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Robots, wrestlers, and punk-rock parrots: 15 proven gimmicks to get your band noticed


1. Pretend you’re from outer space

When Dave Brockie died earlier this year at age 50, the world didn’t just lose one of the metal scene’s most talented and colorful figures, it lost a talented and colorful bloodthirsty alien monster. Brockie’s band, GWAR, was known as much for its music as for its gimmick: dressing up like interplanetary monsters and laying waste to Earthlings with violence-themed music (which includes one of our favorite A.V. Undercovers). GWAR was at the vanguard of a long list of bands that claim to be from outer space. Their otherworldly ranks include Man Or Astro-Man?, who donned space helmets to conquer Earth with space-rock; Japanese-American punk band Peelander-Z, who claim to be from the Z region of planet Peelander and perform in color-coded costumes; Valient Thorr, a metal band who “came from Venus to destroy the cities”; and of course the godfather of alien recording artists, jazz innovator Sun Ra, who took on that name after supposedly being transported to Saturn in 1936, and thereafter claiming to be part of an “Angel Race” from beyond the stars. [MV]


2. Involve robots

Everyone knows the one thing separating humanity from the machines is a capacity for meaningful expression. Or at least everyone did until Kraftwerk started filtering its humanity through machines, ultimately replacing itself with automated replicas (when not playing at being automated replicas) in service of promoting 1978’s The Man-Machine. But you needn’t be electronic-music pioneers to get ahead by adopting robotic alter egos, though that strategy also worked like gangbusters for Thomas Bangalter and Guy Manuel De Homem-Christo—whose names aren’t immediately recognizable because they’re usually referred to as the “robots in Daft Punk.” But none of these bands—not Kraftwerk or Daft Punk or even Man Or Astro-Man?’s faux-mechanized offshoot, Servotron—have taken the concept to its furthest logical extreme: going completely robotic, like Squarepusher collaborators Z-Machine, which boasts a 78-fingered guitarist and a drummer with 22 arms. Just be careful that the robots don’t develop an attitude, like literal heavy-metal act Compressorhead or the renegade Rock-afire Explosion that keeps Jay “JBOT” Vance enslaved in Captured! By Robots. If working with robots, make sure you’re not the one who winds up singing “We are programmed just to do / Anything you want us to.” [EA]

3. Wear masks

It’s important for a professional musician to foster a sense of mystique, and there’s no better shortcut than simultaneously obscuring your identity and your face. Masks also have a tremendous subliminal effect on how an act’s music is received, giving The Residents’ enigmatic tunes an added layer of enigma, and providing all the menace Slipknot’s goony nü-metal could never muster on its own. That’s not to say all masked bands are faking the sinister: Lordi had to dress like demons to sell a chorus like “The devil is a loser, and he’s my bitch,” and the mathematical spasms of The Locust only make sense if they originate from four dudes who look like they’re about to pull an interstellar bank job. The Mummies’ full-body bandages, meanwhile, enabled the band to act like the biggest assholes in the Bay Area punk scene, a perfect fit for their snotty tunes. And then there are times when the mask is all about the theatricality: Few people would pay to see Joel Thomas Zimmerman twist dials and cue samples for 60 minutes, but a cartoonishly proportioned, light-up rodent mask has made Deadmau5 one of the biggest festival draws in the world. [EA]

4. Wear makeup

Makeup has been a part of the rock ’n’ roll life for decades, but some bands did it with more panache than others. Kiss built its career on elaborate pounds of pancake and lipstick; each member even had a specific character that was represented by the makeup—Starchild, Demon, Spaceman, and Catman. The makeup was a great peg for the band—“Oh, that poppy metal band with makeup?”—and others used the tool to varying success over the years, from Mudvayne to King Diamond to Ghost. There’s even the makeup subgenre of corpse paint, used by black metal bands the world over, but specifically Norway (of course). [JM]


