The spacesuits are long gone, but as a band, Powerman 5000 is as strong as ever, touring the country in support of its latest album, the punk-rock-fueled Destroy What You Enjoy. When the band hit the Recher Theatre in Towson, Maryland, frontman Spider sat down with Jason Price and Jeff Maki of Live-Metal.net to discuss the new CD, the surprise success of the 1999 breakthrough Tonight the Stars Revolt! and more.
How did you first get into music?
Like any kid, I always listened to music. Whatever was on the radio, I would listen to it. I’d say that around 13 or 14 years old I started discovering all the great punk rock bands like The Clash, the Ramones and the Sex Pistols. I grew up in a small town on the East Coast where there was nothing to do and when I started to find all these bands, it was just so fucking exciting. I couldn’t believe that there were people in the world like that. So that is when I bought a bass for $15 and tried to start a band in high school. I just had the worst band in the world and decided that it was more fun to jump around and sing and went from there. It was really those initial bands that opened up this whole world for me.
Who and what were some of your influences that have helped shaped the Spider we know today?
There are twos types of people that start playing music. There are the ones that strive to be the most proficient musician and want to be able to be able to play every solo Eddie Van Halen plays. Then there are other people like me that just love the spirit of rock and the energy, knowing that you can make a great song with just two chords and you don’t have to be the greatest singer in the world, the whole punk rock thing and all the hardcore bands like Black Flag and Minor Threat. Then I even got into hip-hop for a while. To me, that was the same kind of thing. I was like, “Fuck! You don’t even have to know how to sing! [laughs]. You don’t even have to know how to play an instrument, all you need is a drum machine! [laughs] I was kinda into that whole idea, not having to be a great musician, but you can still make great music.
So for people not familiar with the band, how did Powerman 5000 come about?
It’s tough to say because it has been through so many changes. But I think that we probably played our first show or did our first recordings in the early ’90s, ’91 or ’92. So it has actually been a long, long time! [laughs] I can’t believe it. Sometimes it feels like yesterday and sometimes it’s like “Fuck! I have been in this band for 15 years? Where does the time go?
How do you think your sound has changed in that time?
It changes all the time. It changes from record to record. The new record is much more stripped-down and raw. It is much more real rock n’ roll. We sorta lost what we are known for, which is the electronic aspect of it. On the new record, there is really none of that. We kinda work backwards. A lot of bands start out really simple and they add more and more. We started out with all the shit and started taking it away. So I think that is pretty much the biggest change.
The official site quotes you as saying that Destroy What You Enjoy is the best PM5K record yet. Why?
I think it is because we made a real rock record. We didn’t rely on a bunch of tricks. I think it is some of the best hooks and most memorable songs out of the whole catalog that will stand the test of time. There are certain things about a good melody or a good guitar hook that just last forever.
How have the fans, in your opinion, been reacting to it?
Completely mixed, like usual. With every record that we put out, it is usually split right down the middle. We get this new crop of kids who love it and you get the old school fans that hate it because you have changed. It happens to us every time. On our last album, Transform, the kids who were old school fans were just freaking out, hating it. Like, “What did you do?” or “This is not Powerman!” And now those same kids refer to it as our “classic album.” [laughs] So it is funny. You get people who want you to stay the same and want you to do the same thing over and over, but I know that if I did that, those same people would be bored. But live, the new songs go over great. So that is kind of the ultimate test.
You have had a lot of lineup changes since the band’s formation and in recent years. How has that affected you and PM5K?
It’s good and bad. It is bad in the sense that it makes things a lot more difficult. You are continually feeling like you have to re-energize the band and almost start from the ground up. On the other hand, it definitely keeps things interesting. It definitely helps in that effort to always keep things new and keep the sound fresh. I would have loved the band to have been the same members forever and have that sorta U2 kinda thing where it’s those guys forever but, hey, ya know? [shrugs]
Do you have any contact with the former members of the band?
Yeah, on different levels. Different relationships with different people. With some, I have a good relationship with, but with others it is a little strained. But what are ya going to do?
What would you say is the biggest misconception about yourself or the band?
Good question. I think that there is an idea that when we blew up and had our big record, which was Tonight the Stars Revolt!, that we were some sort of overnight, record label contrived band. The reality was that I had been in this band for eight years playing every shitty little club there was on the East Coast before any record label even looked at us. I think that we are actually beating that rap now. It’s funny because we have been around so long and been through so many ups and downs, labels and member changes, that we have finally turned the corner where there is a certain amount of respect for this band. It’s like, “Wow, man, they are still fuckin’ doing it!” A lot of bands, the second there is trouble, they are gone. The second that the label or success gives, they are gone. For me, it is either you do it or you don’t. You can’t judge yourself on what label you are signed to or how many records that you are selling that particular month or whatever. You are in a band.
You mentioned the success of Tonight the Starts Revolt! Was that something that you expected?
