Interview: Powerman 5000

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After two decades of touring, writing, producing and performing music, sometimes bands lose their fire and desire. Many that keep touring after that long slip into being a nostalgia act without any true validity in the current music world. Powerman 5000, however, has been around for over two decades and is neither of those things.

Many things have changed in the two decades we have come to know Powerman 5000. The sound has evolved, the lineup has changed, the direction of the music has wavered but the band has come to terms with what makes it successful and continues to make new music in the niche it carved out for itself. In May, Powerman 5000 released its first new album in five years, Builders of the Future. It’s raw and powerful edgy sound is impressive and the album is far from boring. The album has many different vibes but stays true to the Powerman sound. The band has finally learned to embrace what it’s good at but move forward at the same time.

I was fortunate enough to get Spider One’s take on what it takes to make a record, the current state of the music world and what brought him back to music after a five year hiatus spent producing a TV show and living a different life.

Pop-Break: Obviously the band has been on quite a journey over the past, I don’t know, 23 years or so. Can you take us on the journey a little bit? On some of the highlights and whatever really shaped the journey thus far.

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Spider: Oh my God. That’s a huge question.

That’s what we’re going to start with!

S: It’s difficult to answer because when you put it in terms of 20 years. It seems like such a long time and I think that it is a long time. We’ve done so many things. When I look back to the early days of starting the band in Boston, with an entirely different group of people in such a different environment, everything is so different. The music was different. I feel like I was a different person. When I listen to those early records it’s like I don’t even know who that guy is. It’s a weird one but along the way there have been so many crazy accomplishments and ups and downs and everything in between that I would have never in a million years to have expected to go through. We’ve had a lot of success and we’ve struggled but it’s interesting when I think about the real value of being in the band. In some regards it’s not necessarily like, ‘Oh well we got a platinum record, that was a big moment’ and it was or the first time you heard yourself on the radio or when you got to out with bands that you grew up listening to. All those things add up but it really is just the fact that because, being in this ridiculous band has afforded me other experiences that I never in a million years. So success or accomplishments aside, it’s just the places I’ve been and the people I’ve gotten to meet and just the experience that you get from an entirely different perspective, being in a band. I just sometimes reflect that I would never have lived a life like this in any other way.

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That was a great way to answer a huge question so nicely done!

S: Thanks! I try.

So it’s been five years since your last real album out there, why was this the year for the return?

S: We’ve always been really bad at putting out records in a timely manner. Every time we put a record out we’re like this time we’re going to put out a record every year then suddenly five years goes by and we don’t. I don’t know. They sort of make themselves. Certainly since the days of the more structured album cycle thing when you’re part of a major label, you know you make a record, and you tour for this many years and you go back to the studio and there was much more of a stricter schedule. Since that aspect is gone, everything becomes a little freer and I guess this got interrupted because a couple of years ago I got involved in a TV project. I started producing a show called Death Valley that was on MTV for a spell so that ate up an enormous amount of my time. I thought that may be the future for me, doing things like that. And it still may be. I really loved it but when that stopped, I realized I really missed being in the band. I hadn’t really been putting much effort into it. I just didn’t have the time. I suppose that’s just really what it was is that after spending so much time doing a TV show and loving every second of it. I did miss the immediacy of being in a band so once we weren’t going to get a second season, that’s what kind of inspired me to get back to it and devote 100 percent of my energy to the band at least for the next year or two just to see what we can do with it this year and then that led to writing the songs, finding a record deal, playing shows so I guess it was more now was the opportunity to do it.

What was the biggest driving factor behind the music lately? Was it just that you missed it or something that really drove and inspired you?

S: I think what happens is, at least for me, whenever we make a record, making a record is never easy. It always seems like it’s going to be really simple but then it’s not. It becomes really difficult and the first song or two you’re like ‘Wow, this is great’ but then you struggle with it but I think that what happens is a song hits you and just when you think maybe you don’t have anymore. I’ve made however many albums and you start thinking I don’t know if I have anything else to say. Then suddenly an idea hits you like “How To Be A Human.” I don’t really look for the ideas, the ideas just sort of find me. You just find yourself open at certain points of your life or in the day or in whatever and those ideas are out there and they just come to you and that’s really what inspires you to start. Something happened; it’s just a term or an idea or a lyric or whatever, and then all of a sudden you’re just on that thing again where you’re propelled to create. I think that’s true with any, whether it’s music or painting or any kind of creative outlet. I think a lot of the times you don’t have much of a choice in it. You’re just compelled and you feel like you have to do it. I think there’s a reason why people do things from a public perspective. You look at bands or artists who have been around forever and in a sense their relevance is not what it used to be and I think it’s unfair to judge why is so and so still doing it? They should have hung it up years ago, but it’s not that simple. Because you never factor in that they enjoy it and they still feel excited about what they do. It’s not always about what the audience needs or wants.

