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
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
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
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.
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
Soviet performs November 19 at the Where House in Fort Worth & Air Review performs November 30 at the Where House.