Powerman 5000's sci-fi new wave
by Carly Carioli
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
"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
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
"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
"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
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."
Powerman 5000 play a free show at Tower Records, 360 Newbury Street, next
Tuesday, July 20, at 10 p.m. Call (617) 247-5900.
Powerman 5000, Reveille, and Double Drive, August 10 at Avalon: on sale
Thursday, July 15 at 10 a.m., call 423-NEXT.