Well how is this album different from the past and what does it mean to you, this album versus what you did maybe ten years ago?

S: I think that we’ve come full circle with our comfort level of what we are as a band. When we started out, I had no idea what I wanted to do or what I wanted to be. You start experimenting. You get together with a couple of people and you try to come up with a sound. It’s never a laid out plan like this is the kind of band that I want to be in because I was always so interested in different kinds of music. In the beginning it would have been easier if it was just like me and a few guys and we all just loved Nirvana and that’s what we wanted to sound like then we would have had a clear cut template, but it wasn’t. It was — I love punk rock and I love hip hop. I love electronic music. I love heavy metal and here I was, all these years, just trying to cram it all into this sound and then we became, sort of eventually I guess you could call us well-known for the Tonight the Stars Revolt record. That was this super electronic metal science fiction imagery kind of thing and then of course, inevitably when you become known for something you want to reject it and try something different. That’s what we did after and then we started stripping it down and made a couple of records that were more kind of punk-rock in spirit and kind of lost the electronic and lost a lot of the visual sense and just tried to sort of reject what everybody knew of us. But recently with this record and the record before this one I realized — this is what we are and this is really what we do best and it really is what our fans like the most about us. I’ve become happy being that band, being that weird electronic metal band. So this record, for me, is not about reinventing it anymore. It’s just about doing what we do the best we can, the best version of it. That’s what I feel like is sort of the point of this.

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Well now you guys have so much material. You personally have done so much in so many years. It’s obviously very hard to try to play everything. Is there a hardest song that you had to let go of from the past?

S: There are songs that I don’t like to play anymore and it’s not really difficult. I have always approached a live show where I want to play something I enjoy but I think there’s a certain element to giving people what they want. There are certain songs they want to hear. You don’t want to go out and not do your most well-known songs but I haven’t been doing anything from the real early days in quite a while, from the first couple of records, because it just, it almost feels like it’s not even me anymore. I feel like when I would do those songs, I just didn’t feel like I was being authentic so I decided to just eliminate those from the set list and, for some people, they bum out on that and they want to hear that early stuff but if I’m not feeling it, I can’t get up there and do it. I think it’s important to play, try to not just be a nostalgia act either and just play old stuff. I like playing new stuff. It’s more exciting for me and I think the songs are better so I just want to try to put the best possible set list together that I can.

You’ve been part of the music world in many different facets from major labels to getting to do what you want to do now. I’ve been talking to a lot of people lately about the state that the music world is in right now. What are your thoughts on it?

S: What do you mean specifically?

Well you were talking about album cycles and how everything used to work versus how it works now. Do you feel like that’s a positive evolution? Do you think that’s something that’s working for the artist in their favor or do you think it might be better to having that traditional album cycle back?

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S: I think the big difference now, back in let’s say the ‘90s, because that was sort of the peak of the music industry, 1999 was the peak of all CD sales and basically before digital downloading and streaming and all that stuff. Back then there was a very clear goal for bands and it wasn’t easy to do but there was a clear path. It’s like you wanted to get a record deal, you wanted to get on a major label and once you achieved that goal there were really three things that you had to do to guarantee that you were going to be successful and that was get on the radio, get on MTV and get some press and back then there was Rolling Stone and Spin and people actually bought magazines so in some ways, the funneling system to get to that point was narrow. Not everyone got there but when you did you sort of at least felt like, “Hey I’m going to get the prize because I made it,” but now there’s no clear goal and there’s no clear path. Bands come up to me all the time like do you have any advice for us and I’m like I have no fucking idea what you’re supposed to do right now. I don’t!

I mean there’s no way to monetize recorded music anymore. It just doesn’t happen anymore. It used to be a dollar business. You’d sell a CD and you’d make a dollar off of it. Then it became downloading and it became a penny business. It’s like, okay, well we got our song downloaded on iTunes and we get like 12 cents so whatever that means I don’t even know. And now that’s gone and everyone’s just streaming and everyone loves the fact that there’s Spotify and I can get every song I could ever want but the reality is that you cannot make any money with that system. You can get your song streamed one million times and you probably get a check for like $40 so that’s changed enormously, but on the other end, the positive end is that you can make an album in your bedroom on your laptop and you can distribute it to the world the next day on iTunes and all these things and that’s great and that, to me, is the upside, that you do have these opportunities.

