When Geekdom meets Rock Opera: The Protomen

Tuesday night, I had the great honor of seeing two amazing bands at The Soapbox Laundro-Lounge in my native Wilmington, NC. The headliners were none other than The Protomen, a band I’m surprised hasn’t been mentioned yet on Tor.com. Opening for them was a smaller local band called The D&D Sluggers, and between the two of them, they drew such a large crowd of geeks on a Tuesday night that they packed the place. Let me say, I have never been in such a large group of people who got my steampunk Tron shirt outside of a convention. It was glorious. And that was before I got an interview with The Protomen.

The D&D Sluggers warmed the house up with their singular style. Let me start explaining their show with the image below.

Yes, that is an SNES controller hanging down between all sorts of sound equipment. D&D Sluggers uses both modern instruments as well as a Nintendo DS and a repurposed Super Nintendo to make their strange mix of techno, pop, country, and something else. Their songs include remixes of classic video games, such as Zelda: Ocarina of Time, that are then put to original lyrics that sometimes have references to the games (Such as my favorite, “Level Up,” which starts with “I’m sorry, but your Princess is in another Castle”), or sometimes go off on other equally nerdy tangents. They actually had an amazing stage presence, energizing the audience into what could only be called a collective nerdgasm.

After D&D Sluggers finished their set, there was a pause in the action while they cleared the stage. Then The Protomen, wearing all black outfits and silver-metallic makeup with black accents, somehow fit nine people and all their various musical equipment onto a stage that usually fits five at most.

Now, I was a newbie to Protomen. I should have been prepared, though, by the fact that several of my usually stoic friends were actually freaking out over the band. But it was not until the sound checks—beautiful harmonic checks and a cover of “The Danger Zone”—that I started to understand what was coming. The crowd was almost at a fever pitch before a band member in a metal mask, K.I.L.R.O.Y., came out and warmed the crowd up with a semi-theatric introduction. Not that they needed much work: there were both Megaman and Protoman cosplays in the crowd as it was. Then the band came on stage, and I was blown away.

The music had a technical complexity to it that really surprised me, and a Rock Opera feeling that makes me think that Meatloaf, Trans-Siberian Orchestra and GWAR had nine love children who sing about Megaman. Still, The Protomen are still very much their own thing. Yes, they have power ballads, heavy choruses, and a story overarching their albums, but the style was amazingly unique. By their own admission, their influences range from Conway Twitty and Babe Ruth to Journey, Jim Steinman to Judas Priest, with much more in between.

What also impressed me was the coordination of the band. As I said, they were on a small stage, probably much smaller than they are used to, and they still worked like a well oiled machine. At one point, I even noticed the band leader, code named “Commander,” having a quick pantomime of instructions to other members to fix a small problem. Through all of this, the song and band never missed a beat.

By the end of the set, the audience was so excited that they were literally shaking the floor. As the band left, a chant of “Protomen!” was taken up, which accelerated of its own accord until the band came out for an encore (although not before K.I.L.R.O.Y. came out and worked the crowd up even more). And what was the second song of the encore? A cover of “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” and this after a synthetic megaman space rock opera with heavy guitars and percussion. They nailed it, and the crowd loved it. Somehow it just worked. For a taste of their music, check out the one I can’t stop listening to called “The Stand (Man or Machine),” in which Megaman discovers Protoman, his brother, is not dead but instead has become a villain, and Protoman explains why humanity is not worth saving.

When the encore finally ended, the band thanked the crowd again, and then, instead of disappearing to the back room to recover, they got off the stage and mingled with the crowd. It is easy to see why The Protomen have been rallying such a strong fan following. They are charismatic, easy to talk to, and wonderful musicians besides. And, by means I won’t divulge that may or may not have a first born child involved, I arranged a small interview post-show with “Commander B Hawkins,” the aforementioned band leader, “Raul Panther,” the red-headed lead vocalist, and “Murphy Weller,” who plays bass and synth and rocks an impressive beard. [Transliterated and edited for clarity from a recorded interview.]

RF: So, how did this all get started?

Commander B Hawkins: Well, we were all in this class in recording school, and everyone else had been recorded and mixed and ready to go on their final project. Except me. I was the only one who had not done anything, like, not a single thing. So, on the last day of school, I had to get this project done, and that just happened to be when my scheduled time to record was. I gathered as many people as I could that were musicians, and somehow I ended up finding Murphy Weller and Heath Who Hath No Name and Doug Fetterman and several other people that just kind of came to the studio at 8:00pm and cobbled together a piece of what would become “Due Vendetta,” our last song off the last album. Either way, by the end of the night . . . wait, I need to shorten this.

Raul Panther: No, keep going! You’ve dug your hole! Climb down into it.

