So you want to be a rock star?
Australian rockers INXS are hosting a reality television series to find a replacement for their late frontman Michael Hutchence. Paul Kay asks them about the idol pursuit
THE LOSS OF a frontman sounds the death knell for most bands. Although The Doors soldiered on manfully for two albums after Jim Morrison's death in 1971, they were a shadow of their former glory without their Lizard King. In the case of Nirvana, its remaining members sensibly chose to pursue other projects after Kurt Cobain's 1994 suicide.
After the untimely demise of Michael Hutchence in 1997, it seemed as if the party was over for INXS, too. American R&B artist Terence Trent d'Arby and former Cold Chisel vocalist Jimmy Barnes joined them for one-off concerts, while Jon Stevens - who had previously found moderate fame as the lead singer of Australian band Noiseworks - toured with the band between 2000 and 2003. Nevertheless, a new album failed to materialise and the remaining five members of the band, which had been one of the music world's biggest draws in the late 1980s and early 1990s, looked in danger of becoming a platform for a spot of celebrity stadium-rock karaoke.
But then they came up with the idea of launching a reality-TV show to find their next lead singer. And so Rock Star was born. The show, which premiered on Star World on Tuesday and might best be described as a mixture of Big Brother and Pop Idol, follows 15 hopefuls as they compete to be INXS' new spearhead. The winner will not only record an album with the band, their first new material since 1997's Elegantly Wasted, but will also embark with them on a 60-city world tour, beginning in Sydney early next year.
Guitarist Tim Farriss and guitarist/saxophonist Kirk Pengilly were doing the publicity rounds by telephone from Los Angeles last week, on the set of Rock Star as filming was due to commence.
'The idea actually came about in 1998,' says Pengilly, recalling the uncertain months that followed the Hong Kong-raised Hutchence's death. 'We were trying to decide what we were going to do. We were discussing a bunch of ideas and I flippantly threw in the concept of doing a worldwide search for a new singer on TV.'
The rest of the band liked the idea, says Pengilly, but it seemed unworkable at the time. When the subject came up again last year, however, INXS decided that, in the wake of the flood of reality-TV shows, the time was ripe to put the plan into action. They spoke to several production companies and eventually found their perfect match in Survivor creator Mark Burnett. Together they worked on the format for the show, eventually coming up with a system in which, week-by-week, each of the contestants gets the chance to perform a song of their choice and viewers around the world vote for their favourite. The three lowest-polling contenders must then perform a song from INXS' back catalogue in front of the band, who then decide which performer must say goodbye to the show and their dreams of stardom.
'We're looking for someone who's got all the qualities you need to be an outstanding and charismatic singer,' says Farriss. 'Obviously, we want someone who can sing, but they have to have that star quality as well, where you can't take your eyes off them. One of the great things about this show is that we'll get to see the different sides of all these people and choose which one would fit in best.'
Even critics of the reality-TV genre might admit there's a certain audacity behind the enterprise. If it were to flop it would almost certainly be the final nail in INXS' coffin, although fears of this possibility may be tempered by the massive amount of publicity the show is generating.
And the chance for the winner to strut on stages and in stadiums around the world with a band who have sold more than 30 million albums certainly makes Pop Idol's prize - a fleeting career in a notoriously fickle sector of the music business - pale in comparison.
Slotting straight into the lineup of a band that have played together for 28 years and been friends even longer will be no easy task, but the boys have tried to make this transition as easy as possible in setting the formula for the show.
'I guess it's a pretty daunting thing [to join the band],' says Pengilly, 'which is part of the reason we got Dave Navarro in to co-host the show. He's had experience in joining an already established band [Red Hot Chilli Peppers], so he's on the show to be a mentor if the contestants have questions about how to fit in'.
Viewers hoping that a member of the band will take on the 'Mr Nasty' mantle, a role played to good effect on Pop Idol and American Idol by Simon Cowell, may be disappointed. 'For us, it's not about that,' says Pengilly. 'For a start, we've got 15 professional artists, so we feel it's about being positive and trying to get the best out of these people so we know what they're like.'
The pair insist that the age gap between them and the contestants (Pengilly and Farriss are both 47, while the youngest would-be rocker is 22) will not be an obstacle in fitting into the band. 'Rock music is about being young and feeling young,' says Farriss. 'It's about having the chops and the attitude and the confidence.'
The eventual winner of Rock Star will need these qualities in spades. He or she (eight of the 15 hopefuls are women) will be thrown straight into the creative process because the band plans to release an album by the end of the year. To make this feat possible, they'll begin recording the album in tandem with shooting the show.
'The show really only takes up about two or three days a week for us,' says Pengilly. 'The rest of the time, we'll be in the studio starting to lay tracks down. We have to get a lot of stuff prepared because by the time we've decided who our new lead singer is going to be, we have a very short period of time to finish off the album. We want to get them to a point where they're nearly ready and just need the vocals and finishing touches.'
Whether or not the winner will be asked to remain with the band beyond the initial tour and album remains to be seen, but Farriss and Pengilly are optimistic. 'We're taking major baby steps,' says Farriss. 'But we wouldn't go through this process unless we felt confident and hopeful that we're going to find our new lead singer that we'll go on and on with.'
Irrespective of how Rock Star works out, the new album represents a fresh start for INXS and a chance to show the world that they still have something to offer. 'We haven't made a record for nine years,' says Farris. 'So it's almost like it's our first album. We've had nine years to write it, so there's a whole bunch of songs. Next week we'll start listening to them all and working out which ones we like as a band, which ones we feel comfortable with, what suits what we're doing and where we're at. But the process we go through will be the process we've gone through with every album.'
The release of their new work should finally lay Hutchence's ghost to rest as far as INXS are concerned. The process of grieving and adapting to get along without their frontman has been a long and arduous one. Musically, it's a process that began in Sydney in 1999.
'It was pretty weird,' says Farriss, recalling the build-up to the band's first concert without Hutchence. 'The first thing we did, apart from a very brief thing with Jimmy Barnes, was the opening of the Olympic Stadium in Sydney. Terence Trent d'Arby came out to Australia to do the show with us and we rehearsed in the same room where we'd heard the news about Michael. We hadn't been there since Michael had died and then all of a sudden there we were, back there with the same stage layout and even the same carpet with a great big star on it where Michael used to stand.'
As strange and emotional as the rehearsals were, things were to get even more affecting during the gig itself.
'It was surreal,' says Pengilly. 'It was the middle of winter, so it was really cold, and we were playing in the middle of the field with the people in the stands round the side. Then all these kids in white cloaks came out onto the field while we played. It was all like some kind of weird dream. After we performed, we went backstage and Terence, who was wearing this elf-like white leather suit, was standing among about 500 kids, all dressed in white. It was like being backstage in heaven.'
'It was like a washing powder ad,' says Farriss with a laugh. He's quick to point out, however, the therapeutic value of that first post-Hutchence performance. 'It was a really important milestone for us,' he says. 'Realising we could go on and that people cared and people wanted to see us: it was an amazingly cathartic thing.'
Although details of INXS' forthcoming tour are still to be finalised, Pengilly and Farriss hope their schedule will allow them to play Hong Kong. They wowed the crowds at Queen Elizabeth Stadium in 1994 and 2002, and say the band have always had 'a connection' to the city.
Hutchence spent six years in Hong Kong between the ages of five and 11 and returned to the city many times throughout his life, including an extended period in 1986 when he and bandmate Jon Farriss (Tim's brother) rented a small flat in Central to concentrate on new material. Some of INXS' most famous tracks, including Disappear and their first US No 1 single, Need You Tonight, were written during this period.
However, there's another reason Farriss is hoping to make it to these shores. 'It's interesting going to places that don't see a lot of Australian rock bands,' he says. 'It always makes us feel very special. After all, it's a big world out there.'
Rock Star: INXS, Star World, Wed, 9.30am (live), 8.50pm repeat; Thu, 9am (live); 9pm repeat