What do you get when you combine hot guys, insane musical talent and a bent towards Big-Bang-Theory-like geekiness that loves science and space? The Phenomenauts, coming to a space station near you. From London to San Francisco to The Static Room recording studio in Oakland, Cali., The Phenomenauts are like a fine wine that only gets better with time and age, though they'd be the first to tell you Pabst Blue Ribbon is more their style. With a live show that explodes on the stage amid primary colors and smoke and manic energy that exudes the aura of a deck on the Starship Enterprise, this punkabilly rock band combines the upbeat, happy, dance vibrations of the 1950s with an '80s thrash that somehow manages to sound like they brought it back to us from the future out of the recesses of outer space from an unexplored final frontier and gave us something fresh and new and exciting.
And this isn't just image with these guys. They live by the motto "Science and Honor" in their private lives as well, as Commander Angel Nova, co-lead vocals and guitar, demonstrates The Phenomenauts' signature salute with a fist to the chest, followed by an upward forefinger point, ending with their manifesto "Honest search for honest reality." Lieutenant AR7, robot crewmember, who's "programmed" to do vocals and guitar explains of their latest record, currently being recorded at sound engineer and producer Denny Muller's studio, The Static Room in Oakland, adds, "Lyrically, we're pretty much outing ourselves as atheists." In fact, all the songs on the album are laden with references to science and space, and a not-so-subtle aversion to religion.
Stepping away from the pure rockabilly music of their previous albums, the new record is described as "more diverse, best rock-n-roll from the last sixty years," with the more polished, pop-punk, clean and controlled futuristic style of "Infinity Plus One," an early 80s similarity that is part disco, part rock, with a heavy emphasis on drums. "Rocket Soul" is a punkabilly song with fast hooks, strong bass, and guitar riffs that are right at home at a Chubby Checkers-led sock hop. These are just two examples of the songs they were working on while I played fly-on-the-wall in the studio.
The night began on the roof at The Static Room, just hanging out amid a 360 degree view of downtown Oakland, surrounded by the San Francisco Bay and the hills in the distance, as the members of The Phenomenauts gradually straggled in and photographer Natalie Nesser casually took photos of whatever inspired her. Once everyone was assembled, minus the drummer, Major Jimmy Boom, who was purportedly at his other job "parking spaceships," and photos were done, we moved below into the main room that held the mixing board and recording equipment; and I took a seat on the couch and took notes while they laid vocals for the new songs. The contrast between Angel's relaxed ease and confidence at the mic and AR7's intense determination to get it perfect emphasized a team that compliments each other's strengths while neutralizing any weaknesses.
Check out this early rough mix of "Rocket Soul" off The Phenomenauts soon-to-be-released new record, posted with permission:
While Angel and AR7 laid vocals on their individual pieces for the songs, Agent Ion, chaos engineer and keyboardist, passed the time by reading a book on a Nook nestled inside a hollowed-out book, symbolic of the band's nostalgia for the past as they embrace technology for the future. After a hard night of space exploration, the guys were hungry and ready to relax, so we walked over to Rudy's Can't Fail Cafe to do the actual interview. Seated at a private booth in the back with retro music playing over us, AR7 hit the dial on the speaker and turned the music up until it felt like we had traveled back in time to the set of a 1950's diner after a night at the drive-in theater. The only thing missing was the waitress on roller skates.
So I began the questions. I asked them what the title of the new record was and they told me it's being decided by an online fundraiser fan contest. A dollar per vote and so far "Eagles Greatest Hits" is in the lead. When I asked them if they were worried it would win and they'd get sued, they laughed and dismissed it as a non-issue. They then talked about their additional DIY fundraising campaign to raise the funds that are paying for studio time to produce the record and cover the next tour, and the video that looks like a 1950s news reel they recently released online to help promote it. And then the food arrived and everybody dug in.
Time for the fun stuff. Are you guys really into sci-fi movies, gadgets, science? Yes. What's your favorite sci-fi movie? This one stumps them for a moment until Chief Engineer Atom Bomb breaks the silence and asks "Is Idiocracy considered sci-fi?" If it is, then I'd have to put that movie at the top of my list too, so he adds, "If not Idiocracy, then Brazil," spurring the others to top it. "Back To The Future" from AR7; "Gattaca" from Professor Greg Arius; "Muppets From Space" from Agent Ion and everybody laughs; "Iron Giant" from Commander Angel Nova; as they all debated the virtues of one movie over another.
At the end of the interview, just before we left, Atom Bomb turned the Q&A around and asked me which I liked better, Star Trek or Star Wars. The room got quiet as every member of the band stared at me with a mixture of dread I'd say the wrong thing, and hope I wouldn't let them down. I answered with Star Trek. Noting the collective sigh of relief, I'm pretty sure they approved.
The Phenomenauts Presents:
Operation Album Launch
2013 fundraising effort to support their tour and studio time to record the new album
The Phenomenauts at The Static Room, slideshow by Natalie Nesser, published with permission: