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Interview By Aaron PompeyEdit
It's the last night of the Teenage Pajamas from Outer Space Tour, and the Phenomenauts are onstage at the Henry Fonda Music Box Theatre in Hollywood. Several feet below the stage, in the venue's basement, Orange County band The Aquabats are sorting out some final details before they go on as the night's headliners.
Without his leotards, Paul Frank belt, and signature Dirty Sanchez mustache, MC Bat Commander's alter ego Christian Jacobs looks remarkably mild-mannered as he wipes off a small water bottle that's been sitting on ice and twists open the cap. Courtney Pollock, better known as Chainsaw to throngs of Aquacadets, looks over the various sandwiches and drinks that will sustain the Bats during what will be a high-energy set featuring heroes, villains, and a surprise cover of Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'." Despite this being the Bats first high-profile tour in several years - or perhaps because of it - Pollock is looking remarkably relaxed. He's been waiting a long time for this.
While the Bats have been touring consistently since the late 1990s, their fans endured a 6-year dry spell when, after releasing Myths, Legends, and Other Amazing Adventures, Vol. 2, Goldenvoice shut down its distribution arm - and any pending Bats projects. But last year, the band scored: they signed with Nitro Records, began recording a new album with producer Cameron Webb, and geared up for a national headlining gig on the Pajamas tour.
And the new album, Charge!!, is unlike anything the Bats have released. That said, it might also be the best album to date from a band whose music is all about resisting genre and embracing influence. The artistic success of Charge!! owes perhaps just as much to circumstance as it does to the band's more deliberate creative development. In fact, the forward strides evident on the new album are related directly to some of the challenges the Bats have faced over the past six years. Along the way, it's been the strong - and remarkably two-way - relationship between the band and its fans that's been critical to their current success.
In fact, to measure the success of the Aquabats by just tallying up album sales or the number of sold-out shows they've played over the past ten years would be to miss a key quantitative factor: the rich creative energy that characterizes the band's squad of Aquacadets - fans who demonstrate their devotion to the band by developing imaginative identities and costumes based on the band's mythos and unique backstory. Claiming to hail from the distant land of Aquabania, the Bats have created a universe that's looks shrewdly similar to a 1980s Saturday morning cartoon, and one in which the fans are often as much a part of the show as the Bats themselves.
Contributing to the band's mysterious, otherworldly image, are their individual names. Alongside MC Bat Commander and Chainsaw are current bandmates Ricky "Ricky Fitness" Falomir, Chad "Crash McLarson" Larson, James "Jimmy the Robot" Briggs, and Michael "Popeye" Vogelslang. Past members have included Adam "Prince Adam" Diebert, Boyd "Catboy" Terry, and Blink 182's Travis Barker who, while with the Bats, was known as "The Baron Von Tito."
Bats concerts are marked by, among other things, scores of rag-tag superheroes lined up outside, hours before a show. But these kids aren't dressing up like their favorite Bats. "Most of these kids out there are not dressing up like us," explains Chainsaw. "They're dressing up as their own characters."
"That's so much fun," adds Jimmy the Robot, "seeing the creative stuff all the kids come up with. It's awesome - they take the idea and run with it. Shoot - we even steal THEIR ideas from time to time. I mean, they're so good - they're so rad!"
The Bats are well aware that it is this cultish level of fandom that has helped sustain the band's popularity, but they also see it from the fans' point-of-view. "The fans have always been the same way," says Chainsaw. "They've always grasped onto the costume stuff - the fun aspect of going to shows with their friends - just being dorks and having fun. Showing up at 4:30 in the afternoon and sitting outside drinking Gatorade." As yet, there are no annual conventions or spin-off television shows, but this level of fandom is a pretty good indicator that the Bats will be around for awhile. "I guess it's kind of like the same reason why jam bands have a parking lot scene," Chainsaw muses, then laughs. "Well, I mean, they do DRUGS but - maybe the kids out front are doing drugs, I don't know. I don't care what they do - just come!"
Despite the band's reluctant 6-year break since their last album, the fans have kept coming. Their last album, Myths and Legends, had been the second album of a two-record deal with Goldenvoice Records. With the album's success, the label was eager to re-sign the Bats for additional projects. "We did the two records," recalls Chainsaw, "and then they were like 'Yeah, we want to do another deal' and then we were like 'Whatever, just let us know'." But after the first Coachella Music and Arts Festival in 1999, which Goldenvoice had underwritten, the company faced some financial difficulties.
Despite the festival's overwhelming turnout, its role in resurrecting a floundering music industry, and its spectacular line-up of bands that included Beck, Jane's Addiction, Jurassic 5, Sigur Ros, Super Furry Animals, and Weezer, Coachella had not turned a reasonable profit and Goldenvoice had to do some fast reshuffling. "The first Coachella was awesome. Now it's like - it is what it is. It's saved everything. But the first two or three, I think, weren't moneymakers," Chainsaw remembers. "They had to kind of switch gears, as far as their business plan, and kind of close the doors on their label." And despite their untimely departure, the Bats have maintained a good relationship with Goldenvoice. "They're still involved with the band," assures Chainsaw. "They still help us out."
