Noise Pop Fest Kicks Off With Quirky Man Or Astro-Man? Set

I Am Spoonbender, Electro Group, Fluke Starbucker also play opening night of event that will include 40 bands.

SAN FRANCISCO — The rococo finery of the Great American Music Hall provided an incongruous backdrop for the low-tech onslaught of the Man or Astro-Man? set that kicked off Noise Pop 2000 on Tuesday.

Starting with a space-suited announcer speaking through a vocoder from a balcony above the crowd, the Man or Astro-Man? show made use of a Tesla coil, a theremin, projected science films, computer keyboards wired up as musical instruments, a guitar-bass hybrid played by two bandmembers at once and a huge, lit-up brain pulsating in a tank.

"My God, it's entertainment and education!" a voice screamed from the back of the hall.

The band was the headliner for the first night of the eighth annual festival — which this year will include 40 bands, 10 music showcases, film programs and panel discussions through Sunday at various venues. (Visit the festival's Web site,, for more information.)

Sporting matching black shirts and black wrap-around goggles, Man or Astro-Man? issued their quirky, upbeat blend of surf, punk, guitar rock, space music and movie dialogue samples in such pieces as "Interstellar" (RealAudio excerpt), "Man Made of CO2" (RealAudio excerpt) and "Theme From Eeviac" (RealAudio excerpt).

Big on props and choreographed goofiness, Man or Astro-Man?'s sardonic sense of drama was infectious.

"If anything goes wrong, if there's a problem with the sound, if we f--- up a song, I'm afraid you'll have to address it with the big giant brain!" frontman Birdstuff screamed, as all four bandmembers bowed solemnly to the bubbling tank over their heads. Many in the crowd bowed down as well.

After earlier sets by Electro Group and Fluke Starbucker, I Am Spoonbender proved an appropriate segue to Man or Astro-Man?'s brand of edutainment. Rotating from toys to instruments — and often combining the two — I Am Spoonbender mixed in hard-driving drum loops, strobe lights and multiple keyboards. Uniformed in black shirts with skinny red ties, the mod-looking foursome pleased the crowd with spooky, hypnotic pieces that seemed to meld into each other. Whispery vocals (with two members crooning at one point into miked telephone receivers), projected science films and a darkened stage added to the surreal, atmospheric feel of their music.

"We're trying to pace ourselves," concert-goer Hilary Swinn, 27, of Berkeley said with a laugh. "It's going to be a big festival this year, and we have the hundred-dollar passes [allowing entrance to all Noise Pop events], so this is just the beginning."

Noise Pop began in 1993 with five bands performing on one night. Throughout the years, organizers Kevin Arnold and Jordan Kurland have expanded the festival, introducing new local talent while also drawing a steady roster of popular national acts. Such artists as Chixdiggit!, the Fastbacks and the Groovie Ghoulies have made it a nearly annual tradition to show up for the event, while local bands apply and hope for one of the coveted opening slots.

Live-music highlights this year will include shows by X (with original guitarist Billy Zoom), Bob Mould, Beulah and the Fastbacks. Additional evening programs will screen films portraying the work and music of X, Guided by Voices and Yo La Tengo, among others.

The Saturday afternoon panel discussions will have participation from local musicians, booking agents, journalists, managers, lawyers and publicists, and will tackle such topics as how to make ends meet as an independent artist, using the Internet to your advantage and an exploration of the notion of credibility in music.