Filmed in Las Vegas, Monster Magnet's video for "Space Lord" comments on all that's wrong with hard rock. The "song commercial" borrows symbols from hip-hop -- scantily clad dancing girls, smooth rides and phat gear -- and recontextualizes them to show just how far away from excess that rock and roll has gone. As the bandmembers lip-sync and pretend to play their instruments in front of giant, neon-entwined Vegas hotels on a wet street, "Monster Magnet" -- spelled out in two-foot-high letters on a flashing marquee -- hovers high overhead. The imagery is straight out of a Puff Daddy video. But "Space Lord" is exceptional and looks damn good because there aren't any other rockers willing to embrace the larger-than-life personas that videos like this require. You can't have an aw-shucks attitude when almost-naked women are writhing in front of you.
All of this grandiosity also helped Magnet frontman Dave Wyndorf complete the band's latest record, Powertrip (A&M). He wrote the brunt of the material in, where else, Vegas.
"I was, like, 'Fuck it,' " he says. "Instead of me trying to write some mastermind record that's going to appeal to a million people and probably suck anyway, I'm just going to do it the old fashioned way -- go someplace like Vegas, hole up in a hotel, bring an acoustic guitar and a tape deck, and write a song every day. I wanted to rock out with my cock out, basically. The whole record was written with a big, 'Fuck you.' "
Twenty-one days and 21 songs after arriving in Vegas, Wyndorf had the bare bones of Powertrip ready to roll. But translating his visions of the apocalypse into sound was more difficult than he imagined. He and the band (which includes Ed Mundell, Joe Calandra and Jon Kleiman) went into the studio and laid it down with Matt Hyde (Porno for Pyros, Sublime), but they struggled to find the right person to mix it. Finally Randy Staub (Veruca Salt, Metallica) understood what Monster Magnet was hoping to sound like (i.e., a rock band) and came in and helped.
Powertrip ended up exactly how Wyndorf envisioned it: big, hungry and mean. The guitars are thick with distortion and phase-shifters, and Wyndorf's singing about such things as humping volcanoes only adds to the dark allure. It's rock, baby. The kind that scares parents and college kids alike. Powertrip is unfashionable to the point of extreme. The artwork smacks of metal sexism (bikini babes surround the band), songs have umlaut-laden titles ("Baby Gstterdamerung"), and the guys have long, stringy hair. But the classic bump and grind is a great palette cleanser in a time of prepackaged teen groups, vapid divas, a sputtering alternative scene and stale hip-hop.
Wyndorf has his own theories about why rock and roll of the old-school style has fallen from favor. "College rock mentality, over the course of the '90s, combined with the help of very well intentioned, sensitive young rock people -- who are medicated and don't obey their loins -- has created a situation where the whole primal rock and roll circus has been given to people who will use it: rap guys."
On Powertrip, the band's fourth record, the Magnet -- like the class clown sniffing glue in the back of the room -- speaks in classic hard-rock code, what with outer-space references, outlandish sexual imagery and drug references only Wyndorf understands composing a large part of the material. Filling its songs with droning washes of guitars instead of quick speed riffs, the band is more Blue Cheer than Iron Maiden. And unlike most metal players, who sing primarily to the male sensibility, Wyndorf and company want rocker dudes and rocker chicks to love them. Humor also plays a big role in the band, as the liner notes to its first record sarcastically explain, "It's a satanic drug thing; you wouldn't understand." Still, when Wyndorf sets his guitar on fire and swings it around his head in concert, you have to wonder if he has traded his sense of irony for KISS-like showmanship.
It's obvious that Wyndorf has become a caricature of himself, and he sees the humor in that. Larger than life, tougher than his leather pants, he understands all the cliches, but on two levels. This alter ego, this Rock Guy, is all about the obvious, full-throttle metal experience. Rock Guy is also a joke, an exaggeration. And since Wyndorf is smarter than Rock Guy, the real person is in on the joke. But neither has ever minced words, extended metaphors or shied away from outrageous experiences. As a result, they both have a lot of stories to tell through the music. That's why the guys with White Zombie T-shirts dig Monster Magnet, and why people who should seem to know better (read: rock critics) do as well. The band rocks.
Wyndorf, from Redbank, New Jersey, took monumental amounts of LSD and other drugs in his teens, eventually gathering up fellow suburbanites to make music to take drugs to. The first two Monster Magnet releases were on cassette only, 1989's Forget Life, I'm High on Dope and I'm High, What're You Gonna Do About It, titles emblematic of their approach to life. But it was with Spine of God (Primo Scree/ Caroline), released in 1992 -- as grunge had made it okay to like dumb, repetitive MC5-inspired riffs with lyrics about beer and pot -- that Monster Magnet began to make headway into the popular (altered) consciousness.
Its major-label debut, Superjudge (A&M), in 1993, was part of a holding pattern, lacking power and experimental weirdness. Dopes to Infinity, released in 1995, was better, as the "Negasonic Teenage Warhead" video scored some play on MTV and the band received attention from the White Zombie/Pantera crowd. The Magnet members thought they had it made when they got home from their 1996 tour (fame equals money, right?), but when Wyndorf talked to the accountants at A&M, he realized the band was deep in debt.
When it came time to cut a new record, monetary concerns added to the pressure for Wyndorf to write a hit album, the kind of challenge which is never healthy for the creative process. Choosing to write in Vegas gave Wyndorf a fresh perspective on human depravity. "It's cheap, it's open 24 hours a day, [and] it has a lot to do with the way I was feeling when I went to write the record," says Wyndorf. "I was getting a lot of heat from various people, especially myself. It's our third major [label] record; it's time to sell a lot of records or get out or move to Europe, something like that. At the same time I was looking at the rock and roll charts, and all I see are ska bands. [I thought], 'There's no place for me here. I'm a psychedelic rock and roll guy. I don't know if people are going to dig what I'm doing, and, moreover, why should I even try? Why don't I just move to Holland where they do dig it?' "
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Rock Guy, however, took over. Wyndorf and company could have made a career playing to the metalheads in Europe, doing summer festivals and the like, but they wouldn't have been happy giving up so soon on their homeland. Rock Guy needed to be out on the road in America, soaking up the solitude that happens only in hotel rooms along the blue highways or wherever. So as soon as the record was cut, it was back to the grindstone, Wyndorf-style.
Opening for Hole and Marilyn Manson presents a unique challenge for a band with such a sense of irony. Crowds at arena shows like to see things in the extreme (such as Courtney Love's ego or Manson's bible-tearing rants), and though Monster Magnet does have a powerful show, the humorous aspects may go right over concertgoers' heads.
"There's a lot of humor; how can there not be?" says Wyndorf. "Any band with a tour manager turns into [legendary joke band] Spinal Tap; even I recognize that. I wouldn't have it any other way. When we opened for Van Halen, half the crowd was kind of bemused, and the other half of the crowd was not digging it. It was, like, 'Why is this hairy man screaming at me?' " he says with a laugh. "The only way I can take something like that is to go, 'We're Monster Magnet, and we're going to have a good time now. If you want to join in, you can, and if you don't want to join in, then you're a bunch of fat-ass, Prozac-taking motherfuckers.' "
Monster Magnet performs Sunday, March 21, at 7 p.m. at the Compaq Center, opening for Hole and Marilyn Manson. Tickets are $29.50.