Astro-elaborate

The cyber-tastic Man or Astro-Man? explores indie-rock's final frontier.

The door to the RKCNDY backstage swings open, revealing a closet-sized room illuminated by the otherworldly glint of Christmas lights. Amid the stains of rock shows past sit the troops known on this planet as Man or Astro-Man?: Trace Reading (guitar, vocals), Birdstuff (drums), Blazar the Probe Handler (guitar, bass, samples), and Coco the Electronic Monkey Wizard (bass, quips). They greet me warmly and oblige me in some basic how-do-you-dos.

The time is 8:50 on a steamy Saturday night in April—or so one might think, if the digital clock attached to the face of the Mr. Coffee machine were to be believed. "That clock is wrong," Birdstuff announces to the room. "It's really 9:50."

Trace Reading scrambles over to the appliance and begins to fidget with it, as Birdstuff considers the implications: "Leave it to us to make our mark on a club by correcting the time on the coffee machine."

Thus begins my personal Man or Astro-Man? odyssey.

Actually, to be honest, the journey began a few years before tonight—in 1993, when I first stumbled across a record called Is it . . . Man or Astro-Man? in a store in LA. I bought it for the cover art, and it drew me into the MoAM? world. My appetite for the band's surf-meets-NASA sound became insatiable and before I knew it, I was the proud owner of every one of their CDs, LPs, and 7" singles that I could get my indie-rocker hands on. Each time they came through town, I dutifully attended the show, and I was never disappointed.

In fact, their August 1993 date at the aptly named Spaceland featured one of the best rock moments I've ever witnessed: Despite his constricting spacesuit and helmet, the Astro-Man formerly known as Star Crunch climbed up the huge speaker stacks and, with acrobatic dexterity, hooked his knees over one of the lighting rafters. He played the rest of the song while hanging upside-down like a kid on a playground—and he didn't miss a note. It was more impressive than a windmill, better than choreographed hair-tossing, and it left me believing that this band was superhuman . . . or maybe not human at all.

When I mention this treasured memory, Birdstuff chuckles. "We had a lot of experience with jungle gyms," he says. "That's where we get our personal training. Most people get a practice space, we just got a jungle gym."

The Astro-Men emerge from their backstage clock-fixing rampage looking like the evil members of the HazMat team who tore Elliott away from E.T. One of them scurries past me on the way to the van muttering, "It's a bad day when you can't find your space helmet." Indeed, Astro-friend, indeed.

As they scramble across the stage to set up their gear, I become infected by the MoAM? excitement. I imagine this is what the backstage vibe to a space-age Broadway musical would feel like. The preparation is as much of a show as the show itself, as the four band members remove the tarps covering three large hunks of wire and silver-painted plywood, which I later discover are "supercomputers." The folding of said tarps is well-choreographed, with methodical motions that would challenge even the most devoted tai chi master. Soon, the unveiling is complete, and the audience is left to contemplate the mind-boggling lab the Astro-men have constructed: six old-school, working(!) IBM monitors nestled atop the "supercomputers," a satellite dish, yards of umbilical-looking cord, a few instruments (musical and otherwise), and a backdrop that will function as a screen for the group's elaborate projections.

This particular evening, the Astro-Men's showmanship and visuals make up for warbled sound. The band woos the audience with blinking lights and mind-boggling tricks: There's Blazar and Coco, locked in a loving embrace, strumming the same double-necked guitar/bass; later, Coco, with his helmet ablaze, running around the stage in front of a 1960s instructional film on "How to Extinguish a Fire"; and, of course, a theremin solo.

After this exhausting display, I head home to a night of fitful sleep as I ponder the magnificence of what I just experienced. Despite my faux-surly, semi-jaded demeanor, I have yet again been wooed by these Astro-folk. I didn't think they could top their rafter-climbing-in-spacesuit feat but, oh, top it they did, over and over again. Nothing could stun me more.

Until I got the new Man or Astro-Man? record. With its processed beeps and vocals that sound like HAL gone awry, EEVIAC is proof that it is indeed possible for a surf-guitar band to evolve. The record is dark, a perfect score for the end of the millennium. "D:contamination" sounds like the evil younger brother of a Devo classic. The hypnotic "Fractionalized reception of a scrambled transmission" could be the soundtrack to a brainwashing session. The final song is the crowning glory: retaining the band's trademark energy and twang, "_____/myopia" is a soaring, melancholy instrumental that perfectly balances computer effects with the organic, full guitar sounds of days past. This is by far MoAM?'s most impressive record to date.

"The concept was instead of just developing a record, we'd develop the EEVIAC [Embedded Electronic Variably Integrated Astro Console] supercomputer to help us develop the record," Coco explains, somewhat confusingly.

The multipanel CD booklet is equally elaborate, with the hallowed supercomputer's name spelled in die-cut letters.

"Touch and Go said that we could either have a health-insurance plan, or the packaging for this record," Birdstuff says. "And, well . . ."

"The record will last longer!" Blazar chimes in.

From record to live show, Man or Astro-Man? doesn't leave any show-stopping stone unturned. Last year, they even sent a collection of Astro-clones on tour: three versions of the band (one all-female) played in different cities simultaneously. "Everything we do is 50 times the effort for half the result," Birdstuff quips.

"Which is the exact equation for those old supercomputers," adds the ever-scientific Coco.

"It's almost the perfect parallel for the story of Man or Astro-Man?" he continues. "It's this huge, cumbersome, over-effort put in, but sometimes you wonder about the results out and whether it was actually worth it. We figured, why just carry around guitar amps and bass amps, why don't we make it three times as hard on ourselves? In fact, we filled 'em with concrete. Really, though, it's just an effort to get us all back in shape."

And in fine shape you are, Astro-Men.

 
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