Thursday 28 May 2015

1998 Music Interview: MAN OR ASTROMAN?


The Men in Black can’t stop ‘em. Mulder and Scully can’t find ‘em. 
But Andrew Darlington tracks down and interviews 
Man or Astroman, the weirdest and grooviest alien infiltrators 
on this, or any other world... 

‘We’re Man or Astroman, like it or not. And we’re here, like it or not.’

It’s maximum compression at the Leeds’ ‘Duchess Of York’. Man or Astroman are on-stage playing mutated cosmic Drag-Strip Surf-Punk, and playing it at scrotum-crunching volume. Sometimes they play it so fast it’s almost like the sound can’t keep up, and it comes along ten nano-seconds later. My ears are surging with monstrous ebbs and flows of radiation static and I’m watching so intently my eye-balls are clicking in my head. There’s a sweat vapour hung as low and toxic as Venusian atmospheric poison. A guitarist with a blazing TV impaled on his head. Galaxies like grains of sand on video back-screens. Neutrons zapping through microverses in jet-propelled sperm ejaculations. Saturn’s shimmering rings seen from Titan ice-fields…

It seems that Man or Astroman are light-years ahead of what passes for intelligence in the rest of the lower echelons of Indie. Why? ‘Cos they’re Aliens that’s why. This is the scam. They’re zipping through space in the galactic equivalent of an interplanetary Skoda with go-faster stripes, just grabbing some cosmic drag-strip action, right? ‘Right. And what happened was, we CRASH-LANDED here – and the ship scattered into a squillion pieces when we hit the atmosphere. You’ve got a pretty unique atmosphere on this planet. Our ship wasn’t designed to handle anything like that, especially at the velocity we were coming in at. We are lucky to even still be functioning in the way that we are. Anyway, we crashed in Alabama in the United States and ended up stuck in this small little College town. We sort-of got our heads together – so to speak! – and we took on human form.’ ‘Human’, that is, as distinct from their naturally vaporous gas-ball state. Allegedly.

This is Coco. He’s got cropped black hair, red jeans, a track-top, and a fibre-optic gleam in his eye which could be suppressed humour, or possibly faulty wiring. He’s the bass and sample-king. He also plays bizarre home-made Cocotronic theremins and instruments that defy rational explanation. On stage he wears a NASA uniforms. As does Star Crunch, who looks a little like ‘E’ from the Eels, with dark streaks in his blonde fringe and his cardigan low-slung over his slacker T-shirt. He probably imagines his name conjures images of fiery Solar Collisions in the silent immensity of intergalactic space. To me it sounds more like the name of a novelty-shaped breakfast cereal. He plays twangy guitar and provides occasional low-intensity vocals. And then there’s Bird Stuff on drums and Dexter X (about whom, more later). They’re all here supposedly to promote their latest CD ‘Made From Technetium’ (1997). 

But that’s all a cover, because – lemme get this straight, you’re aliens stranded far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western spiral arm of the Galaxy? But if you’re really superior alien beings with Shape-Shifter capability, and you’ve merely assumed covert human exteriors during your enforced stay on Earth, why choose such nerdily unimpressive forms to inhabit? ‘Because you can get away with a lot in Alabama, but not not not exactly what we had going on when we landed here. So we knew we had to blend in. We’re thinking ‘man, we’ve got to get our ship put back together so we can get out of here and get back home’... ”

With Man or Astroman it’s less an interview, more a Wind-’em Up, Let ‘em go situation. So OK – C’mon Barbie, let’s go party. He continues, ‘ that time we assumed the rest of the surface of the Earth was going to be pretty much similar to Alabama. Like that was pretty much typical. Luckily we found out that wasn’t the case. And we soon noticed that periodically there’d be... like, a vehicle would come into town and it would be full of what seemed to be pretty technologically advanced equipment. People would get out. They’d unload a bunch of equipment. They’d do some sort of something-or-other for a couple of hours. They’d load it all back in. And then they’d take off. Nobody would really question it. We thought ‘that’s pretty similar to what we need to do. We need to drive around in some sort of vehicle, pick up a bunch of technological equipment, stay in a town for maybe a day or so...’ We tried to figure out what exactly they were. And we found out that what they were was ‘bands’. They were touring bands that were coming in, playing one night, and leaving. So we said ‘Hmmm, maybe we can disguise ourselves as a band and it’ll help us get around on the planet, pick up the parts that we need, repair the ship, and then we can leave’. So we disguise ourselves as a band. That’s how it started. And that fits in pretty good.’

Coco punctuates his discourses with phrases like ‘of course’ and ‘obviously’. That’s part of a conscious strategy to normalise the fantastic elements of the story he’s telling. But in truth the ‘we are aliens from Outer Space’ hype is as old as Rock ‘n’ Roll itself. Ask the Spotnicks. They were Sweden’s finest pre-Abba Popsters who once posed for album-sleeve photos in Trafalgar Square tarted up in six-armed bend-holdy spacesuits. Nevertheless, during their enforced sojourn on Earth, Man or Astroman? (the ‘?’ is an important part of the band iconography) have been far from idle. Beginning with a single called “Possession By Remote Control” in 1993 they’ve been fully occupied contriving a pretty convincing identity as a highly innovative and audacious band. Previous career highlights include startling albums like ‘Your Weight On The Moon’ (1994) and the seventeen-track ‘Intravenous Television Continuum’ (1995) on which they come on like Dick Dale’s Surf Guitar spliced with tacky Ed Wood-style samples from 1950’s B (C and D) Sci-Fi Movies. Link Wray through a Wormhole. Hank B Marvin breathing iron oxide through playful voice-overs from what sounds like Professor Stephen Hawking.

So – OK, I’ll buy it, how did you manage to get Prof. Stephen Hawking to do guest voice-overs on the current album? ‘Well... HaHaHaHaHa!’ For the first time the carefully contrived veneer slips and momentarily Coco actually cracks up. Until at last, with concerted shape-shifting effort he gets back on track. ‘We tend to watch Earth science very closely. We understand what it is you’re trying to do. But at the same time – sometimes it’s so frustrating for us because we want to help out. Just a little bit. But we know just how dangerous that can be. If we were to give you too much information too fast it could be too advanced for your stage of evolution – you know? Access to such dangerous knowledge has to be tempered with wisdom, which is only going to come through time. But we have sort-of, palled around with a few of the notable physicists on the planet and given them a few hints. We’ve left them scraps of paper with some equations, pieces of information, stuff like that to push them in the right direction. So, y’know, it’s one of those ‘you scratch our back, we’ll scratch yours’ deals which we have with a lot of Earth-based scientists.’

But let’s face it – even outside of the Rock Music ghetto, Man or Astroman’s situation is far from unique. There are any number of extraterrestrial species already here on Earth. TV’s galactically-challenged sitcom ‘Third Rock From The Sun’ depicts a family of aliens infiltrators. ‘Sure, sure’ Coco concedes carefully. Then there’s Mork from Ork. Tharg the alien editor of ‘2000 AD’ magazine. Not to mention the Greys and illegal Nasties hunted down by Mulder and Scully and the Men in Black. ‘Right. Yeah – the thing is, there are a number of us here. More than you probably realise. And most of them, for the most part, find themselves to be in pretty good situations. But equally there are situations... like, I’m sure you’re familiar with the Roswell UFO crash of 1947? Well – they were some friends of ours. It’s a shame what happened out there. So, there are some cases where things just don’t work out. A lot of it has to do with where you land, when you land, and who you first run into. Then there are the show-offs. You get Crop Circles, Cow mutilations, these kind of things. Some folks from space just think they can get away with whatever... you know?’

So we can safely assume that all these different alien groups aren’t working together on a sinister co-ordinated programme? ‘No, no, no. There’s a lot of different agendas going on on this planet from Outer Space. But I’m pretty confident ours is one of the most... one of the most thought out. One of the most feasible. It will work out. We’ll see. You’ll see. I’m pretty confident, y’know – ‘cos we can travel into the future. And in the future we sell billions and billions of records.’

