With the luxury of recording cheaply at Marrer's Zero Return studio, Man or Astro-Man? started cranking out records at a rapid rate. Their maiden offering, the 1992 EP Possession by Remote Control, was issued on the Auburn-based Homo Habilis label and announced the group's mastery of hard-swinging atmospheria ("Eric Estrotica," "Landlocked"), as well as establishing the quartet's penchant for TV kitsch ("Adios Johnny Bravo," which is loaded with samples from an episode of The Brady Bunch). The set was quickly followed by Is It ... , the Astro-Men's debut for Estrus, a revered garage-rock label based in Bellingham, Washington. Recorded live in two days, the album is a masterwork -- the benchmark to which all other neo-surf groups must be compared. From the opening monologue that kicks off "Taxidermist Surf" to the supple shimmy of the lengthy set closer "Alien Visitors," Is It ... is a conduit to instrumental legends past (both in and out of the surf genre) and an example of the music's boundless potential.
The numerous singles and EPs that followed -- rounded up over the last two years on the Destroy All Astro-Men, Project Infinity, and Intravenous Television Continuum compilations -- found the band elaborating on that first album's format. And, Birdstuff claims, running on something close to autopilot. "Around the time of Destroy, we were at the height of being as close to a surf-music band as we ever could be. We could have probably been locked in a lead-sealed room for nine days and we could've pumped out a pretty decent Man or Astro-Man? record. And that's sad in a sense, that we can work within a formula so easily. That's why we're trying to transmute things and get them more askew. At this point I like the concept of doing things and not being sure why we're doing them -- doing things that hit you from out in the deep black."
Among the steps taken from the deep black: working with indie-rock avatar/engineer Steve Albini (Pixies, Nirvana, PJ Harvey). Although his penchant for dry, no-frills production runs opposite the heavy-on-the-reverb surf dictum ("wetness," they call it), Albini has toughened the group's sound without sacrificing its goofy charm. On Experiment Zero, the Astro-Men's latest album and first for the Chicago indie Touch and Go, Albini captures every element of the band's sound: the finger-popping slink of "Television Fission" and "Cyborg Control," the tremolo-drenched guitar pyrotechnics and tribal drums that propel "King of the Monsters" and "Principles Unknown," and the go-go groove of "Test Driver" (a cover of a great retro-surf nugget by the Bunnies, a Japanese combo). And, much to the chagrin of surf purists, the band is continuing their exploration of vocal work, something they've been dabbling with since "Mermaid Love" on the first album. Experiment Zero includes a nasally vocal turn by Star Crunch on a cover of the 1985 Talking Heads song "Television Man."
Birdstuff makes no apologies for the group's use of vocals. "Having put out so many records, we're always having to push the limits further and further," he explains. "It seems like people who have a misguided image of the band always ask why we're singing now. But Man or Astro-Man? has never really claimed to be an instrumental band or a surf band in any sense. I don't think we're a surf band at all. If I was an insane, certifiable nut-case surf fanatic, I would say we're a bunch of sample-using hip-hop fags. I would be so fucking offended if someone called us a surf band."
Man or Astro-Man? performs Saturday, November 9, at the Theatre, 3339 N Federal Hwy, Fort Lauderdale; 954-565-1117, with Space Cookie and the Hivebuzzers. The all-ages show begins at 8:00 p.m. Tickets are $8.