Back to the futures
Astroslut and Seks Bomba
Cellars by Starlight by Jonathan Perry
What better way to kick off a brand new millennium than to sink oneself deeply
-- perhaps irrevocably -- into a Jetsons cartoon of a chair that feels
like the bucket seat of a '75 Pacer and talk tunes with Astroslut, those
retro-futurist space-porn stars from the 24th century? On the eve of our
scheduled chat at the Milky Way, where Astroslut play tonight (January 20), a
decidedly 20th-century ailment (chronic back problem) is afflicting
songwriter/keyboardist Quinn Martian (not his real name), requiring that he
remain in a standing position indefinitely. So, given Martian's predicament, we
(Quinn, singer Jane Fondle, and myself) instead opt to meet at Astroslut's
shag-carpeted headquarters in Jamaica Plain.
Once we're inside and surrounded by vintage pulp-fiction paperbacks, a
larger-than-lifesize cutout of Mexican cocktail-lounge composer Juan
García Esquivel's head peeking out from rows of records, and a display
of Russ Meyer B-movie stills (autographed by the man himself!), conversation
turns to Astroslut's debut, Love at Zero G (Soundworks). "People have
remarked that this sounds like a concept album, like David Bowie's Ziggy
Stardust," remarks Fondle (not her real name). "Not that our album sounds
anything like that, but it has the same sort of idea of transforming yourself.
It's certainly more interesting than who we really are."
It's for this reason that Fondle and Martian ask that their real names not be
used in print. And you won't find those names on the album either -- all the
songs, with the exception of the Peter Cook/Dudley Moore-penned "Bedazzled"
from the film of the same name, are credited to the Quinn Martian alias, and
the bandmembers' real names are listed only under "Time travel coordinators."
Besides Fondle and Martian, there's guitarist 2000 (with whom Martian had
played in a Small Faces-style mod band in Florida years ago), percussionist J.
Natalia, and now new bassist Zakus Zanalian, who bears a striking resemblance
to former Boy Wonder bassist Josh Arakelian and who filled the bass slot
recently vacated by Jesus Knievel.
"There's so much of an emphasis now in pop music on realism, and that's fine if
that's what you want," says Martian. "But I sort of have enough of reality
every day, and I like the idea of creating my own world." Or, says Fondle,
"when reality is done now, it's done in a really safe way that's not very
confrontational or dangerous. It's so fake and so forced. We're
extremely calculated, but in a good way -- in the way that chair's made
of fiberglass. It's mass-produced but it's fabulous. What's kind of funny is
that I think that, in the true spirit of rock and roll, we're a lot more
subversive than a lot of mainstream, college-sounding stuff."
Martian remembers his early fascination with the presentation of pop, and the
music's thrilling, exotic promise of escape. "Back in the mid '70s, when I was
11, 12, or 13, I used to watch Saturday Night Live after my parents had
gone to bed, and I saw groups like Devo and the Talking Heads for the first
time. I liked the idea of being drawn in and scared of them at the same time. A
lot of those groups had a strong visual thing, and it seems that's almost
If Astroslut seem as much a concept as a band, it's one that most likely could
never have existed during the era from which the idea draws. With almost
fetishistic fervor, the group pluck pre-fab artifacts from the detritus of a
popular culture that defined post-World War II America -- specifically '50s
bomb-shelter and '60s happy-hour suburbia -- and synthesize them into new art
with sleek irony, sly humor, and dead-on accuracy. What comes out of
Astroslut's postmodern blender is a day-glo cocktail of soft-focus
sexploitation flicks and space-age daydreams, lava lamps and fondue parties,
moog synthesizers and Barbarella spacesuits. The spacesuits Fondle wears and
then sheds during the band's live performances. On occasion, the "burlesque
show," as she describes it, has earned her the ire of some feminists in the
audience. It's a reaction you might not have seen 40 years ago. "I think I piss
off a lot of the sort of `automechanic'-type of feminists who don't want to see
a woman dressed like that and certainly not exploiting herself for the benefit
of men. But I think that feminism these days has so many different layers --
and I certainly don't think of Ally McBeal or Monica Lewinsky as the new
feminists -- but I do think that there can be a certain level of feminist power
that isn't necessarily burning a bra. I think you can promote the beauty of a
woman's sexuality without necessarily exploiting it. I mean, I'm laughing the
whole time I do this."