Commander B Hawkins: Okay, so, at 11:59pm, I’m going “Oh shit, we don’t have anything done really.” All we had was a keyboard doing a short beat, a guitar doing a good riff, and I’m like “Hell yeah, that could be a good song!” My brain is about to explode because all I’ve been hearing is this synthesizer bass beat. So, we have a break in our session until 4:00am, and I try and sleep, and all I can hear is that synthesizer grinding in my brain. Now, I’d been playing a shitload of the early Megaman games at the time—One, Two and Three—just seeing how badass I could get at them. Then . . . .

Raul Panther: At 12:02am!

Commander B Hawkins: At 12:02am, I’m lying awake, and hearing the beat, and the only thing that can go through my brain at the time is “Cutman! Gutsman!” All in like a gritty, southern accent. And it was just hammering me. All I wanted to do was sleep, but I couldn’t because these damn characters were in my head, and this horrible song is ruining my life, so that is what became the lyrics. We are just going to say those names, and it is going to be about Megaman now, I guess.

But now, I’m lying in my bed, thinking “Oh my God, we need vocals for this track, and we don’t have anyone who can even remotely sing. What am I going to do?” We looked around and thought, “Who can sing?” and we all just said, “Hey, that red-headed kid in our class can sing. I think he can sing. I don’t know if he can sing, but I’ve heard he might can sing.”

Raul Panther: I could not sing.

Commander B Hawkins: He’s in some band, I think, and I think he can sing. We’ll see if he can sing. And so then, I say, “Anyone have his number?” and someone else says “I think his name is Raul Panther, let’s just call him.” And we called him up, and he came in. I handed him this list of names of all these Megaman characters, and he just looked at it and said. “Alright, let’s do this.” And he somehow made it musical, even managed to get a “Crash” on top of a crash.

Raul Panther: It was not my first rodeo!

Commander B Hawkins: And then, we turned it in for the final project, and it kind of did ridiculously well for what it was. It wasn’t supposed to sound beautiful. It was specifically going against all of the things the teachers wanted us to do in terms of making things sound pretty and like a good county pop record. So, judging by that, they should have all hated it. And, generally, most of them all hated it, but there was a good contingent of teachers that thought it was the funniest shit they had ever heard and were just completely entertained by it. So, it made Listening Night, where everyone can listen to it and votes on what they like.

Raul Panther: Which is pretty much the highest honor you can get at a state school. It’s like Valedictorian of Rock and Roll.

Commander B Hawkins: Or of terrible recording projects.

Raul Panther: Yeah!

Commander B Hawkins: Either way, it did pretty well, and we said “Okay, next semester, let’s actually think about this and put some effort into this.” By that time, I had these ideas for a story, so I decided to make this into a big story. One big rock opera, essentially. That is when we started work on “Hope Rides Alone,” and got that going well, and we got pretty good at that next semester. And that is really where it came from. It was a project that we then decided we could put the time and effort into and make into a style that really hadn’t been done before, sort of. It’s kind of hard to explain.

RF: Well, if you had to describe your music, how would you?

Raul Panther: I think we are officially listed on iTunes as “synth rock opera.”

Commander B Hawkins: Yeah, that’s close, but even that is a little dicey because we’ve got a dickload of guitar and heavy percussion.

Raul Panther: And a really huge choir.

Commander B Hawkins: We like the ideas of theater, without all the . . .

Raul Panther: Awfulness. There is so much wrong with musical theater.

Commander B Hawkins: Yeah, without the awfulness of musical theater.

RF: And you do have a very theatrical presence. What was the evolution of the stage show?

Commander B Hawkins: We haven’t shifted all that far from the first show we did aside from how we looked. Our first show ended up being a final project for another friend who was in this theater thing, and they wanted to do makeup. By that time, we wanted to do our set the way we are now, but that was a good way to get it done quicker. Getting us moving in that regard at the time was just impossible. It was a great stepping stone to get it done and done now. It didn’t look the way we wanted it to look, but it was her project and we did what we did and it was an amazingly fun show. But we did the show, and after that we were like “Okay, now we design ourselves. Time to get the image right and how we want it to be.” So that is kind of where the look came from, but the show itself hasn’t changed in the way we present ourselves. The only change is we’ve gotten a lot less shitty.

Raul Panther: The first incarnations of the costumes actually included live shotgun rounds strapped to us. It was the worst idea possibly imaginable.

Commander B Hawkins: And we went on tour when we got the bus, and we’d started playing shows, and Ol’ Murphy Weller would just throw live shotgun rounds in his bandolero under the seat of this shuttle bus. It was in the hottest point of the bus, where the engine was sitting right next to it, and it would heat up and then he would take things and just say “Well, I want to put this up too!” and throw this heavy shit on top of live shotgun shells that were hot as shit. So, anyway, we’ve gotten most of the live bullets out of the show.

