Steel Panther lead singer Michael Starr arrives at the Rainbow Bar & Grill sporting a black eye. Given his comedic hair metal band's raunchy reputation, you might think he got it in a bar fight, or a rough roll in the sheets with an overenthusiastic groupie. But the real story, he admits, isn't quite that metal.
“After the show at the Roxy last week, I hooked up with this chick and she has a kid,” he explains, chowing down on a slice of pepperoni pizza. The next morning, “We're walking the kid to school and I got on the kid’s Razor and fuckin’ crashed.” He pulls back his shaggy blond hair to reveal a strip of surgical tape running from the corner of his eye to his temple, where he says his Botox doctor gave him 15 stitches. “The nurse who assisted him is coming to the show tonight.”
Starr and his bandmates — foul-mouthed, fleet-fingered guitarist Satchel, preening, pretty-boy bassist Lexxi Foxx and gleefully lumbering drummer Stix Zadinia — are in the midst of a Monday-night residency at the Roxy leading up to the release of their latest album, Lower the Bar, out March 24. It's their fourth studio album and sixth release overall in the eight years since they changed their name from Metal Skool to Steel Panther and shifted the focus of their act from ’80s metal covers to over-the-top originals.
“Eight years. Can you believe that?” Starr says incredulously. “We were supposed to be a one-trick pony.”
You could argue that Steel Panther are a one-trick pony, but it's a good trick. Their songs are pitch-perfect homages to the catchy, sleazy hard rock of the Sunset Strip's heyday, from Van Halen to Mötley Crüe to Warrant, but with lyrics that abandon MTV-friendly innuendo in favor of graphic literalism worthy of an Andrew Dice Clay routine. The song titles pretty much say it all: “17 Girls in a Row,” “It Won't Suck Itself,” “Asian Hooker,” “Eatin’ Ain’t Cheatin’.” It's hard to name a less politically correct rock band currently in existence, even if they serve it all up with a wink.
This can lead to some pretty strange twists on the standard answers every band promoting a new album gives in interviews. “There’s a couple of unique songs in there,” Starr says earnestly, trying to describe Steel Panther's evolution on Lower the Bar. “One of them's called 'Pussy Ain't Free.' The titles are Steel Panther titles but the music’s a little bit different. A little bit of a departure. Kinda like what we did on our All You Can Eat record — we did a song called 'Bukkake Tears' that was just a little bit different than the rest of our catalog, I think.”
Depending on your point of view, a song like “Bukkake Tears” — which includes the lyric, “There was so much spunk on your face/Neither the boys nor I could see the tears” — is either hilarious or misogynistic, and there's not much middle ground. Starr is the first to admit that Steel Panther's brand of cock-rock comedy is “not for everybody,” but he makes no apologies for it. “That’s what we do and if you don’t like it, you should leave,” he says. “There’s nothing wrong with that. That’s the thing about America’s that really awesome — people have free speech to do whatever they want.”
Starr and his bandmates can afford to be brash. By nearly any measure, Steel Panther have been immensely successful. All three of their studio albums to date — Feel the Steel, Balls Out and All You Can Eat — have topped Billboard's comedy album chart. They've opened for the likes of Def Leppard and Guns N’ Roses. In the U.K. and Australia, their obscene anthems are even more popular than at home. They've headlined Wembley Arena twice, Starr notes — the British equivalent to playing the Forum or Madison Square Garden.
At the Rainbow, a procession of fans stops by our booth to pay their respects. Starr happily greets them all, and knows many of them by name, including a bald guy covered in tattoos named Ricky and a young film student named Mike in a “Give Me Van Halen or Give Me Head” T-shirt who has come here all the way from North Carolina on his spring break.
Starr only seems thrown when he's approached by a grinning, middle-aged fan who has brought along his teenage daughter. “Does she know what she's going to see?” he asks. Dad assures the singer that his daughter has seen the band's YouTube videos.
“And you're cool with it?” he asks the girl.
“Yeah,” she replies brightly.
“This is gonna be fun,” he declares, dropping his initial wariness and getting right back into character. “I'm gonna flip her. It’s almost like I’m a gay guy and I’m gonna flip a married man. But I’m not gay,” he adds quickly, addressing the girl, “and I’m gonna flip you into a heavy metal chick.”
