Photo by Chiara Corsaro
Interview with vocalist and guitarist Leftenant AR-7, bassist Chief Engineer Atom Bomb, synth player Professor Greg Arius, vocalist and guitarist Commander Angel Nova, and drummer Major Jimmy Boom
By John B. Moore
The Bay Area punk/glam/garage collective The Phenomenauts have been churning out their self-christened “Rocket Roll” for close to 15 years now. And although it’s been six years since their last full- length, the band of punk rock robots and scientists have been soldiering on with EPs, tours and a spectacular showing at the year’s Punk Rock Bowling (third place!).
It’s been a few years since the last record. What has the band been up to in the meantime? Any changes to the line up since the Electric Sheep EP?
Leftenent AR7: We’ve been touring all over the US and Europe with a lot of great bands, like The Re-Volts, Prima Donna, The World/Inferno Friendship Society, The Creepshow, The Rezillos, Mad Sin, The Slackers, and more I can’t even remember.
Chief Engineer Atom Bomb: Can’t remember? What kinda robot can’t remember stuff?
Leftenent AR7: Don’t blame me, blame the Professor. He programmed me…
Professor Greg Arius: I have spent a lot of time working on getting the bugs out of our AR7 Unit. We recently upgraded his firmware to the AR7.1 operating system, and unfortunately he’s still a little bit broken.
Leftenent AR7: I’m sitting right here you know.
Commander Angel Nova: Anyway, blah, blah, blah we have a robot. We also added Engineer Bomb on the Stand-Down™ Bass since the last record. It’s a Phenomenaut-designed futuristic low-frequency generator.
Chief Engineer Atom Bomb: It’s a pain to play, but at least it looks cool.
Major Jimmy Boom: We’ve also been bowling in the Punk Rock Bowling Festival every year. All of our practice paid off this year because we came in third out of 250 teams!
Leftenent AR7: Yeah the Professor has spent a lot of time in the lab perfecting his roll. Funny how he didn’t program me to be a better bowler.
Professor Greg Arius: I did, but you keep screwing up anyway!
Commander Angel Nova: We made this great video a couple years ago that was a tribute to our favorite scientist, Neil deGrasse Tyson called “I’m With Neil.” He actually posted about it a bunch of times online, so it was pretty cool. He said it flattered him AND creeped him out, which is pretty much what we go for.
Major Jimmy Boom: And we had a really awesome comic book come out that was written by Rich Fogel (Pinky & The Brain, Batman: The Animated Series) and illustrated by a bunch of really talented artists.
Professor Greg Arius: In addition to all that, we helped in the secret project to divert the giant asteroid that nearly crushed the earth that no one knew happened.
Chief Engineer Atom Bomb: Shhhh… still not supposed to talk about that!
Leftenent AR7: And Greg successfully completed his human cloning project, with a little bit of help from his wife.
Major Jimmy Boom: What else?
Commander Angel Nova: Lots and lots of drinking.
For those not familiar with how the band first came to be in Earth’s Capital, can you give me a rundown?
Chief Engineer Atom Bomb: In the WW2 manufacturing revolution Oakland drew a lot of skilled laborers with tons of talent and a can-do attitude to match. There’s a mixture of a lot of ethnicities; it truly is the melting pot of America, which is really the most diverse country in the world. These days it has the correct mixture of artists and engineers that can take the human race forward into the 21st century.
Major Jimmy Boom: And the gravitational pull Earth’s capital naturally drew The Phenomenauts from the far corners of the world.
Commander Angel Nova: Yeah, The Phenomenauts all have iron rich blood, and we were drawn by the natural magnetism of Oakland’s Lake Merritt.
What can you tell me about the new record?
Leftenent AR7: It’s our most eclectic and dynamic record yet. We really went in some new directions.
Commander Angel Nova: Nude directions?
Leftenent AR7: We worked with an amazing engineer and co-producer, Denny Muller at The Static Room, and he gave us a lot of time to make this record. He wanted to make it great, just as much as we did. Since we didn’t have a time limit we were able to make some dense, layered songs. Then we used the mixing process to strip away a lot of the excess stuff we had been experimenting with. I think what’s left still feels lush, but not over-produced.