Murphy Weller: Hey! Those were shots, not bullets.

Commander B Hawkins: Okay, he’s right, they were shots. But were they or were they not, um . . .

Murphy Weller: Made by some old man on the street off 96th in Murfreesboro? Yes. I went to some dude’s shack, and in his yard—I’m not lying! I just had to get those, and I only needed like a few, and I tried to go to the regular stores, and you could only buy a whole mess of them. But, they told me there was this one guy that sells them. So I went to that guy, and I was going to get blanks. I got his number, and I called him, and I came by to his little old house-shack-thing and he wasn’t there. So I said screw it.

Raul Panther: So you broke into his house?

Murphy Weller: No, I went and bought real ones at the store. I couldn’t get any fake ones.

Commander B Hawkins: And then jammed them under the hot seat and threw heavy shit on them for a year and a half!

Murphy Weller: Man, at one point, we walked from our bus into a Casino, with just live rounds strapped to our chest.

Commander B Hawkins: And it was in Vegas. I had my bullets on, and you had your bullets on . . .

Murphy Weller: Drunk as shit, all of us, wearing just all this western wear. Holsters, fake guns, and live rounds.

Raul Panther: I don’t remember that.

Murphy Weller: Because you were drunk!

Commander B Hawkins: A security guard grabbed me as we were walking across the parking lot and said “Come here. You . . . you might not want to walk around like that. They don’t take kindly to that.” I don’t know why he talked like that, in a southern accent. “I don’t mean to come down on you or anything, but you might want to hide that.”

Murphy Weller: Well, you do look like a crazy gang of marauders.

Commander B Hawkins: Yeah, he was just saying “Don’t want to come down on you, but be careful.” And I said “Cool” and just walked on into the Casino where they could have just shanked my ass but they ignored me.

RF: So, this started in college. Did you all graduate?

Commander B Hawkins: Yup, we have BS’s.

Murphy Weller: I started a master’s degree; I went for one week. I was in two bands at the time, and I saw the workload and asked “How long until I can get a full refund? Oh, one week?” I didn’t go back to class number two. There was no way I could have worked as hard with this band and done the school. School will be there later, when I’m done with the band, when I’m dead, something.

RF: So, nine active members in the Protomen right now, but you have been rather larger in Nashville. Is there a creative core?

Murphy Weller: Yeah, you’re talking to them.

Commander B Hawkins: I’d say the touring package now is the creative core. They’re pretty solid.

Raul Panther: I’d say at this point, there is no way we could do the show without these nine people.

RF: That’s a really big band. What is it like when you are writing new music, having so many people involved?

Commander B Hawkins: Historically, it has been very good. We don’t really have conflicting views or anything like that. We start with a concept, start with what the story is going to be doing at that time, stuff like that, and we write songs about what a character would be saying, what style of character they are, whether they are a rock and roll character or an old style country ballad character. You just write for the character. When you are listening to the albums, you can pinpoint who is singing just from the musical theme.

RF: And inside your CD booklets, you actually have additional bits of story written out that are not in the show.

Commander B Hawkins: Yeah, so like when you hit an instrumental, you can continue reading whatever else is going on during that time. It doesn’t stop. You just keep reading, and we have tried to time it where you read along with it and right when you are done, the lyrics are starting back up.

RF: Have you had any communication with Capcom?

Commander B Hawkins: Yeah, in 2007 they asked us to play ComicCon at their booth. It was a nightmare of a time, but it was awesome to go out there and meet a few of them. We met Seth Killian, stole his megaphone.

Murphy Weller: Well, we didn’t really steal it in the sense of stealing. It was more of a “we used it and he disappeared.”

Commander B Hawkins: And we never saw him again to give it back, so we stole it. Anyway, we went out there and played a show, and it was really fun, but it was a real trial getting ten people across the country to play a show that, basically, didn’t really exist. And we kept in touch with Capcom afterwards, here and there, where they’ll talk to us, and then we won’t hear from them for a while. It’s like a weird relationship with a lady, where you are like “Hey girl, what’s your name?” and she’s like “Hey!” and then she disappears for about eight months. You are like “Okay, I guess she left me,” AND THEN, she calls you up and says “Hey, what you doing?” and you say “Hey! What you doing?” and she goes “Nothing.” It is an interesting relationship we’ve had with them.

RF: Well, it is late, and you still have equipment to pack for tomorrow night’s show, so I’ll let you go. Thank you so much, and keep the music coming.

Richard Fife is a writer, blogger, and newly born hard-core fan of The Protomen, although he still thinks D&D Sluggers are pretty awesome too. He has a free-to-read illustrated novel called The Tijervyn Chronicles, or a weekly updated webcomic set in the same world called The Legends of Tijervyn. You can also find out what he’s doing by stalking him on facebook and twitter.


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