Image is Power

Conor Bezane

Appearing on a teeny bopper TV drama like “Beverly Hills 90210” isn’t standard for your average heavy band, but for Powerman 5000, there’s no shame in hanging out with Brandon, Kelly, Dylan and Donna at the Peach Pit After Dark.

Back then, Powerman 5000 was an unsigned band with barely any clout in the music industry. Powerman 5000 frontman Spider One wanted to get his band on the map.

“We thought ‘This is the least street credible thing we could do,’ but we were like ‘Fuck it! Who cares?'” Spider says. “It’s one of those things that seems like it’s rearing its ugly head now, but at the time, no one seemed to really notice.”

Now — four years later — people have noticed Powerman 5000. More than a million of them.

Powerman 5000 has a platinum album still on the rise, a single in heavy rotation and a strikingly unique music video loaded with sci-fi flair that’s made it onto the increasingly competitive MTV playlist.

The Boston-based band has been together for 10 years now, and its finally getting the recognition they deserve.

After selling out the 3500-capacity Roseland Ballroom in New York City two weeks ago, Spider is feeling pretty confident about his band as he calls one afternoon from Indianapolis, Ind.

“There’s something about New York and L.A. when you can conquer those kind of towns that are notorious for being really tough audiences,” Spider says. “It’s a triumph when you can go into New York and blow ’em away.”

In a musical climate overflowing with gimmicks, Spider points out the value of creating an image to identify your music.

“I think the best music brings about visuals when you’re listening to it, and it takes you somewhere else,” Spider says. “You put your Walkman on, and you close your eyes, and you should just sort of start seeing things. I think that having always been a fan of the movies and sci-fi and horror and all that, it was just a good starting point, and it was definitely where my head was at when we were making this new record.”

Riding on the strength of the breakthrough single “When Worlds Collide,” the new record “Tonight the Stars Revolt” is jam- packed with images, lyrics and sounds that paint a mental picture of a 1950s sci-fi horror flick. It’s a world of supernovas, rocketships and robots, packaged together tightly in bursts of dirty, distorted guitars and unlimited high energy.

Behind the layers of distortion, what is the appeal of Powerman 5000?

“My boyish good looks and girlish figure,” Spider jokes. He continues more seriously. “We’re a heavy band, and we like to play aggressive music, but that’s not the ultimate goal,” he says. “The ultimate goal is to make cool records and to write good songs and be entertaining.”

Spider wants to detach himself from others within the heavy music genre. Rather than going for the shock value of making the most obnoxiously noisy records possible, Powerman strives to get inside the minds of it’s listeners by creating a distinctive image. In order to do that, it must draw from a variety of inspirations.

“Sometimes when we’re writing lyrics, I’ll just have a movie going with the sound off just to sort of get that other side of things happening,” Spider says.

He rattles off the names of some of his favorite sci-fi and horror flicks, recalling images from the 1956 classic space adventure “Forbidden Planet,” and the giant ants in 1954’s “Them!”

While 1950s films remain his favorite, Spider still enjoys some newer ones like “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “Blade Runner” and “Alien.”

Contrary to what people think, Spider is not obsessed with comic books, though he admits they partly inspire him.

“A lot of people assume that I’m like this big comic book reader, but in reality, I haven’t probably bought a comic since I was like 9 years old,” he explains. “I discovered this whole world of comic books when I was a little kid, and it was just like this amazing artwork and these stories and characters — it made me wanna create.”

The comic books, sci-fi and horror B-movies all work into the image of Powerman 5000, a phenomenon Spider describes as a fairly new one.

“There was a time when the image of a band didn’t matter at all because if you ever got to see them, it would only be in concert,” Spider says. “With videos and the Internet and all this kind of stuff, image has just become so incredibly important that they almost walk hand in hand.”

He remembers growing up like the masses of other kids in the 1970s listening to Kiss and being enthralled by the band’s costumes, face paint and Gene Simmons’ long tongue.

“I think every cool rock band I ever grew up listening to, it always had that sense to it, that it seemed a bit larger than life — a bit otherworldly,” Spider says. “I think you can create and make sort of a larger than life thing and create a whole other vibe other than being just your normal four or five guys on stage without it being prefabricated, and I think it can be completely sincere and serious and still use elements like that.”

Powerman 5000 and other bands who concern themselves with image face a lot of criticism from purists who believe the music suffers when bands concentrate too much on image.

“Recently I’ve been in a battle with people thinking that what we do is sort of tongue in cheek or a bit silly, and I always reference bands that people usually take pretty seriously, like when The Beatles put their Sgt. Pepper’s costumes on and created this whole new thing,” Spider explains. “Even bands that seem to have no image at all have an image, I mean that’s their image.

“Hootie and the Blowfish have an incredibly strong image; it just happens to be like an anti-image,” he adds. “It’s just normal guys with baseball caps, you know, but that’s an image, and for the moment, they were hugely popular. That had a lot to do with it because they looked like every frat guy at every college across America, and it was something that those people could relate to.”

The record industry undoubtedly focuses intensely on image these days more than ever, and it could seem that bands fall under the spell of the corporate music world, allowing themselves to be suckered into the roles of mindless figureheads controlled by strings.

“I’ve managed to set up a position for this band where I don’t really concern myself with their input,” Spider says of the band’s major label Dreamworks. “There may be bands that do get pressured into doing things that they don’t want to do, and most of the time you can smell that a mile away. You see a video and you can just imagine the stylist that was hired to come down to dress up the band.”

Another band notorious for it’s stage antics and conceptual image is Des Moines hardcore up-and-comers Slipknot.

“It’s this bizarre phenomenon,” Spider says about Slipknot. “They’re sort of doing what we’re trying to do. By wearing the masks and the jumpsuits, they’re bringing in that element of entertainment.”

The art of copycat remains a strong tradition in the music industry, but Spider feels secure about Powerman 5000.

“I have yet to hear a band that I feel like is ripping us off. Maybe next week I’ll get that demo,” he laughs.

For a band so concerned with image, it’s kind of strange that Powerman’s “90210” appearance doesn’t faze it. The Beverly Hills crowd isn’t exactly the most hardcore group around.

Spider remembers a critical record review that appeared in Alternative Press.

“They said ‘This could be the album that breaks through for Powerman and gets them in with the Korn crowd’ or whatever,” Spider explains. “‘That is … if their fans don’t find out about their ‘90210’ appearance.’ It’s like fuck it. Who cares? I’m not embarrassed by it.”

Image is nothing, but to Powerman 5000, it means everything.