Optimus Product Placement 

Can the new Transformers PS 2 game really make an unknown rock band famous?

Optimus Prime -- beloved action figure of your youth -- has come back to haunt you. And he's brought an unknown dude-rock band with him.

Join us on Alameda's very own USS Hornet, the WWII aircraft carrier-turned-tourist-trap that on this lazy Tuesday night plays host to a froufrou party celebrating the imminent release of the Transformers PlayStation 2 game.

Yes, that Transformers. Optimus Prime, Megatron, Starscream, and other futuristic robots that turn into cars and guns and tape players. During the '80s especially, Transformers ruled: The action figures -- "toys" being entirely too feminine a word -- the cartoons, the comic books. Perhaps you believe they went the way of Punky Brewster by the time grunge set in, but comic-book nerds and hardcore collectors have kept Transformers quietly alive for two decades.

Now Atari -- another old-timey brand seeking public rebirth -- has concocted the Transformers PlayStation 2 game (due out in May) as the Great Reunveiling. And to assist in that reunveiling, Atari requires the services of a band specializing in what company marketing guru Laura Campos inelegantly describes as "that alternative rock."

"What we're doing with Transformers is we're reinventing the brand," she explains. "While this brand is twenty years old, we would prefer to be aligned with someone who is fresh and new. I could quote names -- we could've said, 'Let's go for Linkin Park.' But Linkin Park has history. And what we said is, if we're creating something new -- even though the brand's been around for twenty years -- we would prefer to get someone who is about to launch."

Enter Dropbox, about to launch. Maybe.

Dropbox is a mostly New Jersey-based Ozzfest-ready rock quintet, signed to Universal by dude-rock quasititan Sully Erna of Godsmack, uh, fame. They're polite, black-clad guys with boxes of old Transformers toys in their parents' basements and every video-game system you can imagine on their tour bus.

Sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll? Nah. These days it's all about paralyzing boredom, childhood nostalgia, and PlayStation 2.

"When you're musicians, that's what you do," drummer Bob Jenkins insists, describing the mundane, downtime-plagued reality of touring. "You play music. You read. You play video games."

You also use them to further your career, which is why Bob is sitting in the band's "green room," the former chief petty officers' lounge of the USS Hornet.

Radio and MTV are cultural wastelands. Car commercials tend to pimp either Led Zep or proto-electronic hipster drivel. For the discerning unknown capital-R-O-C-K ROCK band, getting your hit single slapped in a mega-selling video game is like winning the lottery and being placed in a dump truck full of kittens simultaneously. Nascent punk, metal, and hard rock bands now peddle their wares to the creators of every game from Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2004 to Tony Hawk Underground.

Thus have Dropbox and Transformers joined for a shotgun marriage that officially begins tonight. The Hornet's inner sanctum is lined with more than a dozen TVs propped up on cartoon-style oil drums and barrels marked "Danger: Ammo." Each pedestal is anointed with a PlayStation 2 so that the revelers -- mostly video-game magazine nerds, which explains why the launch party is here in the Bay Area -- can road-test the new game while they raid the open bar and munch on Havana pickled chicken with Moroccan mint, Asian barbecue brisket sandwiches, and all manner of dainty cheeses.

The dainty cheeses: tasty. The game: blows. Optimus Prime is a total candy-ass, with twelve buttons' worth of weapons that apparently can't kill anything. Even Bob, Dropbox' official video-game black belt, complains that the DJ -- who is spinning "Rapper's Delight" and whatnot -- is drowning out the audio and throwing him off his game.

But Bob, as usual, is merely killing time until Dropbox hits the stage. First the band unveils its cover of the official Transformers theme song. The original was a blippy little faux-electroclash ditty better than anything Numbers has ever dished up, but Dropbox' new version is a plodding tough-guy instrumental that doesn't fare too well given the Hornet's craptastic acoustics; it's like listening to a band trapped in a giant empty pop can full of military explosives.

Dropbox later returns for a three-song set that fares much better, showing off its obvious marketability -- stealing Led Zeppelin's riffs and approximating Alice in Chains frontman Layne Staley's masculine howling -- and particularly succeeds in driving home its swamp-rockin' hope-we've-got-a-hit single, "Wishbone."

A beautiful friendship has begun.

"We both have new products we want to launch," Atari's Laura Campos says, drifting once again into the jargon of her profession. "We both have the same demographic: This male who, honestly, is gonna be anywhere from 12 to 24. They just happen to like that alternative rock."

They also, evidently, can smell a fake. "Dropbox, these guys, they're just starting their career," Laura says. "They are a brand. And we're a brand. And we want to do something that is meaningful and relevant, because that's the other thing about the target audience we're going after -- they want what's real. They don't want the marketing hype. That's why we had to talk to the guys, and they're like, 'Yeah, this game feels like what we're about. '"

Indie-rock purists would cringe at such product placement, but the Dropbox boys -- mostly in their early thirties -- beam at the association with both Transformers and the video games they so dearly love. "It's a good way to escape," guitarist Lee Richards explains. "You have all this stuff goin' on -- it's a nice way not to think about anything except tryin' to kill something."

"It puts you in a completely different world," Bob adds. "We have our world -- our normalcy, if you wanna call it that -- and then when we wanna escape, that's what we do. You can turn to a book, or turn to games. It's a way for us to release the stress of, you know, the other things."

Such as promoting your unknown band. And if you can do that by aligning with the toys of your past and the welcome distractions of your present, well, that's better than sex. Better than sex and drugs, even.


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