Pop: What planet are they on?

Man or Astroman? seem quite normal for aliens. At least over dinner. But why choose to play surf rock...
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Sitting round a table in an apartment in Milan's industrial suburbs are four normal looking men. They are a sociable lot, polite, funny and full of sharp observations. They're equally happy to discuss the Balkans as they are to talk about the merits of black or green olives. Having had dinner with them earlier on, I can even vouch for their table manners.

The observations may seem inconsequential, until you consider that these four apparently sane men claim to hail from a place in outer space known as the Grid Sector, and go by the names Coco the Electronic Monkey Wizard, Birdstuff, Star Crunch and Dexter X. Collectively, they are Man Or Astroman? They say they have been forced to reside on Earth after their spaceship crashed outside the small town of Auburn, Alabama in 1992, an area that is known for reports of flying saucers.

Having observed the predominant lifeform to be human, they quickly disguised themselves as human beings in order to fit in. If they want to return home, they must retrieve all the parts of the ship that have been scattered across the planet. And the best way to do this, they decided, was to form a band.

"Who else can pull into a town in the middle of the evening with a big trailer full of equipment, set everything up, and take all the necessary readings. What better vehicle than indie rock to go completely unnoticed?" says Birdstuff.

Try as they might to blend in, Man Or Astroman? hardly come across as a conventional rock band and interviewing them is a highly strange experience. They don't talk about influences, musical aspirations and or what it's like to be (almost) famous. While they are interested in what other bands are doing ("Gay Dad the music of the future? Who are they kidding?"), such considerations pale when there are spaceship fragments to be found.

There is a rumour doing the rounds that their alien story is a complex ploy to spice up the rigmarole of being in a band, while retaining a certain anonymity. A policy of non-information, even. But it's probably not true. Anyway, being in a band means making music. After laborious research into the properties of rock music, Man Or Astroman? came up with a surf-punk sound that falls somewhere between Seventies electronica, Dick Dale and The Clash.

Listening to their albums - they are now on their seventh - one might be forgiven for expecting a group of homesick aliens to have come up with something a little more outlandish. Dare I say, futuristic? "How do you know what the future sounds like?" asks Coco, indignantly. "You haven't been there, and we have. You've only got this imagination thing which calls up all sorts of spurious images as to what the future is all about."

If their music doesn't sound as otherworldly as it might, the titles of their albums do. With names like What Remains Inside a Black Hole, Intravenous Television Continuum and the latest, Eeviac: Operational index and reference guide, including other modern computational devices, even a sceptical outsider would have to concede this is not your average rock band.

An eyeful of their live show upholds this theory. Their fans consist largely of sci-fi junkies and surfer-types, between the ages of 15 and 45, waving plastic ray guns. The stage is lit up by flashing computer monitors that have that dusty brown look that you normally associate with Sixties TV series and sci-fi B movies. Roadies in sealed space-suits tinker with their gear as if they are handling radioactive equipment while the band performs in boilersuits and bulbous helmets which are sporadically set on fire. They pretend to sing, even though there are virtually no vocals in their music, and they move stiffly around the stage in choreographed unison.

When I comment on the similarities between the Sixties sci-fi aesthetic and their act, there is an uncomfortable silence. "Act? What do you mean, act?" I apologise for forgetting myself, and Coco explains: "The early Sixties aesthetic of the future reflects what we do. It is not something that we are influenced by. Their concept of the future was surprisingly accurate."

Science fiction seems to have fixed itself firmly in our pre-millennial psyches. But are Man Or Astroman? prepared to adapt when our enthusiasm for all things alien wanes? "How can we? This is what we are," says Coco.

"Millennium, schmillennium," interjects Birdstuff. "We've already been there four times, and it's not so exciting. The bigger question is: `What changes will Man Or Astroman? notice in the human populace after the new year?' You guys are freaking out over a non-issue. We will probably be assuming advisory roles over the next year."

As well as making and performing music, Man Or Astroman? have been busy setting up laboratories in the time since their unfortunate crash. These are devoted to the developments of new technologies, materials and sounds to enhance their mission while contributing something to our planet during their stay. Indeed, they would like to take part of the credit for the development of the Internet. But their latest project is an algorithm known as the E.E.V.I.A.C. - Embedded Electronic Variable Intergrated Astro Console.

"It tackles the conventional tasks of recording albums and performing live, which of course Man Or Astroman? have done," explains Coco. "We decided to develop an operating system of software and hardware that can do this for us." But this is pre-programming with a difference: "Plenty of other bands have click tracks and samples that offer very few variables. Our systems are so inefficient and clunky that they screw up a lot, which gives you the live quality. The fans are just an extension of the Eeviac system, an integral cog in the plan that is Man Or Astroman?" Coco leans back in his chair proudly. "You see? We are taking music into the future." With this in mind, I spent the duration of Man Or Astroman?'s Milan show trying to work out whether or not they were actually playing. No doubt there will come a time when they deem it unnecessary to turn up to their own gigs.

"By being open about our origins, people think we are just a bunch of crackpots," smiles Birdstuff. "That way, no one feels threatened by us, and we can continue with our very important schedule."

`Eeviac' is out now on Epitaph records. Man Or Astroman? play Manchester Planet K on Monday; Glasgow King Tuts, Tues; Sheffield, Boardwalk, Wed; and London Garage, 1 July. The Residents perform at the Forum on 19 July

They Came from Outer Space

Sun Ra Born Herman Blount, Sun Ra (right) embraced a distinctive brand of free-form orchestration, Egyptian philosophy and Afro-cosmic- consciousness. He's claimed to have been abducted by aliens, taken to Saturn and informed a great destiny on Earth lay before him.

David Bowie Appropriating the sci-fi myth, the Thin White Duke invented his alter ego Ziggy Stardust and provided fans with ultimate otherworldly superstar.

The Residents: This long-running San Francisco rock group first made their name performing in absurd alien-style masks and tuxedos. In the Seventies they kept up a studious anonymity with all contact channelled through the mysterious Cryptic Corporation.

Lee Perry The consummate mad scientist, Lee Perry's universe was made up of archangels, flying saucers and scatology, which was seen in varying degrees of intensity in his stream-of-consciousness lyrics. Having suffered a mental breakdown in the mid-Seventies, Perry (left) burned down his Black Ark studio and, for a time, took to drinking gasoline and wearing heaters on his head.