Martian finds it ironic that even after Fondle's striptease is complete, "she's
still wearing more than a lot of the girls who go out dancing on Lansdowne
Fondle's brassy voice and brassier personae, meanwhile, suggest Shirleys Bassey
and Manson -- a perfect complement to cool, frolicsome romps like "The Dame
from Planet Eros" and "Galaxy Girl." But it's not all false eyelashes and
feather boas. Underneath the showmanship there's a batch of cannily perceptive,
skillfully arranged songs about making a human connection amid all the gadgetry
of a modern age. Ultimately, the songs say more about human failing than about
robotic perfection. And any band whose lyrics can rhyme "fancy nomenclature"
with "apelike stature" deserve a closer look.
"Somebody might write it off as a joke," Martian allows. "But to write
something that makes some real observations, that's done in a humorous way,
that's appropriate for everybody in the band, and that fits the concept --
keeping all of these things together is a difficult thing sometimes."
Another band who cast a keen eye toward the past as a way
to chart their future are the spy-soundtrack merchants Seks Bomba, a quintet
comprising players you might recognize from other outfits past and present
(former Dogzilla dude/Sugar Twins guitarist George Hall; Upper Crust bassist
Count Bassey, a/k/a Chris Cote; Laurie Geltman sideman Matt Silbert). The
group, who play the Lizard Lounge February 12, recently released their
Bond-meets-Bacharach debut album Operation B.O.M.B.A. (YaYa Records), a
swinging tour de force of imagined secret-agent-movie scores ("Theme from `To
Kill 89' "), tight-slacked Tom Jones-y come-ons ("Bright Lights and You,
Girl"), and instrumental interludes ("Do You Know the Way to San Jose?") that
works as an excellent martini-sipping soundtrack. Not bad for an outfit that
happened by accident back in 1995.
"We didn't really start out with a plan or anything," Hall recalls over beers
at the Lizard Lounge with Seks Bomba singer/guitarist Chris Cote and bassist
Silbert (the line-up also includes keyboardist Lori Perkins and drummer Brett
Campbell). "Boston Rock Opera was doing a benefit and Matt and I were looking
at putting something together for it. And there was an album that I was
obsessed with for a while by composer/arranger Dick Hyman called The Man
from O.R.G.A.N. One thing led to another, various neighbors (Perkins lived
across the street from Hall) and musical acquaintances were tapped, and Seks
Bomba was born. "We thought it was going to be a one-time deal," says Silbert.
"But people were so enthusiastic, we thought, `Hell, let's do it again.' "
Hall, a rock-schooled guitarist, began composing material that took its primary
cues not from rock but from, well, just about everything else. "It's a learning
experience for me," he says. "As far as writing goes, it's a blast to try to
arrange parts and see how things work together. It's completely different from
rock, but my listening thing has been pretty much a bunch of other places too."
Meanwhile, Cote's role as Seks Bomba's singer affords him the chance to move
away from the crunching AC/DC-style rock of his other band, the Upper Crust,
and explore his inner Jones -- Tom Jones, that is.
"I try to sing those songs as well as I can sing them, even though there's a
funny component inherent in the song," he explains. "But those are great songs,
just as music. They've retained their integrity, and that's why they still
sound good now. Tom Jones, if you listen to him, was trying to ape soul music,
and that's part of the appeal of those records. It's a cheery, Wales-based
lunatic with a London string and horn orchestra trying to play R&B. And
there's some charm to it."
Yes, it's tough to embrace the respective charms of Jones, Bacharach, and
Mancini (the band cover Henry Mancini & Johnny Mercer's "It Had Better Be
Tonight") without falling prey to the "novelty act" tag. But Hall says he's
learned from his Dogzilla days not to pay too much attention to people's
perceptions. "With this band, some people do perceive us as a novelty lounge
act, but what I've learned from past experience is, `Fuck 'em.' Because if you
start trying to react to them and do things differently, you're going to fail
anyway. To my way of thinking, it's not a novelty act. It's good music. We're
pretty cynical about achieving fame, so what the hell? I see a lot of bands
being written about as the next best thing, and they come and go, and we're