All Systems to Go:
Man or Astro-man? Returns, Neither Old Nor Bloated
It’s not that it was so surprising that the core members of Man or Astro-man? decided to take the spaceman jumpsuits, Tesla coil and other getups and gizmos out of storage and get the crew back together. It’s kind of become the established pattern: band tours and records relentlessly until burnout; breaks up with no intention of ever playing together again; then five, ten, fifteen years later they realize they miss the good times so they come back and do it again, albeit on a significantly smaller scale. Or as Man or Astro-man? drummer Brian Teasley sardonically puts it, “You liked us when we were young and inspired? You’ll love us now that we’re old and bloated!”
But what is, if not surprising then at least reassuring, is just how sharp and animated and fun they still are. After reveling at their New Year’s Eve show at the EARL seven months’ back, I’m convinced they’re actually far better now than they were in the latter years of the original run of the band, when non-stop touring, accumulative lineup changes and various personal issues were wearing down the mission. And this renewed activity isn’t confined to their notoriously wacky live performances. Their first album since their initial reunion in 2006 for their onetime label Touch and Go Records’ 25th Anniversary, and subsequent return to active duty in 2010, this year’s Defcon 5…4…3…2…1 (Communicating Vessels/Chunklet) is a taut, focused torrent of explosive cyber-punk numbers, mutant-surf instrumentals and synthetic electronic segues. Their B-movie sampling habits long behind them, it’s a refreshingly sturdy outing, especially the first half.
But unlike their ‘90s heyday, they’re no longer making this their primary occupation, instead treating it as a creative, semi-serious, fully-enjoyable diversion in their now-adult lives. Drummer Teasley (aka Birdstuff) moved in 2002 from Atlanta to Birmingham, where he owns and operates the Bottletree rock club with his onetime wife and her brother. Guitarist/vocalist Brian Causey (Star Crunch) lives in Athens, does music and graphic design work and still occasionally releases other people’s albums on his WARM label. Bassist Rob DelBueno (Coco the Electronic Monkey Wizard) lives in Atlanta, runs a cooking oil recycling/biodiesel operation called Southern Green and also plays in the Subsonics when he can; he and his wife just welcomed a new baby into the world. Recently, Samantha Paulsen (Avona Nova), formerly of Athens group We Versus the Shark, has been playing with Man or Astro-man? on second guitar.
“A lot of times, most people, if they don’t interview us in full-on space-character mode, they do the interview where everything’s about the live show, or some crazy thing we did at one time, and nobody just asks about what kind of people we are, or the recordings,” laments Teasley at one point during our phone conversation last month. “You know, at the end of the day, Man or Astro-man? mostly is just about trying to be a tight little rock ‘n’ roll band. I know there’s a lot of extraneous thought to it, but it’s really not as over-thought out as people think. There’s not that much to it, really.”
You’re still always referred to as a ‘surf rock’ band but the new album sounds more like Sonic Youth to me.
Brian Teasley: “You know, I think we tried to be a surf band in ’93 and ’94, but we weren’t very good at being authentic. I don’t know if we’re just irreverent people, or not good at copying stuff, because none of us had ever played in a cover band or stuff like that. And then we were touring with Blonde Redhead and Trans Am and Brainiac, all these different kind of bands, and that definitely crept into how we made music. And then the thing that happens that results with you hating the thing that you loved is when every local surf band wearing matching suits in the country opens for you for four years straight. I mean, we love surf music, and there’s still a paradigm there with how we arrange songs in that they’re never terribly long, they’re uptempo, there’s still elements that come from surf music but we don’t set out to be a surf band. We really haven’t thought about that in 15 years… I think in a weird way [Defcon] is right where we left off, where we were doing a little more vocals, and we were experimenting a lot more in the studio. We didn’t really set out to make the record that would’ve come out midway through ’98, but I kinda feel like we did. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Because I think it’s still a progression from where we left off, but there again, you play it and I don’t think it sounds like ‘Whoa! Why are these guys trying to reinvent themselves?’ In a way, even though we’re new people and we’ve done all this other stuff, we’re married to this thing that we came up with when we were 19. It’s odd being true to that, but also being true to who you are in your current state. Because you can tell when people are faking shit. That’s my biggest thing that I hate about so much music.”
One thing I remember about seeing you early on, in the early ‘90s, is just how good you guys were even at that young point. As far as players. You were goofy and crazy but you weren’t just fucking around or letting the music be secondary. I always thought that was impressive.
