Man or Astroman’s forever drummer Birdstuff talks turkey about their undersung, Albini-produced 2000 album A Spectrum of Infinite Scale at 20
I bought the debut album from instrumental space age surf rock masters Man or Astroman? in 1993 because I loved the Richard Powers painting on its cover.
As an object of art it was worth the price of admission. But when I got home and peeled the shrinkwrap off, I was propelled into a land of lo-fi surf punk, punctuated by hilarious samples from a host of sci-fi B-movies. My admiration only grew when I began catching their ferocious live shows.
Throughout the ‘90s, MOA? defined prolific. Five proper albums, dozens of singles, split 7”, comp tracks, and a relentless tour schedule made them one of the hardest working bands in the underground, and set them up as inadvertent kings of the surf/garage scene. That also meant leveling up from Estrus records to a fruitful relationship with Touch & Go.
By 1998 the band had reached a crossroads. Pyrotechnic guitarist Star Crunch (aka Brian Causey) left the group to focus on his record label. He was replaced with new blood from MOA?’s Clone Projects—entire bands created to perform Astroman material on tour in different parts of the world simultaneously.
VIDEO: Man Or Astroman? Clone Project at Sudsy Malone’s 1998
Blazar the Probe Handler (Richie Edelson) added dissonant guitar and additional samples. Trace Reading (Erich Hubner) brought a type of heavy, muscular studio musicianship. Prior to being Clones, the two had previously played together in Toenut, and became full-fledged Astromen just as the band was preparing to grow far beyond its surf punk roots.
Today, founding drummer Birdstuff (Brian Teasley) is slowly amassing material for the group’s second album since reforming the original trio in 2010. When not on tour, he manages and books a venue in Birmingham, appropriately named Saturn.
Teasley spoke with me about the band’s transition into a more experimental space rock unit as they crashed their high mileage van fleet through the barrier of the new millennium.
“We had done a record,” says Teasley by phone, “with the second version of Man or Astroman?, which was EEVIAC. We were kinda trying to sound like the old version of the band then also be like twice as weird. I like bits of that record but it doesn’t flow very well.”
It makes perfect sense that there would be a hiccup when changing lineups. Whether or not the group felt pressured by fans or critics to continue making the same album over and over, their own muse led them to Chicago to create an anomaly in their catalog, the year 2000 opus A Spectrum of Infinite Scale.
“So we knew we wanted to make kind of a record that was ‘out there’ and we had actually done a version of it. We went to [Steve Albini’s studio] Electrical Audio.”
There the band intended to piece things together in the studio.
Lack of preparation, and recording in the large B room led to issues, though. Fast music doesn’t always track well with too much room sound. Says Teasley, “…It sounded kinda muddy and weird, but the biggest problem was our performances weren’t superb-–but what it ended up being, for us, was a really grandiose, nicely done demo of the record. We’d never done demos or anything like that, or if we had they were accidental.”
That experience became a boon when crafting such a unique, sonically conceptual album. At the same time, longtime MOA? bassist Coco the Electronic Monkey Wizard (Rob DelBueno) was in the process of relocating the band’s home studio Zero Return.
“The stressful part,” says Teasley, “was we were moving our studio from the middle of fucking nowhere down a dirt road in Alabama to a nice proper space in Atlanta. So we had talked to Steve [Albini] and we’re like ‘Come down here and make this the first record at the new Zero Return in Atlanta’ and he was like ‘I’m down.’”
The year 2000 was long before the shipping container craze, but according to Teasley, Rob “…got two of those, welded them together, pulled them up by himself on a forklift onto like concrete pillars, and that was the control room looking down onto the live room. So it wasn’t just like, ‘oh let’s put a tape machine in a garage’ or something. It was a major build out for Rob.”
Luckily they were able to enlist the expertise of their benevolent producer. Teasley explains that assembling the new Zero Return “…was super stressful and we didn’t quite get the studio done. It was just kind of wacky, smoke and mirrors. Growing up, even though we had recorded so much with Steve, he was always like the older kid to us. So we always looked up to him in this way. But he kinda got on board and started helping us finish [the studio]. And it was cool because it was just so bare bones. [Making] that record is all we focused on day in day out.”
Unlike on so many other Man or Astroman? albums, there are no kitschy movie samples leading the tracks on A Spectrum of Infinite Scale. The first song, “Pathway to the Infinite” fades in with the sound of a blooming gong, then a mid-tempo rock drum beat kicks into gear. To date, it was the biggest drum production the band had enjoyed.
“A big part of that distorted crazy sound is my parent’s video camera from the early ‘80s with a tape in it rolling, and a Direct Out of the camera,” says Teasley. “It causes this compression that squashed the frequencies as well as the volume and then kind of expand it out. I think the actual audio engineering term is compansion. It was a super cool sound. It was really hot, too. It would clip really easily. If you hear the end of that first song you’ll hear the videotape kind of ‘fp fp fp’ rolling and that gong still ringing out because of that compression.”
“Song of the Two-Mile Linear Particle Accellerator” is next. A somewhat proper surf rock number, it’s the first of many epically titled tunes on Spectrum. After thirty seconds of ambient shortwave intro, “Preparation Cont” is a bit more of the same: high-energy rock delivering some rehydrated meat and potatoes for devotees, albeit with a mid-song herky-jerky breakdown.
Track five, “Curious Constructs of Stem-Like Devices Which Now Prepare Themselves to Be Thought of as Fingers” is a slow burn monster that betrays the influence of some of Man or Astroman’s tour partners from that era.
