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Just Who Are The Protomen? Let’s Find Out!

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The most surprising act of MAGFest 9 came in the form of “The Protomen.” They actually played two shows, doing Act I and Act II (released as separate albums) back-to-back. But before they got started, I had no idea who they were.

All I knew was that there was a lot of buzz around the convention floor about how amazing they are, especially live. I figured they were just going to do a bunch of Mega Man cover tunes. Boy, was I wrong.

This 10-person rock band developed their own multi-act rock opera based very loosely around the major characters of the Mega Man franchise. The music is entirely original, and entirely crazy. This was some of the most insane performance art I think I will ever see at a convention. Stage props, speaking roles, and a die-hard fanbase that could sing along to every last word. To say that I was intrigued after first seeing them perform is a gross understatement.

But am I really the only one to have not known about them? As it turns out, I wasn’t alone at all. Though The Protomen do have a relatively large cult following, I’d estimate that about half of the MAGFest attendees, the “regulars,” were in the same boat as me. Some where disgruntled over the fact that they weren’t the same “kind” of band as the others. Other Protomen newbies became instant acolytes, diving into their strange, dark, exotic and fun brand of rock and roll.

You can count me with the latter.

It’s primarily because so many in the game music fan-scene haven’t yet heard of The Protomen that I’ve decided to put together a short biographical featurette, which you can find after the jump. Trust me, you don’t want to miss this.

When I approached The Protomen to do an interview so that I could write about them, I got a strange answer from The Gambler, one of the band’s two female members (they all go by monikers and generally don’t refer to one another by their real names). The Gambler informed me that because the ten of them planned on enjoying the festival for as much time as they could, they wouldn’t really be spending time together until the planned signing / meet&greet they would be holding Saturday afternoon before they performed Act II. She told me that I ought to come during that time and just shout questions from the background, and the various band members would answer me.

Unconventional? Yes. I couldn’t detect whether this was them giving me the shaft, or if they were genuinely willing to partake in such a hare-brained scheme, just to see if it would work.

As it turns out, I’m pretty sure the latter is the correct answer. It would fit their history, after all.

The Protomen started as a school project. Most of the band members, current and former, live in and around Nashville, TN. They were students at MTSU (Middle Tennessee State University), learning about music recording and production, and The Protomen started as a small project just to get their work done and turn it in for grades. In an attempt to show their sense of self-determination and autonomy, they cast off basically everything they were taught by the professors about how to make “good, clean, radio hit” music. The result of such an endeavor can be found in their self-titled debut album, which serves as Act I in the Protomen story. Having now listened to the album, I can see just how “unconventional” they were willing to go.

So, just before the signing, when I asked band member Sir Robert Bakker if I could really just spout out questions during the mayhem of lined-up autographing that was about to take place, he assured me that no one would have a problem with it, and it would be a fun experiment, just to see if it works. This really is the way they roll, and it certainly explains how they got to where they are. They take their craft seriously, but they’re just as willing to act crazy and have a good time. It’s all part of the Protomen identity.

I was asking questions merely based on my experience as an attendee of their Friday night show, so I started basic: “Just how close or how far is the Protomen story compared to the Mega Man games.”

An amused Panther, the lead singer and (as far as I can tell) head of this whole crazy project, gave me an answer that I’m sure he’s had to spout off dozens of times. “There are characters like Mega Man, and Dr. Light, and Proto Man. And that may be about as far along the actual Capcom canon as we wanted to go. The idea was to take the core of the Mega Man idea and push it in a much darker direction, all while not relying on all the ins and outs of the original storyline.”

Unconvinced that this is all the more inspiration drawn from the game, I challenged Panther. The lyrics I heard and the visuals I saw suggested a dark, dystopian future with warring factions between man and machine. It made me think almost immediately to the Mega Man X series, so I asked about that. Panther’s answer? “Ye…aahhh… No. I’ve been told there may be similarities between what we’ve presented and that series, but I haven’t really played it, and I’m not into it with all the anime.”

I felt like a fish out of water. I kinda-sorta liked X (at least the SNES ones). So why Mega Man anyway?

“What drew us to the Mega Man series originally is that there were some serious, fantastic rock and roll jams in the original six Mega Man games,” reports Panther. “On top of the rad music, we could see a tougher than shit story that was just waiting to break out of those first few games.”