After Goldenvoice Records closed its doors in early 2000, the Bats' momentum slowed. "There was just no label interest," says Chainsaw. "We were just kind of a band that did pretty good for awhile and then we were just in the background - just kept playing shows." In addition to playing a series of local shows, the Bats maintained a solid presence on the web. "We did tons and tons of website stuff," notes Chainsaw.
In 2003, the Bats released Serious Awesomeness!, a DVD packed with live performances, music videos, and tons of extras. After not seeing anything by the Bats in over three years, the DVD only made fans more restless. Then, in 2004, the Bats self-released the EP Yo, Check Out This Ride!. But their objective remained simple. "We were basically looking for someone that could put out a record." Their consistency eventually paid off when, in 2004, the band signed with Nitro, joining the likes of AFI, Bullet Train to Vegas, The Damned, and The Offspring.
As the Bats prepared to offer their fans a brand new album, they were also about to unveil the result of some of their latest musical experiments. In fact, the EP was a preview for what was up next for the Bats. In their reviews of Yo, Check Out This Ride!, some disappointed critics had lamented the band's artistic departure from their 90s-era ska sound. But after drummer Travis Barker left to join Blink 182, the size and line-up of the Bats had undergone a series of changes. "We'd been trying to find other ways to incorporate our horn section," remembers Chainsaw, "and then, literally one by one, people quit. Prince Adam quit last year. Boyd quit two years ago. So, there are our trumpet players gone." The departure of both Diebert and Terry hastened some of the band's experiments with new instrumentation.
Unlike many post-90s purist ska bands, the Bats didn't necessarily face an identity crisis when the genre's popularity began to wane. Instead, they welcomed the opportunity to rethink their direction. "I think it was mainly circumstance but - I have to be honest - there was a percentage of consciously deciding," says Chainsaw. "The typical ska band has a horn line, a melody, and a vocal part. But the way we always had horns was kind of not like -" Chainsaw interrupts himself to makes some frenetic ska horn sounds. "The way we always wrote with horns in our band," he continues, "we always felt was different than, let's say like maybe Save Ferris or something like that. And not that Save Ferris would even compare themselves with us."
Because the band was already looking for more flexibility, they were willing to work with what was left. Jimmy the Robot, whose sax had lent richness to the sharp sounds of the trumpets, began to experiment more with both the sax and the keyboards. "When Jimmy moved on to the keys, all the horn stuff that we wanted to do came out through the keyboards," Chainsaw explains. "But also, my man plays a mean sax. So there's a sax on stage every night. The horn section's there, it's just not as full, maybe."
Chainsaw thinks for a moment, then continues. "But you can't really have a horn section with only sax. I mean the sax is so deep and so bold, but it's not, well, it's not three horns, it's only one horn. It doesn't cut the same. So we kind of had to make do."
"I would love it if Prince Adam and Boyd were here," Chainsaw says, "but they had to do other things. Just like everyone else has to do what they gotta do."
As excited as they are about the sound on the new album, the band has not outgrown their previous work. "The part I miss is the dueling trumpets - the Mariachi sound we used to get. I really miss that," admits Chainsaw. "But what are you going to do? Economics comes into play - we can't pay everybody. I mean, maybe someday we can pay a Mariachi band to play the old parts. I would love to hear that." So would some of their fans. "Last night, we played in San Diego. A huge group of TJ kids came down - or came up, I should say! - and they were just the best. It was seriously so cool to meet those kids - and they were talking about the old trumpet lines and stuff like that. They were asking the same questions - 'was it circumstance?' or 'was it planned?' or 'what happened to so-and-so?'"
Beyond their changing circumstances - a shrinking line-up and artistic choices that are forging a new path - there is a pragmatism that plays into the band's creative evolution. "Honestly, when you're getting older and you want to at least come home with something and not have to pay fourteen guys, it's hard. So you just kind of go 'Okay, well, let's just do what we got and deal with who wants to do it.' I mean, that's the honest-to-god truth."
From a distance, the Aquabats may look like they rode into the new millennium on the same boat as bands like No Doubt, Save Ferris, or Dance Hall Crashers. But the Bats have also been a world apart from most of their so-called peers. As fans and critics have begun sampling the new album, that distinction has become more apparent. "I've read so many reviews," Chainsaw says, smiling. "And most of them - 75% of them - start out with 'I tried to hate this - but I don't.' You know what I mean? I'm stoked to hear that. Honestly, I read that a lot: 'I tried not to like this' or 'I tried to be biased toward the whole they-lost-the-horn-section thing.' A lot of ska bands have tried the ska-is-not-as-cool-so-let's-get-rid-of-the-horns'."
