By Rebecca Bulnes
By Laurie Charles
By Chuck Strouse
By Lee Zimmerman
By Laurie Charles
By Falyn Freyman
By Hans Morgenstern
Shtick is hard to pull off in rock and roll, whether you're dressed up in patriot garb a la Paul Revere and the Raiders, stomping around a dry-iced stage in monster boots and makeup (e.g., Kiss), or clad in yellow latex suits and proclaiming in anthemic skronks that you are not men, you are D-E-V-O. When the gimmick undermines the material, though -- or worse, takes precedence over the material -- the results are most often disastrous. The Raiders, Kiss, and Devo all looked like idiots, no doubt, but the strength of their best work, from "Hungry," "Kicks," and "Deuce" to "Auto-Modown" and "Beautiful World," made the silly costumes and ridiculous concepts easy to ignore.
Man or Astro-Man? has a shtick, one that is no less hokey than an Ed Wood flying saucer, yet one that enhances rather than dilutes the visceral power of the group's surf-infused instrumental rock. The core of the band's gimmick, more or less: Four TV-weaned extraterrestrials dwelling in the future are jettisoned back in time to circa 1992 and dropped into the small-town confines of Auburn, Alabama, a college burg located between Montgomery and Atlanta, Georgia. From their abandoned home planet, they receive aural transmissions that sound amazingly similar to the reverb-drenched surf-guitar splashes made in the early Sixties by the likes of Dick Dale, the Ventures, and the Surfaris. Those transmissions are then relayed by the band to the masses via live performance and studio recordings. Or something like that.
Subscribe to such goofiness if you want, or opt for a more plausible explanation of origin (for instance, four college-age, record-hording, B-movie-addicted guys form a sci-fi surf band to combat small-town boredom and give themselves silly pseudonyms such as Birdstuff, Star Crunch, and Coco the Electronic Monkey Wizard).
Either way, one fact remains: Man or Astro-Man? rests at the apex of the instrumental surf-guitar revival, which began at the turn of the Nineties and was spearheaded by San Francisco's Lone Ranger-masked Phantom Surfers and the now-defunct Canadian trio Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet. But where the former bang out fanatically authentic re-creations of Sixties-era surf-riding grooves, and the latter crafted a quirky, unique sound that often shimmied beyond the confines of the genre, Man or Astro-Man? rides a different kind of wave, conceptually and sonically.
Star Crunch's guitar lines are slathered in echo and reverb yet hit harder than most other wobbly surf offerings, striking a balance between the intricate picking of Dick Dale and the aggressive power-chord attack of Link Wray. Drummer Birdstuff and bassist Coco the Electronic Monkey Wizard lay down a massive bedrock of rhythm, fatter and deeper than your average pack of treble-kings. And woven into the group's instrumentals are voice-overs and dialogue lifted from a bevy of sci-fi and beach films from the Fifties and Sixties, which imbue their bulldozing soundscapes with elements of Cold War paranoia, anti-surfer bigotry, and science run amuck.
Since forming in 1992, Man or Astro-Man? has released a nearly inhuman amount of music, including eight albums and close to twenty-five EPs and singles, and have contributed to a slew of compilation and tribute albums, from Schoolhouse Rocks to the Henry Mancini fete Shots in the Dark. Through them all -- beginning with the debut long-player Is It ... Man or Astro-Man? on up to the new Experiment Zero -- the band has maintained an extremely high level of quality (as well as boasting a gift for left-field song titles, e.g., "Philip K. Dick in the Pet Section of a Wal-Mart"). And thanks to the heavy rotation given to vintage surf nuggets such as Dick Dale's "Miserlou" and the Lively Ones' "Surf Rider" in the film Pulp Fiction, Man or Astro-Man? and the thousands of other nuevo surf groups that dot the globe would appear on the verge of breaking from their indie-label underground.
Astro-Man drummer Birdstuff scoffs at the notion of surf music entering the mainstream. "The music is spreading like a sick virus," he admits during a phone interview from the band's new home in Atlanta. "And things like Pulp Fiction give you the impression that surf music has gotten huge. But you can't look at any one surf band and say they're huge right now. It's become really localized. Every town you go to -- Memphis, Tuscaloosa, New York City, Milwaukee, Kalamazoo, Tokyo -- there's a surf band. And because of the other things, like Pulp Fiction and hearing surf music everywhere from TV show themes to fucking Chee-tos commercials, people think it's broken out. But really, there's not much going on. It's just a bunch of people who basically want to be [the equivalent] of Elvis impersonators, re-creating a sound and style of music rather than trying to expand on the genre or transcend it beyond merely re-creating something."
When the Astro-Men started banging out their custom-crafted instrumentals in the Elmore, Alabama, studio of their friend Jim Marrer, they were intrigued by the music's obscurity and inspired by its accessibility: Anyone could do it, the thinking went, but hardly anyone was doing it. "It was accessible for us," the drummer exclaims. "If you had a Fender guitar and a Fender amp with good reverb and a couple guys who could play pretty fast and be energetic about it, you could start a surf band. For me, that was the original appeal of punk rock, and when I discovered older surf music a little later, it hit me on the same level. But it was a little more esoteric, something that hadn't quite been done so much."