The first time you walk into their show, it's almost like a time-warp. Fog, lights, and screaming guitars haven't left rock & roll completely, but when you look up to see long hair and spandex, you know something is different. And then there's the soundtrack: predominantly classic '80s songs by bands like Def Leppard, Bon Jovi, Skid Row, Guns 'n' Roses, Whitesnake, Ratt, and Motley Crue -- plenty of Motley Crue, all played damn near note perfect.
Then you turn around and do a double take, to inspect the crowd -- just to make sure you haven't stepped out of Hot Tub Time Machine to find yourself back in 1988, surrounded by teens and early 20-somethings. When you realize you are still locked into the present, you're not completely sure if you should be relieved or slightly worried. After all, there are still five guys on stage in spandex, playing hair metal better than most of the original bands can anymore, and the bar is packed -- mostly with an aging crowd of 30- and 40-somethings that are kicking back and perhaps enjoying this just a little bit too much.
Before you know it, though, you find yourself relaxing, putting down your hipster pretenses, and just enjoying the music; perhaps even cutting loose a little bit more than you intended or normally do in a club. After all, that's what this music is really all about, isn't it: cutting loose and having fun?
Before Nirvana and the whole grunge movement came in and razed the house that rock built, before it replaced big hair and gaudy stage costumes with flannel and ripped jeans and staring at the floor, '80s rock was about being bigger than life -- and enjoying life.
In 2013, that's exactly what a Dead Metal Society show is all about: escaping for one night a month to live large, enjoy life, embrace rock anthems once again, and just plain have fun. That's why a group of five guys dressed in spandex is packing the house wherever they go and doing it on their own terms: they decide when they play, they pick the songs, and they allow everyone to come along for the ride.
The funny part is, the intention was never for the band to get this big. The funnier part is, in true '80s fashion, the band has a dirty little secret. More accurately, the group's lead singer has a dirty little secret, but it's not what you might expect. Actually, the band itself is his dirty little secret -- at least it has been, but now his cover is blown.
Meet the new boss, same as the old boss?
If you run into Todd Edwards in his normal habitat, you'd never suspect him of wearing spandex and eyeliner and belting out Motley Crue better than Vince Neil himself can anymore. A family man and father, he's decidedly not the poster boy for excess. If anything, he's the exact opposite. Dressed in khakis with an oxford or golf shirt, with close cropped hair, Edwards doesn't exude the presence of a rock star when he walks the halls at work, but there is a swagger. It's just a slightly different swagger. And it's one that he's rightfully earned.
As the Campus Director for WTI-Tulsa (Wichita Technical Institute), a trade school tucked away at the corner of E. 61st and Memorial in Easton Square, Edwards has 18 years of school management experience. More impressively, he's been with WTI since the beginning, as he helped open the school in 2005 before there were even any students enrolled. Before that, he helped open Tulsa's Vatterott College campus as a recruiter.
So instead of leading others down a road of excess, Edwards has been helping lead others down a path of discipline and self-improvement: hardly the stuff that the anthems of Poison and Ozzy Osbourne are made of.
Yes, you read that right: the leader of your favorite hair metal cover band is an authority figure. And a school administrator, no less. That's not quite something you'd ever envisioned when you were in high school, was it? After all, how hard would it have been to take your principal seriously if you knew he was doing the splits to "Jump" every weekend?
Times have changed, though, and if a yuppie attorney that drives a BMW can ride a Harley on the weekends, why shouldn't a hard working school administrator get his rock fix every once in a while, especially since he's already got the pedigree?
That's right, Edwards has the pedigree. If you haven't figured it out already, Dead Metal Society isn't a bunch of doctors that decided to form a garage band to live out their high school fantasies. It's a very talented group of musicians that decided they wanted to cut loose and have fun playing the songs they loved. This isn't a half-assed effort. Every song hits its marks dead on, and no small part of that is Edwards' vocals. Although we might all dream of being rock stars behind closed doors or in the shower, not many people can hit those high notes or throw the growl of Joe Elliot and Steven Pearcey with such accuracy. And if you can walk out on stage, pull out your best Marq Torien, and nail the opening lines of "Smooth Up In Ya" at full roar... Well, you can color me impressed.
The question is: how did this happen? How did the rocker become an authority figure or the school administrator become a rocker? And which came first, the chicken or the egg?
In Edwards' case, the rock star came first, as he fronted a band called Riff Raff from 1987-1992. In 1990-91, the band had started to establish a name for itself in the central states (Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, and Oklahoma) by touring regularly and playing a few larger gigs, but the band ran its course, and Edwards moved on with life.
