The masked, underdog champions of nerd-core, The Aquabats, are back with their first full-length album in six years. The band’s most cohesive album to date, Charge!! blends quirky, new wave melodies with the band’s hometown signature punk rock sound, concreted with their uniquely sarcastic, Saturday morning cartoon humor. Legions of loyal fans eagerly await this next episode from their rock ‘n’ roll superheroes. In fact, those same fans are largely responsible for snapping the band’s silent streak when they flocked to last year’s national tour. After their label, Goldenvoice Records, shut its doors in early 2000, The Aquabats went underground, living the lives of their secret identities, all the while their mythology amplifying online, fueled by hungry fans, speculating of their return to form.
In the beginning there were fourteen of them, all friends, each in a different band. It was the mid '90s and the Southern California punk scene had stagnated into something pointlessly drunk, violent, and way too predictable. They wanted to bring back the early punk ethos where anything goes, all bets on the table. Style of music be damned. So, to poke fun at the burgeoning ska scene, and because there were fourteen of them for crying out loud, half the band grabbed horns, and they played their first show only a week after forming. One of the early members worked at the Aleeda wetsuit company, and to mix things up, at work, and for the band, he sewed together matching rubber helmets from scrap neoprene material and The Aquabats were born.
Shunned by punk and ska bands alike (“who are these dorks?” and “what are they doing to our music?”), which was fine by the band, they couldn’t take either scene seriously. Their goal: have the most fun possible in their 20 minute set, regardless of current “cool” standards or ethos. Acceptance came from like-minded kids who understood the irony in the 'scenes' and just wanted to be entertained.
So why did The Aquabats wear costumes? Their audiences wanted to know. Raised by a television generation and out to entertain themselves first, answers such as “We’re superheroes from a distant island called Aquabania,” sarcastically spilled from the mouths of band members. They introduced themselves with outrageous names such as MC Bat Commander, Chainsaw, and Crash McLarson. It all stuck.
It stuck is an understatement. Their fun, loopy energy was infectious. Instead of being self-indulgent and mocking their fans for liking them, they made room for each and every fan, regardless. Kids swarmed their shows in DIY costumes with such self-anointed monikers as: Churro Man, Cupcake, Afro Bat, Exact Change Man, Chicken Bat, AC Bubba Master and more. To get their friends into shows the band passed around monster masks and explained to promoters that these ‘performers’ were part of the show. Monsters and super villains became part of the act and The Aquabats universe took on a life of its own, inadvertently.
As none of this was ever pre-planned, songs, props, and costumes resulted from random tangents and inside jokes among the band. Most of the schtick was created off-the-cuff and freestyled. Except for the time when The Aquabats stormed the offices of Geffen Records, fully costumed (rubber helmets, masks, and matching rash guards with the letter ‘A’ emblazoned across their chests) armed with a copy of their first demos, demanding to see David Geffen. Needless to say, Geffen passed. Actually the band never got past the front desk but they did make enough of an impression, however, to warrant a call for backup from the security guard.
In 1995, to whet the appetite of their growing gaggle of fans, the band pressed up those demos, naming it, ironically, The Return of The Aquabats, to sell at their shows. It was an easy sell, and sold to the tune of 35,000 copies before any label stepped in. It took zero effort to get caught up in the fury of The Aquabats. Live, MC Bat Commander and the rest of the band seemed to lead some kind of controlled riot. You’d find yourself in the middle of a marshmallow fight or ping-pong ball battle, floating on top of the crowd in an inflatable dragon, or square dancing in day-glo with a mohawked partner, allemande left! Every show expanded Aquabat mythology and instead of treating fans as passive participants, they were encouraged to be a part of the show.
While The Aquabats’ genesis occurred during the Orange County Ska explosion of the mid ‘90s, they never set out to be a ‘ska’ band (they barely set out to be a band), rather they pulled from early ‘80s influences such as Devo, Oingo Boingo, and early L.A. punk bands. And Charge!! is proof The Aquabats cannot be pigeon-holed into any one genre. Note the new wave synth of “Meltdown!,” the Elfmanesque “Tiger Rider!,” the playful nod to the Misfits in “Fashion Zombies!,” and the riffing classic rock melodies in “Look At Me (I’m A Winner)!” Any style is up for grabs, to pay homage to, and to poke fun at, often in the same breath. Charge!! is a two step jump up The Aquabats’ evolutionary ladder, with special attention paid to the craft of songwriting.
“We try to write songs that are fun to sing along to,” says MC Bat Commander. Easier said than done. “The Aquabats are always ON,” says producer Cameron Webb (Social Distortion, Motorhead). “So much material flows forth from their brains it’s no small feat to rein it all in.” But that’s exactly what he did: harness their energy and wit into twelve songs with catchy choruses and nougaty, hook-filled centers.
The common theme running through all the songs is a certain dark wit and clever self-deprecation which could be interpreted as ‘nerdy-ness.’ It bursts into full bloom about mid-way into the album with the anthemic “Nerd Alert.” This is no new subtext for The Aquabats; it’s the common thread through all the albums, and one that’s recently become more prevalent in pop culture. Picturing Napoleon Dynamite as a card-carrying Aqua Cadet (the band’s fan club) is a no brainer.
“There's a difference between nerds and losers,” says MC Bat Commander, "all these people whining about how they are losers and nobodies, 'cuz they feel sorry for themselves or something. It's such a cop-out. Nerds are different, they believe in something. They believe in themselves, regardless of what they've accomplished yet. So, if that makes me a 'nerd,’ sign me up."
The Aquabats wear their nerd-ness on their sleeves, sure, but little did they know they’d strike a universal chord. Who hasn’t felt awkward, uncool, or just a little out of place?
Rather than hiding deficiencies beneath colored contact lenses, tough guy tattoos, serial killer pseudonyms, or otherwise blending in with the growing, futile notion of rock ‘n’ roll as ‘rebellion,’ The Aquabats have always seemed to shock the ‘shockers.’
And in the new millennium what better way to revolt? The Aquabats cut through the dark façade of rock ‘n’ roll, encouraging people to lighten up, and not take themselves so seriously.