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The Phenomenauts Put a Sci-Fi Spin on Psychobilly

In Music
In the years following their storming of the Warped Tour, The Phenomenauts have gained a loyal following in the Bay Area and earned fans all over the world.

In the years following their storming of the Warped Tour, The Phenomenauts have gained a loyal following in the Bay Area and earned fans all over the world.

The Phenomenauts are not unlike The Justice League or The Avengers. This rocket-fueled collective of rockabilly punks have been featured in their own comic books, each member of the group has an alias, and they hold meetings at a home base, known as The Command Center.

And just like Batman—the vigilante, dark knight—or the oft-misunderstood Man of Steel, the Oakland-based band has been forced to bend the rules on occasion. But only when the powers that be are unable to see just what a powerful force for good they are missing out on.

Consider their origin story:

Formed in 2000, the Phenomenauts struggled to book gigs during their first couple of years on the scene—especially at bigger venues.

Undaunted, band leader Commander Angel Nova formulated a plan. The band set up their own clandestine stage outside the gates of the San Francisco stop of the 2002 Warped Tour. Not long after they began playing to the legions of punk rock fans filing into the festival, a security guard told them to get a move on. However, while loading their gear—in full “uniform”—into the group’s “space van,” another security guard kindly directed them to the official artist entrance.

“He assumed they were supposed to be there,” says AR7, the group’s guitar-playing and singing “robot.” Though he was not a part of the band at the time, AR7, like all inductees into the Phenomenauts, has become well versed in the group’s storied, 15-year history.

Once inside the perimeter, the band identified a place to play, adjacent to an empty stage and were promptly invited to take the stage by a friendly sound engineer, who informed them that the band scheduled to play in the upcoming time slot had cancelled.

“They sold every single item of merchandise they brought with them this day,” AR7 says, adding that on that day Nova decided that the following year, the group would attempt to sneak into as many stops on the Warped tour as they could.

In 2003, the group found it was easy enough to get into the Warped venues, AR7 says. And by deploying their culinary expertise—in the form of complimentary breakfast burritos for the Warped crew—the Phenomenauts forged powerful alliances. By the time Warped Tour founder Kevin Lyman caught wind of their stunt, he was a fan. He invited them back in 2004 and even gave the band curatorial control over their very own “Space Station Stage.”

In the years following their storming of the Warped Tour, The Phenomenauts have gained a loyal following in the Bay Area and earned fans all over the world. AR7 contributes the band’s success to a refusal to conform.

“I think that all of us, we’re sort of tired of the idea of a band just going up in their regular clothes, playing some songs and not putting a lot of energy—or, for lack of a better word, pizazz—into their shows.”

A Phenomenauts show is nothing if not full of pizazz. Every member of the band wears a uniform reminiscent of those worn by enlisted personnel on the Starship Enterprise. Over the years, the group has introduced a number of so-called “Phenoma-gadgets” into their performances. There is AR7’s “Theramatic Helmerator,” a piece of headgear equipped with a wireless Theremin; and the “Streamerator,” a leaf-blower that unfurls rolled toilet. All of these homemade devices are an integral part of the show, according to AR7.

“It’s important to us, because we want to just blow the lid off of every place we play,” he says. “We want to give the most entertaining show—visually and aurally—that we can.”
The group brings that show to The Ritz this weekend. AR7 says they’ll be performing music from their 2014 full-length, Escape Velocity, and may even play one—or both—songs from their forthcoming 7-inch picture disc, “I’m With Neil” (a tribute to Neil DeGrasse Tyson) and “Every Day is Science Friday” (a paean to the NPR program of the same name).
“A lot of our fans are into science, comic books and science fiction,” AR7 explains. “They appreciate it.”

The Phenomenauts plays on Nov 28, 8pm, $10 at The Ritz, San Jose

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