“Yeah, I think we were lucky that we found each other, in the way that the whole was bigger than the individual parts. I think there are bands like that. I hate to compare us to something like some of my favorite bands, like Wire or Jesus Lizard, Gang of Four, something like that, where…just the right people found each other, and they’re playing better together than they would in any other situation. But I think that’s kind of the way we were. Plus, we were playing tons, and playing with that whole cool circuit of bands like the Flat Duo Jets, Southern Culture on the Skids, the Woggles, Hillbilly Frankenstein, the Subsonics – that was kind of a whole southeastern scene we had, and a lot of those bands had been around and had their live show together, and we had to get our shit together really quick to be able to keep our heads above water with those other bands.”
You don’t really do the whole thing with audio clips from movies in your songs anymore. Did you just get tired of that or was it more of a legal thing?
“Well, it’s a different landscape, legally, for sure. And then also, you know, there was such a retro culture in the mid ‘90s. I think a lot of it was when Pulp Fiction came out, and you know, we got a weird Pulp Fiction bump, because so many people in England were sort of interested in certain music in that sort of vein, and we were this weird, exotic thing from Alabama, in their minds, so we got a lot of press in the NME and Melody Maker, shit like that, which then got back here [to the US], which got us into your Magnets and your Options and that kind of stuff. But you had Combustible Edison, Squirrel Nut Zippers, the whole thing about looking back, and that’s what connected us to that retro culture. It’s not like we don’t embrace that as much, but we’re kind of looking at it more like retro-futurism as opposed to ‘Hey, this wacky thing from the ‘60s!’ And then there’s legal issues. There have been times when we’ve tried to create our own samples on a record, and it always sounds canned and shitty. You never can get it right.”
When you first rebooted the band to play the Touch and Go fest in Chicago, did you think that was going to be a one-off deal, or did you consider it the start of a new phase of activity for the band?
“I think that that was definitely kind of a one-off type mentality that we went into that with. Probably at the time we would have done that for no one other than Corey Rusk at Touch and Go, who in addition to playing the Touch and Go anniversary we’d probably take a bullet in the nose for. They just treated us so well, and made so much happen, that anything that they asked us to do, you know, we’d get the old band back together for a couple shows. But we had no intention of touring or doing a new record at that point.”
What prompted you to take it a step further?
“Well, I think in 2010, we had had some phone conversations here and there between the three of us – Brian Causey, Rob and myself – not necessarily about playing, but everybody was kind of interested in catching up on everybody’s lives, because, you know, there’s probably no way I will ever – or any of the three of us will ever – spend more time with someone else than we spent together in our lives. So it was good to catch up. And then we had some offers to do some different benefits, things like that, that we were like, well, if we can use the band to do something good, you know, maybe we can see what it’s like to get in a room together, which I think is the standard procedure – just getting back in a room and seeing if you sound anything like you did ten years ago. And we did, and it did… It wasn’t like ‘Hey, let’s make a stab at it again! And see how successful we can be, and tour half the year!’ I’ve never proven it, or had it proven to me, but people have said that we toured more than any band in the ’90s. Like, adding up shows… I was talking to David Yow one night about it, and the Jesus Lizard toured a ton, and he was like, ‘How many shows did you guys do?’ I told him, and he was like, ‘Holy shit! That’s like twice as many shows as we did!’ It wasn’t like we were getting rich off the band, but we did it so much that it was pretty good income, as far as like just consistent cash flow. And then it was like, ‘Wow, we can do this for a living!’ And you kind of think that’s what you always dreamed of doing when you were in high school, and then the reality of that happens, and people buy houses and whatever, and then all of a sudden you’re like, ‘Oh, fuck – I hate going on tour, and we have to go on tour to pay bills.’ It got to where it was so constant, and also just so itinerant at the same time. We didn’t have jobs when we got back – we didn’t have time, because the next thing was coming up. It just got to be too much of everything. Everything got over-amplified and over-exposed, I think, around ’97, ’98-ish.”
And that’s kind of when you put the “clone” bands on tour, to do your work for you!
“Yeah, and that’s probably more than subconsciously linked, that concept of doing that. I mean, I think that every band comes up with silly ideas in their bus or van, like, ‘Hey, it’d be funny if we did this…’ Man or Astro-man? was always the band that would come up with those ideas and then actually do them.”
Sure – that’s what made you so fun.
