Up from the deep

Todd Pasternack’s laugh takes on an eerie life of its own. At one point in a recent phone interview, the Ominous Seapods’ newest member lets his rampant guffaw feed on its own energy for a full five minutes before he once again becomes its master — by which time the guitarist has nearly forgotten what he was talking about.

Pasternack, it seems, is still blissfully ensconced on a musical honeymoon: Although he has known and jammed with the notoriously wacky upstate-New York group for years, his two-month-old status as an official member of the Seapods (“It was a natural progression,” is his simple assessment) still has him somewhat carried away. Between bouts of rib-wracking mirth, he describes an incident at a recent show, in which a loyal fan (known only as “Burger King”) jumped on-stage and “killed” lead singer Dana Monteith as he launched into “Mr. Blood,” a song that examines the dubious qualities of meat.

Though it sounds like a well-rehearsed slice of performance art, the guitarist maintains that such audience-pleasing theatrics are rarely planned: “It just happens,” he insists.

Other Ominous Seapods antics have included eight-track release parties and audience-member beauty pageants. True to its name — and with a name like that, they’d be hard-put not to release some strain of eccentricity — the band’s fondness for retro, sci-fi goofiness regularly surfaces in its lyrics, costumes and musical excursions into psychedelia.

Honored as “the best of [the] third-generation jam bands” by Spin magazine, the Ominous Seapods do have quite a bit in common with Phish, Widespread Panic, et al. — most notably a young, passionate following (the Pods’ cult status is still primarily a Northeastern phenomenon, despite the 280,000-plus miles on their van) and a penchant for making indulgent-yet-tenacious improvisational rock. But what distinguishes the Pods from most other bands in the jam genre, most critics agree, is their apocalypse-embracing sense of humor.

Pasternack, in a fit of seriousness, tries to get to the core of the matter: Just what does set the seemingly endless parade of jam bands apart from one other?

“Each band has its own style, which overlaps into the improvisational aspects of what happens during a [show],” he insists. “If there’s a difference with us, it’s that we have a harder edge.”

And he’s not above toasting his own contributions to that edge: “I incorporate a lot of the hard-rock stuff, because I’m coming from a harder background, bringing in more ‘oomph.'”

Dana Monteith once touted his band as displaying a punk-rock ethic — and even as a Pod-come-lately, Pasternack feels inclined to agree with the lead singer’s assertion. “I guess it’s the anything-goes philosophy — knowing that, at any moment, complete chaos can break out on-stage,” he notes. “We feel out the crowd, and feel out ourselves, to see if the opportunity is there to get completely, no-holds-barred insane — to push the limits and just go.”

Their superlatively energetic new release, Matinee Idols (Hydrophonics/Megaforce, 1998), is a live effort recorded over the course of four nights in the same number of clubs in their home state. The CD, decorated with a leopard-print-bikini-clad alien, makes affectionate reference to the audiences on those fateful nights as “the craziest freaks in the world” — a sentiment tacitly reflected in the cover model’s exposed cerebral cortex and fetching trio of eyes.

Besides the requisite heavy touring schedule that spawns a tape-trading frenzy among the band’s followers, the Internet has also been essential in building a loyal fan base. Pod people can catch rides to shows just by logging on to the band’s Web site, says the guitarist. What’s more, he adds, “We go on-line with fans, which forms a more intimate relationship.”

Pasternack denounces the cynical suggestion that some kids latch on to post-Dead jam groups more to imbibe the corresponding nomadic, alternative lifestyle than out of any overwhelming passion for the music. “[Fans’ enthusiasm] has to be rooted in the music,” he emphasizes. “Sure, there are some people who just like to travel around and have a fun time, but I don’t think any of them would go out to see a band they thought really blew. People come out to hear us play because they’re moved by the music. They might come out because they love one lyric in one particular song, and they connect with that tune. … They’re thinking, ‘Maybe they’ll play that song, and it will make my whole night.'”

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