It's late October, the last days of East Burnside's Outlaws Music Hall, and the club's green room is full of people pulling on costumes, applying eyeliner and doing warm-up stretches. It'd be easy to mistake this for a play, but it's not. It's a rock show.
Tera Nova Zarra, the lead singer, is going over a props list when I come in (they're missing fake blood). She hands me some plastic roses—apparently I'm going to be part of the show. My bit comes later, onstage, after one of the band's admirers is slain, comes back as a werewolf, and shoots a bow and arrow with her feet while doing a handstand. As the next song starts, I give Zarra the roses and she bats her eyelashes at me.
"You are a repeat offender," Zarra sings, "in matters of the heart. You want my sweet surrender, but I'll never surrender," she continues—as the bassist holds up a two-by-four, "'cuz I'm a ninja!"
Zarra punches the board in half with her fistful of flowers, and throws the bouquet into the cheering crowd. Then she starts headbanging.
Tera Nova Zarra leads a double life: Normally, she's a spazzy, earnest geek who wears glasses and works as a vocal coach at the Rock 'n' Roll Camp for Girls. But onstage she's Missy Jitsu, a toned, badass sex bomb in tight vinyl, the lead singer of Portland ninja band Fist of Dishonor.
While Fist of Dishonor easily has the most elaborate stage show, ninjas are by no means the only fictional characters rocking out in this town. There are pirates, Klingons, lobsterlike aliens, heavenly boy bands, even Shakespeareian actors playing butt rock.
Portland's full of persona bands, groups stemming from the tradition of KISS, Ziggy Stardust and GWAR! that take the stage with pseudonyms, fictitious identities and costumes. No fewer than a dozen of them have been active here in the past two years. And until now, many of the local acts have kept their true identities so secret you'd think their loved ones' lives depended on it.
Portland's a great place to play dress-up, think of the hundreds of drunken locals who donned red garb for last weekend's annual SantaCon. In addition to persona acts, Portland's home to many tribute bands, from the portly Glenn Danzig and company of the Misfats to the Guns N' Roses stand-ins Appetite for Deception. But where tribute bands pose as real people and play covers, persona bands create fictional identities and often write their own music.
"They bring a different sense of talent beyond good songwriting," says Ash Street Saloon music booker Heather (who keeps her surname out of the public eye) about persona bands. "From a venue aspect, it's pretty awesome to be able to mix in something that inventive."
Being inventive is the point. "We were tired of going out and seeing bands that took themselves too seriously and did not put on a show," says Fist of Dishonor keyboardist Tim Planagan (a.k.a. Robo D). By day, Planagan, 30, is a project manager at a construction company. He's talking about his band's formation in spring 2005, but he could be reciting a manifesto for the local persona movement. "We thought it was obvious that the second your foot touches the stage," Planagan says, "you should be bringing a show."
Chris Keller agrees: "This seemed like a really point-A-to-point-B way to have people have a good time." Keller—or Captain Keller, as he's called when he's in the pirate suit he pieced together from Goodwill castoffs and International Male clothing-catalog finds—fronts Sunken Chest, Fist of Dishonor's arch (onstage) rivals.
Inspiration for Keller came after he drunkenly wrote some piratey songs with a friend. His friend wasn't into wearing costumes ("he said it lacked musical integrity," Keller says with a hint of a smirk), so Keller spent the next year and a half posting notices in guitar shops before he pulled together the band's current four-man lineup in 2004.
A gimmick power-metal band was what former WW contributor Jason Simms, 23, dreamed up—eventually spawning Dagger of the Mind. The Shakespeareian "Bardcore" act, known for its banter and bad English accents, has been accosting crowd members and breaking bottles since October 2005.
"Shakespeare's like the really metal text," the Lewis&Clark English grad explains. "It's constant hyperbole. There's so much extreme love," he announces, thrusting his hand aloft like he's cursing the heavens, "and bitter rivalry," he says, struggling to push his fists toward each other like they're repelled by magnetism. Simms and his band ended up embodying those extremes by juxtaposing velvet tunics and tights with epic metal solos.
Tile-factory worker Ward Young saw something similarly metal in a certain breed of Star Trek aliens. "The Klingons were, like, biker-warrior types," Young, 39, says.
So, Young founded the Klingon band Stovokor (named after the afterlife that awaits victorious Klingon warriors) in 2002. Members of the band have taken their character development to the extreme, posting lengthy MySpace blogs detailing where they fit into Star Trek continuity. Bassist Jason Lewis sums up the band's commitment: "When I tried out for the band and was accepted," he says, "I was given a forehead and a black military-issue sweater." Between ear-splitting death-metal songs, the band, which dons those prosthetic foreheads along with makeup and a combination of Klingon uniforms and metal fashion, is known for its monologues agreeing with U.S. environmental policy and the current administration: "Job well done, Bush, son of Bush!" Lewis exclaimed at one show this fall.