“So we’d always had the clone thing kicking around, but it was the kind of time where Brian [Causey], in particular, was pretty burnt out, and we were doing lots of music for TV, and he was working on the music for that Jimmy Neutron kids show, and we wanted to do this idea, so we thought that would bridge a gap and it would be a cool thing to do. But it was a fairly dark time in our lives. You know, as happy and fun, entertainment-wise, as Man or Astro-man? was publicly, it was a pretty dark time.”
I seem to remember you in particular sort of went a little nutty. I remember seeing you around Atlanta, and you always seemed stressed out and not so happy.
“Yeah, you think of these things, like, ‘Oh, this record’s out, there’s tours, there’s this…’ Most people get into music to that degree because they’re kind of crazy to begin with [laughs]. And then, B, we never had anybody managing our career, and I had kind of been the band’s manager for that whole time. From getting the details together for an Australian tour to coming home and writing postcards for our fan club thing. I mean, it was eight or nine years straight of just every single day, that being part of my life.”
Not only that, but being on the road 250 to 300 days out of the year will wig anyone out.
“Yeah, and then when I was doing Servotron, and playing with Shannon Wright… like in 1996, for example, I was either onstage playing a show or in the studio 345 days that year. And I think it got to me. I think a lot of people have that kind of realization where they’re like, ‘Wow, I’ve put my whole stock into being in this one band. Now what am I gonna do? I’m 28, 29, and have no real usable skills other than playing drums.’ Or so you think at that point, and you know, it does make you a little crazy. It kind of was, to me, almost a metaphor for the whole Clinton years, where everything seemed like it was going to get better, to some bullshit degree – like Nirvana exploded and all of a sudden Teenage Fanclub’s getting signed to Geffen, and you can be an indie-rock band and live your dream, and all this stuff was happening in society, and then you realize that the world is not an ever-progressive place. There are very cyclical things moving against each other, in strange contradictions and correlations at the time, and I think much like that decade was, my life kind of resembled that at the time.”
And then by the end of the ’90s, you realize people don’t want Teenage Fanclub, they want Nickelback and Papa Roach.
“Yeah, exactly, and unfortunately so.”
Was that also part of the reason you moved from Atlanta to Birmingham?
“It was just, you know… I’d rather not talk too much about my [relationship] with Shannon [Wright], but that had kind of become a mess, and then Rob and I were kind of separating with the recording studio that we had [Zero Return], and the band was kind of…Richie [Edelson], who was in the second generation of the band, was moving to LA to take a video/film editing job, and that was going to leave us as a three-piece. The band had become different at that point, and replacing him was gonna be difficult. And then we went on for about six months as a three-piece, and it just didn’t really make sense, and Rob was kinda fed up, and in a different place with his wife, so everything just kind of collapsed. And so I just kind of had to re-group and re-figure everything.”
Post Man or Astro-man?, you played with Polyphonic Spree for awhile – another high-concept band.
“Yeah, and I played some with other things, filling in here and there. I did some gigs with Har Mar Superstar, and I was in this band called Vue, which put out two records on Sub Pop, and then got signed to RCA and had the nightmare major label experience. But that was cool because I got to go and do shows with the Rolling Stones, opening for them with that band, and then I joined the Polyphonic Spree and we were on tour with Bowie, that was like the next thing I did, so…”
That doesn’t suck.
“No! And then we did shows with Brian Wilson, so within like a year and a half span, I got to tour with Bowie, Brian Wilson and the Stones! So that was a cool experience. And then I did the St. Vincent thing, that kind of led me to here.”
Yeah, I didn’t realize until recently that you also played with St. Vincent for a while. I guess it makes sense since she was in Polyphonic.
“Yeah, she was in the Spree, and had kind of recorded a record here and there. Her uncle was kind of famous for, I don’t wanna call it smooth jazz, ‘cause that has such a negative connotation, but he was in Tuck and Patti. And [her 2006 self-released EP Paris is Burning, under her real name Annie Clark] was a cool record, it was just, I think because of the type of music they play, it was very kitsch conscious, and not really going for it, and I was like, ‘You should come to Birmingham and make a record with me and my friend, he has this amazing home studio.’ So we made that first St. Vincent record here in Birmingham. We worked really hard on it.”
I think she’s awesome, personally.