“People always ask, ‘What do you guys listen to, what influenced you?’” says Teasley. “And a lot of times it’s the bands you tour with. You’re seeing the same bands night after night. And we had come off touring with Dianogah, Blonde Redhead, Don Cab, Trans Am…so obviously like the proggier more experimental stuff kinda creeps into our thing probably like our thing creeped into some of the other people’s stuff.”
The hard-hitting “Um Espectro Sem Escala” follows. This is more savage garage rock, replete with drum breakdown and a ripping bass line that wouldn’t be out of place on a Jesus Lizard album. “We used to have a saying (that I hated), “quips Teasley, “Q: ‘How do you know when the bass is too loud? A: When you can hear it.’ It was a drum and guitar-driven thing in the beginning.”
But according to Teasley, losing the show stealing guitarist Star Crunch ended up creating space for Rob’s bass to shine. “…it opened up his bass playing a lot. There’s actually some really good bass playing on that record.”
In the contemporaneous Pitchfork review of A Spectrum of Infinite Scale, the reviewer cites reverbed-out bizarro track six, “Many Pieces of Large Fuzzy Mammals Gathered Together at a Rave and Schmoozing with a Brick” as one of several examples of long song titles apparently inspired by Don Caballero. I guess said reviewer had somehow gotten that gig without ever having studied the Pink Floyd catalog. Oh wait, the reviewer was actually site founder Ryan Schreiber.
VIDEO: Man Or Astroman? “Interstellar Hardrive”
Teasley laughs when I share that anecdote with him, and betrays the influence of those space rock titans. “At that point we had had a lot of records straight that had one parody Pink Floyd song title. ‘Interstellar Hardrive’. ‘A Saucer Full of Sucrets’. We had listened to Ummagumma a lot during that process, too. That’s a little more heady… we’re just a bunch of wacky people from Alabama. But I think that’s what we felt we were doing. Why do the songs have to sound the same? Why can’t there be fifteen different kinds of things on here?”
Dead center of the album is the blazing speedrock romp “Trapezoid.” Says Teasley, “We were really playing fast in a muscular way. That was the peak of that. Besides that year of playing that way, I can’t see that we ever captured the energy of that again.”
“Very Subtle Elevators” is another bass-forward, murky experimental tune with a galaxy of strange sound effects. I asked Teasley how Albini felt about some of the really far out dabbling that made it onto the album. “I’m still pissed about this but Steve would usually let us do what we want as long as he could make fun of us for it [laughter].
By 2000, Teasley had built quite a resume, playing in multiple groups, and doing a bit of production himself. “I often would make bands sound heavier by going back with a Roland SPD-11, put some kind of electric pad sound on it, make it sound a little more sci-fi-y. I spent all this time with pedals and had this weirdo laser blast snare sound coming out of it and I went up there to Steve and at one point he said, ‘You know what this record doesn’t need? Any more FM synthesis.’”
After another thirty seconds of space-age sounds, “Within One Universe There Are Millions” rockets in with a plaintive guitar melody and vocoded vocals. The clean strums eventually lead into a stomping riff as triumphant as any on the record.
“Spectrograph Reading of the Varying Phantom Frequencies of Chronic, Incurable Tinnitus” is impressive displaying just how tight the band had become. The musicians were able to make very broken, strange music sound effortless, then lock together into brilliant streamlined focus.
As Teasley puts it, “This sounds super dorky…but I think that was the record and the time that we weren’t afraid to be thought of as good musicians. Before we would have been like, ‘[don’t] be the guy with the practice pad playing flamacues.’ I think we had made peace that we were playing more technically at that point.”
The attention-grabbing “A Simple Text File” is literally the sound of an Apple Imagewriter II. “We mic’d a dot matrix printer. I think Steve took more care miking that than he ever did any of our instruments. ‘Do we got enough of the ribbon sound? Ribbon sound is more bass…’”
“Obligatory Part 2 Song in Which There Is No Presently Existing Part 1, Nor the Plans to Make One” is, perhaps appropriately, the last proper song on A Spectrum of Infinite Scale. Creepy piano lines waft in and out of the scene while determined drums and vibrato guitars give this otherwise “Revolution 9”-like song a semblance of composition.
The last track gets the longest title: “Multi-Variational Stimuli of Sub-Turgid Foci Covering Cross Evaluative Techniques for Cognitive Analysis of Hypersignificant Graph Peaks Following Those Intersubjective Modules Having Biodegradable Seepage.” Truly it’s almost nothing but five minutes of a Tesla Coil bursting energy emissions into poor Zero Return.
According to Teasly, “[The Tesla Coil] blew up part of the tape machine. It blew up a few microphones. There’s footage I really want to find. There was a weird thing on that last [song]. Cory and some folks with Touch & Go were worried about it being considered a sample because there were a lot of FM radio frequencies coming in through the Tesla Coil on the mic, and Gerry Rafferty starts blaring through the Tesla Coil. How do we get Gerry Rafferty out of our Tesla Coil?!”
A Spectrum of Infinite Scale was exactly the album I wanted to hear from the band at the time. Watching such a talented group pull itself out of the garage rock crater by its moonboots was inspirational. The live show that year reminded me of an acid-fried Hawkwind gig in the best possible way, though some of the devout surf fans were left scratching their bald spots.
Within a year of releasing this climactic album, the second version of Man or Astroman? entered the cocoon of a long hiatus.
Brian “Birdstuff” Teasley continued to drum with groups as disparate as Shannon Wright, The Polyphonic Spree, and St Vincent. At the end of this generous interview, he left off with these words:
“You tour everywhere you can to meet the people that are your own race of people. People who are into art and thinking progressively and pushing the world forward. Those are my people no matter what country or city it’s in. Communicating and connecting with those people is why we make art or make music.”
In my book, that’s a sentiment of infinite scale.