By Noah Hubbell
By Kiernan Maletsky
By Tom Murphy
By Noah Hubbell
By Alex Distefano
By Darryl Smyers
By Jon Solomon
By Britt Chester
Somewhere in the heartland of this great nation of ours, Coco the Electronic Monkey Wizard, one of the masterminds behind the intergalactic surf-rock foursome called Man or Astro-man?, is doing what he does every night--plotting to take over the world.
"We're aliens," declares the band's bassist. "And--as I'm sure you've learned from watching all your science-fiction movies--one of our prime objectives is conquering Earth. You know how that is. It's an absolute rule. At first we didn't come here with that intention. But now that we're here, we feel kind of obligated--being as how we're from outer space and all."
Sound spooky? Not to worry. Coco assures natives of the third rock from the sun that the invasion he envisions isn't going to be nearly as destructive--or as shlocky--as the one in Independence Day. Rather, this ringer for a young Neil Armstrong says he and his mates--guitarists Starcrunch and Dexter X and drummer Birdstuff--will take control the old-fashioned way: by rocking mankind into submission.
Given the hip-twistin', Dick Dale-meets-Devo sound produced by these otherworldly beings, they just might be able to pull it off. The quartet has already managed to capture the minds of a small but devoted cult of listeners, and its new long-player, Experiment Zero (on Chicago's Touch and Go imprint), will surely increase this following exponentially. Bookended by two head-thumping, neo-surf twisters, "Television Fission" and "Principals Unknown," the primarily instrumental disc delivers both nimble guitar chops and hilarious sci-fi samples: For example, a swinging scientist declares at one point, "Sure. To you she's just another set of intercorrelated coordinates. What fun is that?"
But catchy tunes aren't the only thing these four have going for them. Like the Beatles, the last rock band to conquer civilization as we know it, the players have distinctly charismatic personalities. Starcrunch is the "cute" Astro-man: His alien DNA enables him to transform himself into virtually any object, including, says the group's biography, "a Mechagodzilla or a hypothetical survivalist militia cavalry group from Atlantis that carries laser tridents and rides on sea turtles." Birdstuff, on the other hand, is the "smart" Astro-man--an all-knowing sticks man whose latest technological breakthrough is the "Yulotronic Regulator Cannon," a device that, when fired at the North Pole, will cause Christmas to occur every day. As for Dexter X, he's the "quiet" Astro-man: Although he boasts two brains and plays the guitar with all the serenity of Hurricane Fran, he is an alleged mercenary bounty hunter from the Planet Q who prefers to keep out of the spotlight as much as possible.
And Coco? "I'm a cybernetic life form created by Birdstuff and Starcrunch," he reveals. "I've actually got the closest ties to Earth, because a large portion of my anatomy--if you want to call it that--is derivative of Atari 2600 parts. Which is great. It makes it easier for me to interface with humans, because we share some common ground."
While Coco's human side has won over fans and members of the media, it wasn't an immediate hit with his creators. In fact, Coco is the reason the group accidentally landed in this part of the galaxy. "It was my fault," he admits. "I was built to man the ship, and because they hadn't really worked out all the bugs yet, we ended up crashing here. Now we're stuck until we can get our ship put back together. We aren't here intentionally."
With no way home, these strangers in a strange land decided to demonstrate the superiority of their life forms by starting an indie rock band. Since then, they've been touring the world in search of their damaged craft--a task that's been more difficult than they'd anticipated. "We had planned to be out of here in exactly 3.14 years from the time we crashed," Coco says, sounding rather dismayed. "That was based on some serious algorithms we used to calculate how long it would take to recover the parts of our ship, which were scattered all over upon entry.
"The band thing has been a good cover," he continues, "but we really didn't think it out. I mean, how do you explain a rock band traveling to the middle of the Indian Ocean? That might draw a lot of suspicion. And indie music fans don't really book shows in places like, you know, South Africa. So it's taken us a lot longer to complete our mission than we had originally planned."
Fortunately, these global forays haven't been a total bust. Early on, the Astro-men's garage-surf squelches caught the attention of several small labels that have eagerly spread the word about the celestial scenesters. Over the course of the next solar minute or two, the Astro-man crew churned out 22 singles and six albums, including Is It...Man or Astro-man?, Destroy All Astro-men and Project Infinity, released on Estrus, Bellingham, Washington's infamous garage imprint.
While the lion's share of the act's material contains original instrumentals, its monolithic repertoire also features a smattering of covers, including the Pixies' "Manta Ray," the Surfari's "Alpha Surfari" and the theme from The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Grand choices all--but according to Coco, the numbers serve purely utilitarian purposes. "Those bands' music have simply cut through the depths of outer space," he explains. "I guess their transmission is a lot clearer than others. They aren't necessarily any better selections. They were just reference points. We could have easily done a Rage Against the Machine song or a Barry Manilow song. You've just got to work with what you've got to work with.