"We just made a record and tried really, really hard. I'm not going to lie to you - we tried really, really hard. We worked with a great producer and we got on a great label. It's pretty awesome. It's a really good situation. Everybody's really happy."
So, what does the new album sound like? After the horn-heavy Myths and Legends, Charge!! just seems to tilt slightly toward the band's punk roots. In fact, the change in sound is remarkably smooth. The result? "It cuts pretty good," notes Jimmy the Robot. "It's pretty nonstop. It's pretty relentless. It just comes swinging from beginning to end." Chainsaw agrees. "We had this luxury this time where we got to the end of the recording and we had more songs than we needed on the record, so we could trim the fat a little bit. And what we're left with is just screaming the whole time."
"The only record of ours that I've ever left in my car and listened to all the time is this record," confesses Chainsaw, laughing. "It's weird - I still listen to it in the car sometimes. All the other records I've really liked, but I'm not going to listen to them."
A band's creative development must be deliberate or it isn't genuine. And achieving that kind of authenticity ultimately requires the kind of insight that sometimes can only develop over time. "As you grow up, as you get older, you start to see why you like certain records, right? Or you see why you like certain bands that you saw live. Because before, I couldn't put together, like, 'Why is this band so good?' or 'What is it?' or 'Why do they sound so good?' or 'Why did that show not bore me?' or 'Why does this record not bore me?' I think that's what it is. We kind of learned how to not bore people - or bore ourselves."
But growing up doesn't mean forgetting the past. In fact, the Bats - whose line-up includes a range of ages (the oldest, Crash, is about to turn 40) - have always spent a lot of time introducing each other to different styles and eras of music. "There's a lot of time span of influences that everybody's kind of taught each other," notes Chainsaw. "You learn a lot of different styles - not so much styles, I guess. We all like rock and punk and ska and reggae...It's not really like we have these broad influences." One of their influences, certainly, is Oingo Boingo. Chainsaw laughs loudly. "They've always said we sound like Oingo Boingo. But on this record were, like, so Oingo Boingo. But I don't care. I really don't."
Another band who the Bats identify with, perhaps on a more visceral level, is the Ramones. "Have you ever seen the Ramones documentary?" Chainsaw asks, referring to the 2004 doc Ramones Raw. "It sounds cheesy, but we watch that all the time. I feel like - not to compare any percentage at all of us to the Ramones - but these guys went through years and years and years in one kind of level. I feel like that's where we're at - we've been kind of stuck in this one level, and I think we're really comfortable with that."
"I guess we could be in much bigger places," he continues, "or selling more records, or - I don't know what could happen, but everybody's really stoked and proud of what's happened so far. Especially doing something so far away from our last record."
The Bats' focus is evident on what many critics are calling their most cohesive project. "I think a lot of it has to do with Cameron Webb - he's the guy who produced it and he owns the studio that we did it at. And he's just like - he's not a super-demanding guy, like everything has to be perfect, but he really works on things sounding like they belong together."
Webb, whose production credits include Limp Biskit, Motorhead, and Social Distortion, recorded the Bats at his Maple Studios in Orange County and describes his collaborative experience with the band as uniquely inspiring - attributing the craziest sound he's ever gotten in the studio to Chainsaw. "I was recording guitar with Courtney," Webb recounts, "and he asked for me to get the most fucked up sound I could get. So I ran a mic from his API mic pre and turned it all the way up. When that wasn't good enough, I ran it through another pre and did the same. It sounded great and inspired an amazing solo."
Chainsaw offers another explanation for the album's cohesion. "All the songs were kind of written for this album - it wasn't like a bunch of old songs we wrote five years ago and decided 'Oh, by the way, this is a good song'. I think 'The Fury' was spread out - the songwriting was spread out - over kind of a long time, but a lot of songwriting was really close together. So that maybe helped."
"It was basically the same group of people, too," adds Jimmy. "Because on any other record, it was like four different groups putting songs together. Even, obviously, Myths and Legends."
With Jimmy and Crash on main songwriting duties, the rest of the band stepped up to make this one count. "If we were going to make another record," Jimmy recalls, "we might as well make one that we liked. So we just went to town and that was that. The record could not have been done if it wasn't every person in the band - if every person in the band wasn't there, there's no way. It's so good. The way it worked out, I'm so happy."
"We didn't really even think about it, or have a business plan about how to make a record," Chainsaw observes. "We just wanted to make one more. It was either do or die - really. Now we're like 'Let's make one MORE!'"
Having just completed both the Teenage Pajamas From Outer Space and Son Of Teenage Pajamas From Outer Space tours, the Bats will soon be heading out for tour in both the UK and Japan. The new album, Charge!!, is available now on Nitro.