The Phenomenauts

What can you say about a band with its own videogame?

The Phenomenauts are an Oakland band that play a blend of rockabilly and punk which they describe as “Rocket Roll.” A little Devo, a little Revillos and a lot of fun, they hit the scene in 2000 when they snuck into the Vans Warped Tour and proceeded to impress reviewers, fellow performers and organizers enough to be invited back the following year.

They have a reputation of putting on a great live show, so I was excited to finally get a chance to see them. Along with four other bands, they were part of a lineup called “Plastic!” at the Bottom of the Hill, billed as a night of 80’s Punk Rock and New Wave, but clearly having a genre bent. I arrived late to find the Rock and Roll Adventure Kids, purveyors of “Fried Chicken Rock ’n’ Roll,” already on stage. They were fun and loud and at first I thought they were simply making up their steam-of-consciousness-sounding song titles. But apparently “Boobies, Rock ’n’ Roll, Hot Dog and a Jelly Roll” is actually the name of a song. They set the tone quite nicely and the next two bands maintained the energy, the lead singer of the Teenage Harlets in particular when he dove into the mosh pit and disappeared into the crowd for some minutes, all while keeping ahold of his microphone and continuing the song.

The club was packed, and only the front of the crowd had formed a small and more or less contained mosh pit, but I stayed safely on the sidelines anyway. It was hard not to admire the energy both on and off stage. The third band, the Groovie Ghoulies out of Sacramento, was a little bit calmer, mostly staying on stage—though at least one audience member made it on stage during their set to stage dive. The Ghoulies where more Horror-themed, naturally, veering towards Dickies or Cramps territory. They played a great cover of “Pet Sematary” that I liked better than the original, as well as a crowdpleaser called “Till Death Do Us Party.” They ended their set with R.E.M’s “It’s the End of the World as We Know it (And I Feel Fine),” a lovely segue for the (retro)futuristic rock ’n’ roll of the band I was there to see: The Phenomenauts.

The crowd was having a ball already but clearly anticipation for this band was high: Half the audience was wearing Phenomenauts t-shirts, including me. Even if they had sucked it would have been impossible for me to resist the rocket-in-atom logo shirt bearing the band’s slogan, “Science and Honor,” especially at the extraordinarily reasonable price of $12. Excited by the bargain I added some logo patches, buttons, and a nifty wings pin to the pile and it still didn’t hit $20.

Not having seen the band play live I wasn’t sure if they always performed in full uniform or reserved that for special occasions, so I was pleased to see the stagehands setting up some gloriously sci fi mic stands, a glow in the dark grid backdrop, and a bunch of other stage props. Every time there was a lull in the between-acts tinned music, the entire crowd would lean forward in anticipation and eventually they were rewarded when the lights dropped way down low and the band members took their places on stage. When the lights came up the crowd went nuts and so did the band. They were in full space cadet regalia: Professor Greg Arius in white and red, Captain Chreehos, Major Jimmy Boom, Corporal Joe Bot and Commander Angel Nova all wearing black and red, each with his own special accessories, the best of which is Joe Bot’s half-face silver helmet. This is a band that seriously needs to have some action figures made of them.

Starting off strong with “I Am Robot,” they played songs that were clearly favorites with the crowd, which sang along while still moshing their be-dickie’d psychobilly asses off. Highlights included “Galactic Pioneers,” “Progress vs. Pettiness,” and of course, “Rocket Roll,” every single one an absolute blast and on its way onto my iTunes even as I type this.

Not content to simply rock the house, they also blasted the audience with smoke machines and at one point Professor Arius shot the delighted crowd with the “streamarator,” a modified leaf-blower that shoots toilet paper rolls. After their last song, a short mix of exit music played, including a few seconds of the “The Space Academy Marching Song” from Tom Corbett: Space Cadet. I had to laugh, since I recognized the tune from having heard it during opening ceremonies at ConJose.

Although there was one more band, The Epoxies—also science fictionally inclined, though without the retro sensibilities of the Phenomenauts—I was up past my bedtime on a work night, so I decided to end on a high note and call it a night.

~España Sheriff

SF/SF Issue #42, April 7, 2007