By Benjamin Leatherman
By Glenn BurnSilver
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"[We] had planned to commando' the 2002 Vans Warped Tour [i.e., perform in the parking lot] in San Francisco, but when we started setting up in front of the show, the security told us, No way,'" says science freak Nova, 27, the singer and guitarist for extreme novelty the Phenomenauts. True to his persona, he communicates via e-mail as well as phone. Nova calls his band's performances "missions," his bandmates "my men," and the group's road crew the "cadets." But before getting deeper into what the award-winning, toilet-paper-throwing, theremin-helmet-wearing Phenomenauts are all about, allow the commander to describe the sci-fi psychobilly band's greatest triumph.
"On our way back to the Phenomabomber [an '83 Dodge van -- and spaceship] to retreat, we noticed that there were musicians with instruments going in the back gate, so we just followed them in. Once we were in, the security saw us from across the park, so we ducked behind a Dumpster and plotted our attack. After about a half an hour, we set up across from a stage where a band just finished playing. We blasted off and about two songs in I got a tap on the shoulder. I thought we were caught. But it was the sound man. He told us that the band that was supposed to be on next was late and if we wanted to jump on the stage we could. I told the crowd, We have just been upgraded to the stage!' Some helpful cadets helped us move our gear and we played for about 20 minutes. When we got off the stage, we sold all the merchandise we had, $250 worth, and we walked out the front door, right past the security. Mission accomplished."
Thus ended a typical working day for the Phenomenauts, recently chosen as California's Best Live Band by the East Bay Express and Best Lifestyle Music artist by the SF Weekly (both papers are sister publications to New Times). "The Phenomenauts are the world's bravest rocket roll band," says Commander Nova. "If you go to a recital, you will see, in person, the Streamerator [a leaf blower turned into a device that shoots a whole roll of toilet paper into the audience in a matter of seconds], the Smokearator and Fogarator [which blasts off smoke and fog], the Phenomabomber [the band's equivalent to the Batmobile], etc., etc., etc." The et ceteras could be summed up as a fun, fast-driving blend of rockabilly, punk, pop and surf guitars and above-average songwriting that usually gets overshadowed by the band's visuals -- except for Commander Nova, the Phenomenauts are bald-headed, and they all wear spacesuits and thin, wrap-around sunglasses, much like Cyclops from the X-Men.
Rockets and Robots, the band's self-released debut album, is full of cosmic references. In fact, that's all the band talks about. "Earth Is the Best," a favorite among Oakland's Phenome-heads, is a planet-by-planet neo-imperialist explanation of why we're in just the right place: "Uranus is the 7th planet from the Sun/With a stupid name that is just plain dumb/Neptune is cold and it smells real bad/Like sick ammonia and methane gas/Earth has its faults/And to that we confess/But you can't blast Earth/Because Earth is the best." "Tiny Robots," however, suggests a break from the best planet: "I can't wait for NASA/I want to go into outer space/Before I get too old." Perhaps we can rename it "My Rocket-Bound Generation"?
Real female beauty is described in "Phenomenator," but this ain't no earthly chick: The Phenomenator is a smaller scout ship that travels hand-in-hand with the Phenomabomber. "She's got dual quad thrusters with thrust reverse/Makes the plasma so hot/You're going to need a nurse." And "Galactic Pioneers" adds a new perspective to the theory of evolution. "We were here before/Before four score/Before four thousand years/We interbred, which changed your head/At least you kept your ears."
Make no mistake: The Phenomenauts are dead serious. When this Catholic writer turned devil's advocate reminds Commander Nova that science is always changing, that the scientist's imperfect senses suggested 50 years ago, for example, that smoking was good for you, the Commander comes back in full force.
"Science is always correcting itself," he clarifies. "While religion, you just have to trust, without ever questioning it. Science means there is a bunch of people all over the place making sure it's accurate." Oh, okay. Still, science is supposed to be cold and calculating. To some ears, there might be more science in the pipes of Eddie Vedder than in the funbot Phenomenauts.
"Oh, please," says Commander Nova, at the mere mention of angst-shriveled Vedder. "There's a lot of people always whining about stuff. But really, life is not so bad, at least [in the U.S.]. There are people in the world who are making a dollar a day. Just be yourself and have a good time. And yes, we're fun, because science is fun, just like rock 'n' roll. Have you seen Bill Nye, the science guy, on TV?"