by Chris McCoy
The early ’90s were the age of grunge, when the hair metal that had dominated the airwaves of ’80s was pushed aside by scruffy, flannel-clad slackers such as Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Alice In Chains. But just under the surface there were a group of bands who drew inspiration not from Neil Young and Hüsker Dü, but from the Ventures and Dick Dale. At the head of this surf rock revival were a group of space aliens by way of Auburn, Alabama, known as Man Or Astro-Man?
“We just wanted to do something as completely different as possible,” says astro-guitarist Birdstuff (aka Brian Teasley), who, along with Coco the Electric Monkey Wizard (Robert DelBueno) and Star Crunch (Brian Causey) formed the core of the band. “We had always been from the world of punk rock, and there was an energy to instrumental surf music that we thought was akin to punk.”
The band’s first two full-length releases, 1993’s Is It Man…Or Astro Man? and 1995’s Project Infinity stand beside the classics of the ’60s as blasts of pure, reverb-drenched surf energy. But instead of dreaming of breakers and bikinis, Man Or Astro Man? were using their songs to drop science — or, at least, science fiction. They were geek rock when being a geek was still geeky. Their songs are shot through with samples from golden-age monster and sci-fi movies. They were incredibly prolific, recording 12 full-lengths and dozens of EPs and singles in eight years, mutating beyond the pure surf of their first recordings into a harder-edged hybrid that included vocals and increasingly experimental soundscapes.
At the same time, the band toured relentlessly, with a wild stage show that resembled a NASA yard sale. They projected video, wore space suits, and set various stage objects on fire — including, sometimes, themselves — all the while claiming they were aliens sent to our planet to rock. They frequently stopped in Memphis, which was conveniently near their Alabama base, where their complex and energetic shows sometimes went spectacularly off the rails.
“I vaguely remember playing Barrister's at 4:30 a.m. after Guitar Wolf — this is probably in 1994— at one of those Ye Olde Garage Festival-type things and having CoCo, our bass player, give his bass to the audience halfway through the set,” says Birdstuff. “I've got to say, random audience people .. .not so good at playing bass.”
After 1997’s Made from Technium, Star Crunch left the band to pursue a solo career. Birdstuff and Coco soldiered on with a rotating cast of new members, recording their last proper studio album — the excellent A Spectrum of Infinite Scale — with producer Steve Albini in 2001 before going on indefinite hiatus.
But as the 21st century progressed, the world seemed to catch up with Man Or Astro Man? Geeks are now cool, and the time was ripe for a comeback. “We felt that the mission still had some unfinished business both sonically and scientifically speaking,” says Birdstuff. “We are still indeed the band who brings you yesterday's technology tomorrow and that's never changed.” And there is a new album in the works. “You can only coast on the back catalogue for so long,” says Birdstuff. “The next tour will be the ‘We're artists, and we don't have to play all that trite, outdated old crap just to please you, the loyal fanbase,’ tour.” So if you’ve ever wanted to see a spaceman play bass with his helmet on fire, you’ll get your chance on Thursday, October 13th at the Hi-Tone Café.