Caution: Heavy Metal: An Interview with Rock Star Ralph Saenz of
I had so much fun while I was on vacation in Los Angeles, it took me a month to recover completely: but, between me and you and the wall, the best time I had on the whole trip was the night I went to the Viper Room in Hollywood to see this band called Metal Shop. Even if you don’t live in LA, you’ve probably heard of the Viper Room, because River Phoenix died a not-very-glamorous death on the sidewalk in front of that club a few years back, but you’re probably scratching your head asking, “Who the fuck are Metal Shop?” Well, if you watch TV, you’ve likely seen Metal Shop whether you’re aware or not, because they’re the band who play that washed-up ’80s hair metal band, Danger Kitty, in that transcendent Discover Card commercial. If I’m in the bathroom brushing my teeth and I hear that commercial come on, I’ll spit out whatever’s in my mouth and run to the TV, because washed-up ’80s hair metal bands are my thing.
Metal Shop have a steady gig at the Viper Room every Monday night, where they put on a hit parade of ’80s metal standards like Ratt’s “Round & Round,” Def Leppard’s “Photograph,” and – yes, I’m serious – “Wait” by White Lion, mixed with dead-on parody and smart-ass stage banter that’s like a cross between Headbanger’s Ball and This is Spinal Tap. Bryan Judas Priest saw their show when he was in LA a couple months before I went and he said it was completely hilarious and that I had to check it out. So, you can believe that before I even got to LA, I put a Monday night visit to the Viper Room on my travel agenda. Am I sick or what?
Bryan didn’t exaggerate at all: the show was wildly metal, very funny and totally rocked the house. The guys in Metal Shop not only go for the full-on ’80s spandex-and-Aquanet look, but are amazing musicians and can cover all these songs note for note. To add an air of authenticity and maybe take it just a bit over the top, they sync-up some backing tracks from the original versions– like pulling the “Shout! Shout! Shout!” chant off of “Shout at the Devil” – so you can close your eyes and really imagine you are hearing Motley Crue. ItÃs amazing. Between songs, they harass the audience and tell lame ’80s rock jokes. It’s just flawless and the audience goes completely insane. Any rock fan with a sense of humor absolutely should not miss seeing Metal Shop, if they can help it at all.
Before Metal Shop hit the stage, I hung out in the bar with lead singer Ralph Saenz, who goes under the stage name of Michael Diamond when he’s performing. Ralph is drop-dead gorgeous and actually looks a lot like “Hot For Teacher”-era David Lee Roth, which is probably no accident since he also has a Van Halen tribute band called The Atomic Punks. I have a photo of me and Ralph from that night, and every time I show it to someone, they ask me, “When did you meet David Lee Roth?” Like me, Ralph admits to being a big fan of Headbanger’s Ball. “All the bands that inspired me, like Warrant, Poison, Motley Crue, Ratt, and Bon Jovi, ruled MTV in the ’80s. Then Nirvana came around and killed heavy metal, but I still have not cut my hair,” he confessed. Ralph is very metal, but he has a great sense of humor, and that is what Metal Shop is all about.
For those interested in a little behind-the-scenes peek at this very clever success story, here’s what Ralph had to say about how good fortune smiled upon the band when Metal Shop became Danger Kitty.
How did Discover Card present the idea for the commercial to you?
Basically, Discover Card came and saw us play here at the Viper Room and asked us to do the commercial. There’s this guy, I think his name is Greg Bell, he works for the advertising agency that created the commercial. He told me that he wrote this story, based on a dream he had about a band that gets really big – a VH-1 type thing. They buy all of this stuff, which you see in the commercial, and then they lose their fame and fortune and end up working day jobs. That’s exactly what our show is like here, at the Viper Room.
Originally, they were looking for actors to do the commercial, but they couldn’t find anybody to really pull off also being musicians, you know? So this woman we know, Torey, works at this casting house and knew what the casting call was for. She suggested that they come see Metal Shop. When they came down to see us, the creative director told us that what we were doing just exactly fit his dream. It was fucking perfect from the get go.
In the commercial we did all our own choreography. He just said, “Do what you guys do!” Everything we do in our show is in the commercial. It was killer.
How long did it take to film the commercial?
It was a rough schedule. You know, all of the guys have other gigs. Ray (Luzier, drummer) plays with David Lee Roth and The Nixons. I have The Atomic Punks, and our bass player – he’s the guy who ends up at working at the Hot Dog stand, Ginger Roxx (Travis Haley) – plays in a band called The M80’s and Ratchett (guitarist, Russ Parrish) plays in a band called The Ducks. We were filming during the day, but I had a show in Phoenix one night, and one the next night in Seattle. We’d film all day for twelve hours and then they hired a Lear Jet and flew me to my gig. Then they flew me back right after the gig and started filming right when I got back. Then all the other guys go do their gigs – ‘cause they’re in town, thank god – and the next night, same thing: Lear Jet to Seattle, come back after the show, and film the commercial. We filmed for three days and I slept a total of like, three hours, maybe. It was insane. And I did no drugs the whole time.
What was the most memorable part of filming, for you?
The best part was when the director came out and goes, “Hey Ralph, let’s get you into wardrobe.” And I go in there and he holds up these Speedos and he goes, “This is what you’re wearing to jump in that hot tub.” [Ralph refers to the scene where he’s sitting in a hot tub in the back of a stretch limo]. I looked at him and said, “You’re fucking out of your mind, dude!” I mean, they were like Speedos! I was like, “At least give me a fur coat or something to wear over them.” It was really fun: I had to run out, take off my fur coat, and jump into this hot tub in the back of this limo. Now, you don’t see this in the commercial, but remember there are 50 to 100 extras hanging around the hotel who are big fans of ours. So I come out of the hotel room and then I’ve got to drop the coat and all they see is my ass jumping into the limo. I was trying to pull the coat off as late as possible, you know. I’m proud of my voice, but not of my ass.
Was it good money?
Let’s put it this way, we’re not going hungry for a long time.
What’s changed for you and Metal Shop since the commercial started running?
It’s weird, because it really hasn’t had that big of an effect here in Hollywood. But we did a couple festivals out in Northern California and the Mid-West, where we were billed as Danger Kitty, and it just fucking went off completely. Actually, we’ve gotten more media response from it. We were part of Jay Leno’s monologue on The Tonight Show and we were a question for _Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?_The $8,000 question was, “Who is the fictitious band in the Discover Card campaign?” I think people who come here on Monday are a lot of industry people, actors, managers, writers, and producers. It’s not a tourist night, really. I’d say it’s helped [our careers] a little bit, but what’s really helped us a lot is talking to people like you. Now you have a reason to talk to us. Before, we were just a band who played at the Viper Room – who gives a shit, right? But now people wonder, “Who is that band?” They want to know. In that sense, the commercial has really helped us a lot.
Sounds like this is a great gig to have.
I enjoy being Michael Diamond [on stage] because I get to say exactly what I would like to say to people at a show, but wouldn’t say because it wouldn’t be funny if you were serious. But being Michael Diamond – this guy who thinks the it’s still the ’80s – and saying “If you don’t stand up while we’re playing, we’re not playing another note,” is funny! I love heavy metal. I mean, I really do, seriously. All of us do. I love it and I always fantasized about being a rock star, so now I get to be one. Metal rules! It’s not just coming back, we’re forcing it back!
Ralph Saenz appears briefly in the movie Rock Star. You can catch Metal Shop every Monday night at the Viper Room in Hollywood, or check out Ralph’s Van Halen Tribute band, The Atomic Punks, at http://www.theatomicpunks.com. ◼