Thinking back to the show, I remembered seeing a lot of movement on stage. Not dancing, but changing of props and instruments. Clearly, these individuals were all talented. So do all of them switch up instruments and take on different “roles” in the band from time to time?

Panther: “Pretty much.”

The Gambler: “Yes, but even more in the second act than the first. Everyone is multi-instrumental; you have to be when you have as many sounds as we have going on.”

I’ve seen some strange things in my time. Some of my favorite bands will use all manner of objects as impromptu percussion to keep the beat (Anathallo’s “Floating World” comes to mind: a giant chain shaken against the ground). But The Gambler spoke the truth. In the show I witnessed, I saw another band member (The Nightwalker, the other female) pick up a trumpet and play it, but only for one song. Band members would drop instruments on the fly to start clapping or doing hand motions. Guitars were switched not just between songs, but mid-song. It’s amazing that they can even manage the props on top of all the instrument switches. It really is like putting on a play, except they don’t have the luxury of a closed curtain.

It also seemed that basically everyone on-stage had a mic in front of them. Lots of chanting, but there were also moments of full four-part harmony going on. Considering Act I has been around since their formation in 2005, I guess I should expect that they’ve mastered the performance, even with recent changes in lineup. But are they “complete?” They were about to play Act II. Is that the end of it?

No. As it turns out, there’s a third act in the works. Act II is actually a prequel; the album for it, which I see sitting at their merch table, was released in 2009. But they assure me that Act III is coming, and it will be the true ending.

Wait… a long-form story across multiple albums, told in the wrong order? That sounds like Coheed & Cambria. I throw out the question to the whole band: “Does anyone here like Coheed and Cambria? Are they at all an inspiration of what’s going on here?”

A couple shrugs and Panther saying “I guess… I mean, they’re doing good stuff.” Swing and a miss, Gann. I love the sound I heard last night, but I’m clearly not connecting to what it is that empowers them. I’ll try to come back to that later.

In the meantime, what about everyone’s favorite buzzword from E3 2006, “polymorphic content?” Are they interested in presenting the story in forms other than the music? Maybe a short film, or a book, or a graphic novel?

“Well, that’s what the Libretto is supposed to do.”

Libretto? What Libretto? I scan the merch table again, all I see are their two albums in slim cardboard covers. They assure me that it’s in there. Dumbfounded, I ask, “is it a digital file on the CD?” Turns out, nope, there’s a 24-page book packed in with the CD. I hastily remove the plastic on my newly-bought personal copy to see it for myself. Okay, so they have that covered too. These guys really do have their bases covered.

The words in the Libretto match a lot of what I heard on-stage; not just the singing, but the talking between songs. But I also remembered “Mega Man” hitting “Proto Man” in the nether-regions with a keytar, and the latter character humorously declaring what just took place on stage. So there’s humor in the mix of their epic story. Was that an exception to the rule?

According to Panther, “A lot of what we say and do is ad-libbed on a night-by-night basis.” Furthermore, “If you got up on stage dressed in silver makeup and helmets and took yourself too seriously and got pissed off when you accidentally hit a robot in the balls with your keytar…” the sentence finished itself with a nod, assenting to his point: have a good time, don’t sweat the small stuff, and don’t stick to a rigid script.

This is still hard for me to grasp, since the performance I saw Friday night seemed so tight and so well-rehearsed.

Grasping for a good idea, I decided to throw out everyone’s least favorite stock question: influences. Bands they like. That sort of thing.

From the whole group, I got a large variety of responses. Hold Steady, Radiohead, Queen, Björk, Arcade Fire, Pat Benatar, Springsteen, Scandal, Bonnie Tyler, and many more. One member went out of his way to declare that Radiohead is definitely the best rock band of the last two decades.

I spent a short period of my life living in Nashville, and one of the things I loved about that town is that there were so many different venues for artists to perform. I wanted to know where in their hometown they like to hone their skills as live performers.

Answer? The Mercy Lounge. “They’re big supporters of what we do.” They said they got their start playing at “The End,” but the venue is too small for the crowds they bring out these days.

My inability to find the answer to that magic something they had as a band was continuing to wear on me, and my brain was going a million directions at once. Thankfully, I’m given a reprieve when band member Commander takes on an arm-wrestling challenge. Apparently this happens quite often, and before the signing event was over, Commander B. Hawkins would challenge a number of other challengers, creating a spectacle that everyone wanted to see. There was talk of band-member-swapping based on the results of the competitions, and when Commander absolutely creamed Danimal Cannon, it looked like all of Armcannon would have to absorb themselves into The Protomen. Now that would be interesting.