5. Stop wearing makeup and/or masks

Ever the savvy marketers, the members of Kiss made a big decision when their popularity was waning hard: They took off the makeup and revealed their faces, which ranged from not bad to ugly. (You know who’s which.) When it came time to promote 1983’s Lick It Up, the band appeared on MTV sans makeup, and got the publicity (and slight uptick in popularity) it was aiming for. In 1996, at the Grammys, Kiss put the makeup back on. And the cycle of life continues. Mudvayne went through various makeup styles, but that gimmick lost steam sometime in the early 2000s, and now they’re largely makeup-free. [JM]


6. Play covers of famous songs, but in wildly different styles

There’s a cottage industry of cover bands who faithfully re-create their idols’ stage shows night after night, and that’s fine. There’s a smaller cottage industry of bands that put a spin on their various covers, whether they’re paying tribute to one band or many. Take Dread Zeppelin, for instance, which got famous by playing Led Zeppelin covers done reggae style, with an Elvis impersonator on lead vocals. The Moog Cookbook did goofy synth covers—while wearing space helmets—of songs by Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Neil Young, and more. German musician Uwe Schmidt released a Latin-flavored album of Kraftwerk covers under the name Señor Coconut. Macaulay Culkin has recently picked up this gimmicky mantle with The Pizza Underground, which doesn’t change the style of Velvet Undergound songs as much as it does the lyrics, which his new band makes all about pizza. It’s as dumb as it sounds. [JM]


7. Make it a family slideshow

Jason Trachtenburg wasn’t having much luck as a singer-songwriter, until his wife, Tina, brought home a slide projector (complete with somebody else’s slides) she picked up at an estate sale. Struck by inspiration from an unexpected source, Jason wrote “Mountain Trip To Japan, 1959” to accompany the slides, and an irresistible left-field gimmick was born. For the next 11 years, the Trachtenburgs played as a family band—Jason played piano or guitar and sang, Tina ran the slide projector, and their daughter Rachel—only 6 when the band formed—played the drums. Their repertoire covered family vacations, corporate presentations, and brief, often poignant glimpses into the lives of strangers who left behind boxes of slides as their legacy. Eventually, teenage Rachel left to form her own non-gimmick band, Supercute!, while Jason formed The Pendulum Swings, and perhaps unsurprisingly, no more family-slideshow-themed bands have sprung up in their wake. [MV]


8. Recruit actual animals as members

We’ve seen bands pretending to be inhuman, whether robots, monsters, or aliens. But Hatebeak started a trend of bands with a non-human member. Blake Harrison and Mark Sloan play “furious and blasting death metal” on drums, bass, and guitar, with vocals provided by Waldo, a Congo African grey parrot. As it’s not practical to take a bird out on the road or push him in front of screaming fans, Hatebeak is a studio-only project with three albums under its belt, errr, beak: Beak Of Putrefaction, Bird Seeds Of Vengeance, and The Thing That Should Not Beak. Waldo has since inspired some of his animal brethren, as his band’s second album was a split LP with Caninus, a metal band led by two female pit bulls on vocals. There are also the Rock Cats, an all-cat rock band, which raised over $30,000 on Kickstarter to buy a tour van. [MV]


9. Never reveal your identity

Plenty of acts have tried to remain completely anonymous, with limited success in the Internet age. Photos exist of Deadmau5, and people know his real name. The members of Slipknot took numbers instead of names, but those got out anyway. No recent-vintage photos of Daft Punk exist, but people at least know its members’ names. The Residents, the Bay Area art-weirdness collective that dresses in giant eyeball masks, has been more successful. There’s certainly solid speculation that the core of the group is Homer Flynn and Hardy Fox, but no one knows for sure. And The Residents aren’t talking. [JM]


10. Be really young

Rock ’n’ roll is often thought of as a hormone-fueled teenage medium, so it’s always striking when a band manages to record an album before those hormones have had a chance to kick in. The Jackson 5 ranged from ages 6 to 13, with youngest brother Michael mesmerizing audiences throughout his elementary-school years. Plenty of school-age family acts have followed in the Jacksons’ wake, including Old Skull, a Madison, Wisconsin, punk band whose debut album got airplay on MTV while the band members were 9 and 10; Tiny Masters Of Today, a 9- and 11-year-old sister and brother who became hipster darlings after their debut was championed by David Bowie; Smoosh, two sisters who released their first album of indie pop at ages 10 and 12; Unlocking The Truth, a trio of Brooklyn eighth-graders who signed a multi-album deal with Sony this year; and the most successful pre-pubescent pop stars since the Jacksons, Hanson, who formed when its members were 12, 9, and 7, and whose earworm “MMMbop” topped the charts before the oldest learned to drive. Their fame was short-lived, because as all of these bands discovered, youth is the one gimmick that can’t last. [MV]


11. Sing exclusively about a very specific topic

There’s no shortage of things in the universe to sing about, yet a special crop of gimmick bands make it their business to narrow their focus to just one topic. So-called “wizard rock” acts like Harry And The Potters obsess over the work of J.K. Rowling, while sports-themed groups such as The Baseball Project and The Hanson Brothers fixate on a certain sport. The grindcore outfit Hewhocorrupts doesn’t celebrate, but rather denigrates its chosen subject: Metallica. And then there’s BlöödHag, whose entire lyrical content consists of homages to specific science-fiction, fantasy, and horror authors. Slightly less brainy are The Go-Nuts—self-proclaimed “snak-rock” [sic] masters who specialize in punk songs about snack food—and Swashbuckle, a metal trio whose OCD plunders The Golden Age Of Piracy. Reports of bands that sing exclusively about either Jesus or Satan have yet to be confirmed. [JH]

12. Pretend you’re ridiculously rich

What’s the point of being in a band, if not to become rich? Sadly, the two are not inextricably linked—which is why some groups feel the need to feign the wealth that they will surely, inevitably achieve. Take, for instance, The Upper Crust. Gussied up in powdered wigs and frilly cravats like some coterie of Restoration-era fops, the band looks down its noses as it plays AC/DC-inspired rock celebrating its own mock aristocracy. More on the contemporary side is Powerpoint, a conglomerate of musicians—they have branches around the country, just like banks—who play positive, youth-crew-style hardcore while dressed in business suits and extolling the virtues of a well-rounded stock portfolio. Fake it ’til you make it never sounded so good. [JH]

13. Create an alter-ego band

Rock fame can be a difficult road, as Bob Seger once taught us, and sometimes you need to create alter-egos to do your work for you, to lighten the emotional load. Garth Brooks created Chris Gaines, including a dumb backstory. David Bowie and his band became Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars. Hardcore band The Bronx takes a break from aggressiveness every so often to become the traditional mariachi outfit Mariachi El Bronx. And for a brief, silly while, Love And Rockets would perform encores as The Bubblemen, complete with big, silly costumes. [JM]


14. Invent your own language and sing in it

There are just over 300,000 native speakers of Icelandic, so it’s a pretty exclusive club. But that wasn’t enough for the members of Sigur Rós, who invented a nonsensical language called Hopelandic for their epic album ( ). Yes, that album title is simply a set of parentheses, and there are no song titles to go along with the spoken-in-tongue lyrics. Still, it is an absoutely stunning record. The French progressive-rock band Magma had a similar idea, years earlier. Its language, Kobaïan, is a little more high-concept—it comes from a fictional planet, which is also the setting for the group’s “space opera.” British band Cocteau Twins never claimed to actually invent another language, but like Sigur Rós, they delivered songs that didn’t really have any words, but were rather just collections of syllables. (Look up “glossolalia”; it’s a fun road to go down.) [JM]


15. Have a pro-wrestling angle

If history has taught the human race anything, it’s that professional wrestlers should never be allowed to sing. Screaming, on the other hand, is encouraged. UltraMantis Black is a masked, caped pro wrestler who moonlights as the bloodcurdling mouthpiece of a hardcore band—also called UltraMantis Black—that allows him to rant about his favored topics of veganism and ecological awareness. Los Straitjackets, on the other hand, don’t sing about anything. The group is strictly instrumental, and its twangy surf rock really has nothing whatsoever to do with the lucha libra masks its members wear. But it’s a colorful gimmick, and one that underscores the cardinal rule: In a recording studio, the only move most wrestlers should execute is the mic drop. [JH]

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