“I'm excited,” she assures him.
After they leave, Starr wonders aloud, “Why would you bring your daughter to our show?”
Two hours later, at the Roxy, Drew Carey introduces the band. “I hope you brought an extra dick,” he declares, “because they're gonna rock your dicks off.”
Anyone who ever liked classic pop-metal would have a hard time not getting swept up in a Steel Panther show. There's more leopard-print Spandex onstage than in an ’80s workout video. Guitarist Satchel wails on a green tiger-stripe guitar, flexing his pecs under an artfully ripped “Come to the Dark Side” Darth Vader tee. Bassist Lexxi Foxx tosses his too-perfect-to-be-real blond mane and checks himself in a mirror between songs. Starr, who used to front a Van Halen tribute band called The Atomic Punks, sings like David Lee Roth with better pitch. They're all totally absurd but also totally awesome.
Well, mostly awesome. Songs like “Fat Girl (Thar She Blows)” are hard to defend, though Starr tries. “I gotta be honest: When we first started playing ‘Fat Girl,’ I was really nervous about it, because I didn’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings,” Starr says over dinner. But as the song circulated, he claims, “We had a lot of fat girl fans that were excited for us to play that song. It enabled them to be who they are and enjoy themselves and not try to be skinny.”
There's certainly no denying that Steel Panther has plenty of female fans of all shapes and sizes, and they're not shy about participating in the band's crude comedy. At dinner, Starr describes their shows as, “If you like to see chicks do stupid shit, it’s a good, fun party” — which sounds sexist until you go to a Steel Panther gig and realize it's a fairly accurate assessment. By the set's fifth song, the stage is packed with women in various stages of inebriation, all happily dancing to “17 Girls in a Row” and “Eatin’ Ain’t Cheatin’.” Many of them appear to know all the words. A few make half-hearted attempts to grind up on Satchel during his solos, and one briefly flashes her boobs, but most are content just to dance with their friends and take selfies.
“We don't want to alienate our core audience.” -Michael Starr
The band's stage banter, especially as delivered by Satchel — “our main writer,” Starr says — is even more off-color than the songs. When he learns one of the women onstage is Mexican, Satchel quips, “We're gonna make Mexico great again — with our American dicks.” When Starr gives a shoutout to the audience's lone African-American, Satchel launches the band into an improvised jam called “Black Guy in the Middle of the Room.”
By the set's end, Steel Panther have torn through a few Van Halen, Bon Jovi and GNR covers — with help from Godsmack's Sully Erna on drums, Eagles of Death Metal's Matt McJunkins on bass and comedian Jeff Ross, hilariously off-key on “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” — and made fun of pretty much everyone in the room, including Alice in Chains guitarist Jerry Cantrell, who laughs along good-naturedly in the VIP section as Satchel blames his band for ruining rock & roll. They bring the set to a climax with “Anything Goes,” a song about kinky sex off Lower the Bar that is just as filthy as their early material, but also sillier, like an X-rated Weird Al tune. “Make her wear a mask like Nikki Sixx/Bring a German shepherd on into the mix,” Starr sings.
At dinner, Starr describes Lower the Bar as a “more user-friendly” Steel Panther album. Considering that Lower the Bar's opening track is an uptempo paean to anal sex called “Goin’ in the Back Door,” it's hard to tell at first what he's talking about. But track for track, it's true that Lower the Bar, while still just as goofy and dirty-minded as the band's earlier material, is built less on shock value and put-down comedy and more on great songs. There's even a straightforward cover of Cheap Trick's power-pop anthem “She's Tight” (featuring Robin Zander, no less) and the punchline to “That's When You Came In” is that the song is actually less dirty than it sounds at first (“That's when you came in and blew me … away”).
“It has become its own thing,” Starr agrees, when asked if the band is continuing to evolve away from its initial incarnation as, in essence, the most offensive possible version of an ’80s Sunset Strip metal band. “But we don't want to get too experimental with Steel Panther. We don't want to alienate our core audience.”
Note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly described “She's Tight” as an original song when it is in fact a Cheap Trick cover. We regret the error.