As I find time, I ask Sir Robert Bakker about their stage props. He informs me that they have dozens of them, many of them provided by fans. They have backup helmets and arm cannons in case the ones they regularly use get damaged. They have a sledge hammer. Their costumes include belts made of bullet shells and creepy silver masks. It’s pretty overwhelming.

I got my train of thought back, and decided to ask about their “biggest” shows. I found out that they opened for The Faint at the Mercy Lounge/Cannery Ballroom, and they joked that they “opened” for Coheed & Cambria as well as Public Enemy at festivals such as Bonnaroo. Of course, as another band member quipped, “that doesn’t count.” But others wanted me to report this with no hint of irony. I couldn’t help but laugh.

The Gambler: “As far as the largest number of people we’ve played for, it was definitely PAX East 2010 — there were about 4000 people there, and they really got into it.”

Panther: “It was really bizarre, playing for that many people. But it was wild, and a lot of fun.”

Time was running short, and I knew it. I had to get to the heart of it. So I just threw this question out there:

“Are you guys just in this for entertainment value, or do you hold to the meaning behind the messages presented in the show? I clearly remember from the show last night when you said, and I think this is a famous quote, ‘A hero is just a man who knows he’s free.’ Where are you trying to go with all of this?”

Obviously, this answer was a job for Panther. He turned away from the signing table to give me the following answer, which I’ve decided to quote in full:

“In total, The Protomen story is a tragedy. I don’t really expect it to end well for humanity. Our overarching message is that people really need to think for themselves and not follow a crowd. This project started, and remains, a commentary on the music scene. When we were at MTSU, we were instructed on how to make things sound like everything already sounds… like Nashville pop-country. It really infuriated us. The Act I sound may not be as pleasing to the ears as your average Taylor Swift jam, but a big part of our message is to go your own way, and we’re trying to exemplify that.”

Panther was then interrupted by the official MAGFest noise, the Colossus “WHHHOOOOAAA!!!” But I think I found what I was looking for with that one.

But The Protomen isn’t one set group. Panther and others have been there since day one, but some have had to leave for personal reasons, and they are replaced by newer members. Before I wrap up my time with them, I decide to get to know one of their newest members.

His name is Ringo Segundo, and he joined the band in October 2010. He’s friends with bandmate Turbo-Lover, which was his connection to the band that got him in when the previous guitarist left. I asked him how long he wants to keep doing this.

“I love it. I’m just gonna ride it until I die or until they break up. I don’t see any reason to leave this band. I love the face paint, I love the sound, I love it all.”

How long did it take him to “catch up?” That is, he had to learn all the music for both Act I and Act II. Segundo must be a talented man, because he says it took him about a month in total to really pick up the music and feel comfortable performing it.

And since that time he’s already played somewhere between 10 and 15 shows. The Protomen are notorious for being on tour for long stretches of time, playing wherever they can and getting people psyched about their over-the-top, epic, hard-hitting music. That seems to be what Segundo fell in love with from the start, and like he said to me, I doubt he’s going to stop.

Segundo tells me about their tour bus: it’s the real deal, with bunks and seats and standing room and everything a huge band could want. Okay, it’s not exactly a luxury vehicle, but they certainly get by with it.

Eventually the signing event was over, and I think I learned all I could learn in a single day about this band. What makes them strong is that they’re a community, but they accept each others’ individualism, true to their message. Most of them are involved in side projects, and for some band members, The Protomen *is* the side project, while their main efforts are on other things. But the driving music, the fist-pumping, the powerful and cryptic lyrics, all combine to make a perfect recipe that naturally appeals to gamers. Not just because it’s based on Mega Man (loosely), or that the music is awesome (definitely), but mainly because there’s a passion and warmth about The Protomen, something that, perhaps ironically, reminds us of our common humanity, even as we express a fondness of clearly non-human things: games, guitars, and especially robots.

It took less than 24 hours for The Protomen to turn me into a Mega Fan. They’re doing something special, and I invite OSV readers to continue to learn about this strange and unique group of retro-game-loving musicians and certainly check out their music.

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