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His name is CoCo the Electronic Monkey Wizard. He says he came from outer space. He says he's masquerading as a musician who plays in an instrumental surf-rock band based in Alabama.

CoCo says his bandmates are all aliens, too.
CoCo the Electronic Monkey Wizard is calling from a roadside pay phone at a truck stop in the Midwest. He wants to tell his story. He wants to share the fractured science fiction that defines his band Man or Astroman?.

"Like I said, we're from space," he says in a voice more reminiscent of a preppy earthling than an accidental cosmic tourist. "We say we're from Alabama because that's where we crash-landed. The crash, well, that was my fault. Sometimes when you're traveling, you've really got to go, if you know what I mean. So you have to do the old wee-wee in the bottle thing. But flying that spaceship is tricky, and trying to do two things at once can be cumbersome--as if one joy stick isn't enough. Needless to say, I spilled a little bit in the process and it got into the ship's machinery. Next thing you know, we're plummeting to Earth. We ended up in Alabama. Auburn, Alabama, to be exact."

CoCo pauses. He senses skepticism on the other end of the line.
"I'm trying to put this in the simplest Earth terms I can," he says patiently.

CoCo goes on to explain that he and his comrades assumed the identity of musicians as a way to tour the planet in search of spare parts for their crippled craft. He also says that Man or Astroman? plays surf-styled music because the last signals the spaceship received from Earth were TV transmissions from the Fifties and Sixties. The Astromen apparently didn't compensate for the time it takes such broadcast signals to travel great distances.

"We thought that kind of music was the contemporary thing," CoCo says. "We thought if we played that music, we'd blend right in. But I don't know."

From there, the Man or Astroman? saga gets increasingly convoluted. CoCo is asked why the band says it formed while the members were all students at Auburn University. Posing as a college student is a good way to cover yourself, he says, adding that authenticity's the key--each member of the motley space crew received his undergraduate degree last spring.

CoCo's then asked to account for why he and his bandmates adopted oddball names like Starcrunch (the guitarist), Birdstuff (on drums) and Dexter X from Planet Q (keyboards). Seems rather showy for extraterrestrials trying to keep a low profile. The answer, CoCo says, is that the band wants people to think the members of Man or Astroman? are just pretending to be alien space creatures. No one would suspect that musicians from Alabama claiming to be aliens really are from another galaxy, he reasons.

"You know, kind of like turning the whole thing in on itself," he says.
The more CoCo speaks, the more MOAM's space story takes on water. But there can be no doubting the band's determination to conquer the indie music world, screwy bio notwithstanding. The group's weapons of choice include clusters of quick-hit seven-inch singles released on a variety of domestic and import labels.

"It's a good way of doing things because we're not under any kind of contract," CoCo says of the attack of the killer 45s. "And they're so easy to do. You can just bust out a couple of songs, put 'em on a seven-inch, and they'll be out there everywhere. You can keep 'em coming out all the time."

In addition to the singles, MOAM's released a couple of full-length albums, some of which are live shows transferred to disc. The concert renditions dutifully convey the band's instrumental, garage-surf sounds, as well as some of the energy that keeps the controls of a MOAM show firmly set on "frantic."

But the live recordings don't quite capture an Astroman experience in the flesh. For instance, there's no way to hear what CoCo and his pals look like decked out in their fluorescent-orange, fluid-cooled, insulated space suits--replete with helmets, protective eyewear and "strategically placed duct tape." And based on a recording, it's hard to picture a stage littered with up to a dozen TV monitors and 16mm projectors showing grade-z sci-fi flicks and oscilloscopes that monitor the band's music.

All to better enhance such songs as "Supersonic Toothbrush Helmet" and "Philip K. Dick in the Pet Section of a Wal-Mart." The MOAM repertoire also includes an inspired rendition of the theme from TV's Mystery Science Theater 3000, as well as "Sadie Hawkins Atom Bomb," a song the band likes to think of as the first-ever feminist instrumental.

"There's a lot of songs, a lot of motion up there," CoCo says of an Astroman recital. "We're trying to make our stage show just that--a show.

"People either get it or they don't. And if they don't, it's like, 'Hmm, let's see. I paid five bucks to get in here. If I don't like the music, I can watch TV, or a movie.' There's so much going on, you can't complain too much."

Granted, one of MOAM's first hometown gigs drew an audience of exactly one, but since then the band has cultivated sizable followings in Chicago, San Francisco and L.A. CoCo says there's also growing Astroman interest in Europe, where the band's toured four times.

"Overall, we probably do best close to home, in the Southeast," CoCo says. "It's because that's where we've toured most often. Being in school, we could only go out on breaks. That meant weekends and only in an eight-hour radius."

Now that the Alabama space oddities have completed their studies and have their sheepskins firmly in radiation-proof glove, CoCo and crew are busy crisscrossing the country and unloading singles like photon torpedoes. Despite the momentum, CoCo doesn't figure Man or Astroman? is quite ready for a major-label assault: "Not that we won't ever be or that we haven't ever talked about it," he says. "It's just not in our immediate future."

Even so, it seems surf's up for instrumental twang, and this time the men of Astroman really are in synch with earthly pop trends.

"Things like Dick Dale and Pulp Fiction have kind of made people more accepting of instrumental music," CoCo says, his voice nearly lost in the rumble of a passing semi. "I don't think instrumental will ever be the popular genre of music it was at one time, but I think it's starting to get a step up. That helps bands like us."

CoCo pauses. "I guess I should say bands similar to us. There really isn't a band just like us."

Man or Astroman? is scheduled to perform on Sunday, August 13, at Boston's in Tempe, with the Fells, and Hi-Fives. Showtime is 8 p.m.

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Ted Simons