Santa Barbara now has another band besides Cool Water Canyon that people are talking about. Bad Astronaut consists of bassist Marko 72 (Sugarcult, Nerf Herder), singer Joey Cape (Lagwagon) and drummer Derrick Plourde. Their new album, Acrophobe, is an examination of the band’s ability to go beyond the member’s individual realms of rock music and experiment in the studio. Artsweek got a chance to sit down with Marko 72 to discuss the band and its new album.
Artsweek: You came from one end of the rock spectrum, while Joey and Derrick came from another. What made you guys come together and start Bad Astronaut?
Marko 72: If you look at it today, with me playing in more of a guitar pop band and with them playing in a punk band, it is from different spectrums. But digging back into the ’80s, we all basically grew up together. Me and Derrick had our first band together when we were 14- or 15-years-old right here in Santa Barbara in a band called Section 8, and Joey was in another, almost speed metal band. I moved away, and Joey eventually took over Section 8 and turned it into what became Lagwagon. We’ve just known each other over the years, and when Joey started his record label, My Records, I ran it with him pretty closely for two years. So we just knew each other from playing in bands together and really just being good friends. It got to the point where we decided we needed to do something together, and Joey had started getting into producing and expanding his horizons and started working on some material that wasn’t really suitable for Lagwagon. Over the years it (Lagwagon) became somewhat of a family, whereas with Bad Astronaut, it’s more of a group of friends who like to turn each other on with different records, and we all sort of come from our own specialties and connect with some sort of common denominator.
What was the goal of making Acrophobe?
Basically, we were all around for the first time in a while, and Joey had some material not necessarily suitable for Lagwagon that we wanted to check out. So we just started jamming together, and the chemistry just worked really well. Usually what happens when you start a new band is that you spend half your time just getting to know each other. But with this thing it was just reconnecting on old bonding points, and we could describe something without really having to articulate it, like, "You know that Jawbreaker type thing?" We would all know exactly what we were talking about. Then we started recording, and everybody in the band was all for not being a band where you traditionally play live and then record. We decided this since we have our own respective bands to get the live stuff out of our systems. We were all for just doing something in the studio and just pushing the envelope, and not be limited by just three instruments. We’ve added a cello player to the mix and a keyboard player who was actually in Joey’s first band in the early ’80s. Todd Capps is a local Santa Barbara musician and laid out some keyboards on a couple parts of the songs, but it worked so well that we decided to add it to a lot of the songs, just to make it sound unique.
With the title Acrophobe, are you guys trying to suggest something about yourselves individually, or about rock music as a whole? Are you afraid of it giving too much success?
I think that’s kind of a running theme in Joey’s lyrics. He’s always been kind of hesitant, cynical about trying to take a band to a commercial level. So I think there’s kind of a skeptical fear of heights. What happens to a band’s integrity and quality if they blow up to be too huge, too fast? It’s not some political statement about a band on a major label. Some of our favorite bands are on major labels, like Radiohead, Built to Spill, Elliott Smith. It can be looked at as something growing at an unnatural pace and possibly being destroyed. There’s a song on the album called "Unlucky Stuntman" that articulates that whole thought.
What part of that song would you say best sums it up?
He references Jawbreaker. That was an amazing band, and just got completely ruined because they went to a big label. But they weren’t cut out to be huge radio stars, they were cut out to be a hardworking band. He references "Left of the Dial," a Replacements song about college rock and just basically about the popularity of "alternative." Joey is an example of someone who’s been very successful and not had to compromise, and done it all at an independent level. Yet he’s seen a lot of his friends and favorite bands kind of go by the wayside by going on a major label or something. Everybody has opinions about them. There are certain bands that are absolutely cut out to be on major labels, and there are some clearly not made out to be.
What do you think defines that line, makes some bands cut out for major labels and some not?
I think reality and circumstance define the line. A band needs to exist in its day, where it’s alive. For instance, if a band like U2 came out right now and just tried to go on an independent level and not use the radio to market themselves, but just go out in a van and play all-ages shows, I don’t think they would get as far as they’ve gotten. They’re not cut out to just play all-ages shows; they’re cut out to reach the masses, and the only way to reach the masses is, unfortunately, only through mass-media mediums like radio, television and that kind of stuff. Major labels work great for selling bands that don’t really have specialized audiences, whereas indies appeal more to groups of specialized audiences that are not cut out for everyday radio listening – for people who just don’t want to deal with it. There’s different levels of music fans. There’s people who just turn on the radio and see whatever the hell is on, and there’s people like me who sit around for two hours looking for used records; but there’s no right or wrong.
What do you think about the new kind of trends in rock like Emo, and even mainstream rock. Do you think it’s getting too refined and that people are missing out on the angst and the sort of down to earth anger of the past?
I don’t think anything like that really goes away or comes back, it’s just always there, but just at different levels. Sometimes it’s cooler, or like when Nirvana came out, it was a bit more acceptable to like "cool" music, or go back and find out about The Replacements or Cheap Trick. And then now we’re sort of in a low that can only be equaled by probably the late ’80s ballad-metal era. That’s kind of what I like about all of this rap/metal and the like. At first it had a lot of angst, a lot of potency, but after awhile so many bands got snatched up and put on the marketplace, emulating the same sound or the same look, that it loses its bang. In any genre, even the pop/punk genre in the underground, where there’s thousands of bands trying to sound like Lagwagon or NOFX, it kind of loses its initial, "Wow that’s kind of a cool idea." You can go back to the ’80s; there’s a million bands that tried to sound like REM and The Replacements. What happens is that something comes out that’s cool and a million people learn how to copy it really well, and then it gets harder to tell the Skid Rows from the Guns ‘n’ Roses, or the Stone Temple Pilots from the Pearl Jams. It just starts to weaken, and people just start accepting weaker strains of it and taking it as the real thing.
So what do you see in the next couple years of rock, or really, what do you hope to see?
I just hope to see more stuff like Bad Astronaut, more stuff where it’s not defined by your band. I think side projects are great. I think it’s a way to keep people vital and to keep people creative. Because a band puts out three great records, and then it starts to capture the same idea over and over again, and you’re just as guilty as the bands who copy you. You just start to copy yourself, not even consciously. It’s hard for bands, but groups like The Rolling Stones and The Clash really made an effort to redefine themselves on every record. But I think nowadays bands stick onto whatever is working. So I think the solution to that is like Bad Astronaut, where different creative people get together and kind of reignite everyone’s flames.
So you guys are working on a new Bad Astronaut album. When is that supposed to come out?
It’s slated to come out on My Records over the summer. That’s the other thing with this band, we want it to come out in the summer, but if we find that the songs are taking a different shape or we want more time, then we can do it. There isn’t a tour or something to constrain us. It’s going to take as long as it does to be great. Hopefully people will start to trust it because it’s consistent, rather than putting out a 20-minute-long, barely passing record.
Do you have a record for your band Sugarcult?
Well, Sugarcult is just about to start a record, and we just signed to a new kind of independent label called Ultimatum, and we’re about to start the record, which should be out in the late summer. In that band I play guitar, and it’s just a totally different thing.
Is there anything else you wanted to say, about music or the bands?
Well, just that we’re working on a new Bad Astronaut record, and we also have a split EP coming out with a band called ArmChair Martian on Owned and Operated, which is a Descendents’ label. So that’s the goal with Bad Astronaut, just anything goes with music, and what we’d like to do is put as much stuff out as possible on some really cool labels.