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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?"
That's a salient point, commander.
After playing '80s covers as the Space Patrol in the mid-'90s, the Phenomenauts as we know them began as a guerrilla-type street performance act. They would set up battery-powered equipment in front of key venues and shows (the latest came last April 27 at Oakland's California Music Awards) that allowed them to play a few songs before clueless security guards found a way to force them to "retreat."
"They try to unplug us, but they can't figure out how," the Commander says. "It's because there is nothing to unplug!" Word of mouth spread, and the Phenomenauts became a full-fledged rock 'n' roll band with a growing cult in California.
"I'm the guy with the hair," says Commander Nova, the lead singer/guitarist in charge of "maintenance of equipment and Phenomabomber sub-systems." He's also the Elvis answer to the higher-pitched Corporal Joe Bot, who also sings, plays guitar and is the "thermaratorhelitron operator," or the guy who plays the Therimatic Helmerator (you know, a skateboard helmet with a wireless theremin attached to it). Major Jimmy Boom, the drummer, is the "helmsman and syncopation officer," and Captain Chreehos is the "low end spectral output officer" (he takes care of the standup bass). Offstage you have Professor Greg Arious ("effects and ladies' man") and the intriguing Colonel Reehotch ("Top Secret").
"There's definitely a romance between sci-fi and rock 'n' roll," says the Commander. "Sci-fi got really big at the same time [rock 'n' roll] got really big." But, needless to say, a vital part of the band's mission is to keep that romance in a proudly independent basis. Or something like that.
"The Phenomenauts are on our own label," continues Commander Nova. "We play all our own instruments, write all our own songs, and build our own effects. We recorded the album ourselves and did all the graphics ourselves because that is what the Phenomenauts are all about and that will never change. Unless, of course, we get a big fat paycheck from a major label."
But before that happens, the Phenomenauts face one more tough challenge. Phoenix is the home of Killbot ("a robot programmed to kill," they say), a ferocious nonstop instrumental metal machine. No time for clapping -- once the 40-minute set is over, Killbot is offline, no encore. Killbot is equal parts power trio, lights, smoke, wires, tubes, junk from a nearby alley, masks, a projected video backdrop of robots, a video game footage, and a lunatic selection of special sound effects like the Alien Fart, Martian Mind Ray, and Plasma Cannon.
"When you go see Killbot, it's like going to the movies, except there's beer," says guitarist Bob Bot, who has a message for the West Coast invaders. "The Phenomenauts? Ha! More like the Phenome-NOTS! We're not afraid of anyone whose diet consists mostly of government moon cheese."
Commander Nova's official reply suggests the Phenomenauts prefer to let the Streamerator speak for itself.
"Alien Fart, huh? I'd love to hear that."