What is Rock music like in the Twenty-Fifth Century, then? ‘Oh, it’s great. The current records that we’re putting out, the records that you’re hearing now, they are simply a transition stage towards this new music that’ll sell squillions for Man or Astroman in the future. The problem is – we could probably go down there and get it ready and play it live tonight, but if we were to play that music now it wouldn’t have the desired effect. It’s not the proper location in time for it to happen. Yet. So the thing is we have to actually, sort-of relocate ourselves in time. We have to build through this whole transitional phase. If you follow the course of Man or Astroman records there’s definitely a pattern. It’s one that’s not necessarily fully linear, but there is a path that’s leading us up to this next phase…’

In the meantime, do you have any favourite alien species? Klingons, Minbari, Cybermen, Treens, Ferengi? ‘I haven’t really. I’m pretty much impartial. As far as I’m concerned the human species fits right in there too in the grand scope of things. But I’m a pretty friendly spaceman. I get along with pretty-much anybody. But that’s just me personally. If you ask some of the other members of the band, because of their experiences with other species and stuff like that, they might have different opinions. I don’t want to speak on their behalf. ‘Cos y’know, I just don’t wanna do that....’

OK. So I’ll ask elsewhere…

--- 2 --- 

They’re Man or Astroman, like it or not. And they’re here, like it or not…

Then there’s Dexter X. He’s here now.

‘You’ve already spoken with Coco? He definitely represents the more scientific side of the band. Technology and stuff’ he explains encouragingly. ‘I guess I represent the more emotional and psychological side.’ He’s quieter, less excitable that Coco. And he’s wearing an expression of amused abstraction as he sips from what looks to be a glass of water, but could just as easily be liquid methane. (‘Are you vegetarian?’ ‘No, we eat human beings. We just don’t eat animals. Animals never directly want to hurt anybody. Benji. Old Yeller...’) He’s a sort of cooler more confident version of Brains from ‘Thunderbirds’, his reactions more considered than Coco’s, but just as entertaining.

So let’s try this angle on him. One of my all-time favourite bands – the Ramones, were supposedly brothers. But then the drummer left. They got a new drummer. And he became a brother. Does the same principle operate with Man or Astroman line-up changes? Do new members become alien? ‘No, no. Well – actually the line-up has changed a bit’ he admits cautiously. ‘Bird Stuff, Coco and Star Crunch are actually all from a similar region of outer space called Grid Sector B6/23. I myself am from a different planet. In fact I’m from various places but most faminously – ‘fame-(in)-ously’ is that a word...?’ It is now! ‘It is now – OK, that’s another thing I’m trying to do, I’m trying to re-write the English Dictionary while I’m here. But I’m actually from planet ‘Q’…’

Is that the Q-Continuum, as in ‘Star Trek: Next Generation’?

‘No. That’s Science Fiction. That’s made up’ scolds Dexter firmly.

‘And it’s not ‘Planet Q’ like the letter, or even the word ‘cue’’ adds Coco. ‘The whole system of your Earth alpha-numerics is kind of silly. It’s more like the idea Q, and the easiest way we can represent that here on Earth is by the letter ‘Q’, but there’s no real correlation.’

‘And Q is the most famous – or ‘faminous’ planet that I’ve conquered. I come from a different region. I’m also kind-of working on my own somewhat different agenda. So... no, I have not become a Ramone!’

Does that answer my question? I’m not sure. Behind and all around us jagged lurches of rhythm corrugate the air as support band Toenut, from Atlanta Georgia, go through the soundcheck ritual. It’s difficult to concentrate. And Toenut – what the hell is that about? An obscure pun on ‘Doughnut’. A reference to Foot Fetishism, Body Piercing... or none of the above? So I try Dexter X again from a different slant. I’d assumed that, as a superior alien species, you could perhaps enlighten us mere humans on matters pertaining to the ULTIMATE QUESTION – you know – Life, the Universe, and Everything? ‘No, only Douglas Adams know that’ he smirks, detecting and expertly fielding my ‘Hitch-Hikers Guide To The Galaxy’ quote.

‘And I wish I could help you with that’ he resumes. ‘But everybody wants the real story. Everybody’s after the facts. And I don’t know if there are any. Because we are also searching for the truth. I’m actually on my own journey to discover Ultimate Meaning. But so far all I’ve found is that the only thing that motivates me is apathy. I get bored with planets. I just seem to travel from planet to planet... conquering them! I do that as a hobby. And until I can find something more useful to do with my time I’m just gonna stick with the one I know. Which is – of course, World Domination and Planetary Overthrow. It remains my favourite pastime.’

