The outside world may think it has Orange County ska-rock pegged as a particularly lightweight musical form, but the outside world hasn't seen anything yet. Here come the Aquabats.
If ska is the bouncy balloon of '90s pop, the Aquabats fill it with helium and let go of the string. This band of black-masked, silver-helmeted cartoon superheroes exists for the sake of silliness.
Locals No Doubt, Reel Big Fish and Save Ferris have scored hits by appealing to the sense of fun in preteens along with the usual rock audience of teens and young adults. If the Aquabats prosper, they'll be reaching the sandbox set.
The Aquabats, whose founding members hail from Brea, have a script, a marketing plan, and a mission: to reclaim their lost island of Aquabania from the dastardly Space Monster M, although landing a Saturday morning kid's TV show will do.
After a successful 1995 do-it-yourself CD debut in 1995, "Return of the Aquabats," the band goes national today with the release of its more polished and accomplished sequel, "The Fury of the Aquabats."
In concept, the nine-member ensemble is a cannily organized, craftily packaged marketing phenomenon ready to be unleashed on the Power Rangers/Ninja Turtles demographic, the kiddies who know that in parental anatomy, the heartstring's connected to the purse string.
In reality, the Aquabats are a lot more fun than that. The band's shows are anything but slick and calculating. The eight uniformed Aquabats and their lab-coated, Fedora-topped mentor, the Professor, battle such villains as the Silver Skull, Tarantula and Powdered Milk Man with the chaotic enthusiasm of those kitschy punch-ups from "The Monkees" and the old "Batman" TV series.
The group has even put together a TV pilot and has ideas about episodes for a series, but that longshot aspect of its game plan is still in the embryonic stage.
Singer Christian Jacobs, a.k.a. the Bat Commander, conducts concerts as if he were a kid-show host, flashing a prominent Dudley Doright jaw and enough knowing irony to appeal to grown-up kids who miss the entertainments of their more wide-eyed days. Behind him, the crew manages to keep the music catchy and surprisingly coherent, given the constant onstage commotion.
The Aquabats spring from an unlikely incubator: the Mormon Church, where singer Jacobs, bassist Chad "Crash McLarson" Larson and trumpet player Boyd "Catboy" Terry had formed friendships and discovered a mutual fondness for playing in rock bands. They recruited a bunch of other church-based friends, rehearsed once at the Brea house Jacobs and Larson shared, and played their first gig at a party in August 1994.
The founders had a mutual admiration for Devo and its matching-outfit stage concept, so the enthusiastic Terry brought along some costumes, adapted from the wares available at his brother's surf-equipment manufacturing company in Newport Beach.
"The first performance we did as a joke," recalled Larson, who sports a shaven head and a linebacker's build. "We weren't trying to be a band. We were trying to have fun."
The Aquabats began conceptualizing and adapting. Jacobs' younger brother, Parker, was called in to help out as the Professor. In its early days, the band was known to perform in fezzes and chefs' hats.
It eventually hit on its current look, which recalls the commando sperm from Woody Allen's "Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask)." Ask Terry and he'll tell you he never watches Woody Allen movies and that he was just trying to put together a nice, smooth aquatic look.
On a local rock scene then dominated by snide or snarling punkers, the Aquabats fell by default into the ska underground (this was two years before No Doubt hit the Top 10).
"We definitely weren't ska. We all grew up playing different stuff," Christian Jacobs said as the Aquabats gathered last week to rehearse for a national tour that includes shows Wednesday and Thursday at the Roxy in West Hollywood and an early evening mini-concert Thursday at the Virgin Megastore in Costa Mesa.
"But we happened upon a ska show in O.C.," he said. "No one was fighting or pushing each other but having a good time. It wasn't, 'Let's start a pit and maybe my boots will cause someone to bleed.' We started the Aquabats to be part of the fun."