No, it was so weird, man. The funny thing about that record was that the record before that was a small, underground hit, Mega!! Kung Fu Radio, and we were just doing our thing. Then I was like, “Let’s do this weird sci-fi record and wear these fuckin’ spacesuits.” The label was like, “This is the worst idea that we have ever heard!” I remember record label people showing up at our photo shoots and just shaking there heads and they thought we were crazy. I remember our A&R guy sitting us down in his office and saying, “Watch this, just watch this.” And he puts on these videos like Deftones and say’s “See, they have like baggy pants and chain wallets and they are skateboarding. That is what you should be doing! What is this spacesuit shit?” And it’s funny because ultimately a lot of kids thought that the whole sci-fi thing was a label idea and that they made us do it. The fact is that they [the label] hated it. I honestly didn’t expect it to do anything. It just seemed so ridiculous that I thought only a small amount of people would even get it. Then all of a sudden it was like, “Boom!” and we were on MTV and going on tour with every show sold out. We would roll into town and listen to the radio and listen to their top five countdown and we would be number one above Nine Inch Nails and bands like that. I couldn’t believe it. It was so fuckin’ weird. We made this weird record about fucking robots and shit that I didn’t think anyone would get except for some nerdy comic book kids. But that is how it works though. That is why you can never try to have a hit. You can never try to make a record for anyone but yourself because you never know what is going to work.
Does Destroy What You Enjoy mark a new direction for the band?
I think so for now. Who knows where my head will be at next year. It feels right now. It feels like the most fun. The cool thing is that we can set up on a big stage with a bunch of production or we could set up outside on a street corner and the show would still be as cool because it is about rocking out and not costumes or lights. That is sorta what I wanted to get back to, the feeling of just being a really good band and not having to worry about the other stuff quite as much.
How has the “digital revolution” affected the band with the advent of the iPod, downloading and MySpace?
It’s interesting. All of that is going to play out big time in X amount of years. We talked about MySpace and how you can have 30,000 friends, but I don’t know that translates to actual record sales. I do think that it is all coming together were eventually that will be the music business, where everything is digital and there will be no record stores, or record stores like we know them. Time will tell.
You have some local bands opening up for you tonight. Is that the case with the whole tour?
Yeah! We have toured the last year and a half or so with local bands opening. It just sorta makes sense and it is kinda cool because it is different everyday. There is an aspect of it that I like because those bands are totally into it and appreciate it. You don’t have the drama of taking some band out that thinks that they are rock stars. So it is cool to have local bands open. Sometimes you get goods ones and sometimes you get ones like you can’t believe man! [laughs] It is definitely entertaining!
It has been more good than bad?
There aren’t a lot of good bands out there. It is amazing. You would think that with all these bands and having three or four open, that there has got to be the next big thing.
They all sound the same.
Yeah, that is the thing. Everyone is a follower. It is very rare that you see bands that stick out and try to do their own thing. But it is fun.
Being in the music industry as long as you have, are there still surprises?
I feel like I have seen it all, ya know what I mean? It is just surprising how much more difficult it has become to sell records and draw crowds. It is just a tougher game now. Radio stations are going away. There is something surprising: New York City doesn’t have a rock station. That is something where you think, “How is that even possible?” The biggest city in America with no place to get your song on the radio. There is a station called MTV that doesn’t play music videos. Where else do you go other than tour? If you aren’t a good touring band, it is really hard to survive.
For those how haven’t seen Powerman 5000 live, how would you describe it?
Now it is more about a real stripped-down, raw, rock n’ roll show. I think it is about the crowd as much it is about the band now. It used to be, “Here is the spectacle, look at us!” and now it is about being on equal footing. It is about the crowd interaction and they determine where the show goes for me. I used to sorta do my thing and put on my show and it wouldn’t really matter, but now it if the crowd is up with me, I will let them know! [laughs]
As we all know, your family is no stranger to multi-processing. Do you have anything in the works outside the realm of music?
Yeah, I do actually. I always do, but I am also not one to talk about anything until it’s happening. But, yeah, I am definitely in that mindset of “What’s next? What else can I get my hands involved with?” And I definitely have some projects in the works over the next year. Maybe the next time that we talk I can tell you a little more about those.
Any plans in the works for more releases on Megatronic Records?
I don’t know. Running a label is not very much fun at all. Every once in a while, I get that urge of having my own label and I re-energize Megatronic and then the reality of it sets in. There is a reason that there are record company people and I am in a band! [laughs] Never say never, but no plans right now.
Do you think we will ever see a Powerman/Rob Zombie tour?
Maybe! That is up to him really. I think it would be great. We have done a couple of shows together, like radio shows, but we have never done a real tour together. I don’t know though. He just finished up this latest tour and you never know with him if he is ever going to do it again. He goes through such phases where it’s like, “I’m done!” And then he makes another record. Then he is like, “I made a record, I am gonna tour forever!” So we will see what happens.
And finally, when do you think Chinese Democracy will be released?
[laughs] Yeah, that is a good question! I hear that it is supposed to come out this year, but then he has been saying that for years. I think that he should have released that thing about 10 years ago. He seems to be popping up more and more recently, so maybe he is gearing up for it. [laughs] That guy is a nut!
Jason Price founded the mighty Icon Vs. Icon more than a decade ago. Along the way, he’s assembled an amazing group of like-minded individuals to spread the word on some of the most unique people and projects on the pop culture landscape.