Stoking the Star-maker Machinery in Los Angeles

Rock Star Rising
"If someone told me two years ago that I would be on a TV show hosted by Brooke Burke and hanging out with Tommy Lee, I would have laughed," says drummer Nate Morton '94. Morton and guitarist Jim McGorman '95 are grabbing a quick bite at a cafe across the street from CBS Studios in West Hollywood before the morning taping of an episode of Rock Star: Supernova. The popular reality show is now in its second season, featuring Morton and McGorman as part of the house band.

Last season's winner, J.D. Fortune, is now on the road with INXS and living the life of a rock star. For this season, the show's producers assembled a new crop with a different musical aesthetic. "Unlike American Idol, this show has more of a rock bent to it," says Morton. Rock Star Supernova features alumni of three major rock acts: drummer Tommy Lee, formerly of Motley Crue; guitarist Gilby Clarke, formerly of Guns N' Roses; and bassist Jason Newsted, formerly of Metallica. Throughout the 15-week season, the three musicians, along with host Dave Navarro (onetime Jane's Addiction and Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist), critique the contestants in search of a well-matched lead singer for the group's upcoming tour and album.

McGorman, Morton, and other members of the house band appear each week backing up the contestants, who are known collectively as "the rockers." At the season's outset, 15 rockers compete, hoping to be chosen for an upcoming tour and recording with Supernova.

Like American Idol, the show can create stars by doing market testing in advance. In essence, it's a sometimes successful end run around the traditional marketing strategies of the music business. The immense power of television and the Internet enables audience members to select which of the rockers progress and which get sent home and allows musicians to become well known before a record label spends a dollar on studio time.

McGorman says the group is essentially a high-profile cover band, but that by no means implies that it's an easy gig. Throughout the 15-week season, the band is on the clock for rehearsals and tapings eight or nine hours a day, five days a week. On days off, they spend time individually learning the songs for the next show. The show's executive producers select the repertoire from the songbooks of new and classic-rock artists such as the Who, Nirvana, Radiohead, Deep Purple, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and R.E.M.

"There is a lot of prep work for this show," says McGorman. "We do a fair amount of rehearsing, but we have to come in knowing our parts. Together, we work out arrangements that differ from the original versions. We'll have to shorten songs to fit the show's time frame; work out beginnings, endings, and transitions; and incorporate the ideas of the rockers." Since this is a live TV show, the band has to have the songs down cold so that every aspect of the performance highly polished.

Reality-Show Realities
As McGorman explains, each of the rockers had to some extent established a professional career before joining the show. "There is a lot of talent there," he says, "But this being a TV show, the producers want ratings, so it's not always about the music. There are arrangement and song choices that I would never make, but it's not my call."

And Morton adds, "Some rockers have a clear conception of how they want the song to go, and they can tell you specifically what they want. Others come in and can only tell you that they don't want it to sound like it does as we rehearse it. We have to make choices that help the singers sound good; that's our job."

"Sometimes the songs on a given week will be amazing, iconic songs that translate really well to a live setting," says McGorman. "Others don't, and we have to figure out how to make them rock. Supernova doesn't want a pop star, they want a real rock singer. For this season, it was made clear that there had to be a certain amount of rock-and-roll energy brought to the table or it wouldn't work for the guys in Supernova." Morton adds, "This season, the level of 'rockittude' had to be considerably higher than last season."

With 15 rockers at the season's start and a show that airs twice weekly, McGorman, Morton, and company had a lot of music to learn. The first episode is a concert of sorts, where each rocker performs. After the show, TV viewers are invited to vote for contestants. In the second episode, an elimination show, the rockers with the lowest number of votes get another chance to sing. They either redeem themselves or get sent home. Long rehearsals precede each show.

"Each rocker is allotted a half-hour on two consecutive days prior to the performance show to rehearse their song," says Morton. "Then each contestant gets a run-through on the day before the taping of the elimination show." McGorman adds, "There is a run-through on the day of the taping where we play each contestant's song twice: once for sound and once for the cameras."

House band members are all veteran Los Angeles-area musicians who were handpicked for the gig. Morton has drummed with Missing Persons, Vanessa Carlton, Natalie Cole, Richard Marx, Michael Bolton, Chaka Khan, Mandy Moore, and others. He was doing sessions in Los Angeles when the Rock Star: Supernova gig came up. And McGorman has been touring and making records for the past decade. For a few years, he served as the musical director for Michelle Branch as well as for Cher on her farewell tour. He has played guitar with the New Radicals, Tal Bachman, and Poison, among others.

The Off-Season
After season one ended, Morton and McGorman pursued their own artistic goals. "I worked on a new CD with my band Jamestown," says McGorman. "I've been writing songs for 17 years and have made a lot of demos, but I'd never made a record. I decided this was the time for me to put one out. The show gave me the money and the time during the off-season to do it. The music is basically pop-rock with an English flavor, but there's a little bit of soul in there because I'm originally from Philly." (Visit

Working as a key player on a music reality show and recording as an independent artist represent two different ends of the current music industry spectrum. "I'm a bit torn when it comes to the idea of music reality television existing as a format," says McGorman. "There is potential to make someone a star who may not necessarily be a musician. After 10 years in this business, I understand the difference between a musician and an entertainer, and I'm fine with that. But to me, the greatest rock stars write and perform original material and give you something you haven't seen before. The good news is that the music industry is turning back to independent artists. Anyone can put out a record. It's up to us to find the ones we like."

Link to the article