To hear Edwards tell his story, he streamlines it quite simply: "I was on tour until 1992, with long hair and the whole bit. I cut my hair in '92 and finished college. After school, I was a sales manager for a car dealership, then a boat dealership, and I was in sales until this recruitment position for a school came up. Then, within two years, I was sent to Tulsa to help open a school here."
That was 1997, the year that Edwards moved to Tulsa to help establish Vatterott College. After doing recruitment for nine different schools in five states, he was called upon to help open the Tulsa campus. After spending a good amount of time on the road, being gone for at least a week at a time, and with a baby on the way, the prospect of settling into one location enticed Edwards to relocate from Missouri to take on the challenge of starting a school with six students and a secretary.
Apparently, one challenge wasn't enough, because Edwards was convinced to do it all again. "In 2005, the owner of this operation (WTI) had been at Vatterott," he explained. "He called me and said, 'Let's open one in Tulsa.'"
Pretty much that simply, Edwards was off on a new career adventure, and you can easily tell when you talk to him that it's one he's invested himself in.
"WTI is in four cities with five schools: Tulsa, Wichita (2 campuses), Topeka, and Joplin, Missouri," he explained. "We're known for our heating and air program, but we also do computer technology and network administration and have a medical assistant program. That's all we do. We keep it simple, and we do it well."
When discussing the program and his years in the education industry, Edwards' true motivation begins to come out: "With traditional sales, you make the sale and you're out the door; but here, you spend a year or two with the person," he said.
"The average age here at WTI is 31, so these aren't kids," Edward explained. "They come in serious and focused, so you get to see an evolution within a year. They come here with no skills and leave proficient at something, so you get to see quite a bit of transformation. Most people come in making maybe $8, but walk out starting at $14 and a year later are making $27 an hour. That's the real reward of this job, seeing people succeed."
As rewarding as the job had been, however, Edwards still had rock 'n' roll in his blood. Although he has no regrets and explains his departure from music succinctly by stating, "I was a dad and married with two kids, so I got out of music," he also admits that after going through a divorce in 2001, he thought, "I got out of music 10 years ago, and I need to get back in."
At that point, Edwards reentered the music scene with Salvation Amy in 2001 and transitioned to The Element from 2004-2008, which leads us to the current chapter in his musical career.
Dead or Alive?
Dead Metal Society (DMS) started out in 2008 as a pet project of sorts with Edwards, bassist Darren Westbrooks, and guitarist Mark Mortenson. All three were in different bands at the time, but they were '80s guys who loved the music of that decade.
"We met at Riverwalk one night, and I mentioned to Darren, who had been in Salvation Amy with me, that I'd really like to put an '80s band together and he mentioned it to Mark," Edwards shared, explaining how the band came together. "So we sat down to talk about it and decided let's put something together and play a couple of shows. But we decided we were going to play what we wanted to hear: stuff like Loudness and some obscure Scorpions songs and even if only thirty people show up, who cares, right?"
"That's why we decided on Dead Metal Society," he continued with a laugh. "We figured this music is dead and no one likes it but us..."
Little did they know just how wrong that theory would prove to be. Of course, DMS started out a slightly different beast than it has become. With an original lineup of Edwards at the helm on lead vocals with Mark Mortenson (of Imzadi) on guitars, Darren Westbrooks on bass and Caleb Johnson on drums, the band rehearsed for almost a year as it worked out its repertoire.
Originally starting off with more emphasis on heavier bands like Megadeth and Slayer, Edwards admits that "We went through a lot of songs, but if it didn't sound like the CD, we scrapped it." Westbrooks made the decision to step out of DMS before the band had played a gig together, as he had envisioned the group going in a more pop oriented direction.
At that point, "Nine" (Brian Kirk) was recruited on bass and eventually, Ben Hosterman (who had played in Element with Edwards as well as being a part of New Science and RadioRadio) was brought in to fill out the guitar parts, making the band's initial iteration complete.
One other noticeable difference in the band's original direction was its appearance. "We originally agreed not to dress up," Edwards explained. "We elected to just wear concert shirts and jeans, then we went to black work shirts. The goal was just to be very vanilla in our looks -- it was all about the songs."
Something changed in 2009, however, when the group agreed to dress up in spandex and wigs for a Halloween show at CJ Moloney's in Broken Arrow. "It was a big hit with the audience," Edwards recalls, "and eventually we realized it made a big difference when we dressed up -- it made it a better show."
The band's current lineup fell into place when Jason Gilardi (of Caroline's Spine, New Science, and Dogsway) stepped into the drummer slot upon Caleb Johnson's departure. When discussing Gilardi's arrival, Edwards said with a laugh "We felt sorry for him -- he needed a gig. Seriously, though, he added an extra boost to the band once he joined."
At this point, Dead Metal Society is a smoothly running machine. When asked why the band works together so well, Edwards looks at it with the perspective that only experience can bring.
