It was just a matter of time before "reality television" merged with rock 'n' roll. VH1's Bands On The Run features four unknown bands in a 13-week trek through the United States. The pot of gold at the end of this beer-soaked rainbow? A grand prize of $50,000, all new band equipment, a music video and an A&R showcase. The trade-off? The bands must submit to the documentation of their every move, utterance and impropriety, as well as run the risk of damaging any credibility they may have.
The competition's rules are simple: Each week the bands (San Diego-based pop punkers Soulcracker, ethereal Dallas indie rockers Flickerstick, L.A.'s goth/semi-hard rocking Harlow and the New York-based piano-driven Josh Dodes Band) are given the name of the city they will be traveling to and told what venue they'll be playing. The bands then have two days to promote their show and sell as much of their own merchandise (T-shirts, CDs, etc.) as they can. At the end of each episode, the totals for merch and ticket sales are tallied and the winner of that round is announced.
As the season rolls on, nerves get frayed, fights break out, two groups get sent home (Josh Dodes Band loses the first elimination, Harlow loses the second), and relationships with significant others back home fall apart. What makes the show so addictive are the personalities of its competitors. If you've ever traveled with a band or even read any of the great rock tell-alls (Hammer Of The Gods, One Is The Loneliest Number or Motley Cre's new no-holds-barred autobiography, The Dirt) you know the stereotypes: the sensitive singer-songwriter, the sex-obsessed lout, the well-meaning drunk, the hothead. They're all here, and on some nights, they're all the same person.
Taping for Bands On The Run wrapped this past winter but all four groups are still on the road promoting the show. Flickerstick's free outdoor show in downtown Greensboro last Friday was a chance to see firsthand the kind of instant celebrity that only television can provide. The audience, a strange mix of curious, just off work 9-to-5-ers and BOTR-obsessed teenage girls, watched as the band members set up their own gear (TV fame does not always equal perks like a road crew or tour bus) and prepared to brave one of those inevitable downpours that always seem to reek havoc on an outdoor show.
Backstage, the scene is like any other: The drummer warms up while drinking a beer, the bass player and tour manager confer about the next day's drive, and the guitarists tune up while chatting up young ladies. What makes this a little different is that these five regular guys are, for the time being at least, bona fide TV stars.
"We get recognized everywhere," says lead singer Brandin Lea during a pre-show interview. "Truck stops, malls, literally everywhere. On a personal level, it's been 10 times more recognition than we thought. We didn't expect that at all." He goes on to reveal that Flickerstick never even expected to make it onto the show.
"We thought it was such a long shot that we sent our press package in as a joke," says Lea, laughing. "We thought there was no way we were going to get it. We broke every rule in the audition process and they loved it."
After weathering a series of personal interviews ("They sit you down and ask you two hours of questions about your bandmates and things like, 'What if there were women hanging around your hotel room, would you kick them out, would you let them stay?'"), Flickerstick went from being one of 2,000 bands to one of four.
Even so, they found themselves questioning the merits of appearing on a show that could, in the long run, do them more harm than good. "We didn't even know if we were going to do it when they said we made it," says Lea. "But then we realized, 'How can you turn down millions of dollars worth of exposure?'" (With a crew of over 100 people, Bands On The Run is the most expensive show VH1 has ever produced.) "They don't know if there's going to be a Bands On The Run 2," reveals Lea. "As good as the ratings are, they don't know if they can afford it."
ea acknowledges that sometimes Flickerstick, the show's hardest partiers, might have done well to check themselves before diving into situations that landed them in hot water. "We tried to say 'don't film this' but they don't work like that," says Lea. "Pretty much everyone in the band has been busted," he says, alluding to his band's proclivity for hooking up on the road.
But this rock 'n' roll attitude is exactly what makes Flickerstick a favorite among the show's fans. "We didn't change anything for the show," says Lea. "We stopped selling our CDs to strangers during the 3rd week because that messed with our principles. If people come and hear us and they want a CD, we're happy for them to buy it, but we're not going to beg people that don't even know we're in a band and say, 'Please buy this, we need this money for this fucking game show.'"
Despite the band's natural tendencies for excess, Lea admits that there were times that the band was "enabled" by the show's directors. "Anything that would make you act crazier and act more dramatic, they liked," says Lea. "They would never say, 'You guys don't need to drink.' They would say, 'Please go right ahead, you're crazy when you're drunk'. There were some times when free shots would arrive, probably when we were being a little boring." Drug use was--if not encouraged--expected. "Supposedly, they made you sign stuff that said you couldn't do any illegal drugs," says Lea, adding, "but they wanted you to. They wouldn't encourage you or give it to you; they would just turn their heads."
So far, Flickerstick is the band on the run that has seen the biggest turn in its fortunes. "The other bands are touring right now and they're playing for 80 people," Lea says. "And we're playing the same city two weeks later and there's 750 people."
But things were not so rosy in Greensboro. The threatening gray clouds opened during the band's first song, leading to a torrential downpour that never let up. The flash flooding was so extreme that members of the quickly dwindling audience soon found themselves sucked into their very own Band On The Run episode. Band and fans stood side-by-side, frantically trying to salvage waterlogged guitars, pedals and amplifiers. The show lasted only seven minutes. Probably not worth the 17-hour drive it took Flickerstick to get there. Especially when you realize that the band's next show is back in Texas.
But for Lea, it is worth it. "People are coming out and paying attention to our music, so it's all good," he says. "We toured for two-and-a-half years in front of nobody--which is exactly what we do in the show--but without the hotel room and the van." Lea pauses for a second and blurts out the revelatory phrase that must've passed the lips of every overnight celebrity from Charles Van Doren to Richard Hatch: "It's like, 'Holy shit,'" says Lea. "Now everything has changed."