WONKA VISION MAGAZINE
Interview: The Phenomenauts
Move on over, Bill Nye! You’ve been replaced by The Phenomenauts, a band that educates and entertains the masses with its own brand of rocket-roll, a musical style that cuts and splices poppy new wave hooks, punk guitars and rockabilly jams and compounds them with lessons and stories straight out of a college-level science course.
Fresh off a six-week tour promoting its latest release, “For All Mankind,” one might expect the band to be burnt out on putting on a show night after night, each time to a different set of faces. Quite the opposite. The collective members are back with new memories as fodder to keep on keeping on, albeit accompanied by a bittersweet, nostalgic feeling.
“There is a doubled-edged sword that comes from touring,” says Major Jimmy Boom, the resident drummer. “On one hand, you get to see friends and family that would otherwise be impossible to see, but you only get a few hours at each stop before the inevitable ‘goodbyes’.”
Still, there are things about touring that make it all worthwhile.
“My favorite thing about playing…is seeing all these crazy space outfits the fans have made themselves,” says Boom, who confesses he relies on sugar some nights to keep him high on energy.
And then there is the interaction between the bands themselves. On this most recent tour, The Phenomenauts were accompanied by fellow residents of Earth’s Capital, the Oakland, Calif.-based Maldroid, along with Philadelphia’s The A.K.A.s.
“Our experience touring with The Phenomenauts was nothing short of amazing,” bassist Sean Shippley says. “Twelve guys packed into a tour bus makes for some pretty hilarious moments.”
The band draws its sound from obvious influences including Devo and the Stray Cats, to the slightly more obscure Chuck Berry. In the tradition of They Might Be Giants, the band sings educational and informational songs, which results in every tune being chock full of imagery spanning from space exploration and the solar system to technology and robots. In fact, Commander Angel Nova, the band’s primary singer and guitarist, derives a huge chunk of inspiration from “Why Does The Sun Shine? (The Sun Is a Mass of Incandescent Gas)”, a song written by Tom Glazer and popularized by They Might Be Giants. The first time he heard the lyrics, it made him want to write music that teaches its listeners.
“It’s definitely fun,” Nova says of the band. “And we want it to be fun and we love it to be fun. But it’s a combination of serious undertones…we try to get people into it with the fun aspect, and they love it, and then they start to notice the deeper part of it and maybe they’ll learn a thing or two.”
This unique and contagious mixture is what caught the attention of Avi Ehrlich, founder and owner of Springman Records and Silver Sprocket Labs. He had heard bits and pieces about the band, but once he saw them perform in 2002, he knew he wanted to work with them.
“The first time I saw The Phenomenauts, they had snuck into a warehouse punk show and set up their own battery-powered equipment in back, without asking anyone or even letting the promoter or any of the other bands know,” Ehrlich says. “Then they played a short renegade set between bands, packed up, and left. They were one of the most fun bands I’d ever seen, and I loved how ballsy they were, just going at it like that, not even waiting to get booked on good shows but just deciding to play them.”
The daring, creative and spontaneous nature of the band is inspiring for artists who have shared the stage with them.
“The Phenomenauts forced us to step our live performances up due to their amazing live show,” Shippley says. “We became a better [live] band because of them.”
But the inspiring dynamism of the group goes both ways.
“Sometimes, the stars line up as [they] did for the last tour, where you find yourself standing in the front row and singing along to the bands that are actually opening for [you],” Boom says.
While on tour, the band played four shows in Texas, stopping in at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, to catch a glimpse of the behind-the-scenes going-ons at NASA. The visit was arranged by Shippley, whose father is a former communication engineer for NASA. “NASA was absolutely amazing,” Boom says. “Meeting Flight Commanders and Mission Controllers has been a dream for all The Phenomenauts.”
Nova’s eyes light up as he describes how in the control room, the band was able to watch what the International Space Station camera sees as its speeds through the atmosphere at 17,210 miles per hour.
“I really believe that when people tell me NASA’s a waste of money, if you look at stupid armed conflicts around the world that are just, you know, just a sinkhole for money, and it brings misery, that’s worth it?” Nova questions. “It that worth it or is it worth it to go exploring the cosmos?”
The visit to NASA inspired all the members by reinforcing the band’s reality and providing them with ideas and inspiration for new material. “It’s the pioneering spirit,” Nova says. “That is not a waste of money. They could spend a gazillion dollars and it’s not a waste. It’s the furtherance of mankind, and it’s noble and it’s good. That’s something I can super get behind.”
The Phenomenauts’ backing of NASA isn’t without reciprocation. Later this year, “Infinite Frontier,” a song off the new album, will be played on the International Space Station to wake up the astronauts on board, something that makes Nova excited at a mere mention.
Past the playful façade, the band’s sanguine ideology permeates its mission and music, making the Phenomenauts the number one priority for all five members. When asked whether he thought any of the members would ever want to create a different kind of music, Nova is swift to emphasize the spirit of solidarity.
“Everyone in the band loves the band,” he says. “We all love what we do. We all believe in the future and we all believe in science and honor, like, actually believe it.”
They believe it so much so that when a tattoo shop in Canton, Ohio, closed its doors for a few hours and invited the band in, some of the members got free tattoos. The decision to ink themselves with spaceships, cogs and badges wasn’t something done noncommittally, rather it was testament to how invested in The Phenomenauts all five members are.
“[They] are my favorite band to work with,” Ehrlich says. “Everything we do internally feels like I’m in an old spy movie or working for NASA…[it’s] right in line with what the band puts out publically on stage, or elsewhere. Even if we don’t actually go into space, this is real. The Phenomenauts keeps being Phenomenauts when they go about their daily lives, and their excitement and dedication is very contagious.”
The same unifying spirit embodied in The Phenomenauts is carried through to fans, who come from all walks of life. In the crowd at any given show, it’s not unusual to see an amalgamation of children and parents, young and old. Yet admittedly, the band’s tried and true gimmick and emphasis on elaborate presentation is not everyone’s cup of tea
“Angel, not everybody likes chocolate”
“Some people don’t like us,” the ever quirky but quick-witted Nova says. “Usually it’s cause they don’t like our musical style…It used to bum me out and then one of my friends told me, ‘Angel, not everybody likes chocolate.’ And I was like, ‘Hey yeah, not everybody likes chocolate. You can’t get mad if someone doesn’t like chocolate!’”
Still, when asked what kind of fan he would like to reach, Nova smiles and opens his mouth without hesitation.
“Sexy girls,” he says. “’Cause with them comes everybody else. Everybody wants to hang out with the sexy girls. Plus it’s fun to look at when you’re rockin’ out.”
And with this album, The Phenomenauts are hopeful that they’ll grab the attention of some new listeners, and maybe those listeners will learn a thing or two from them. That hope is what carries Nova and the other band members through their days and keeps them going through good and bad.
“You can’t love the idea of the future without being optimistic,” Nova says.