There are two ways to described the tattooed, hair-sprayed Los Angeles foursome calledSteel Panther: They're either the top comedy rock outfit in America, or America's hottest young glam metal band on the rise. The Panthers’ latest album, “All You Can Eat,” has been in the Billboard Top 50 since spring, the band is opening for Judas Priest, and crowds around the country are now singing along to the old standards (e.g., “It Won’t Suck Itself”) that had, until lately, never made it past the Sunset Strip.
In short, SP— front man Michael Starr, guitarist Satchel, bassist Lexxi Foxx and drummer Stix Zadinia (real names: Ralph, Russ, Travis, and Darren—are living the dream: drugs, cash, pussy, adulation, adoring fans. Right? Well, the truth is a little complicated. Sitting with the band before a sold-out show at Austin’s Mohawk club, it becomes obvious that they aren't actually living the life. They're living their version of the life, which involves pretending to live the life in such a way that the excess turns into work.
The band's bus, parked outside the sprawling, anything-goes venue, is a rolling liptnus test. Fans with sufficiently suspended disbelief can imagine an orgy of hookers and blow even though what's more likely is that it contains a bunch of friends in their mid-forties talking about music and practicing authentic-sounding, pre-packaged ad libs for their next show. The only way to ascertain the truth is to go on, but even that gets complicated (and how!) because SP sees you coming. The band may play offensive songs, but its members are constantly on the defensive.
A head-to-toe hair metal band that formed twenty years after Mötley Crüe and fifteen years after MötleyCrüe released its last relevant album, SP doesn’t just pay homage to glam (a la The Darkness). They embody it right down to the latex and hair product. Still, they’re not just historical re-enactors singing about rocking and fucking. Their songs actually rock, and fuckingly so. What’s more, Steel Panther’s on-stage persona extends to off-stage as well. They’re method – or something method adjacent anyway.
This last fact was made clear to me by SP’s tour manager, who was hesitant to allow me onto the band’s bus for a pre-show interview until I’d answered some questions. What are you going to ask? What you’re going to say? It was a pre-interview screening worthy of a congressman with an intern problem for a band that sings this couplet: “Death to Britney Spears, kill the little slut / Kill Madonna too and then fuck her in the butt.” I was informed that all four band members were in character and that any lull in conversation would mean painful, awkward silence. I could interview them, sure, but it was my job to play the straight man.
I don’t particularly enjoy playing the straight man. So I deflected until the awkward, painful standoff ended. The whole situation felt oddly fraught.
But SP isn’t just a stage act; it’s a performance art piece (the Palm Beach New Times went with “metal cabaret”) that is sort of subversive and sort of a subversion of subversion. The band has a team of writers for their comedy bits and online videos. This fact goes a long way toward explaining why they’re so dependent on interviewers lobbing the kinds of let’s-pretend-this-is-serious questions that allow the band to hit their power chords: women, drugs, women, rockin’, and women.
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What’s clever about Steel Panther is that they take industry practice (treating all artists with deference regardless of what crap they’re selling) and push it toward the extreme. They rely on journalists and shock jocks to behave like journalists and shock jocks and it works out well because these guys understand the entertainment industry. No wonder: SP is straight out of Hollywood, originally an after-hours band touring the celeb-studded clubs on the strip. They rely on friendly crowds and, in return for play-acting extreme fandom, friendly crowds get a great show. It’s a cheap and efficient exchange of services, which is what most of the songs are about.
The real question that arose as I finally climbed on the bus was this: Will having access actually ruin my story? Sure, these guys talk about snorting coke off strippers’ backsides, but they clearly weren’t going to be in a position to offer me a bump. They are fun, but it’s not a contagious sort of fun.
Inside their bus, the band sat in full costume, ready and eager to perform. Satch pointed to the TV overhead playing some glam metal concert footage. I tried making a joke about herpes as singer Michael Starr politely handed over two Michelob Lights one for me and one for my friend (and attorney) Dick, a superfan I’d brought along as an ambassador of good will. And it pretty much went downhill from there.
I’d provide the transcript, but somewhere between being told time was up and hitting asphalt at speed, my voice recorder disappeared (never to be heard from again). So let’s do this from memory:
In fine form, Dick plopped down beside the band, legs akimbo, declaring his allegiance. Earlier, he had said, “If Lonely Island are the Beatles, Steel Panther is the Rolling Stones.” He was gesturing quite a bit and apparently this enthusiasm was being mistaken as a sign of hostility. (“They said he was acting strange,” the PR man explained later.) I leaned up against the sink and made a professional effort: How do you like Austin?What’s it like playing a solo gig? They’re currently supporting actual aging metal band, Judas Priest, on a national tour and this concert was a bit of a one-off. Headliners! Of course, they love Austin. I think one of them said something about fucking Austin women. Some other ha-ha’s in character, too.
Playing along with the charade felt like work, but the guys were at ease with their schtick. And they didn’t look crazy. Stix actually looked smart, and tired, like a real touring musician. And it was hard not to sympathize: How hard is it to put a conscious front on stage and off? That’s precisely the sort of question SP doesn’t answer.
After a while, Lexxi Foxx pulled out a tube of lip gloss and began his dumb-but-pretty performance. Confronted with such a deliberate scene, particularly from a man, I did what seemed like the only reasonable thing: I took the lip gloss from him and gave myself a generous coat. When I struggled to get the cap back on, Foxx reached for it, saying quietly, “I’ll get it.”
The tour manager was right about the awkwardness. He was also determined to get us gone. After a last toast (green-label Patron), we let him succeed. Rock and roll out.
I was fairly lit by the time the band took the stage. The venue was at capacity, a predominantly male crowd. There was a lot of whooping from the fans and what they got in return was the funniest and most innocent show I’ve ever seen. Between songs, SP bantered expertly. Their writers had clearly polished the material. Foxx pouted and showed of his hair, which is real by the way.
Near the end of the set, Satch ripped into “Community Property,” the band’s big, glam ballad (the property in question, unsurprisingly, is a penis). The audience raised their hands, slowly swinging them back and forth and singing along. If anyone had concerns -- about looking cool or about the band’s schtick being dinner theater’s older, cooler cousin – they did not voice them. It was a moment without cynicism, without detached irony, without (on the part of the crowd) artifice.
People love SP. It’s a beautiful thing.
As soon as the last song ended, the band bolted through the stage exit. I made it outside just in time to see the fourth guy sprint onto the bus, which was already surrounded by a love-struck crowd. Did the ladies, looking happy and farm fed, expect to be ushered in for a booze-filled night of wild sex? I’d heard rumors that two the band members don’t even drink and it was said earlier that they had to quickly get on their way for a gig in El Paso. Were the girls in on the joke and how much so? I wanted to know, but whatever access I’d had earlier, I’d definitely lost.
A few minutes later, someone popped out of the bus. It was Stix, all-smiles. He’d unburdened himself of his character. With his shaved head and cutoff shirt, he looked like an aging punk, maybe a kid who once knew how to use a skateboard as a bludgeon. Nothing against the guy (he really seemed great), but the sight was disappointing. I could suddenly appreciate the manager’s concern. The guy’s aren’t just amping up their personalities, they’re performing whenever they put on the wigs. SP is pure fiction, pure glorious fiction.
Stix, now Darren, loitered outside the bus, handing out gentle hugs like a church deacon. I watched him talk to fans - something he presumably wasn’t supposed to be doing out of character - while clinging to my buzz and fighting back the urge to get nostalgic for the eighties. SP is a tough act to follow, but it turns out the eighties are an even tougher act to get off stage.
Photos by Sebastian Patter / Redferns via Getty Images