"We all get along, we all have responsibilities, and we're not too excessive with anything," he said. "Basically, we all respect each other's space and opinions. We've got five guys all juiced up about the music, and there aren't any egos getting in the way."
Of course, the level of success the band has found wasn't something that was expected. After all, the band was dubbed "Dead Metal Society," but when the group made its first appearance at The Vault in 2009, Edwards admitted "A lot of people showed up, but we figured it was because it was something new and people knew us from other bands."
Based on great musicianship, a tight show and a set list of prime '80s material, however, word got around quickly. An appearance at Cherokee Casino in Siloam Springs has become a bi-monthly ritual with nearly 50 people from Tulsa making the drive and people from Springdale and Bentonville reacting rabidly for a show that they're not used to getting in that area.
Of course, there's another reason why DMS stands out to bar owners who are quick to invite them back. Take one look around at a show, and you'll quickly notice this isn't your standard 20-something hookup crowd. Sure, there are a few of the younger generation at each show, but Edwards has an acute understanding and awareness of the band's audience.
"Our band draws people in their 30s and 40s," he explained. "The people in their 40s have grown up and probably don't go out to party every weekend. They all have good jobs, pay their tabs, and spend a lot of money -- and they don't fight."
"We actually see a lot of married couples come out to the show on their date night," Edwards continued. "There's one guy that works out at American Airlines, and he takes nights off around our schedule. People in their late-40s love the music, but they can't find it elsewhere."
Part of what keeps people coming back, though, is a deep set list.
"Every show, we try and play something different, and we only play once a month," he explained. Of course, it's not hard to keep things fresh when the band has learned what Edwards estimates to be between 80 and 90 songs, yet only gets to play roughly 36 (typically three sets of 12 songs) each night. And although the group started out in a heavier direction, it has found a balance.
"We've learned to gauge the audience's reaction, and we know we can't get too heavy for too long," he said. So although you may hear an occasional Priest or Maiden tune, and the band's Metallica medley is a crowd favorite that usually comes later in the night, the group also plays well to the crowd's taste.
"There will be a Def Leppard song in every set, and we play a lot of stuff like Bon Jovi and Skid Row," Edwards conceded. "...and power ballads. There are probably two ballads a set and we get to alternate in stuff life 'Silent Lucidity' and 'Alone Again' about every third show."
Finding the Balance
Balance has undoubtedly been the key to DMS's success. From reading the audience to limiting its shows so as not to oversaturate the market, the band has found a niche that allowed it to build a solid following and still fly somewhat under the radar. Although part of that is by design and necessity, part of it is also a personal decision.
"I'm a dad first, then a businessman, then I'm in a band," Edwards shares unapologetically. "That's why we only play one show a month. I'm a divorced dad with 50 percent custody of my kids, so I don't play when I have them." He's also remarried and raising his current family and has found a way to balance all three, including his career.
And how has Edwards continued to keep his weekend gig under wraps at work?
"I'm very hush-hush about it and it usually doesn't come up," he shared. "I never talk about it myself, but occasionally people will discover I'm in a band and say something.
"Previously, I've had people from the school come out to a show, but when I'm in costume, no one recognizes me," he continued. "A teacher walked up one night and didn't know it was me. The incognito thing does help. It's kind of funny, because when we're in Siloam Springs, it gets kind of frenzied and we have this big crowd. When it's over, we change into our street clothes and walk out and 90 percent of the people don't know who we are."
Back to addressing his school career, Edwards said, "Most of the people who I've worked with for a long time know me and know about the band. I just don't want it to be a distraction to recruiting or my family. I'm not ashamed of it, but I'm in an authority position and it's like, 'I don't really want to see my principal in spandex.'"
If it comes up, however, DMS isn't something Edwards hides or denies. In quick tour of the school, I not only got to see the working labs and classrooms, but a few students either give a knowing nod or throw out a passive "You playing anywhere this weekend?"
Although he plays it down, a semi-wicked grin can't help but crack the façade. Who can blame Edwards, though -- or anyone in the band, for that matter? No matter who you speak with, whether it be Gilardi, whose enthusiasm is contagious, or Hosterman, who gives a knowing smirk, or Mortenson or Kirk, all of them know they've got something special going on. After all, who else gets to play the songs they loved when growing up in front of growing audiences and still have it be pure fun?
Talk with anyone in the band, and they'll tell you they originally started out just playing for fun. Even though the audiences have grown, they've still kept that focus in mind, and it's contagious, extending into the audience. Best of all, though, they've all been able to find a balance that allows them to enjoy the music -- and each other's company -- while still putting priority on work and family.
And the story behind the front man of the band? That's their dirty little secret.
But not for much longer.
Share this article: