A world apart

A few years back, I saw Man or Astro-man? in Knoxville with my friend Louise, a tenderly devoted fan of the Alabama-based aliens. The unreasonably narrow venue (more like a hallway than a club, really) was packed, but audience members weren’t the only ones who were space-challenged, so to speak. The band had perched its drummer, Birdstuff, atop a precariously elevated platform to make room for the assorted static-infused televisions and other electronic receptors which Man or Astro-man? then favored in their stage sets.

At least ,we assumed that Birdstuff’s peculiar suspension was due to the stage’s diminutive dimensions. But in a recent phone call from Man or Astro-man?’s current launching pad near Athens, Ga., the drummer revealed the truth about that memorable October night: It seems his space-suited brethren placed him on that rickety scaffold in eager anticipation of his possible fall.

“Instead of a plane crash or a drug overdose, we thought we might [make our mark] by my collapsing on a crowd of innocent people,” Birdstuff explains matter-of-factly.

Obviously, that particular experiment didn’t go off as planned, but the four-alien-strong band has enjoyed significantly better luck in recent musical explorations. EEVIAC, slated for an early spring release by Touch and Go Records, promises to be the group’s most ambitious project to date, according to Birdstuff.

Man or Astro-man? crash-landed in Auburn, Ala. in early 1992 — a somewhat less-than-astounding occurrence, considering that state’s historic overabundance of UFO sightings and other paranormal activity. (Recent lineup changes have resulted in Starcrunch and Dexter X being replaced by Trace Reading and Blazar the Probe Handler; Coco the Electronic Monkey Wizard is still on the scene.) After ingratiating themselves to the locals through what the band calls “methods confidential,” the rudely transplanted extraterrestrials attempted to further adapt to their new planet by absorbing some of its music.

The band initially fell in love with the oddly ominous sounds of late-’50s and early-’60s heavy-guitar surf bands like Link Wray (“Well, … we used rays all the time,” they explain in their official bio) and the Ventures (“that sounded a bit intergalactic”). But these days, Man or Astro-man? has moved galaxies away from the kitschy confines that made the group’s early releases modern surf-sound classics (although 1997’s pounding and impressively textured space-rock nugget, Technetium, reverberates with an insistent strain of that abandoned genre).

Older fans might resist the band’s more determinedly electronic sound, but Birdstuff insists it would be senseless to limit unearthly beings to finite Western tonalities.

“We’re fascinated with science and enamored with electronic devices. … We decreed that we would use, misuse and abuse new types of gadgetry and [sound-altering] equipment,” he pronounces, adding, “A good, cartoon-style blip can be a complete opus for us.”

Notwithstanding the band’s notoriously cultish fan base, these extraterrestrials’ intense absorption in electronic endeavors makes for a rather unbalanced performer/audience relationship, Birdstuff concedes. He attributes Man or Astro-man?’s extra-heavy workload (compared to, say, certain jam bands who rely on crowds to carry their end of the show by means of frantic dancing/lyric parroting) to “the utter inefficiency of what we do to push ourselves and amuse ourselves — like those huge supercomputers of the ’60s that had these endless vacuum tubes, but could barely beat you at tic-tac-toe. … We put in 10 times more effort than [other bands]. There’s so much more going on than most bands could ever imagine.”

The new CD, says Birdstuff, “is as disparate and diverse as we could make it,” although the group’s stellar stage show has reportedly embarked on a plainer course. But the new, more spare set doesn’t seem to have alienated any south-of-the-border earthlings, at least. Referring to Man or Astro-man?’s recent tour of Brazil, Birdstuff recalls with wonder, “It was amazing to see people so enthusiastic about seeing live music. Especially having been integrated through the immigration point of Alabama, you don’t expect that. And there [were] no indie-rock [fans] sitting there like, ‘Well, if the cool guy from the record store likes the band and is dancing, maybe [we’ll] dance the next time they come to town.'”

Right down to the scores the band writes for numerous TV programs and films, Man or Astro-man? has always commanded full control of its intergalactic media operations — creating and maintaining its own Web site and designing all band merchandise and CD covers.

“It has to do with self-sufficiency,” asserts Birdstuff. “Modern Earth culture has gotten so far away from being able to do anything. People will watch TV or send an e-mail and not know [how it works]. We’re getting back to a little old-fashioned, outer-space manual labor.”

One of MOA’s recent projects, however, teetered on the millennial edge of science. Exhausted with incessant touring at home and abroad (the band has touched down in Europe 11 times), Man or Astro-man? chose to clone themselves so as not to disappoint eager fans. The results were the Alphas (a veritable twin of the Alabama original) and the more mutated Gammas, an enthusiastically received all-girl version of the group.

The rumor-laden Clone Tours (check out the band’s Web site at www.astroman.com for a full report), while successful, were brief. As Man or Astro-man? got ready to blast off again, they quietly destroyed the astral upstarts.

“Tragically, the clones were exterminated after five weeks,” Birdstuff reports. “The Gammas were supposed to have some European gigs, but due to scheduling mutations, one of our lovely DNA replicants couldn’t do it.” Thinking of that Knoxville concert and my reluctantly earthbound friend Louise — who now lives in Florence, Italy — I ask him about potential future overseas clone projects. The drummer lets me down gently.

“It was a one-time thing,” he says. “The clones were like the ‘new Coke’ of indie rock.” But that doesn’t mean the drummer isn’t harboring some fond memories of the triumphant experiment.

“The Gammas were a fiery lot,” he concedes. “They played a lot of really fast, old-surf kind of stuff. They were better genetic beings than we ever thought [we could] be.” But he’s quick to point out that his admiration remains purely platonic: “Many people wanted to know if we were attracted to the Gammas, but seeing as we’re made out of the same DNA, that would be kind of disgusting.”

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