With his hands firmly planted in the pockets of his nondescript black hoodie, and fixed straight ahead, Josh Todd hurriedly crosses a bustling 36th Avenue. Wearing simple, black-rimmed glasses, tight black jeans and a pair of black New Balance sneakers, the 46-year-old California native does not draw so much as glance from the motorists gleefully making their way home after another work week. Three hours later, Todd will shed his anonymity and take the Alaska Airlines Center stage as the lead singer of the platinum-selling rock band, Buckcherry.
Despite the classic images of wild parties, orgies and weekend benders that come to mind when one thinks about the rockstar life, the reality for rock bands in 2016 does not live up to the fantasy.
“I’ll tell you what a day in the life looks like,” Todd says as he silences his ringing cell phone and leans forward in his chair. “You wake up in a parking lot because you’ve been on a bus and you always wake up with nine other people around you, so that’s always fun. And then we go out and find out where the dressing room is, you know, do our shower or whatever you like to do. Then you roll into sound check and press. Before you know it, it’s time to [take the stage].”
In the past 43 days, Buckcherry has seen a lot of parking lots. Covering 16 states and performing 20 times, the daily grind is evident in the strained voice of guitarist Keith Nelson.
“It’s pretty boring actually. The whole day is centered around that one hour-and-a-half,” Nelson adds.
This hasn’t always been the case. As little as 10 years ago, Buckcherry was riding the wave of their most successful album 15, so named because of the 15 days it took to record and produce it. The album’s first single “Crazy Bitch” peaked at #59 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and garnered the band a nomination for Best Hard Rock Performance at the 49th annual Grammy Awards. “Sorry" the fifth and final single from the 2006 album, spent 98 weeks on the Billboard 200 before reaching the Top 40.
“When we were making 15 we weren’t thinking this is going to be the greatest commercial success of our careers! We knew it had to be undeniable. We were just like, nobody cares about us right now, we’ve been out of the game,” said Todd.
Ironically, the album was initially created without the financial backing of a music label in what Nelson describes as “the perfect storm” when records still sold and radio still mattered.
“We all had a common goal. We were all really focused on it because we were all at the same places in our lives and we were like right on the edge, all of us. It had to happen and there was no other option,” Todd recalls.
Like most artists who become overnight success stories, their ascent to rock stardom was not without controversy. In September 2006, the band was slapped with a lawsuit on behalf of a sixteen year old girl who claimed she was coerced into appearing topless at a live taping of the band’s sexually-explicit hit “Crazy Bitch.” Despite assertions that the casting call required ID checks at the door, the X-rated video was pulled from the band’s website and a third-party was hired to strip the video from other websites that illegally posted the material. The lawsuit was settled with undisclosed terms in February of 2008.
Even amongst the pending lawsuit, the band trudged ahead and in 2008 released their fourth album Black Butterfly. Although the album debuted at #8 on the Top 200 Chart, neither it nor their next two albums could help keep Buckcherry in the mainstream spotlight.
“I’m as proud of the record 15 as I am of every record we’ve done so far,” said Nelson. “I think every record is unique, but for some reason 15 captured the attention of people in a way that nothing has before, or since.”
The music industry has undergone drastic changes in the last decade and many rock bands have found themselves on the outside looking in. Iconic bassist Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers recently told The Guardian that in many ways Rock music is a dead art form and he isn’t the only one expressing frustration. In a controversial September 2014 interview with Esquire, Kiss’ Gene Simmons advised young musicians not to quit their day jobs, emphatically declaring that "Rock is finally dead."
Simmons may have been spot on. When one flips through the plethora of Anchorage FM stations, they’re met with the ubiquitous pulsating electronic beats known as today’s mainstream music. Everything from country to rap seems to be infused with the same MDMA-laced sound, blurring the lines between what used to be well-defined genres.
“Keith [Nelson] and I talk about it all the time, like how hard it would be being a baby Rock band right now. There’s not a whole lot of incentive out there to like drop everything and go be a Rock musician you know, and not go to school and not have something to fall back on,” says Todd.
“We get asked in interviews ‘any advice for new bands?’ I don’t even know what to tell them, honestly. I couldn’t imagine trying to build an audience and everything with the way the current industry is. But I don’t think Rock is dead because there are a lot of Rock bands out there, but as far as mass media goes and chart positions, Rock is definitely falling off the radar for a lot of people,” adds Nelson.
So what becomes of those Rock bands like Buckcherry who still want to have skin in the game? According to Nelson and Todd, it depends on your motivation. “If you want to be rich and famous, don’t be a Rock musician. This is not the way to do it, which is crazy that we would even say that,” Todd emphatically declares. “If your motivation is that you want to, and you have to be making music, like Josh [Todd] and all the guys in the band do, even if we’re baristas at Starbucks we would still go home and make music. That’s who we are and that’s why we still make music,” explains Nelson.
When asked what music he listens to, Todd chuckles, “I wish I could say rock but I don’t listen to a lot of rock. I listen to a lot of pop music and like, old school Motown and funk and Prince and James Brown. I love the new Arianna Grande song ‘Into You.’ I think it’s fucking amazing!”
Arianna Grande seems like an odd listening choice for a rocker but Todd has always been a singer who hasn’t been afraid of cutting his own path. After the dissolution of the original line-up in 2002, Todd and Nelson teamed up with ex-Guns N’ Roses members Slash, Duff McKagan and Matt Sorum to work on an album. After laying down 10 tracks, Todd was replaced by the now deceased Stone Temple Pilots’ singer Scott Weiland when Slash decided he didn’t like the way Todd’s voice sounded on the tracks. That band became known as Velvet Revolver.
This major setback didn’t stop Todd, who reformed Buckcherry in 2005 and has gone on to keep taking musical risks. In 2014 Buckcherry produced the EP Fuck which features a hard-hitting remake of Icona Pop’s “I Love It (I Don’t Care).” Reaching 1.7 million views on YouTube and cementing itself as a mainstay in the band’s set list, “Say Fuck It” proved to be a good move. Unfortunately, Buckcherry’s 2015 country crossover with Gretchen Wilson, “The Feeling Never Dies” and 2016 side project, Spraygun War, have been met with mixed reviews.
To the outside observer, it looks like the band is fighting tooth and nail to situate themselves within in the changing market. But who can blame them? At the end of the day, the music industry is a business.
“I mean what has not changed in the music business? It seems like basically, you know, you work your whole life to craft songs and to write stuff that people want to go out and see and now you don’t get paid on it,” relates Todd.
The popularity shifts in mainstream means that if you want to be a full-time Rock musician, you better like being on the road because never ending tours are a primary source of income nowadays.
“You have to go out and play and find your audience. You have to keep putting out records, you got to be on the road and you got to stay there,” says Todd as he gnaws on a piece of beef jerky and checks his ringing phone.
Buckcherry is doing just that. In the next two months they will crisscross the US and UK for 30 performances before finally returning home in mid-November. Still, Keith Nelson wouldn’t have it any other way.
“In one sense, yeah it’s a sacrifice but it’s the best job I’ve ever had,” Nelson insists.
“I would have just liked to have the knowledge that I have now, when we started in the music business. Just what we dealt with, with record labels and managers,” Todd adds. I would just like to know all of that stuff, with the lawyers and everything, we could have set ourselves up a lot better.”
As Buckcherry makes their way to the stage on Friday, August 26, the deafening sound of hundreds of screaming fans seems to breathe life into the band who only hours earlier looked exhausted from the previous night’s performance and 6 a.m. flight from Fairbanks. Todd stays back as the band takes the stage and aggressively shadow boxes, his jaw clinched and his eyes piercingly focused. Todd has ripped off his cloak of invisibility and become the vivacious rockstar that has become synonymous with Buckcherry.
The band expertly blasts through the set list before struggling to make their way back to the dressing room amongst fans clawing for used guitar picks, drumsticks and autographs. Todd is the first to reach the dressing room, sweat-drenched, he keeps his eyes on the floor as he flings the door open. Nelson is next, followed by bandmates Stevie D, Kelly LeMieux and Xavier Muriel. Only LeMieux and Stevie D have the energy to pose for a post-concert picture. Within 20 minutes, the last straggler has left the building and the road crew diligently breaks down the stage. Tomorrow at 7 a.m., the band will board the bus to Soldotna and do it all over again.
This is the glamorous life of a rock band, 99 percent boredom for that one percent of glorious chaos.
*Published by the Anchorage Press