Bands in search of new lead singers always face the same dilemma: fresh face or known quantity?
When Velvet Revolver needed a vocalist, they put the word out and slogged through thousands of unknowns before settling on ex-Stone Temple Pilots singer Scott Weiland.
But INXS decided to take their search into uncharted territory by televising the whole process for the first-ever reality talent show to crown a rock star.
"In a way, this is the only time and the only way we could do it," said guitarist Tim Farriss of the band's new reality show, "Rock Star: INXS," which debuted last week. "[Saxophone player/guitarist] Kirk [Pengilly] had this idea in 1998 to do a documentary on the search for a singer, but reality TV didn't really exist then and now that it is so big, we decided it would be a good way to do it."
The group's charismatic lead singer, Michael Hutchence, was found dead in a hotel room in Sydney in 1997 of an apparent suicide (see "Hutchence Death Details Emerge"). Since his death, the band — which has sold more than 30 million albums worldwide — has worked with a number of other singers, ranging from Australian Jon Stevens to Terence Trent D'Arby (see "INXS Regroups With Terence Trent D'Arby For Stadium Show"), but has not settled on a permanent replacement.
"It's really a great way to find a new singer," Farriss said of the 13-week competition that airs three times a week on CBS (which, like MTV, is owned by Viacom). "By the time it's over, that person will be somewhat famous already, and the TV time we will have gotten will be worth like half a billion dollars."
Judging by the first week's worth of shows, the Aussie rockers started out with more honed talent than the average "American Idol" finalist pool, finding 15 bona fide entertainers who already know how to work the stage and perform on the spot. Farriss said that after auditions were held in eight cities last year, the group stepped in to judge the final 50 in Los Angeles, paring the group down to the final 15. He admitted that the band "had our asses covered" as far as singers they were serious about who had songwriting and performance chops, but that the "TV people" may have had a bit of say in picking a few ringers to make the show interesting.
The series is, after all, produced by reality bigwig Mark Burnett ("Survivor," "The Apprentice"). According to Farriss, Burnett told the band after the second episode that "Rock Star" is the best show he's ever done.
The competition puts a number of its own twists on the talent-show template.
The Monday night episodes focus on the behind-the-scenes relationships in the Hollywood mansion the group is sharing, dubbed the Rockstar Manor. In its first week, the Monday show also ended with an elimination, but future episodes will concentrate more on developing each player's personality. Tuesday night's performance show is the voting episode in which fans get to weigh in on their favorites. Even though those votes determine the bottom three in the Wednesday night elimination, it is ultimately the band's choice who gets booted.
Which makes sense since whoever wins will be fronting INXS on a new album and world tour. "As Mark says, the public tends to get it right — and so far, they're getting it right," Farriss said. In the first week, screecher/yoga instructor Dana Robbins and too-sexy-for-his-pants Wil Seabrook got the boot. "We could probably use a few of them at the same time, but the five of us haven't sat down to discuss who we want because we want this process to be organic and real."
The live portion of the show, with hosts pin-up Brooke Burke and ex-Jane's Addiction guitarist Dave Navarro, takes place at the Mayan Theater in Los Angeles, the site of INXS' final American show with Hutchence. It's there that singers perform with a hand-picked house band made of up touring and recording veterans in front of an audience of 500 and the band, which also includes Tim's brothers Jon Farriss (guitar) and Andrew Farriss (keyboard) as well as Gary Beers (bass).
The contestants run the gamut, from mowhawked New Jersey singer Ty Taylor, 36, who hides a huge voice in his pint-sized Mr. T body, to Canadian Janis Joplin-like Deanna Johnston, 36, and Sydney's Mig Ayesa, 35, who starred in a London production of the Queen musical "We Will Rock You."
As for criticism from peers and the public that the show is at best cheesy and at worst a bad idea, Farriss said the band has heard it all.
"For a rock band — or anyone — to come up with a completely new and original idea is very rare," said Farriss. "In a way, we needed to do this. This band's a family and we lost a member of our family, and now the family has grieved and it's time to move on. No one can tell you to stop being a family, and our version of being one involved playing music. Why should we stop doing what we love because someone died? That would be more tragic."