Dumb or Dumber?

Space cadets of Man or Astro-man? go to great depths to maintain a gimmick

Man or Astro-man? claims to be from outer space. The story is that the band's spaceship crashed in Auburn, Alabama, and that the band members took on human identities and formed a rock band to covertly search the Earth for parts of the craft lost on landing. It's a story sustained by lies upon lies but hard to disprove with facts. On occasion the band is also just as quick to acknowledge with a wink and a nod that the entire scheme is a hoax, which lets it have it both ways.

The band's eighth record (in six years) has taken this postmodern smoke screen to another level. Intertwining the past and future, the new record, EEVIAC: Operational Index and Modern Reference Guide, Including other Modern Computational Devices (Touch and Go), invokes space-race paranoia and a Tron-like conception of the future. This is a band that is serious about its artificiality. On stage, the members wear space suits; the CD artwork is full of Cold War-style sci-fi images; song titles reference space travel. And the new record comes with a 3-D blueprint of a supercomputer and a booklet that is punched out like old-school computer cards. The band has even built a pair of supercomputers, based on the designs, and is taking them on the road. Those giant mainframes will sit alongside dozens of television sets, a tesla coil, film projectors, plastic tubing and a Jacob's Ladder (that electricity-shooting contraption seen in mad scientists' laboratories in old horror movies).

The immense computers reveal a look into the band's self-perception. "For us, to keep this band running and all the extra stuff -- from doing the artwork to having a stage show -- we've always seen Man or Astro-man? as this big, hulking beast that's five times the effort for half the results of a normal band," says the band's drummer, Birdstuff. "That's sort of what supercomputers were in the '50s, '60s and '70s: these huge things that took up a whole wing of an office and could barely count to six. We saw a great metaphorical tie-in to supercomputers because of the utter inefficiency of the band."

To continue its ruse, the quartet (which also includes the spectacularly named Coco the Electronic Monkey Wizard, Blazar the Probe Handler and Trace Reading) spends its nonmusical time tinkering with electronic gear from the past four decades. The band members synthesize the materials to come up with apparatuses and stage sets that conjure up the future as frozen in the 1950s.

"Whereas most people have normal lives," says Birdstuff, "we've decided to control all the elements of the band."

Not that it lets the peripherals get in the way of the music. MOAM? is most interested in presenting a complete package with music at the center. EEVIAC is an amalgamation of space rock and instrumental surf music, which also touches on many other genres. There is the lo-fi, tinny noise of "Psychology of a.i. (numbers follow answers)," the backward loops and tremolo sheets of guitar on "Krasnoyask-26," and the dreamy, almost psychedelic, pop tune, "____ / myopia." And "D:contamination" bubbles and gurgles with a distant, simple rhythm track and blasts of guitar. Less surf, more new wave. And then there are the pair of songs "U-235 / PU-239" and "Domain of the human race," which have actual singing and an insistent garage-rock feel. EEVIAC is diverse, frequently noisy, and enjoyable beyond its immediate kitsch appeal.

The diversity of EEVIAC was aided and inspired by the unusual recording location, Brazil. The quartet was in South America on tour when it decided to have all of its studio gear sent there. It was a big change from the home studio (which is now in Atlanta). "Getting yellow fever really added to the recording," jokes Birdstuff, saying that the environment made the music "about as psychedelic as a bunch of cybergeeks can get."

"We wanted to do something that was unsystematic and unrelated," he says. "We had done a few records that were pretty same-y with [Steve] Albini. We're fond of them, but the drum tones and guitars just sound the same throughout the whole record. We wanted to make something with no two songs relating to each other. We switched instruments and wrote songs in different ways and recorded it in a really fucked-up place."

The energy of the record carried over from spending a couple of weeks on the road playing to audiences that had a much different level of appreciation from what the band was used to. "In most places in the U.S., especially in larger cities, there are tons of clubs that have five bands every week, and it gets to the point of saturation," says Birdstuff. "Most of the time when somebody goes to Brazil they play one show in Rio de Janeiro and one or two shows in Sao Paulo and then leave. This [tour] was set up very much like an American independent tour; we did nine or ten cities. A lot of these places, the only punk rock or independent music that they had ever had were a couple of Epitaph bands or Fugazi. People were genuinely [excited] to see music and just reciprocating energy."

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