Robert Salyers is a geek.
Most people would be put off by this designation, but not Salyers. He wears the title like a badge of honor, proclaiming his geekiness on the website (www.pcfdp.com) that he maintains with his buddies, who also happen to be geeks.
"We've got some pretty geeky tendencies," Salyers acknowledges with a laugh. "We can probably do a few things with computers that the average guy on the street can't. But none of us are exactly MacGyver."
Maybe not, but Salyers and his pals -- Michael Miller, Shawn Planchon, Jeff Crouch and Shane Crabtree -- have gained quite a bit of notoriety with their website. The Pool Cleaners From Distant Planets, as they've dubbed themselves, have emerged as witty and provocative amateur pundits, known for entertaining and sometimes scathing reviews. The site, launched in August 2003, was originally intended as a vehicle for the members' various anime endeavors. But shortly after completing their first project for an animation festival -- a video for the Opie Gone Bad song "Can We Please Have Sex" -- Salyers and company started tackling local music.
"We started it to draw some attention to our project," Salyers explains. "But then as long as we had the site up, we thought it would be the perfect forum for promoting views on, well, for starters, the local music scene, as well as anything else we like, things like books and movies and so on."
Salyers is the Cleaners' de facto leader and spokesman, and as he describes how the group came together, he does nothing to disprove the notion that nerds of a feather flock together. Friends since high school, he and Miller met the rest of the crew through a Star Trek role-playing game (hardly surprising, since they all look like card-carrying Trekkies). The group's name, icon -- a metallic mascot clad in a hazmat-looking suit, carrying a net attached to a pole -- and thematic cues came from another sci-fi entry.
"There was another guy that I've lost touch with -- Aaron Williams was his name," Salyers says. "He and I were talking, and you know the premise of the movie Contact? Everything we broadcast goes out there at light speed, and sooner or later, other planets pick up on those signals. Well, Aaron said something along the lines of, 'What if there were alien civilizations that based us solely on our pornography?' We thought that was a pretty funny thing. And then I hit him with the punchline: I drew upon some porn cliches, and I said, 'Greetings, Earthlings. We are Pool Cleaners From a Distant Planet.' And we both cracked up. So a couple of years down the road, when we had wrapped up our first music-video project and were trying to decide what name to present it under, I suggested 'Pool Cleaners From Distant Planets' because I thought the plural had a better rhythm to it, and everybody agreed."
But these space-age cabana boys are far more than sci-fi dweebs. Salyers inherited his passion for music from his mother, a big fan of the Fab Four. "Being raised on the Beatles and just good music in general, I was really a fan," he relates. "Being able to hear a lot of different things and appreciate different things, there's just this enjoyment there that I think a lot of people are missing, the kind of people who say, 'Oh, I'll listen to anything that comes on the radio.' One of our messages on the website -- at least I'd like to think that it's there, even if it's buried -- is you don't have to settle for what's on. It's okay to be particular about what you listen to. You can be picky. You can actually come out and say publicly that you don't like something."
And come out he has. In one of the site's more contemptuous (and humorous) reviews, Salyers -- aka Rhaab -- unceremoniously clotheslines a well-known local punk act. "On October 29," he writes, "I was one of the oppressed masses at Bender's Tavern, looking around in vain for torches and pitchforks to use in a revolt against King Rat. Bender's is normally a place that eases suffering, but its abilities in that area are of little use against a band that seems to have Mötörhead and damaged stereo speakers as its two greatest influences.
"I hardly know where to begin when listing the crimes of King Rat," he continues. "I'm sure the French had a similar problem when it came to Louis XVI. This will do as well as anything: It's a bad sign when you can't tell the difference between unwanted speaker feedback and music. On top of that, there's almost no exaggeration necessary when I say that every song sounded alike. Mix it with a singer that can't sing -- and can't even yell all that well -- and you either have the fastest dull music I've ever heard, or the dullest fast music I've ever heard. I'm not sure which. There's no accounting for taste, however, and one or two people seemed somehow to be getting into it, proving the words of 'Instant Club Hit' by the Dead Milkmen: 'You'll dance to anything.'"
After chastising the act for its gratuitous use of F-bombs, Salyers suggests what Rat can do to improve, namely listen to the big three of punk: the Sex Pistols, the Ramones and the Clash.
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Salyers himself has never played in a band -- unless you count the marching band. But he knows what he likes, and what he doesn't. "My opinion doesn't really mean more than anyone else's," he notes. "It's just that we're willing to go out there and make our opinions heard."
The Cleaners' reviews aren't patently negative, nor are their opinions limited to local musicians. A while back, after I weighed in on Starfuzz's debut, Salyers took me to task on that band's message board. In my review, I'd employed a string of what I thought were colorful metaphors to describe the music, then offered up my overall appraisal: You Are Food struck me as a stellar debut from a promising new band, but parts of the album seemed superfluous. The lack of artistic restraint prevented the disc from being a seamless endeavor from end to end; Starfuzz would have been better advised to issue Food as an EP rather than a full-length. I thought my take (which I still stand by, incidentally) was clear -- but the head Cleaner disagreed.
"Yeah, but what's he saying," Salyers wrote in his critique of my critique. "I don't get much out of it except where he says it 'has all the makings of a classic album.' It seems like he kind of liked it, but would have changed some things. I know I'm biased, but I don't believe that's the only thing that makes me say I think my writing was better."
You never know. Someday these geeks might inherit the word.