After a few months, the Aquabats decided to tighten their sound, tapping an established local ska band, the Goodwin Club, for fresh recruits: guitarist Courtney "Chainsaw the Prince of Karate" Pollack, horn player "Prince Adam" Diebert and guitarist Charles "Magnificent Kyu" Grey. Two recently added Aquabats are drummer Travis "Baron Von Tito" Barker and saxophonist James "Jaime the Robot" Briggs. The members' ages range from 19 to 30.
The Aquabats' decision to back up their silliness with more serious musicianship wasn't lost on Bill Fold, one of the leading concert promoters on the Southern California ska and punk scene.
"I'd seen them [early on] and it was pretty much just joking around," Fold said. "But [it became] a real band. They were all in sync, and they really sparked my attention." Now Fold and his partner, Bill Hardie, are the Aquabats' managers.
At Goldenvoice, the region's leading alternative-rock concert company, promoter Paul Tollett had been thinking about starting an in-house record company.
"When I saw [the Aquabats], I thought, 'Now is the time,' " Tollett said. "They just work really hard and they're great live. And I knew they'd make my life fun."
There's danger as well as fun in being a band of superheroes. Amid all their racing around--and sometimes leaping off--stages while rocking out and battling costumed villains, guitarist Pollack said, Aquabat duty can lead to "a lot of ankle problems, [injured] fingers, tooth chippings, swollen lips." Before concert insurers put the kibosh on it, the Aquabats also used to set off a lot of fireworks.
"Miraculously, no one's ever been hurt besides the band members," Jacobs said.
The cost of providing fresh props, costumes or surprises each night adds up; so does the cost of keeping an eight-man theatrical band plus four extras on the road.
Despite an impressive 24,000 sales of their debut CD and substantial earnings hawking replicas of the official Aquabat shirts, goggles and helmets, the band's first ambition--before it conquers Aquabania, or the pop world--is to get out of debt.
The early returns are promising. Goldenvoice Recordings has set up national distribution for "Fury of the Aquabats" through the Laguna Beach-based Time Bomb Recordings, a BMG affiliate.
Modern-rock's leading taste-maker, the novelty-loving KROQ (106.7 FM), has begun giving the Aquabats' anthem, "Super Rad," airplay several times a day. MTV has not yet rendered the imperial thumbs up or down on the video version of "Super Rad."
Having developed a solid following in California, Utah, Nevada and Arizona through grass-roots touring, the Aquabats are about to embark on a two-month national trek with their O.C. ska buddies, Reel Big Fish and Save Ferris.
While the Aquabats have proven that they can vanquish Powdered Milk Man and other meanies every night--"I hate the way powdered milk tastes," Jacobs explains. "Our parents were always trying to save a buck, so they'd get powdered milk. I cried every time"--a more serious lurking foe could be Ska Burnout Syndrome.
"Ska has less credibility for some reason, maybe because it's oriented to a younger crowd," Fold said. "Radio stations play it, but they all [complain] about it, like they don't want to play it. Maybe it's geared to a younger crowd than their advertisers want."
"There's a lot of ska bands on the radio now. Maybe too many," Jacobs said. But he believes his band is adaptable. With influences encompassing new-wave rock and new-album departures into doo-wop, Gilbert & Sullivan-like comic operatics, and even Dixieland, the Aquabats have more than one way to get to that coveted Saturday morning gig.
"I think creatively we'll be able," the plucky Bat Commander declared, "to dig ourselves out of any hole that is dug for us by [ska] saturation."
* The Aquabats play Wednesday and Thursday at the Roxy, 9009 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood. Doors open at 8 p.m. $10. (310) 278-9457. Also Thursday at the Virgin Megastore, 1875 Newport Blvd., Triangle Square, Costa Mesa. 6 p.m. Free. (714) 645-9906. Also Nov. 26 with Reel Big Fish, Blink 182 and Cherry Poppin' Daddies at UC Irvine's Bren Events Center. (714) 824-5000.