Make no mistake; there is a big difference between a run-of-the-mill lead singer and a bona fide frontman. Huge, really. Not just anybody has the magnetism required to convince 20,000 people at the American Airlines Center to raise their hands above their heads and clap, or the charm to make 1,000 folks at the Granada Theater to feel like his band is performing a private show in each of their living rooms.
It's a tricky skill set to master, but when somebody truly masters it -- like a Mick Jagger -- it can make a band like the Rolling Stones one of the biggest on the planet. Or as Roger Daltrey sang in The Who's "Join Together": "It's the singer not the song that makes the music move along."
But what does it mean to be a good frontman and when does one cross that invisible threshold from being charismatic to being hokey or distracting? To help us answer this question we invited John Spies of Soviet and Douglas Hale of Air Review -- two noted local frontmen -- to help with the discussion.
Cory: For starters there seem to be two distinct schools of thought as far as what makes a good frontman. There is on the one hand the outrageous behavior of the David Lee Roth variety, those singers who often place much emphasis on the showmanship aspect of the performance. At the opposite end of the spectrum lies the Andrew Bird types who are much more concerned with making good music than a good live show. Certainly both performance styles have their merits, but I'm sure you guys have differing opinions on what makes a good frontman.
Doug: I think there's validity in both approaches. I think the most important characteristic a frontman needs to convey is sincerity. I've seen my share of frontmen (and women) who's entire persona and stage presence feels grotesquely contrived. And I think people pick up on that. If it's truly who they are then doing back-flips off the subs is going to feel right for the audience. But if it looks like they're just trying to put on a good show then the crowd's going to call B.S. on it.
At the same time, larger than life theatrics aren't the end-all of showmanship. One of the best frontmen around in my opinion is Glen Hansard of The Swell Season & The Frames. He has a brilliant charisma that captivates his audiences. There's not an ounce of pretense -- he just has it. He engages the crowd -- keeping them entertained and intrigued with stories and banter. It feels as if it's just you and him hanging out in your living room. It feels sincere. And people eat it up.
Cory: Even if done with the utmost sincerity, isn't there a certain point where the back-flips off the subs become distracting? Ultimately bands (at least those with any sort of longevity) become popular because of their product musically, so how does one know where the line is between being an entertaining and engaging figure and one that detracts from positive things your band mates might be doing. Alex Greenwald of Phantom Planet comes to mind in that regard. I remember seeing them at Trees way back when and while is bandmates would be pulling off these really impressive and intense guitar solos he'd be running around the stage or crowd drawing as much attention away from them and back onto himself.
John: Well, I think that it depends. While I agree with both of you that sincerity is paramount to a band's success, sometimes I'm sincere when I'm spitting at the audience, or crawling on the floor screaming. But if anything, when I get off the stage I feel horrible for having done those things that now, in my less adrenaline-fueled state, seem super immature and foolish. That's a really depressing feeling, like you somehow cheated yourself and the audience by being such a huge doucher. And by cheating the audience, I really mean cheating the audience of hearing great songs that you freaking wrote. Any boob can buy a ticket to Journey/Foreigner/Styx bill at the glorious and profitable Winstar World Casino, but any fool doesn't just wander in on the next Oasis at their local bar. If you can make all 14 people at Club Dada on a Wednesday night think you're the best band in the world, you've already won. You have their hearts. Good "acts" are easy to come by. Brilliant "bands" are the ones whose posters you put on your ceiling so you can just stare at how cool they are. The "OMG THEY R MAH FAV" bands are the ones that embrace both of those designations and find a happy medium between the two. You worship those kinds of bands, and everyone has their different definition of where that medium is. For some people it's KISS, for others it's Tom Waits, and for still others, it's the Wu-Tang Clan.
If I think about it though, this is actually a timely conversation because Soviet is in the process of trying to find that medium, and it's certainly tricky. We are toning down the "punk" and bringing more of our shoegazer influence into the live show and in the studio. It's changed because we've matured as people and musicians, and it's beautiful how the band naturally begins to reflect that.
Doug: I definitely think there is an art to understanding the balance between the theatrics and not hijacking the music. I certainly prefer the Hansard approach when seeing most bands, but there are plenty of frontmen that have been over the top while maintaining plenty of artistic longevity. Freddie Mercury comes to mind. But people expected it -- and it was cohesive with the music -- which perhaps is where Greenwald has gone wrong.
