I saw Man or Astro-man? perform in 2001, and am still recovering from the experience. There were strobe lights, video projections, costumes and blisteringly loud surf-punk riffs by the score.
The band miked a dot matrix printer to create a percussion loop, and covered ZZ Top’s “La Grange,” with vocals from a Stephen Hawking-style voice generator. The drummer, “Birdstuff,” frequently abandoned his kit midsong to hurl obscenities at the audience, then demand they hug.
Also, there was lightning.
So. Much. Lightning. The band’s finale included an 8-foot tall Tesla coil shooting lightning over the audience’s heads as the band played a wild, noisy, reverb-drenched cacophony that used the sound of the electricity slicing the air as a downbeat.
Five years later, the soundman would tell me the performance blew all the transformers. At the time, all I knew was my hair stood on end and everything I’d ever read about The Acid Tests in the 1960s began to make sense.
And then, shortly afterwards, the band called it quits. Ish.
“We had to rejuvenate ourselves and be in cryogenic storage for 10 years,” Birdstuff told BW in a phone interview. “We play for a decade then store ourselves for a decade.”
That’s the story the band tells to go with its fake background: that they are a gang of aliens that crash-landed on Earth and pass the time here by playing in a rock band, a mythology that began as a way of expressing the band’s feelings about growing up in rural Alabama.
The truth is simpler: “We toured more than any band in the 1990s [more than 2,000 shows in more than 30 countries], and it was the point where having a good exit strategy made sense,” says Brian Teasley, Birdstuff ’s human alter-ego. “But we were smart enough to not to do one of those last show, last tour, breaking up things. With us, the future is always open to possibility.”
Luckily for audiences, that possibility includes strings of new tour dates, including a stop at Denver’s Larimer Lounge on Saturday, July 19.
In its time off, band members busied themselves with a variety of projects stretching from playing in side projects like The Causey Way, St. Vincent and The Polyphonic Spree, to starting record labels and venues, to dabbling in engineering.
“Coco [the band’s bass player, Robert DelBueno, aka “Coco the Electronic Monkey Wizard”] has a biodiesel company and has all kinds of crazy redneck entrepreneurial ventures,” says Teasley.
DelBueno’s skills as a maker played a heavy role in the band as well as his professional life, building and hacking props and instruments core to the band’s sonic and visual identity, something immediately evident to anyone who sees his electric bass/iPad combo.
“It’s like a Hondo longhorn, and he doubled the body up and put a slot in so he could run the sampler,” says Teasley. “And he’s such a small guy. It looks like a 7-foot bass.”
But the role of technology within Man or Astro-man? isn’t just due to DelBueno’s involvement.
“It’s always been part of how thinking about how gadgetry could define us,” says Teasley. “We were always a band that was more interested in what people thought the future would be like than what it actually became.”
That made surf music, a style that originated in the height of 1960s Jetsons-era futurism and ended up focusing as much on solar wind as it did on ocean waves, a natural fit.
“We never thought about anything other than playing a few shows in our hometown and having fun, playing something that we didn’t hate,” says Teasley. “We were surrounded by cover bands and knew we didn’t want to play that.”
Man or Astro-man?’s early material on albums like Is It … Man or Astroman?, Project Infinity and Intravenous Television Continuum was largely based around the dizzying guitar playing of Brian “Starcrunch” Causey, and sounded like a turbocharged version of The Ventures. But its genuine weirdness — especially in Alabama — paired with the band’s ferocious work ethic quickly earned it a rabid following. The band moved up the touring ladder, selling out marquis venues like The Fillmore in San Francisco and performing on Saturday Night Live. Over time, Man or Astro-man?’s take on surf began to include more synthesizers and found instruments, especially in the studio.
“A lot of it comes from our start with what we call budget rock, where we just collect weird shit from thrift stores,” says Teasley. “We’re always looking for new, stupid things that make new, stupid sounds.”
And Teasley says that instead of forcing a square peg into a round hole, you have to let the sound of the instrument decide how it should be played. That lead the surf-punk band to experiment with more electronic and psych-rock themes as it blasted through the ’90s with albums like Made From Technetium, EEVIAC and A Spectrum of Infinite Scale.
That sound continued once the band was resurrected on the 2011 release Your Weight on the Moon and the 2013 album Defcon 5…4…3…2…1.
“In a way, I wish we’d matured,” says Teasley. “But we’re kind of stuck in time, since we created this thing when we were 19.”
For Teasley, whose drumming was in high demand post-Man or Astro-man?, and who kind of hates reunions, — “I jokingly call reunions ‘reenactment rock,’ like Civil War reunions; If you liked us young and virile, then you’ll love us old and uninspired,” he says — that situation is not without its perils.
But it’s not just the band of brothers element that makes Man or Astroman? worth doing for him again. It’s that the way Man or Astro-man? works keeps it creatively vibrant in a way most bands aren’t.
“The only thing that sets us apart from other ’90s bands like Superchunk or whoever, is that everyone gets together and talks about those crazy ideas in the van, but we actually followed through,” says Teasley.
Like the time Man or Astroman? thought it would be funny to franchise the band like Kentucky Fried Chicken, hired two bands to cover their material, and booked a tour for all three acts concurrently in which no one at the venue or in the audience knew which band would be onstage until they actually were: the clone tours.
“Getting that approved through our booking agent was weird,” says Teasley. “At the time people felt ripped off, like it was a cover band. Now it’s become such a crazy legendary thing, that people wished they’d seen it.”
Then there are the band’s plans to use its Tesla coil to pair a Man or Astro-man? show with something sciencey in the vein of Mr. Wizard.
“It is almost like prodding yourself, like you’d made a bar bet,” says Teasley.
And about that Tesla coil: “That thing is a giant question mark thunderbolt when it starts emitting electricity through the air,” says Teasley. “And it really has the potential to screw with digital consoles. And we did blow one up in Ashville, N.C.”
Teasley says one venue was so peeved about a raucous Man or Astroman? show in the ’90s, that it locked the band’s Tesla coil in an equipment closet to ensure it wouldn’t potentially Great White the joint.
The band broke the coil out, drug it into the parking lot and plugged it into an ATM’s power source, leading the audience outside at the conclusion of the performance to fire it up.
“That’s the kind of insanity we started this band for,” Teasley says.
And it’s the kind of insanity rock was sorely missing in the decade Man or Astro-man? took off from the road, or, put itself in cryogenic storage if you prefer.