins by making music out of factory parts, raining rivets on a hard-wired synthesis of robo-futuro metal-machine machismo, stripped-down melodic economy, and pulsing stroboscopic bass.

"When Worlds Collide," Tonight's first single (not to mention a 1951 Oscar winner for special effects), is practically a house track -- slipping in and out of an unmitigated disco beat complete with sampled drum-machine handclaps, essentially taking Trans Europe Express for a spin along the Highway to Hell. And the video, in which a silver-jumpsuited Spider does battle with an interstellar overlord dude who looks a lot like Ming the Merciless -- or maybe the dude from Hellraiser reincarnated as Darth Maul -- pretty much sums up Powerman's fixations.

"I've toyed with the idea of making every video like a continuation, and then we'd put 'em all together and it would be sort of like our own little Flash Gordon serial," says Spider. "It started out based around the evil guy. We wanted to create this sort of Ming the Merciless kind of character, and at some point we knew that somehow the band was going to sort of liberate the audience. I like to think of it as a science-fiction Footloose. You know - they're in this town, but they can't dance.

"On our first record we didn't really have a conception of what the band was all about," Spider admits. "That record was created over such a long period of time. And like a lot of first albums, some of the songs were years old and some were months old, so you just kind of got this mess of stuff and hoped somehow it made sense. With the new record, after having toured for a year, we really sort of figured out what we do well and what we don't do well. I consciously steered away from some of the more rap-influenced elements -- which some people might be bummed out about, though I haven't heard anything bad yet. It is kind of interesting that that whole genre has become so big now. I feel like, you know -- I hate to say it, it sounds terrible -- but I feel like we almost pioneered that so many years ago, and I certainly didn't want to come off sounding like a second wave of that style of music. So I figured we'd just totally change what we do, and just put the emphasis on writing some good songs.

"We wanted to make a rockin' heavy record," he goes on, "but we all realized that the kind of stuff that we really like, what it boils down to is writing some songs with some hooks and some memorable moments that people can sing along to. That was a big element of what we wanted to do, and we really tried to in songs like 'Nobody's Real' and 'When Worlds Collide.' I found myself going back and digging up old '50s and '60s sci-fi films like The Day the Earth Stood Still and Forbidden Planet, stuff like that, and engrossing myself in the past's vision of the future. That was sort of the inspiration behind the record: we'd just make this futuristic record but represent a future that doesn't exist anymore. The vision of the future now is destruction and dead bodies in the streets -- a Terminator or Blade Runner or Alien kind of thing. And it wasn't always like that. That was a really interesting thing to me, to examine how people used to think things would turn out. So that was a starting point."

Born Mike Cummings, Spider is old enough to have played a Flock of Seagulls cover back when Flock of Seagulls were still charting, back in his mid-'80s Haverhill hardcore band Vital Interest; and he was ahead of the hip-hop craze when he debuted around Boston as an MC in '90. But with the current incarnation of PM5K, he would appear to be at exactly the right place at the right time. After a couple of albums' worth of Marilyn Manson crooning like Ethel Merman coming off a coke binge, Spider's unorthodox, laconic, gravelly cadences no longer seem like a hindrance. And in perhaps the most bizarre heavy-metal trend of the decade, the past six months have seen the canonization of heavy-metal bands paying homage to new wave. The first band signed to Korn's Elementree imprint, Orgy scored a surprise hit with a remarkably faithful rendition of New Order's "Blue Monday," and the floodgates opened. Fear Factory snagged Gary Numan for a version of "Cars," which hit big as a single (and as a Blade Runner-inspired video). NYC's Shootyz Groove, who like Powerman had made several forgettable rap-inflected hardcore albums, scored a single with the sunny Sugar Ray-ish California-pop single "L Train," but tacked on an XTC cover to their album just to be sure. Machine Head do a metalized version of the Police's "Message in a Bottle" (proving once again that rock's nü-school is taking its cues from hip-hop) on their forthcoming The Burning Red (Roadrunner). And near the end of Tonight the Stars Revolt!, PM5K take a relatively uninspired romp through the Cars' hit "Good Times Roll."

"Well, first of all, the cover-tune thing is getting a little out of hand," admits Spider. "The reason why we did 'Good Times Roll' was almost to say that. It's like, honestly, I think that most bands do a cover tune because they don't have any other strong material. I find that 'Good Times Roll' is almost the weakest point on our record. Well, cool, let's put it on, then. Because it says we don't need this. We're almost doing it because I see everybody doing it -- like, Limp Bizkit blows up with 'Faith,' and suddenly it's 'How can we get a hit? We need to do a cover tune.' We kind of really intentionally did it with that in mind, realizing that there're so many songs on the album that are so much stronger."

Plus, "Good Times Roll" isn't even the best Cars moment on the album -- that honor would have to go to "Nobody's Real," which with its simple, catchy ascending guitar hook and pulsing Martian keyboards sounds like the best Cars song anyone's written in years. "Exactly," Spider concurs. "When we wrote it, I was like, 'That sounds like the Cars!' And the funny thing is that we had considered working with Ric Ocasek to produce the album a long time before we even wrote the song. It's kind of weird how the Cars connection kept coming back to us."

More important, "Nobody's Real" contains what might be the album's defining statement -- partly a sequel to White Zombie's paean to hyper-realism, "More Human than Human," it's an acknowledgment that all selves are manufactured, a declaration of the liberating power of rock and roll that allows Marilyn Manson, like Johnny Rotten, to become a rock-and-roll Antichrist, Rob Cummings to become Rob Zombie, and Spider to admit, in Powerman's DreamWorks bio, that "being in a band is as close as I could get to being a superhero." Or, as he puts it in "Nobody's Real," "Rockets and robots can save your life/When you don't care about what's real, it's all right."

"That's sort of the key line in the song," says Spider. "People think by the nature of the title that it must be about, 'Oh everybody's fake and phony.' That never really came into my mind when I was writing it. I thought of it more like a sci-fi concept -- like a Westworld or Futureworld kinda vibe. To me that line means, like -- a lot of people would always say, 'Why do you write about this nonsense crap? This stuff doesn't mean anything,' and 'It's not real.' My answer to that was just like, 'Why isn't it?' Why isn't it just as important as writing about your heartache, or whatever? Pop culture has been, and still is, super-important in my life, and I'm sure it has been in a lot of peoples' lives. That's America's culture and that's where people learn about so many things, and it sort of shapes the way I am now. So I always thought that if you don't care about what's real -- meaning, what other people assume isn't real -- it'll be all right."

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