This is probably one of the touchiest areas in all of stage-craft for the average axe-slinger. Image vs. Sound. It’s the age-old battle, the antediluvian issue, the riddle of steel. I like John Rzeznik’s (Goo Goo Dolls) approach to the topic:
“I always have this thing; if you write a really cool song, & then you put your leather pants on, you go out, and play, that’s cool. That’s playing with your image. If you put the leather pants on, & write a song to fit the pants, you’re a total poser. You’re being more conscious of your image than your craft, or whatever you want to call it, & you really have to avoid that.”
This is a great message that condemns gimmicks and one-trick ponies, which I think is important to having a band with a shelf-life beyond six years/three albums (whichever comes first). But it also accepts that image is a viable thing to use in order to augment your performance. That’s the key word here: Augment. To make something greater by adding to it.
Anyone who says “image means nothing” has obviously never seen a hard rock band featuring a guitarist with Eddie Vedder hair wearing a Cattle Decapitation shirt alongside a singer with a strap-on dildo taped to their forehead backed by a drummer in chain mail and a bassist wearing some tall-ass Dr. Seuss hat slapping the strings of their Squier P-Bass with a plastic pirate sword.
I’m not joking. I’ve seen that gig. It was like watching the Halloween episode of The Office, except no one was laughing.
People who try to weasel away from image because it “impairs their individuality, man” are some of the most unimaginative, selfish and fear-consumed musicians I’ve ever encountered. There are plenty of ways to be individual within the framework of an image. Just inject a little creativity and energy into it. You know, the same stuff you use to write your music…
Since “image” tends to be a sort of taboo-word for musicians, I like to refer to this concept as the “Unified Front.” I feel more comfortable watching a band whose members look like they come from the same place, the same niche or at the very least they should look like they hang out together and are friends in some way.
This Unified Front can be huge and overbearing like plate armor, full costumes, masks. It can be volatile and subject to shifts and between albums and tours, or even costume-changes between songs if you’re quick and fancy. Image can be something mundane or simple as wearing black button-up shirts. It could be trying to capture another place, or another period of time. It can be subtle, a mere overtone, like tattoos or jewelry. “Not having an image” can be construed as an image. I’ve done all of these approaches to image with a variety of different bands.
Have you ever looked at a band photo and just said “Nope”? Shut up, yes you have.
We’ve all done it–taken one cursory glance at a band’s promo shot and had the following thoughts run through our subconscious like the neon marquee of an adult massage parlor: “This band is not cool. I would not hang out with them and I will not listen to them.”
You can’t please everyone with your band and you certainly shouldn’t try. However, having an image that makes sense gives your audience something to latch onto when they’re watching your show, trying to figure out what your band is “about” because the sound technician is outside having a smoke instead of mixing your band. Your songs are only going to do so much work when you’re playing in a tiny pub with awful acoustics, so a successful band will come up with other ways to hold attention.
Remember, humans are visual creatures. Think about how we choose our romantic partners, our favorite cars, our artwork. Think about how we use language. We don’t go to “hear” the show, we go to “SEE” the bloody thing! Obviously you probably wouldn’t be there if you didn’t give a shit about the tunes but the point still stands. It never hurts to go that extra mile to make an impression.
Some obvious examples of the Unified Front would be KISS, any marching band, GWAR, Slipknot, Black Veil Brides, symphony orchestras, Darkthrone, ZZ Top and so on. A couple of these don’t wear costumes at all; they simply carry themselves with an attitude or an ideal that is visible through how they look. This idea of tying a band’s sound together with a bold look runs deeper than the concept of genre or musical style. Bands have been putting on outfits and costumes since bands existed.
You don’t want to write yourself into a hole with your image. If your imagery doesn’t line up well with your lyrical themes or even the style of music you play, this entire concept could completely backfire, making you and your bandmates look like an asinine collection of buffoons who wandered into the wrong convention. Dressing up as blood-spattered Cro-Magnons might be jarring and even somewhat revolting if your music sounds like the second coming of Steve Perry-fronted Journey. Those kinds of anachronisms are extremely tricky to handle and generally only work if your band is intended to be comedic or insanely over-the-top (See: GWAR).
Mike Scalzi of the Californian heavy metal band Slough Feg had this to say in a somewhat recent interview regarding band image:
“You see the shit I wear on stage, well, sometimes people try to ask me stupid questions about it, as if I actually take all of this seriously. Well, I do take it seriously, I’m serious about putting on a show and keeping people’s attention, my wearing gay looking clothes does just that—–if you haven’t noticed musicians have been doing that since before we were both born. Its called performing, wearing a flashy costume—-not putting on baggy jeans and a Cannibal Corpse t-shirt with your hair in a pony tail and staring at the floor for the whole show because you mommy and daddy didn’t have the sense to make you watch Mr. Rogers and learn to look people in the eye with confidence when you address them—-particularly when you’re performing on a stage for them. 99% of the bands you see these days have no business being put on a stage for a “performance”—-they can’t perform their way out a paper bag. No wonder shows are so poorly attended and people seem so bored, because the bands are never holding up their end of the bargain and putting on a show. If I want to see a bunch of insecure phony punks scowl and roll their eyes and act like fourteen year olds I can go teach philosophy classes!”
Best believe, nerds. I want to extract a point from Scalzi’s statement:
“… staring at the floor for the whole show because you mommy and daddy didn’t have the sense to make you watch Mr. Rogers and learn to look people in the eye with confidence when you address them…”
There’s a bit of hidden subtext in this point I’d like to expand upon: CONFIDENCE! In the hands of a talented, rehearsed and confident band, almost any image can be brought to life and made entertaining or interesting. Whatever you do, (or don’t do) you have to own it. That being said, if your band dresses up like in wizard robes and leather armor like my old band Scythia does, you might have trouble with that new song about midnight street racing in Tokyo, or the trenches of World War II.
But then again, if you own it hard enough, you might not.
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