Human cloning just gets some people pissed. They don’t like the moral implications, the idea of mere mortals playing God. Who cares about the medical benefits that could potentially come out of cloning experiments—”I’d like a liver, a pancreas and a hypothalamus to go, please.” The whole thing just gives some folks a bad case of kooties.
But most people don’t even realize that human cloning has been going on since the mid-’90s. Back around 1997, indie-instrumentalists Man or Astro-Man? decided to clone themselves in the hopes of maximizing their tour potential—and getting some serious bang for their marketing buck. The band had just released its eighth album, Made From Technetium. No one was looking forward to another round of boring interviews, standard promotions and thousands of miles of nothing. It was time for something different. It was time for someone else to do the work.
Then, in an after-show flash of clarity—or maybe it was drunkeness—Man or Astro-Man? came up with cloning. It was brilliant in its simplicity. There were no beakers, no petri dishes. The only chemicals that were involved were booze and maybe a bit of weed. After that, it was a matter of finding the right jumpsuits and the right sound, and bam! Insta-clones. Think of it, hundreds of Men of Man or Astro-Man? traveling the globe in stinky, cramped vans that smell worse than Ben Affleck after a bender. They’d dominate the clubs; they’d take over the small college radio stations; they’d beam hypnotic messages to lonely freshman and music snobs worldwide. Nothing could stop them (insert manic laughter).
To test the waters, MOAM cloned itself twice, even adding the extra touch of making one of the clone groups female—that would really mess with those indie geeks. The clones, as well as the Alpha version, all went out on tour. The reign of terror had begun—or at least Man or Astro-Man? thought. But something was amiss. The fans rebelled. They didn’t want no stinkin’ clones; they wanted the real thing. It was like cloning kryptonite. They just couldn’t stand up to the glaring eyes and huffs of indignation behind those heavy clouds of Marlboro Light smoke.
“We really pissed some people off with that one. It was great,” says Alpha MOAM drummer Birdstuff. “Really, we’ve toured so much over the years, and it was the same cities, the same clubs, the same walls, and you could always count on the audience to be a certain way. So we thought we’d shake things up with this cloning process. It was great to see the reaction.”
Pulling odd stunts isn’t really anything new for the band, though. It’s been the band’s M.O. for years. MOAM’s stage show has always bordered on a psychotic episode—lights flashing, odd movies spinning, the band members acting like they just came off a Ritalin high. Recording isn’t much different, the band adding things like a Tesla coil into the mix or making an entire song out of nothing but a sampled dot-matrix printer (see “A Simple Text File”). And then there’re those names, like Birdstuff, Blazar the Probe Handler, Coco the Electronic Monkey Wizard and Trace Reading—think a group of superheroes, but we just don’t know their secret identities. Yet Birdstuff admits that the cloning thing was probably pushing it a bit to the extreme.
“Being on tour you just have too much time to come up with weird ideas,” he says. “But what separates us from all the other bands is that we’re the ones who follow up on them. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. But it’s never dull.”
It’s been the key to MOAM’s longevity. The group was originally supposed to last only a few gigs and a single. Ticked off about the generic feel of the early-’90s Auburn, Alabama punk scene where the members grew up—“A lot of bands were trying to sound like the trendy band of the moment,” Birdstuff says—the four college friends decided to combine their powers to, if not destroy evil, screw with it a bit. The only problem: No one could sing. The logical solution: instrumental guitar rock laced with punk attitude and surf dreams.
“It was like a big middle finger to everything,” Birdstuff says. “We got to get away from having a singer with all those sappy lyrics and still be kinda punk.”
They started playing shows. But not normal shows. Freaky shows. Things were always going on. You couldn’t really see the band. “We wanted to be misunderstood and annoying,” Birdstuff says. “We wanted people to walk into a room and go, ‘What the hell band is this?’” But the weirder the group got, the more people started showing up. Man or Astro-Man? even sold out of the 1,000 copies of its debut single. People were digging it.
“It’s funny, because we’re really a band based on hatred of a scene and a town. It’s bizarre that people actually like it.”
In fact, nearly a decade later, Man or Astro-Man? has become an underground legend. They proved that it’s not only possible for an inside joke to become a successful touring band, but that it’s also possible to make it a career. Sure, none of the band’s 11 albums and countless EPs have gone gold, but they’ve sold enough. The gigs are always packed. And they’ve survived, outliving contemporaries like Shadowy Men from a Shadowy Planet and Mono Men by years.
And the group is still making mind-bending music. MOAM’s last proper album, 2000’s A Spectrum of Infinite Scale—a B-sides album, Beyond the Black Hole (Touch & Go), was released this year—is a twisted amalgam of funky beats, surf-tinged guitars, symphonic samples and odd sounds that leave your skull vibrating. White noise clashes with flashes of melody. It’s like DJ Shadow suddenly got hold of a lot of old Dick Dale records and went to work splicing and dicing, adding in dissonant guitars whenever he felt like it. Tracks like “Song of the Two-Mile Linear Particle Accelerator Stanford University, Stanford, California” are raw and twisted. Others, like “Many Pieces of Large Fuzzy Mammals Gathered Together at a Rave and Schmoozing With a Brick” are more scattered and cerebral, forcing you to struggle a bit to make the social commentary connection—it’s there, trust me. Songs buzz by, leaving only a groove-heavy trace pattern. The vocals: never missed. For Birdstuff, it’s the perfect Man or Astro-Man? album.
“I don’t have any preconceptions that we’re going to make a Blood on the Tracks or a Pet Sounds. In the long-term, I think we’re more like Paul Revere & the Raiders, really. But that record is honest and sounds like the band. There’s nothing different on there to grow our audience or anything. It’s the music we’re into and it’s what we do. If people like it, great. If not, we’ll keep on doing what we’re doing for as long as we can.” u
Man or Astro-Man? Liquid Joe’s, 1249 E. 3300 South, 467-JOES, Monday Dec. 17, 9:30 p.m.