This article was written by Bill Salfelder, an enthusiast of manned spaceflight who works at CD Baby and fronts the Star Trek-themed death metal band Stovokor, based here in Portland, Oregon.
If you were to have asked me 16 years ago (when I started playing in bands) if I thought there would be a time in my life where I was best known for dressing up like an alien and grunting at an audience, I’d most likely have had one of those super-satisfying belly laughs and told you where to go and what to do when you got there.
The truth is there are about fifty billion ways to go about performing music. I just happened to pick one of the weirdest routes.
I play in a persona band.
I can picture the majority of you staring at your computer screen with a look of puzzlement. Is a persona band the same thing as a tribute band? Well, we ARE a tribute to… something, but we don’t dress and act like any band that already exists. Is a persona band like a cover band? Absolutely not. We’ve only played two covers over the course of ten years.
A persona band is something that most of you are familiar with; you probably just haven’t heard the term before. So I’m going to clue you in on exactly what that term means, and the pros and cons of starting a band like mine.
A persona band basically adopts a specific stage gimmick and sticks with it 100%. Think of KISS or GWAR. both of those bands are great examples of what we do (well KISS, up until about 1980, but that is a whole different story). Persona bands present a pageantry and showmanship often left out of more serious musical projects while still delivering original music that caters to their audience. By creating characters and crafting a story around the band, you add a new layer to the multi-faceted world of performing. These characters allow you to work in ways that you might not normally, affording you the opportunity to explore the stage and your audience in a fashion that the average musician wouldn’t even be aware of.
That can be both a blessing and a curse.
The major upside to playing in a persona band is that you essentially have a built-in audience, because even people that might not enjoy the type of music you play may love the spectacle and will see your band to experience something different than the average show. This gives you a chance to get your music in front of people that may never see another band from your genre again. In my case, I play a fictional alien (a Klingon) from a television series (Star Trek) and perform death metal. Now, there have been hundreds of times that people have approached me post-show and said something to the effect of “I hate death metal, but I love what you do.” Those very people, most of which buy a shirt or a CD, would NEVER have come to a death metal show, if not for the fact that they like the concept of the band. That is not only gratifying on a personal level, but also professionally, as exposure truly is the name of the game in our industry.
Another benefit of playing in a persona band is that it gives you a chance to play with bands that you otherwise would not have the chance to perform with. My band has played with acts ranging from hardcore punk, all-female indie rock, and even experimental vocal groups. Most death metal bands play exclusively with other extreme metal bands, so I feel blessed to have such a diverse history of shows. That diversity is something I directly attribute to playing in this specialized group and I consider it a true benefit of my musical choice.
The other benefit that I’d add in here is not just the variety of bands that you get to play with, but also the opportunities that your gimmick can provide for shows. Depending on what you choose, there can be an entire network of fans out there that will want to book you because of your persona. I have played at the top of the Space Needle (one of only two bands to have ever done this), been filmed for movies and have played many gigs specifically built around us as a band, all due to hardcore fans of the gimmick we present. This can be invaluable as a musician as I think there is nothing more substantial than feeling as though you are breaking new ground with every presented opportunity.
Now, it’s not all peaches and cream with persona bands. It takes a lot of work, in both the creative and functional aspects. I have played in standard bands as well, and getting ready for a show without having an hour of makeup to put on is something most bands take for granted. I certainly don’t.
The preparation involved depends highly on the gimmick that you utilize. It could be as simple as a mask and a jumpsuit (ala Slipknot), or as complicated as an entirely makeup-covered body with appliances (ala Zolar X). This is something to consider when choosing a persona, as it WILL become a factor before, during and after your shows. The makeup I wear, compounded by my height (which brings me closer to the already searing stage-lights), creates the most uncomfortable hour of my life at every show. That being said, it’s a sacrifice I gladly make in order to have the fun that I do at our shows. So consider your gimmick carefully.
Another issue with playing in the kind of band I do is that people (especially other musicians) are predisposed to not taking you seriously. There is a stigma that surrounds persona bands, an assumption that they lack talent in actually crafting music, so they lean on a stage gimmick to divert your attention from the fact that they can’t play. Although that may be the case with a minority of the persona bands, most of us practice and write just as much and as hard as anyone else. My band made a decision early on that our music would come FIRST in the overall picture and the persona would be perfected through the course of playing, and that is exactly how it went down. We started writing strange and progressive metal songs, working hard on the actual craft so when people came to see us they were not only going to see a stage show but hear some great music as well.
I cannot stress this enough: practice and write the way you would with any band. Write great songs and then craft the gimmick around that foundation. As I mentioned, people are not going to take you seriously in this venture at first, so you have to show them that although you’re fun, you’re not joking.
All in all, I think starting a persona band is a great idea for any musician. It lets you bring out all aspects of your creativity and offers you a chance to do something a little more off-the-wall than the average band. So get out there and pick a gimmick! I still have never seen an A-Team band or a Planet of the Apes band. Just saying…