That being said -- maybe the days of Mr. Rock-God the frontman dazzling 80,000 people with his butterfly kicks are over? I certainly hope so.
Sufjan Stevens is a great example of knowing how and when to turn it on -- and when to let the music speak for itself. I saw him on the Illinois tour, and he was pretty subdued. He was mild -- didn't speak much -- and we, the audience, were fine with that as it was cohesive with the show and the album. Then I saw this most recent tour for Age of Adz and he was a totally different guy. He was cracking jokes, he broke out in a dance routine at one point. And we, the audience, were enthralled. It was tongue and cheek -- and it was perfect for the vibe of the show.
Cory: So far we've kind of focused on the over-the-top frontmen, but singers who never ever move around, interact with the audience, or do anything otherwise engaging can detract from the performance just as much the climbing-up-the-scaffolding guy. If people wanted to hear 100 percent faithful/accurate representations of the album versions of these tunes they would, in most cases, be better served saving the cash they'd spend on tickets and listen to the vinyl on their own couches while enjoying a nice glass of wine. Those types of frontmen are "robbing" or "cheating" audience members just as much as the butterfly-kicking rock gods really. But the line is so hazy between being boring, entertaining and distracting. Is sincerity really the only determining factor that indicates where a performer might fall on that continuum?
Doug: Perhaps I misspoke in saying that sincerity is the most important characteristic. I guess there really isn't that "one thing". So much is contingent upon fan expectations, genre, personality, venue, etc. What is appropriate at AAC may not be appropriate at Dan's Silverleaf.
I totally agree that no engagement can be just as distracting. Fleet Foxes is a good example of this. Seeing them at Palladium over the summer was cool and all -- but Robin Pecknold's lack of engagement -- coupled with the band's low-key, verbatim performance of every note on the album[s] really just made it feel like I was listening to their music really, really loud. They didn't charge the performance with anything new, and they certainly didn't go out of their way to make us feel like we were hanging with them in our living room. In fact, at one point Pecknold even told us we looked bored. This was indeed just as distracting and disappointing. And I guess even if he was sincere it doesn't negate the fact that it hindered the show a bit. But again, maybe if he had tried to force some disingenuous charisma I'd be bitching about that right now ... quite the conundrum.
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I do want to say -- before all the commenters eat me alive -- that I'm speaking more as a fan than a frontman. I know that I personally have yet to find my niche as a frontman. There have been plenty of times even in recent memory that I've walked away from a show knowing that I've come across as a "huge doucher" (to quote John). It's so easy to pick apart what others do but when you're in it -- that "sincere charisma" is a hard thing to find. Sometimes I find it and the crowd is engaged, and sometimes I fail big time. But when I fail it's because I'm trying to be someone that I'm not. I think about it too much. I do too much, and I end up acting like a jerk. But when I'm just hanging in the living room with them -- the crowd feels it and we have a great time together.
John: I can dig the Sufjan and Fleet Foxes examples, and I guess to me that just seems indicative of the eternal battle that pop music fights against itself. When does a band cease to be a band and become a personal pulpit for one charismatic member? Thom Yorke anyone? When you take a long look at the history of rock 'n' roll, I think you would be hard pressed to find many bands where the "engaging" and "charismatic" frontman takes a willing backseat in order for the group to make music. I do agree that Chris Martin at the AAC is going need to be a bigger Bono-clone than Ryan Thomas Becker does at Dan's, but that doesn't change that I still like RTB way more because I recognize the heart in him is bursting at the seams. No amount of lights and smoke (or lack thereof) can hide how shitty or fake a band is.
I'll say it again, if you can't perform to an empty room like you're opening for U2, then you don't deserve to open for U2. That's where (at least to me) the problem with frontmen like Robin Pecknold lies, in their expectation of adoration. If a band gets big too quick without finding an identity, which seems to be happening more and more in the BandCamp era, you get crap sophomore records and stupid burnouts like Wavves and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah. And it takes years to come back from those meltdowns. I think the great Ian MacKaye summed it up best a long time ago: "At least I'm fuckin' trying! What the fuck have you done?"
Soviet performs November 19 at the Where House in Fort Worth & Air Review performs November 30 at the Where House.