Going Underground

Astropop, kindness and the art of noise

On the eve of Cinco de Mayo, while many bars spent a slow evening stocking a shitload of Coronas, limes and tequila, Boston's was quite busy serving an eclectic crowd of fans who came to see Atlanta space rockers Man or Astroman?. This band has been immortalized within indie rock halls of fame with its combination of energetic surf-punk stylings and electrical, chemical and computational jargon, much of which is sampled from old sci-fi flicks.

Man or Astroman? embodies the surreal wonders of science at all times with schematic album designs and blinking stage props. Onstage, guitar amplifiers are hidden behind a façade of large reel-to-reel hard-drive computers, while offstage, fans are encouraged to log in their e-mail addresses. The band has taken its love of shtick and mystery to the point of helping to create a fake Man or Astroman? and insisting that it was the result of cloning.

This particular night, however, fans saw the right stuff. Dressed in silver radioactive suits, each member of the group routed tubes and coils in and around Boston's light fixtures, beams and the "21 and under" fencing. Like a child who builds a backyard spaceship and pretends to fly to the moon, Man or Astroman? used outdated Apple computer monitors, plywood and hoses to create its own world of make believe.

Phoenix's own DJ Z-Trip, who stands on the threshold of national recognition, had somehow managed to make his way to the very front of this scientific spectacle. During the "pre-show" he marveled, "Anyone who puts this much effort into their show deserves true praise. I wish hip-hop shows were more like this."

While pre-recorded sounds bleeped and boinked from the PA, Z-Trip had just enough time to comment on the mainstream. "I'm here 'cause I like other styles of music, but mainly 'cause I don't want to be at Eminem. I don't want to see what MTV is shoving down people's throats."

Minutes later, three Astromen strapped themselves in with cheap pawn-shop guitars. Like nearly all their recordings, the first song began with a sample: "Speaker phasing test--drumbeat test for stereo spread." Immediately, the fourth Astroman began pounding the drums like The Muppet Show's Animal. Jerking like Devo, the jumpsuited foursome transmitted its manic music to the nearly riotous crowd. With song titles like "Within the mainframe, impaired vision from inoperable cataracts can become a new impending nepotism," it's little wonder that the sound bites and samples do most of the talking.

But lead Astroman Coco (bass) did talk and always thematically. When an overzealous fan began to flirt with a slam dance or two, chaos ensued as people began to fall onto the stage. Coco quickly defined it as a need for "population control." Later, when the show was briefly interrupted by a loss of electricity, Coco stated, "Power consumption--too much."

He later ran through the excited crowd to the other side of the bar, perhaps to bond with the high-tech pinball machine that stood there. After an hour or so of supercharged Astropop, a female computerized voice repeated, "No more data to process," and the show ended with a dazzling yet dangerous display. Some sort of powerful gizmo zapped bolts of lightning haphazardly on the ceiling above the stage. Later on, backstage, Coco (the "electronic monkey wizard") explained exactly what the thing was.

"It's a tesla coil, which is basically a large high-voltage, resonant transformer. It ionizes the air around it enough to make a conductive path and . . ." I'll spare you the rest, but trust me, Coco went on and on. And on. Maybe the Arizona Science Center should book Man or Astroman?'s next stop in the Valley.

Groove Tribe organization, promoters of the ever-popular twist in reality known as kindthursdays (music4yourinnerfreak), recently hosted the most worthy of benefits, Kindness 4 Kosovo--a benefit for the refugees. Renowned DJs Paul Oakenfold, Dave Ralph and Markus Schulz came together in Tempe's Pompeii to display their skills for the cause. Peace and harmony have always been in heavy rotation at kind events, and promoter Mark Jas Tyman describes this night as a prime example of what he's trying to accomplish: "Sunday night. Mother's Day. Middle of finals, and still, 800 people came out to help the refugees from Kosovo--this is exactly what kind is all about."

Undoubtedly, booking Oakenfold helped out considerably. According to the 1999 Guinness Book of Records, the Londoner is entered as "Most Successful Club DJ." He's also been named "Best DJ in the World." He most definitely doesn't suck.

During his set, dancers wave glowing wands with choreographed movements like airline guides on a runway. Beneath the feet of the crowd, sections of the floor illuminate and pulsate to the DJ's steady four-on-the-floor rhythm.

Oakenfold's best moves may well be his charitable contributions. Between sets he reflects on the crisis and says, "The idea is that when you live in Europe, as I do, you see it. Fathers are being shot, mothers are raped, and children are stripped of their parents, and I want to raise money to help them."

Marc Snyder, a kind enthusiast, chills on a couch on Pompeii's patio, while gushing about Oakenfold: "He's a pioneer. Awesome. I have his CD in my car's player 90 percent of the time, and it's cool that a world-class DJ will come out and spin free for a cause."

In fact, it seems that Oakenfold's vinyl revolutions propose the kind of positivity for nightlife that America--and particularly Phoenix--is lacking. Behind the velvet curtains of Pompeii's V.I.P. area, he shares his ideas on a true culture club.

"To me, it's a demonstration of love and freedom for young people. It's a great time for everyone to unite and leave anger at home. With trance, the music that I play, the whole idea is feeling it."

Shane Savery, another kind supporter, shares these sentiments. "They [Europeans] are so far ahead in the club scene. For them, it has become a way of life, but in our society it's looked down upon because of drugs and other shortcomings of the youthful lifestyle. As a society, we need to arrive at a common conclusion: Is it the next step or is it the downfall of humanity? I believe it is the former--open your mind."

Luckily, Oakenfold himself offers the most positive take on the situation. With absolute and stunning honesty he says, "Out of all the cities in the nation, I chose Phoenix to host the benefit. I played here a short time ago, and I got the best vibe here. Everyone was open-minded. I was really surprised that so many people knew me."

In the burgeoning underground art scene, a project known as bumpergoat is making quite a bit of noise--literally. The duo, Casey McKee and Robin Vining, is a team of artists that chooses to make its music with various odds and ends.

Thus far, the equipment list includes: a three-string cello, an accordion, a small xylophone, various drums, an electric and acoustic guitar, a bass and an amp.

What makes it really interesting is the collection of other "instruments": cooking bowl, propane tank, roof turbine fan, customer service bell, small boom box with tape of "samples," toy Chinese harp, inverted mountain bike and one of those circular pull-string, "the-cow-says-moo" toys.

On May 9, bumpergoat performed for the second time at downtown art space Modified. The performance--part well-mannered confrontation, part subtle accompaniment--showed McKee and Vining's talents for spontaneous creativity and random creation of sounds.

Anyone attending a bumpergoat performance with preconceived notions about music, structure or theory may miss the point. That it's not for everyone is its greatest attribute. It's the art of noise. Bumpergoat does not exist merely to be abstract, but its art conveys and requires free thinking.

McKee's story on how bumpergoat came into being may illustrate: "We took a vacation to Globe, where my grandpa raises animals. As we laughed at the goats, one of them came up to us and said, 'I don't know why you're laughing. There's a reason I brought you here. Take this bowl we've been eating out of, and find other misfit instruments. Spread the word of the bumpergoat.'"

McKee, who insists that the goat actually came to a performance--in disguise, of course--is a drummer, while Vining plays guitar. But, such traditional musicianship was pre-bumpergoat, and now they find more of a release in playing with the other objects. They're a bit like those kids who prefer to play with a toy's packaging than the toy itself.

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