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I just don’t know, just sort of getting anyone to notice what you’re doing is becoming more increasingly difficult. I used to love that when an album came out, it felt like an event. You’ve got your record label and they’re like we’ve got the posters and we’ve got this and all this stuff that you did around it and MTV is going to play it on this day and at this time and there was this big anticipation, more sort of like when a big movie comes out and you sort of anticipate it but now there’s no anticipation. It’s just out there. Even as a person who, myself, I feel like I pay attention to what’s going on in music but there’s records that come out that I didn’t even know ever existed. I hate to sound too negative but I think the problem is, there is no value, no perceived value in music anymore because it’s too easy to get. Whenever there is an effort put into something, you value it more. I think about when I was a kid and I had to get a record. I had to get my parents to drive me to the mall or I had to ride my bike or whatever it was and you had to go to the store and you had to go in the store and look through the bin and find it and pick it up and walk to the cash register and pay for it and then you still couldn’t listen to it. You had to go home and you had to open it up and so there was an effort put into something so you valued it and now, it’s like oh I want to hear that, let me pull it up on YouTube, hit play for 30 seconds through my ear buds that sound like absolute dog shit and that’s it. There’s no value. I think that leads over to other aspects of it, the live shows. I don’t know. I know I sound more negative than I actually am about everything and I do think that everything balances and there are a lot of positive things that happen. The fact that you don’t need a record label anymore and you don’t need a lot of things but I do in a way miss those things, back with the idea of having a goal and a clear path to success.

I remember the days when I’d go to the record store on Tuesday because that’s when an album dropped so I know what you’re talking about.

S: Yeah. It’s value! There are physical things that you value like you go buy a new pair of shoes, you value that, you’re going to take care of them. But music, unfortunately, was a casualty. People value it emotionally in their lives but I’m not quite sure that they understand that. it has become increasingly difficult to be a professional musician.

Well now you’re back in the conversation. You’re back out there in the music world that everybody is going to hopefully be talking about but I can understand the stress of not having the same system. I can’t decide if it’s a good or bad thing yet either.

S: We may not know yet either. We may still be in transition and there might be the next thing that we don’t even see coming yet, who knows.

Alright, so I want to get one more thing, bring you back to the topic at hand, the new album. I want people to go out there and start listening to it. Where should they start? Should they play the album top to bottom? What song should they start with?

S: That’s a good question. I think that it is a full listen, not to say it’s something that needs to be listened to in its entirety but we did strategically make relatively short records because I’m a fan of records you want to listen to twice, not get to track 17 and be like okay enough is enough. So this record is like a concise 35 minute, no filler, just make sure every song on it served a purpose. I think it is a record you want to listen to beginning to end but if you want to start with certain songs, the first single, “How To Be A Human” is a great start or one of my favorite songs, “You’re Going To Love It, If You Like It Or Not” and there’s another sort of left of center song, “I Want To Kill You,” it’s like something we’ve never done before. It’s one of those songs that literally, I went in the studio and we did it in one day beginning to end. I wrote the lyrics sitting there on my phone, the vocals in one take kind of thing. It was really one of those cool magical things that happened and then I got really scared about it like should I put this on the record? This is not what people expect from us. We’ve done weird things before but they’ve usually served as a hidden track or put at the end of the record but to me this was a real song and I’m glad I put it on there. It’s gotten a lot of positive response. it’s certainly not a song that would represent what Powerman is but it’s a great song to check out.

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Lisa Pikaard is a senior writer of Pop-Break who can be read weekly as part of Pop-Break’s Singles Party. She can also frequently be found reviewing and interviewing hard rock bands but her photo is secretly (or not so secretly now) on the Backstreet Boy’s Never Gone album booklet. Country, pop, rock, the genre doesn’t matter; she loves it all. Lisa also likes to dabble in book reviews and somehow convinced Monmouth University to award her a Master’s in English for writing a thesis called ‘Harry Potter and the Rhetoric of Terrorism.’ While her dream is to interview musicians on a daily basis, she is currently works at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, not a bad alternative. Music, football and literature are her passions. Follow her on Twitter: @nygiantsnjgrl