Laden with heavy stage makeup, studded with piercings and garbed in black fetish clothing, the members of Coal Chamber look like a bunch of menacing industrial-goths. But behind the theatrical exterior is a group whose music has been tempered by personal tragedy, mellowed by the experience of parenthood and shaped by a resolve to wrap a positive message around hard-driving rock.
Spawned from the dark, angry, alternative metal wave that swept the Los Angeles club scene in the mid-'90s, Coal Chamber (which co-headlines the Hollywood Palladium on Wednesday with Type O Negative) and its peers--bands such as Korn, System of a Down and Limp Bizkit--have established rock's new path as one that's urgent and aggressive.
While they share the same down-tuned, ominous growl in their sound, the kinship among these bands is more superficial than is sometimes assumed. Coal Chamber--singer Dez Fafara, guitarist Miguel "Meegs" Rascon, drummer Mike Cox and bassist Rayna Foss--stand apart by promoting individuality and championing hope. Their latest album, "Chamber Music," contains thoughtful strains of optimism that muscle their way through the cuts' grinding digs and lacerating rhythms, offering fans something more than a soundtrack for partying and destruction.
Are those fans getting it?
The last time the band played the Palace, the crowd looked like that at any other alternative metal show--burly guys with short-cropped hair in ripped T-shirts and big combat boots leaping into a frenzied mosh pit.
But Fafara doesn't detect any incongruities when his reflective songs meet up with rowdy antics.
"Kids want to talk about things and kids want to party," he says. "Those two entities exist within them. It's up to you to bring it out in them. You can hand them a beer or you can hand them a thought."
To Fafara, being up on stage is more than just playing a rock star role.
"I heard one singer on MTV say, 'I don't have any responsibility. Since when has rock been responsible?' And I just thought, 'When has it not?' But I think people take it different ways. I feel I have a responsibility. If I'm going to touch 500,000 people, I might as well give them something other than '[expletive] you.' "
While he admits that the stereotypical groupie-infested, rock 'n' roll party attitude still exists even in a "thinking man's band," Fafara has pretty much been there, done that. He prefers to take a different route.
"All the drugs, the alcohol, the orgies--all that exists on tour," he says. "I tend to sit in the back of the bus with candles, just writing. I stay away from all those things now because I sunk myself into them for the past two years, and I've done it all."
Tragedy and loss have also played a part in Fafara's evolution toward a milder lifestyle. The band's driver died of a heart attack during one tour. Fafara's marriage fell apart after he quit and rejoined the band in its early stages, and his brother recently died of AIDS.
"I think everything that happened has made me see life as life," Fafara says. "It can be taken away from you, and every minute is precious."
Not that the band's time together has been laced only with misfortune. Last year, Foss gave birth while Coal Chamber was on the road. Three of the four band members are parents, a responsibility that deepens their commitment to make a difference with music and to communicate with kids who may be outside the mainstream.
Fafara says he knows what it's like to have to grown up feeling like an outcast.
"I was that kid that gets thrown in the trash can at lunch," he says. "But I came out on top."
Growing up in Los Angeles, Fafara (who declines to give his age) was inspired by everything from the Cure to Motley Crue. "I had Nikki [Sixx] all over my walls! I remember my mom tweaking out and taking the posters down. I just liked the whole look of that band and the heaviness of it."
The Coal Chamber lineup came together in 1994 and they dove headlong into the competitive club circuit of Los Angeles and Orange County. The band recorded a demo, and in 1995, Dino Cazares of the L.A. band Fear Factory and producer Ross Robinson both brought Coal Chamber to the independent rock label RoadRunner Records, which signed them to a deal.
But the record contract didn't mean the easy life. Fafara's then-wife had difficulty dealing with his hectic schedule, and he left the band to be with her. Six months later, disillusioned and uninspired, Fafara regrouped and rejoined Coal Chamber with a renewed conviction.
They released their self-titled debut in 1997, introducing touches of the hip-hop/metal sound that was making the rounds in the scene. But they later dropped the rap edge in favor of a darker, heavier sound and more positive message.
It all leads back to Fafara's feelings on responsibility and being a role model, especially to his 9-year-old son, to whom he dedicates "Tyler's Song" on their latest album. The singer hopes the words will provide some sort of support to not only his son, but others as well: "Raise your guard again/ They don't give a damn/Don't compromise your ideals for anyone else/Respect your mom and always think of her first."
Today's adolescents, he realizes, have even harsher challenges. "Everybody's getting shot in church and in school. That's pretty difficult."
He sees the way these events influence rock music's dark mood as of late.
"Everybody is bummed and angry. But I try to give them something else lyrically, to base their life around, other than just pure hate. We all grow up, we all learn to hate. You look into a child's eyes and you want to instill something positive--something that can get them through that."
And the band is bound and determined to succeed. They recently parted ways with manager Sharon Osbourne and signed on with Left Bank, which also represents Blondie and Fafara's old heroes Motley Crue.
"We think Coal Chamber, with their initial success, really occupy a special niche," says Ed Thomas, co-general manager of Left Bank. "Their ability to connect to a large worldwide audience is only just beginning. . . . Our job is to try to connect them to their audience and let them dictate where their image and creative forces are going to go."
The band's extreme look is an extension of its philosophy--that there's power in individuality and pride in the role of self-proclaimed outsider.
"Just be yourself. People who feel life through the way they look are living life so much fuller than most people. They're not afraid to show what's on the inside through the outside. I always trust someone who's tattooed and pierced over some guy in a suit."
Coal Chamber, with Type O Negative, Full Devil Jacket and Deadlights, Wednesday at the Hollywood Palladium, 6215 Sunset Blvd. 6:30 p.m., $22.50. (323) 962-7600.
For audio and video on Coal Chamber, go to the music page on www.calendarlive.com.