I went to another metal gig the other week and got bored into a living coma. Death Metal bands tend to continually fuck one important thing up when they’re onstage: stage presence. A gig is not just a chance to replicate your music note-for-perfect-note, it’s an opportunity to get people off on what you do, and how you handle yourself on stage is an important part of that. This is angry energy music, not freaking chamber music.
Below are listed some basics for creating instant state presence. With the live bands I’ve done, we’d try and adhere to these as much as possible. These are guidelines, not so much fast rules. I saw Deftones recently do an amazing gig, intimate for a theatre, and the band members broke all the rules I’m about to make. They shuffled self-conciously, never looked up, stayed fixed to the ground…and they were still spellbinding. Your band will create a stage-presence all of its own with time and practice, usually on tour when you’ve played every night for at least straight week or two.
However if you’re just starting out and haven’t had time to develop your stage show then follow the below tips. These will put your performance ahead of most bands you’ll play with.
1: Do Not Walk
If you are playing completely savage music at a million miles an hour, you will actually create an illusion of slowness if you sidle around. Someone shuffling casually onstage removes about 50bpm from a band’s perceived speed. If your emphasis is on appearing to be as fast as possible then no walking, from any of the members. Stride confidently, jump, sprint, twirl…but no walking. If a member can’t adhere to the no-walking edict, then nail their feet to the stage and have them play on the same spot all gig. But absolutely no sauntering around. No. Verboten. And now that I’ve said it, you’ll notice it when other bands do it. Sorry about that.
2: Make your performance congruent with the crowd
For example, it’s best not to play to thirty people as if you’re playing to three-thousand. Tone down the “HELLO SPRINGFIELD I CAN’T HEAR YOU” yack. Talk to people. If the stage isn’t too high, try get into the audience. Still play your hearts out to anyone there, but match the performance to the crowd. If their energy is high still throw yourselves around if that’s your thing. If they’re more into sitting down and focussing on the music and musicianship then tone down the antics and ensure your playing is flawless. Great live performers know that one size performance does not fit all.
3: Use the stage
Move around; let different parts of the crowd get to see you. Feel free to jump up on the drum riser if there’s one. Don’t stay in the one spot the entire gig. If there’s foldback, put one foot up on there. Play to other bandmembers occasionally, especially moments where you have to lock in as tight as possible. Movement gives the eye something to follow, if the ear is tiring of following the music. Success coaches often say “motion creates emotion”, referring to how you can change your emotional state by changing your physiology or making movements. I think it works the other way too – how you move onstage affects your audience’s emotions, or at least their interest.
4: The less you have to stare at your instrument, the better
It’s difficult to create a connection with a crowd by ignoring them. When you see people speaking in public, who comes across best: the person reading off their notes who won’t look up, or the person who glances up at the audience as they talk?
Obviously you have to look at your instrument as much as possible so choose your moment to look out at people. Sweep your gaze around, stare people down, glance…all of these create a feeling of energy coming out from the stage. This is something both Gaahl and Zak DeLa Rocha do well. This is something you will have to rehearse. Most musicians are conditioned through years of practice to always be looking at their instrument.
5: Work on having as few leads and cords on stage
Those that have to be there, have them gaffa-taped down out of the way whenever possible. Otherwise you WILL trip over them, fall over, and cause random unpluggings. Nothing kills a performance like tripping over onstage, or having to stop playing and go plug your instrument back in. Schoolboy error this one. I sometimes see even experienced bands fall victim to random unpluggings.
6: Don’t be fazed by any technical problems
Don’t yell at the mixer or foldback guy mid-gig. Don’t make your between song banter a tirade at front-of-house. If you have technical problems, get about fixing them with as little drama as possible.
Early Berzerker shows were often write-offs as the singer would spend the first third of the set ignoring the performance and yelling at the stagehands and soundguys to get the sound right. The integrity of the songs was impaired, and the crowd were embarrassed and uncomfortable no matter how good you’d get the sound for the last half of the set.
That’s not to say don’t signal front of house, or the monitor guys, and give them brief instructions between songs. Hell, make light of them! Asking for more guitar in the mix? Command over the microphone: “Soundman! The people cry for more guitar! GIVE THEM MORE GUITAR!” Broken a microphone? I remember David Vincent doing that, playing through to the end of the song without vocals, and when it was replaced saying “They don’t make ‘em like they used to, I’ll tell you that”. And there will be plenty of times an amp will stop working or you break a string, or the kick triggers will go dodgy and you need to fiddle about with them mid-set.