Chief Engineer Atom Bomb: We also spent a lot of time writing the songs on the record in a very collaborative way. For instance, one week we gave ourselves a homework assignment. We had to each bring in a new song to the next practice. And we all did it.
Commander Angel Nova: Except for Greg. [LAUGHS]
Professor Greg Arius: Hey, I was pretty busy taking care of my “human cloning project” thank you very much!
Commander Angel Nova: Yeah, nice excuse, loafer! But it was really cool. I think we wrote GI-581g, I Don’t Care Whether Earth is the Best, and One in Seven Billion Girl that week.
Professor Greg Arius: I was there for Broken Robot Jerk though!
Commander Angel Nova: Oh yeah, you and me and Señor Seven really screwed up that arrangement… For the better!
Kepi Ghoulie shows up on this album. When you wrote the song, did you know you wanted someone else to join in? Are there any other guests on the album?
Commander Angel Nova: That song (“When Greed Nearly Destroyed The World”) has this call-and-response between a man who’s just woken up from a couple hundred years of cryogenic sleep, and a scientist from the future. He tells the story of how the people of the future have finally abandoned the doomed state of capitalistic greed, and live in a Utopian, egalitarian, scientific society. And originally the rest of the band was singing that part.
Major Jimmy Boom: But at some point someone suggested that maybe we get Kepi to sing it. It seemed like a perfect fit because it’s so happy and peppy sounding. Who’s happier and peppier than Kepi?
Chief Engineer Atom Bomb: Morrissey?
Commander Angel Nova: Yeah, so we figured we couldn’t get Morrissey, so we called Kepi instead.
Leftenent AR7: That opened the door for more featured guest appearances. We’ve got David Hillyard from The Slackers playing some skronky baritone sax on GI-581g, and Vic Ruggiero from The Slackers doing a hilarious intro to Broken Robot Jerk.
Professor Greg Arius: And Judgment Day appear on the last track on the record, Just One Earth, making it the most epic thing we’ve ever done with their beautiful string arrangement.
Commander Angel Nova: Yeah, it made me cry the first time I heard it! The only other song that does that to me is sung by Kermit The Frog.
Have you set up tour plans around this new record yet?
Major Jimmy Boom: We’ve got some short West Coast and Southwest tours coming up throughout the summer, and then we’re hoping to do a full US Tour in support of ESCAPE VELOCITY in the fall, and Europe in November/December.
Chief Engineer Atom Bomb: And then next year a tour of the solar system’s outer moons: Enceladus, Titan, Oberon, Nereid, and Europa.
Commander Angel Nova: They love us on Europa. We wrote a song about them.
What’s next for the band?
Leftenent AR7: We’re doing a re-recording of I’m With Neil at The Static Room to be a special 7” single. We’ve actually corresponded with Mr. Tyson himself, and he has given us permission to use his likeness and voice in the recording. In gratitude for his awesomeness, we’ll be donating a portion of the sales from each record to charity on his behalf. It really was an honor to hear from him.
Commander Angel Nova: A SCIENCE and HONOR!
Leftenent AR7: Good one, Angel. And we’ll be making music videos for many of the songs from ESCAPE VELOCITY. The first one, for Broken Robot Jerk, is out now. Everyone should watch it so they know how to do the dance when they come to our shows.
Professor Greg Arius: And we’re always at The Command Center working on new things… new stage show elements, new gadgets, new robots to replace our malfunctioning robots…
Leftenent AR7: WHAT??!??
Professor Greg Arius: …you know, stuff like that.
Chief Engineer Atom Bomb: Right now we’re working on a human/lobster hybrid.
Major Jimmy Boom: It’s the new white meat!
Professor Greg Arius: Oh man, what kind of skeleton would it have? It might be all bones, on the inside and outside. An Endo-Exoskeleton!
Major Jimmy Boom: Would you eat it or befriend it?
Commander Angel Nova: I wouldn’t eat it because I’m vegetarian, but I would vivisect it and attach electrodes to its brain to find out how much pain it feels.
Major Jimmy Boom: It’s intelligent, but it smells like the docks!
Leftenent AR7: We also plan on being the first band to play in a black hole.
Professor Greg Arius: Wait til you hear it!
Commander Angel Nova: Wait til you see it!
Get your hands on Escape Velocity here: Physical | Digital