Successful Experiment

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Although I've been aware of their existence for a quite a while, I never got Man Or Astro-Man? until quite recently. I was reading an interview somewhere - their interviews are always quite amusing, as you would expect from a band that rabidly contests that they are not humans playing guitars but space aliens using sonic transducers disguised as guitars - which mentioned in passing that the Man Or Astro-Man? mothership initially crashed in Alabama.

So there you go. If you're in a band, and someone asks you where you're from, what's the better answer? "Alabama" or "outer space?" Not a hard question. And although I've never really gotten into their albums, MoAM? live is almost impossible not to enjoy. A computer voice introduces a quartet of goggled men in matching black uniforms...a giant, bubbling brain surveys things from above...scary gadgets like Tesla coils, helmet cams, and theremins crowd the stage...and then the band starts playing surf music. Rock!

I arrived at the Great American Tuesday midway through Fluke Starbucker's set and soon wished I'd waited until the end of it. Mixing badly timed guitar noise with precompetent bass and two drummers (who mostly played the exact same thing), the band provided no contradicting evidence to my theory that most San Francisco local bands really suck.

I Am Spoonbender, also local, played next. I've seen I Am Spoonbender three times now, and they've played the exact same set each time. Same silly "Powers of 10" film screening, same telephone harmonies, same mix of pounding drum and keyboard songs and meandering sample and keyboard songs. The band does have matching suits, which works in their favor. They also have an insane amount of clearly very expensive equipment. Oh, and good hair. Watching them closely, though,

I'm never sure what's going on beyond the bassist and drummer - the two full-time keyboardists often seem to be playing diddly little one-key lines, or fiddling with the band's light setup. I'm increasingly coming to believe that most of what you're hearing at I Am Spoonbender shows is pre-recorded stuff being triggered by the band's (admittedly talented) drummer/singer/electronic gadget fiddler. I don't know about you folk, but I don't go out to the clubs to have samples triggered at me. I want to get rocked.

So it's a good thing Man Or Astro-Man? came on next. Much more aggressive in concert, the band makes entertainment job one. I can now finally say that I have seen two people playing a double-necked bass at the same time. And theremin being played with a bass with a headstock shaped like a horseshoe. And computer keyboards attached to guitar straps, worn about the neck, and used to trigger wacky samples.

The band is musically on-target too, rapid-fire Dick Dale arpeggios over phased bass and the manic drumming of Birdstuff. The closing slower instrumental almost sounded like Mogwai - but hearing it after an evening of surf rock from beyond our solar system threw it into a whole new context. Watching the band swivel their heads about (Devo-like!) while their computer narrator advanced the Man Or Astro-Man? story and imagery from forgotten '50s sci-fi films flickered in the background, I reflected on how far a band can go with clever presentation. Although Man Or Astro-Man? are undebatably talented musicians, it's their expertly constructed (the band sets up their equipment wearing oxygen suits) and entertaining sense of theater that has made them Noise Pop headliners.

That and the theremin, of course. Instrument of kings!


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