“Yeah, she’s like the full package. She’s beautiful, she only wants to play music in her life, and was like playing guitar at six, and playing in metal cover bands in high school [laughs]. You know, I have friends that are really into metal stuff, and I’m like, ‘Hey, you know who can shred like crazy, and probably better than some of your favorite metal guitarists is Annie Clark!’ Anything she picks up on, she picks up immediately. It would be the kind of thing where we’d be listening to the Birthday Party, and then the next day she had listened to ‘em all night and learned to play four Birthday Party songs. I was just really happy for her, that in the span of six and a half, seven years from when we were making a record in a basement, to David Byrne asking her to write a record with him…”
I did not realize that you had been so instrumental in getting her started.
“Yeah! I was there when the St. Vincent moniker was [chosen].”
How’d it come to pass that you opened the Bottletree Café?
‘When I got to Birmingham, it was culture shock, because I, you know, had been all over the place, and I really did love Atlanta – I lived in Grant Park, and I loved just going down the street to the EARL. Moving over here, it was really dead at the time, and I was pretty depressed about it for a while, just by the lack of anything going on, at least to the point of something resembling a tangible scene, and there was kind of this ‘shit or get off the pot’ moment where it was like, I can either open up a place that has food that I like, and we can show independent movies, and have cool bands, and just create it, or I can complain for the rest of my life and be fucking miserable. It’s kind of like when we were in Auburn, the band was originally in Auburn, and we were putting on a bunch of punk rock shows, like Green Day and Neurosis and For Against in the kitchen – that wouldn’t have existed if there wasn’t five or six of us in Auburn making a concerted effort to create this scene. And I’m not saying Birmingham has changed solely because of my place, but it’s participated in a movement here that I think has been really progressive and beneficial to the city.”
Birmingham doesn’t suck anymore, that’s for sure.
“Yeah, I mean, the crazy thing is, the one thing I hear so much about our place is ‘Oh, man, thank you so much for opening up a club, ‘cause now we won’t have to drive to Atlanta!’ [laughs] Not that people still don’t do that, but they do it a lot less than they used to.”
When did the Bottletree open?
“It opened officially in 2006. We were working on it in 2005. We got married afterwards, and…the stress of being in a business and also being in a relationship, it’s pretty intense. But it’s good that it’s the kind of situation where we get along [post-divorce]. I’ve known people over the years that have been in relationships, like Mac and Laura at Merge, or whoever, that had dated at one time and somehow figured out how to deal with it. It’s been that kind of situation. It’s almost like less pressure having to come home and not have to talk about why a band didn’t draw, or why a bartender was late for a shift. You just can never escape it, it’s so all-encompassing. So [splitting up] was for the better.”
Are you booking the venue too?
“Yeah, I do the majority of national shows there. I’ve got people that help me, but I still do most of that. But the biggest thing to me was…kind of getting to stay in the game, so to say – getting to see some friends of mine that I met in Japan, or seeing friends that I met at Touch and Go, anyone I met over the years, they come to me instead of me having to travel around in a van all over the country [laughs]. It’s definitely worked out as far as that goes. Now, it’s a huge headache. Running a small club is always a tough business in this day and age. At a place like the size of the Variety [Playhouse] or bigger, you’re actually starting to make money off ticket sales, but when you’re pretty much a bar, the ticket sales are pretty much a wash. It’s a pretty strenuous business. But it’s cool, and we’re getting more to the point where it’s making more sense all the time. I’m glad I have it. The one thing I have done, that Brian and Rob have done, is that we toured so much that we’ve seen every shade of shit possible. But as soon as you think that you’ve seen that perfect kind of burnt orange-brown shit, someone’ll show you a chartreuse turd. It’d be like, ‘Tonight you’re under the girls’ gymnasium with leaking plumbing, you’re standing in an inch of water, and half the PA’s out.’ We may not have seen every way to do it right, but we’ve definitely seen every way not to do it. So with our place, my biggest concern was, you know, being nice is free, so the staff is really cool and helpful and all that. It definitely made me learn a lot about the other side. It made me sympathize with promoters! You know, it’s cool just to be a guy there, too, sometimes, because, it’s weird, but I like carrying out bands’ amps! And being the helpful person. I kind of like getting back to how it was in Auburn for us. That’s the way I kind of approach it. You know, it’s kind of what led us back to the band, in the sense that we realized kind of what it was like when we lived in a house together in Auburn, and that this could be our high school garage band again, where we still get to do it and we get to have fun with it, but we’re not trying to make a career or hate each other or do anything like that.”
Photo by John Boydston.