Other bands started as jokes. Self-described "ridiculous, oversexed Portland boy band" Sexy Pants accidentally started after Portlander Adam Barnett and his roommates posted a joke MySpace band page featuring silly dance songs and photos of themselves in cutoff jeans, pouring milk on each other. It became slightly less of a joke when the Tonic Lounge took them seriously and offered them a show.
"It was sort of the transition of, 'Oh shit! Really? So we need to write more songs, and then figure out how we're going to perform them?'" says Barnett, 25, who goes by T.C. (Too Cool) when he's in his oversized Sexy Pants sunglasses. Out of costume, he and the rest of Sexy Pants look like they could be members of any Portland indie-rock band. But onstage, they're a twisted cavalcade of high socks, belly hair and ironic T-shirts.
But of all the local acts, Fist of Dishonor puts the most work into its performances. The five-piece is augmented by a rotating cast of enemies and allies played by their friends (several of whom are former professional wrestlers), and Zarra trains at least six days a week in partner acrobatics, dance, and fight choreography in gymnastics studios, dance studios and public parks around town.
Offstage, though, not all the bands were entirely comfortable dropping the act long enough for an interview.
"I kind of felt it was like a magician revealing his secret," says Brian Cummings, a.k.a. Fist of Dishonor drummer Zodiac Snow Wolf, "and there's some kind of strange in the mystique of it all."
Initially, Cummings, 34, who wears iris-hiding trick contacts when he's the Snow Wolf and black-framed Buddy Holly glasses when he isn't, was vehemently against dropping the persona for an interview—any interview. Several other bands shared his misgivings. Sexy Pants, Stovokor and Sunken Chest had never consented to an interview out of character before. Stovokor's lead singer, Bill Salfelder, say they're just trying to live up to the ideal set by persona stars like Alice Cooper and KISS. Salfelder describes Gene Simmons hiding his face as he'd exit venues after shows in the '70s. Then again, Zarra, and Josh Bass of Sunken Chest, don't see much difference between themselves and any other band.
"Every band is a dress-up band, because everything you put on, it's a choice; it's intention," says Bass, who performs as Clambeard the Pyrate Drummarr. "Even though you might wear the costume all day, it's still a costume." Bass, 37, a sociology instructor at a local university, sees being in a band that dresses like pirates as rock at its most honest. "That's kind of what rock and roll is all about, to become someone other than who you are in your ordinary life."
The costumes and shenanigans can be a double-edged sword, especially when the bands hope people will take their music seriously. "It's tremendously limiting," says Bass, when it comes to Sunken Chest getting shows with "normal" bands. "It's hard for us to break out of the costume-band ghetto."
And some crowd members take these groups a bit too seriously—especially if they've been drinking. Fist of Dishonor no longer plays house parties after a drunk tried to fight Missy Jitsu during a show at Southeast Portland's Funky Church and then tried "getting physical" (and not in a stage-combat way) with her after the show.
Stovokor's Salfelder—an intimidating 6-foot-8, 350-pound man whose left arm ends at the wrist—punched an audience member who kept grabbing the mic after being warned by the band. Video of the incident ended up on YouTube, and Salfelder says it cost him a potential job with the U.S. government.
Some of the bands sell out shows in town, but nobody in the local persona scene is making enough money to quit their day jobs. But most say their efforts are paying off in sheer fun, and the personas let them get away with things a "normal" band couldn't.
Sexy Pants' members reminisce about giving away life-sized posters of themselves in their underwear at a Valentine's show.
Stovokor's Klingon identities got them onto the documentary Trekkies II and its soundtrack, scored them a gig at the top of the Space Needle, and got Salfelder a handshake from Dead Kennedys founder Jello Biafra at a show in San Francisco. "[He] thanked us, said we were awesome, [and] gave us suggestions on stage shit," Salfelder says.
For the Klingons, the hot costumes, and lack of respect from their peers is outweighed by the impression they've left on fans and the good times they've had.
"I figure when Stovokor breaks up, my next band's going to be about Dune ," rhythm guitarist Ward Young muses.
"If this ever breaks up," Salfelder concludes, "I'm never wearing a fucking costume again in my life."
Dagger of the Mind judges an air-guitar contest and plays Wednesday, Dec. 12, at Dunes. 9 pm. $5. 21+. Sunken Chest plays Thursday, Dec. 13, with Amadan, My Life in Black and White, and non-persona pirate rockers Rum Rebellion at Dante's. $5. 21+. Fist of Dishonor plays Friday, Dec. 21, with Nodding Tree Remedies and Philip Cooper at Someday Lounge. 9 pm. $5. 21+.