Is metal as po-faced as people say it is? Michael Starr spends his days singing about drugs, sex and STDs, while Johannes Eckerström conducts his own heavy metal circus. We chat to the Steel Panther and Avatar frontmen about the art of keeping the fun in heavy music – and why you should never call either group a gimmick band.
Is the age of the rockstar dead?
Michael: “Well, you look at Avatar and Steel Panther and you have some rockstars in those bands! That’s the way I like to perceive it. I think people enjoy having someone be in their face, making them engage in the show, and that’s what we do.”
Johannes: “I’ve never understood what a rockstar is, actually, but looking at Michael now, OK, I see a rockstar! But I just feel like a typical, normal Swede. This is what we do. We paint our faces and light lots of fires, because it’s cold where we come from.”
Even by Scandinavian standards you have a very unique take on corpsepaint and dressing up…
Johannes: “Yeah, we’re having fun! That’s the big difference.”
Michael: “I think everyone’s missing fun! Everybody has different moods, and the mood isn’t angry all the time. There has to be some sort of outlet for people to just enjoy themselves, engage, have a laugh, have a beer with their buddies, maybe get laid after the show!”
Johannes: “In our case, it’s just brilliant that we get away with way more deranged and dark and twisted things. That was never the intention, but again, we’re Swedish, ha ha! Some of our stuff that they play on the radio, I don’t think they know what it really means. [Looks at Michael] Same with you guys and The Shocker! Although I guess you do sing what that is…”
Michael: “They don’t put us on the radio! I listen to satellite radio all the time and you never hear our band on there. Ever. And that’s all I’ve ever wanted – to be on the fucking radio. To turn it on, hear my song and have my mom hear it.”
Johannes: “You should have started rapping.”
Please don’t start rapping. Do you think metal takes itself too seriously? Do we all need to lighten up?
Johannes: “Aren’t we living proof that we’re doing that? Wasn’t the Breaking The Law video fun, where they end up playing cardboard Flying V guitars?”
Who were the larger-than-life characters that you first saw as children that made you want to be a performer?
Johannes: “Hulk Hogan! That was the first time in my case where I wanted to have an audience.”
Michael: “Van Halen were the hook for me. I used to love looking at their record covers, and my only outlet for those sources back in those days were magazines like Metal Hammer. I looked at bands like that in those pages, and I wanted to be in those magazines. Also, David Lee Roth is one of my favourite singers. On the record, live, everything. And that band had fun. David would crack some jokes, fuck bitches and get hammered.”
Johannes: “While the music delivered. And you can’t have one without the other!”
That’s another point – both your bands could be labelled ‘gimmick bands’, but you go to great lengths to bring the music and the wider vision up to scratch
Johannes: “At the end of the day, it has to be about the music, otherwise it doesn’t work. You know, Michael, the first time I read about you in this magazine, I didn’t expect that you’d be able to play, but you can – and really, really well! There’s a big difference between being ‘fun’ or ‘funny’ and being a fucking joke.”
Michael: “I think people judge books by their covers. It’s a natural instinct, so people see us and go, ‘Pfft, they suck.’ And that’s OK, because we get people to come to our shows through word of mouth. People come and see us and they either go, ‘Oh, I really like that band, everyone should go see them’ or ‘Urgh, that band fucking sucks.’ Whatever way it turns.”
Johannes: “But also, you kinda want the haters a little bit. I remember, on one of our very first press releases, someone put it on Blabbermouth, and there were no comments. Nothing! But now, with a little bit more success, we finally have some haters, so I’m like, ‘Yes, we’ve made it!”
Michael: “If you have haters, you know you have made it. ’Cause, you know, when you were younger, if a girl hated you, it meant she wanted to fuck you!”
Is there anywhere you’d draw the line? What’s too over the top for Steel Panther and Avatar?
Michael: “I’m gonna take a guess that there’s no limit for Avatar.”
Johannes: “Well, we mentioned that word ‘gimmick’. Sometimes the press has their own gimmick and they want you to be a part of that. When it turns to ‘dance, monkey, dance’, that’s when it’s too far for me. Otherwise it can misrepresent your band.”
What about you, Michael? Any limits on Steel Panther?
Michael: “I dunno, not really. I just stay away from political stuff. It’s so segregated. I think music is inclusive to everybody, and I think whatever your views, race, gender, whatever it is, everyone can love music. Everybody has their own tastes, and I wouldn’t wanna endorse anything political.”
So you wouldn’t have played Donald Trump’s inauguration ceremony, then?
Michael: “Oh God no, we wouldn’t do anything like that.”
Is there a lack of identity within the scene at the moment?
Johannes: “So many people try to figure out what is expected of them.”
Michael: “Exactly. It was the same thing in the 80s when Guns N’ Roses came out. There were so many Guns N’ Roses wannabe bands.”
Johannes: “And it never works for them, they never end up headlining any good places. It has to be something real in there.”
Michael: “And that’s what it comes down to; there has to be some legitimacy in there. People can see right through you if you don’t believe in what you’re doing. There’s a lot of great talent around – great singers, great players, great songwriters, and people can find them all now. It’s not shoved down your throat.”
Steel Panther’s Lower The Bar is out now via Kobalt. Avatar’s Feathers & Flesh is out now via Century Media