Dumb or Dumber?
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."
MOAM? will try crazy stuff, tell lies and generally screw around -- all while creating urgent music that sounds good in the car and in the background (the band creates music for Nickelodeon, the Cartoon Network and Space Ghost Coast to Coast) but holds up on stage. The band's latest daft stunt was one of the great rock experiments of this decade. In the fall of 1998 there were three groups touring as Man or Astro-man?. Dubbed the Clone Tour Project, an all-female version (the Gammas) went one direction, the male lineup (the Alphas) went another, and the originals toured as usual. All three performed songs written by MOAM? and used similar stage setups. The clone idea started because the group wanted to have a Man or Astro-man? band playing in all of the major metropolises.
The inspiration for the clone groups came from the space camp offered near the band's hometown in Huntsville, Alabama, where middle schoolers go for simulated astronaut training. "We had always talked about having a Man or Astro-man? camp where people would come pay, like, $1,000; you'd get a suit, get put up, get fed, you'd get taught how to play the songs, you'd get your instrument of choice, and then you'd get paired with another group of people and you'd have a license to form your own Man or Astro-man? band in your own control, making your own decisions," explains Birdstuff. "It just seemed like taking a little too much on. Now, granted, Man or Astro-man? has always been more interested in being artistically original than artistically sound. We were hoping that the [clone] bands would get paid the normal guarantees and that we would make most of the merchandise money, but most of that got spent [keeping the tour running]. We got stuck with the brunt of the taxes, as well. Basically they got to go out on tour for five weeks and make decent money and we pay their taxes. It was more work and more of a pain in the ass than anything we've done, but I'm glad we did it. Hopefully revisionist history will take it to the realms of Cleveland and we'll end up in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame."
And in the end, MOAM? was on the receiving end of a prank, partially as the result of the Clone Tour success. The band's record company, Touch and Go, tricked the band, saying that it was going to sign the female clone band and release the original band from its contract. "I was numskull enough to play into it," Birdstuff sheepishly confesses, adding, "the whole reason why Man or Astro-man? is on Touch and Go is so they can play practical jokes on us."
The high jinks between the label and the band didn't stop there. Man or Astro-man? has done pinch-hit interviews for other, less reliable bands on the label roster. An unsuspecting journalist would think he was talking to a high profile T&G act but was really chatting with one of the smart-ass spaceboys.
But not everybody thinks that Man or Astro-man? is funny. NASA took exception to the band's co-opting its familiar logo, which reads N-A-S-A, for the band's T-shirts. The organization filed a cease and desist order, which the band took very seriously, ignoring it just long enough for NASA to get "interested in something called Mars which, I think, was a little more important than us," says Birdstuff. "It kind of just died out, but since you mentioned it [now], there's like this looming fear in the back of my head."
Of course, that anxiety might just be the nagging suspicion that one of the many twisted tales he has told is about to be found out. Because with all the lies going, Man or Astro-man? will only have to continue to work harder to preserve the facade.
Man or Astro-man? performs Sunday, May 9, at Fitzgerald's, 2706 White Oak. Call (713)862-3838 for ticket information and times.
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