So if we can’t crack the facade of inscrutable changeling alienness, let’s talk music. Do you create the music first, then fit the samples on afterwards, or do you select samples and then build tracks around them? ‘There’s not a specific schematic for the design of a Man or Astroman song’ admits Coco. ‘There have been some where it’s been ‘we’ve got these great samples, we can use them in songs’ or there have been songs that have been like ‘oh, this part of the song really sucks, can we – like, cover it up with something?’ So we put a sample there. But for most of the songs it’s been sort-of parallel. There’ll be an idea for a song and while the songwriting is going on we’ll be experimenting with different samples that we like. ‘Cos usually it’s a mood kind of thing we’re trying to convey there, so it’s kind-of a parallel process. But it definitely has gone either way. I get into the audio portions of old films. That’s where a lot of the samples obviously come from. The bulk of the samples actually. So when it comes to that, and that, and that – sure, we pop one of those Ed Wood or those Toho films on, and let ‘em roll. It’ll be running the lines out, and from that we get direction and inputs that we can plug directly into. We still have back-up batches of samples that we just haven’t used yet, which I’m sure we’ll be using in the future. Samples that I really really like and I want to use but we just haven’t done anything with them. Yet.’

‘Made From Technetium’ is an album definitely worth your attention. It has powerful bursts of manic cybernetic decibels capable of bending Space-Time into fractels as complex as a Martian Boy Scout’s Super-String knots. And it’s part of a continuum of albums that together forms the soundtrack for the Saturday Matinee serial that Flash Gordon never got around to making. ‘The group’s sine and square-wave generators emit a weird loud hum, similar to the type of music played in the Milky Way back in the second millennium’ observed ‘Melody Maker’s Everett True as long ago as October 1994. Creating ‘music guaranteed to bring a smile to the face of anyone under the age of five centuries.’

Are Man or Astroman hooked on 1950’s Sci-Fi films? Would they like to soundtrack an Ed Wood Movie? ‘That would be fantastic’ enthuses Dexter X. ‘Something along those lines would be great. It’s too bad Ed Wood’s no longer with us. But I don’t think even he could save the Sci-Fi Movies they’re putting out now. These days the imagination and a lot of the psychological overtones get completely overlooked by the latest technology and laser-blasting computer-generated things. Which is unfortunate. Unfortunate for the genre. I’m disenchanted. ‘Starship Troopers’ (1997)? Yes. That is a perfect example right there. I’ll go see it. But for reference only.’

‘Bird Stuff (our drummer) is into old Movies the most’ begins Coco quite rationally. Then ‘but personally I can’t perceive three dimensions when they’re displayed on a two-dimensional surface. It’s a shame, but it has to do with the way I’m set up. It’s in my wiring. I’ve been excluded to an extent from that whole TV and Film and Still-Image photography thing – ‘cos like, these posters...’ he indicates the ‘Duchess’ walls which are rich with the accumulation of a decade’s visiting bands, ‘I’m sure that a lot of these posters have really good three-dimensional representations in them, but – it’s basically just flat imagery to me.’ A pause, then Wind-’em Up, Let ‘em Go ‘...I can really relate to cats and dogs when they watch TV, because I can see the motion, I can see what’s going on, but I don’t necessarily perceive the implied depth. Similar deal with a mirror, because that’s the same type of thing. There’s a three-dimensional representation, but on a two-dimensional surface....’

They’re Man or Astroman – Multi-Dimensional Star-Trippers, like it or not. And they’re here, like it or not. Actually I like it. And as I leave ‘The Duchess’ I chance a glance back just in case... what if, I mean, it’s almost possible that, what if it’s not a pose and they’re really really for real...? Then naw, the moment of uncertainty is gone. I turn my back and go. Stepping out into knife-cold Leeds, my ears still abuzz with intergalactic vibrations.

Published in: 
‘ROCK ‘N’ REEL no.31: Late Summer’ (UK - Oct 1998) 
‘AURAL INNOVATIONS no.6: April’ (USA - May 1999)

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