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."
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."
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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.