But whatever you do, don’t get upset or lose your cool. People can handle dodgy sound to a degree, or a five minute break due to swapping guitar leads or drum skins, but they’ll be less forgiving of a band having a tantrum over sound problems *
7: If the crowd is a little quiet but you sense they want to make noise, walk down the front of stage between songs or during the quiet parts of the set with the microphone pointing out at the front row
People will yell out trying to hear themselves over the PA, and it’s an easy way of squeezing the most energy out of a small crowd.
8: A Big Stage Performance is different from any gig you’ve done
All the tricks you’ve learned playing clubs and pubs can be chucked out the window. To a crowds over 3,000 you will appear to be small…sometimes ant-sized. So they won’t catch any subtlety. EXAGGERATE all your movements. EXAGGERATE your performance. Festival crowds more easily respond to prompting than club crowds, so if you are fist-pumping or doing “oi-oi’s!” give the crowd time to respond…don’t move too fast for them. And any talking or banter needs to be done loudly and SLOWLY. Talking can be muffled or lost in festival shows because of the large space that sound has to move across. Make yourself as clear and commanding as possible.
9: Mention your band’s name three times during any festival performance
This isn’t really necessary at club gigs, but at festivals you have heaps of bands playing and lots of random people who happen across your show not knowing who you are. Mention near the start, the middle, and at the end. First time I played a festival with Mithras I forgot to do this. We played a great show, and left roughly about nine-thousand or so people wondering who it was they just saw.
10. If you’re not a charismatic frontman, practice banter
Oh god, this is such an Australian thing. You get an amazing band, brutal singer, and they’ll absolutely kill their way through a number…and then at the end of the song, the singer mumbles something inaudible staring at his shoes, says something self-deprecating, laughs self-conciously, time stretches….aaaaand the next song. Urgh. It loses me every time.
If you’re a frontman make sure you make yourself understood when you speak into a goddamn microphone. If you’re aware enough to know that this isn’t your forte then practice a couple of lines, maybe even practice your between-song chit-chat during rehearsal. Hey, Silverchair did it on their 2008 tour of Australia. Every night, same off-the-cuff remarks at the same point in the show. And if your band is hinting that you need to improve your talking, take notice. As far as hints go, that’s a billboard-sized.
The best band I’ve seen for banter – BY FAR – was the german group Knorkator (Devin Townsend runs second). The singer spoke totally in german and I only understood every seven words or so, but I was totally entranced. I was there with another foreigner who didn’t speak any german and she was just as hooked. Raw charisma gets you over the line every time but if it doesn’t, then practice your banter, or leave it out altogether.
Now that I think of it, there’s one other option: the old-school grindcore style gig where you finish one song and immediately start the next one so quickly the vocalist can barely bark the songtitle out before you take off. It’s especially effective if your show is all about violence, and it removes any need for the vocalist to scream anything but the bandname, lyrics, songtitles, and thankyou-goodnight.
* heard a Henry Rollins story about touring with Cypress Hill where they had a technical fault in front of thousands of people, and dealt with it in the best way possible. Basically, the lead got pulled out of the jack on their DAT leaving them with no music mid-song. They dealt with it something like this:
B-Real: Hey everybody, guess what
Massive Crowd: WHAAAAAAAT
B-Real: We Fucked Up
Massive Crowd: YEEEAHHHHH!!!!!!
B-Real: Now, I want y’all to say “Cypress Hill You Fucked Up”. One, two, three….
Massive Crowd: CYPRESS HILL YOU FUCKED UP
B-Real: We Fucked Up
Massive Crowd: YEEEAHHHH!!!!
Apparently they promptly fixed the problem and kicked straight on with it. Turned a nightmare situation into a fun interlude.
Thought I’d also throw in this Nile gig as an example of how to get it right. Not the best stage performance, but pretty good considering how gnarly those damn tunes are. Karl and Dallas keep the walking to a minimum. When they stand, they use an exaggerated stance that denotes power instead of hunching over all pigeon-toed and self-concious. A technical hitch is dealt with onstage with minimum fuss. They do big arm movements that the enormous Wacken crowd can see. The song is announced relatively clearly. Jon Vesano especially looks like he wants nothing more in life than to transform his bass guitar into a battleaxe and take on the entire audience, bonus points for that. None of this came about by accident. When touring with them in 2003 I’d see them going over crowd participation, what to say, and what worked best.