The Aquabats (Contemporary Musicians)
Ska, rock band
An eight-member ensemble playing cheerful tunes on a wide variety of instruments including saxophone, organ, and Moog synthesizer, the Aquabats are often grouped with other "third wave ska" bands coming out of Southern California. Ska, a calypso-tinged twist on American rhythm and blues, began in Jamaica in the early 1960s. After years in decline, ska enjoyed a resurgence in the late 1970s. The most recent ska movement, developed in the late 1980s and dubbed "Third Wave Ska."
While there is an undeniable ska element in the music of the Aquabats, the band members, their devotees, and many commentators consider the ska label too narrow a description of the Aquabats style. "Though the Aquabats are too weird to be ska, their music is frequently ska-driven. Though they're too melodic to be punk, you'll hear that toolongside rockabilly and doo-wop," wrote Paul Lamont in OC Weekly.
Another thing that separates the Aquabats from typical ska groups is the strong element of performance art in their stage shows and their outrageous matching costumes including skin-tight lycra suits, helmets, and goggles. The band has been likened to Devo, the robotic, uniform-wearing art rock group of the 1980s. Indeed, the Aquabats list Devo among their many influences. "We're hugefans of Devo and Oingo Boingo, but then everyone in the band has their individual tastes. Some band members like punk rock, some like surf rock of the Ventures and '50s and '60s rock 'n' roll," Aquabat guitarist Courtney Pollock explained to Jeff Niesel of the Orange County Register.
The Aquabats were founded in Orange County, California in 1994 by Christian Jacobs, Chad Larson, and Boyd Terry, all of whom attended the same Mormon church. After discovering a mutual interest in playing in a rock band and a brief rehearsal period, the Aquabats played their first engagement at a party in August of 1994. Attracted to the idea of matching outfits, they adapted costumes from items found at the surf-equipment manufacturing company owned by Terry's brother in Newport Beach. "The first performance we did as a joke. We weren't trying to be a band. We were trying to have fun," bassist Chad Larson told Mike Boehm of the Los Angeles Times. The Aquabats tightened their sound when guitarist Courtney Pollock, horn player Adam Diebert, and guitarist Charles Grey were recruited from an established ska band, the Goodwin Club. Two other members drummer Travis Barker and saxophonist James Briggs joined later, further expanding the band's sound.
The Aquabats do not talk much about their real beginnings. "It's not very interesting, really," Christian Jacobs told the Riverside Press-Enterprise. Instead, they speak of coming from a South Pacific island called "Aquabania." According to publicity material on the Heckler Magazine home page "One day a dark and evil force descended upon the island and took it over. So the strongest men of the tribe set sail in a log to find help and gain the powers needed to overthrow the island.... The log finally beached in front of a mad professor's house in North Newport Beach. He found them and took them in. He did experiments on them while they learned magic powers from him in return. Although with different motives, they joined forces to take over the world. The professor knew that the only way to take over the world these days was through MTV, so he got them addicted to saccharine, high fructose corn syrups and other high-energy sweeteners and set them up as a rock group."
All eight Aquabat members have stage personashe Bat Commander (Jacobs), Crash McLarson (Larson), Catboy (Boyd), Baron Von Tito (Barker), Jaime the Robot (Briggs), Chainsaw: The Prince of Karate (Pollock), Ultra Kyu (Grey), and Prince Adam (Diebert). Jacobs' brother Parker sometimes joins in stage appearances as the character of the Mad Professor. In performances, they pantomime battles with enemies such as the Powdered Milk Man. Marshmallow, Cheez-Whiz, and Silly String are also sprayed about the audience. The band's most loyal followers call themselves "Aquabat cadets."
The Aquabats unique style impressed Bill Fold, a leading Southern California concert promoter. "I'd seen them early on and it was pretty much joking around. But it became a real band. They were all in sync, and they really sparked my attention," Fold told Mike Boehm of Los Angeles Times. Fold and his partner Bill Hardie became managers of the Aquabats.
The band's 1995 debut CD, The Return of the Aquabats, sold well for a local group on a small label. Additional earnings were made from Aquabats merchandise such as T-shirts, goggles, and helmets. The Aquabats have increased their nationwide visibility by touring as the opening act for No Doubt, the Mighty, Mighty Bosstones, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers
Their second CD, called The Fury ofthe Aquabats, was released in 1997. "With the recent popularity of ska music, it is becoming difficult to tell the difference between hundreds of upbeat, blacktie-wearing skankers from Southern California. But if creativity is what you're looking for, there is a group of superhumans on the way to light up your musical life.... The Aquabats are all about having fun, and although not every song is an instant classic, The Fury of the Aquabats will definitely make you smile," wrote Ben Clark of the Whitworthian.
Though the Aquabats gain new followers wherever they tour, some problems may make their rise to the top somewhat hazardous. According to Fold, some people in the music industry are apprehensive towards bands associated with ska. Fold told the Los Angeles Times that "ska has less credibility for some reason, maybe because it's oriented to ayounger crowd. Radio stations play it, but they complain about it, like they don't want to play it. Maybe it's geared to a younger crowd than their advertisers want."
In her review of an October 1997 Aquabats performance in Humboldt County, California, Monica Topping wrote in Rhythmic "These guys had all of the essential elements of a really good live band. They had the obvious element of music, but most of all the Aquabats had perfect stage presence. Not only did they have cool costumes and special guests, like the Powdered Milk Man, who was the 'root of all that is evil', they had a special hold on the audience. What other band could make a whole entire room full of people sit down on the floor so the Commander could tell a story about the Martian Girl of his dreams, or get the audience to join them in a heartfelt chorus of The Star Spangled Banner'....This was not just a group of musicians it was a group of entertainers."
It seems unlikely that the fantastical antics the Aquabats will ever draw widespread interest from the over twenty-one crowd. More probable is their following in the footsteps of earlier pre-teen fantasy phenomenons such as Kiss, Alice Cooper, and the Monkees. Indeed, an ambition of the Aquabats is to have a television show similar to the series the Monkees had in the 1960s. The Aquabats are not the kind of band that draws casual followers. Either one gets them or one doesn't. As Christian Jacobs told the Riverside Press-Enterprise/ "Every so often you'll get kids who yell, 'You guys are stupid!' It's kind of like, the joke's on you, guy, we are stupid."
The Return of the Aquabats, 1995.
The Fury of the Aquabats, 1997
Los Angeles Times (Orange County edition), May 24,1996, p.F23; October 28, 1997, p.F1.
OC Weekly (Orange County, CA), January 17, 1997, p.20; November 21, 1997, p.24.
Orange County Register, November 21, p.F55.
Rhythmic (Humboldt County, CA), November 1997.
Riverside Press-Enterprise, November 21, 1997, p.AA13.
The Whitworthian (Whitworth College, Brookhaven, MS), November 18, 1997.
Heckler Magazine home page ().
In Music We Trust (on-line magazine) issue number 4, December 1996 - January 1997 ().