You’ve seen some of the “talent” that doesn’t make the cut on “American Idol.” And if you’ve ever been down to the local indie-rock club on a Monday night, you know that some acts can rival William Hung on his best night. So, you can imagine the parade of wacky bands that lined up to get their moment in the sun on the “Idol” spinoff “The Next Great American Band,” which debuts Friday night (October 19) on Fox.
“Band” follows a recipe similar to its benefactor: a pair of well-known judges and an unfamiliar-to-America wild card who plays the role of the, well, in this case, his name is revealing: Dicko. The latter is Ian “Dicko” Dickson, a tart-tongued former Australian “Idol” judge who will take his place alongside former Prince protégé Sheila E. and Goo Goo Dolls singer Johnny Rzeznik. After combing through more than 14,000 audition submissions, the judges sat through performances from 60 finalists during a hot couple of days in August in the Arizona desert, where they culled the group down to the final 12 band that will compete for a recording contract, with the winner based on audience voting.
Nigel Lythgoe, who produces “Band” as well as “Idol,” answered one of the most pressing questions about the show in a recent interview with journalists: Will America be able to bond with a band versus the solitary-singer format of “Idol,” and might audiences think it’s too similar to another rock-band reality show, “Rock Star”? Lythgoe said no to both, explaining, ” ‘Rock Star’ was about individuals. It was about individuals auditioning to be part of a band that had been successful years ago. This is not about that at all. It’s about creating a market for a band that has been around for many years, to be honest, and it’s about recognizing the talent that is so obviously ignored nowadays.”
Unlike “Idol,” the new show will not have a results program but will eliminate bands during its weekly one-hour time slot, with two acts going home the first two weeks. But each week’s show will have a musical theme, similar to “Idol,” with week one concentrating on Bob Dylan tunes.
Rzeznik, who Lythgoe described as a “deer in the headlights” when it first came to judging other people’s music, said he was initially reluctant when he got the call about the show. “I like being in the recording studio and playing gigs, so when my manager called, I was like, ‘I don’t know, it’s TV,’ ” Rzeznik said. “But then I met with the producers and they told me it would be real bands, not manufactured artists, and they would get to do their own original material, and I would get to give my honest opinion. And that sounded like fun.”
Though Rzeznik could not reveal who made the final cut, he did say there were a few bands music fans might have heard of, such as Boston-area two-time major-label flameouts Damone and Detroit fuzz-rockers the Muggs. “The end game is a record deal, but I don’t know how much of a prize that even is anymore,” Rzeznik admitted. “It’s interesting to me because it’s a 21st-century battle of the bands at a time when it’s getting harder and harder to sell records and to get noticed. A lot of record companies don’t have the marketing budgets to push bands anymore, so this is a great way for bands to showcase themselves on a massive scale.”
Rzeznik said he saw it all during the auditions, from polka to hip-hop played by bands featuring pre-teens, a group of women in their 80s doing old-time swing jazz, and a “Stomp”-like act that did a “performance piece” using trash cans and other unorthodox percussion. There were, of course, also bands who were just trying to get their few seconds of TV exposure, such as the group with a guitarist playing a Jimi Hendrix solo using a rubber chicken.
And then there were Zolar X. The glam-rock group, signed to former Dead Kennedys leader Jello Biafra’s Alternative Tentacles label, have been around since the mid-1970s and are best known for dressing in alien drag 24-7 and speaking in a manufactured alien language, and for a stint as the house band at famed Los Angeles DJ Rodney Bingenheimer’s English Disco club in the ’70s. Self-proclaimed “Plutonian Midget” leader Ygarr Ygarrist (born Stephen Della Bosca) said the band’s manager saw an ad for the show and submitted the name figuring it had nothing to lose.
No doubt due to its outlandish résumé and look, the group was invited out to Vegas for an audition, but Ygarr said its time in the spotlight was brief. “We only got to play 40 seconds, not even two songs, and we didn’t even get to the hook of our song ‘Retro Rockets,’ ” lamented Ygarr, who said one of the judges (OK, Dicko), clearly didn’t care for them. “This was a strange ordeal. All I know is that it was nice the first two and a half days and they interviewed us twice as long as the other bands. They asked what we would do if we won, and they asked us to talk some Zolarian language.”
Did Ygarr really think the band had a chance? Kind of. “There was a point after we did a whole day of interviews where they had us built up, we were feeling pretty good,” he said. “But how can Zolar X be the next great American band when we’re not from the planet?”
For Rzeznik, the ultimate appeal of the show might be the fact that bands will get to play original music, but Lythgoe said “Idol” has avoided that in the past because the prospect of a budding songwriter going up against a classic Motown hit might not make for particularly compelling television.
“It’s not about a single artist getting up there and playing with a slick session band and doing vocal gymnastics,” Rzeznik said. “Plus, it’s 10 blocks from my house and I only work one day a week, which is a great job if you can get it. I think there’s definitely going to be more than one band getting a record deal out of this.”