Breakfast burritos. Should the Phenomenauts ascend to pop stardom and intergalactic glory, they’ll have the breakfast burritos to thank. Pancakes, too, and sausage links and French toast. The way to the heart of commercial punk, apparently, is through its stomach.
Major Jimmy Boom, drummer, is explaining how his Oakland space-rockabilly band has scammed its way onto the Warped Tour, the magnificently overblown corporate-punk summer camp. Dateline: Seattle, 2003, early July. “They didn’t know who we were,” he says. “We showed up at six o’clock in the morning, and we pretty much just followed the line of buses in. Then we played, and the main guys that set up the tour came over and said, ‘Who the fuck are these guys?’
“The next morning, we got up and cooked everybody breakfast in Portland. The first people we hit were the people that actually make the passes. We actually brought them a breakfast burrito, right to their door, right where they make the passes at, and said, ‘Hey, here’s a breakfast burrito. And we’re on the tour. We’d like to get our passes.’ And they took our picture, they did all the stuff, and we got the passes.”
Officially, the Phenomenauts aren’t playing the Warped Tour. They had no invitation, no press, no money, no cushy stage slot, and no encouragement. But they’ve set out to follow the tour anyway, for a solid month and a half, armed with guile, tenacity, and a spatula.
Jimmy is proud of this. “Today the main guy, Kevin Lyman, came up and said ‘Yeah, you guys, you know, I could’ve kicked you off a long time ago. But I like the breakfasts. You’re alright guys. You’re contributing enough to the tour. So you can keep on going.’ So that’s pretty much what it is. Cookin’ breakfast. Food.”
Meet the East Bay’s craftiest, ballsiest band.
Commander Angel Nova, guitar and vocals: A pithy half-Greek with slicked-back, jet-black hair (he’s the only remotely rockabilly-lookin’ dude in the bunch), Angel kicks off every performance by shouting “Gimme a go or no-go to rock!” After determining his bandmates’ equipment is working properly, he leads a countdown, backwards from ten to blast-off, whereupon a tank of carbon dioxide blows plumes of smoke out into the audience and the spectacle begins. He drives a 2081 Toyota Corolla and employs sarcasm in 80 percent of his daily conversation.
Corporal Joebot, guitar and vocals: In a disastrous jumping-on-the-bed accident, a ceiling fan sliced off part of Joebot’s head. Thus, he now wears a theremin helmet (also known as a “therimatic helmerator”) and speaks in a robotic monotone when it occurs to him to stay in character and he’s not too tired. Occasionally he sings through a bullhorn. He writes songs about having sex with your television: “Why was I programmed to feel pain?” he laments. His stroke of genius is “Jamboree” (as in “space jamboree”), theme song to the greatest Elvis movie never made, the one that resembles Barbarella. Joebot is tall, thin, and endlessly expressive. He entertains himself on the road by launching into operatic renditions of old TV theme songs. His Reading Rainbow is fabulous.
Captain Chreehos, bass: Though completely bald and forced to wear goggles due to spectral radiation, Captain Chreehos keeps his spirits up by masterminding the Warped Tour breakfast assault, though a couple weeks into the tour his day job forces him back to Oakland. He’s very quiet, but it’s a thoughtful — not brooding — silence. The first time you catch him frowning you assume he’s angry with you, but he’s really just trying to decide whether to use milk or water in his banana pancake mix. His arms bear tattoos of the Italian phrases for “champion” and “I will think,” the latter because “I got into some trouble with my girlfriend, and the only way I’m gonna fuckin’ remember is to tattoo it on my arm.”
Major Jimmy Boom, drums: “I get to pick how fast we play the songs,” Jimmy notes proudly. He’s also the primary pilot of the Phenomabomber, the absurdly adorned Phenomenauts tour bus. (We’ll come back to that.) Jimmy is the band’s most consistently cheerful member: He calls people “bro” a lot. Onstage, he often looks insanely happy. And if his mother didn’t live near the Phoenix Warped Tour venue, and didn’t have a pool, everyone in the band would be dead.
Professor Greg Arius, Moog, arsenal manager: Eschewing the official Phenomenauts onstage uniform (a blue and red Star Trek-lookin’ space blazer, Dickies, and black sneakers), Professor Greg instead wears a white lab coat. He’s primarily the band’s official showman, lighting Jimmy Boom’s cymbals on fire midsong, blasting the crowd with silly string, and wielding the Rocketerator (a modified bike pump and sprinkler system that fires cardboard rockets) and the Toilet Paperator (which unloads a full roll of TP in a long, arcing stream). He’s patented a hypnotic onstage dance in which he does the Twist and snaps his fingers in time. Also, the weird face from the cover of the Dead Kennedys’ album Give Me Convenience or Give Me Death is tattooed on his bicep.
Dirty Old Colonel, band manager: A bit older and surlier than his charges, Dirty Old Colonel’s manner is split 70/30 between irritable and jovial. He growls a lot and disappears intermittently when he hasn’t gotten enough sleep. He minces people, not words. As we join the band for a four-day jaunt along their Warped Tour scam, he greets us in San Francisco with a dire warning: “This fuckin’ tour is a motherfucker, man.”
It’s half-past six on a sleepy, ash-gray Saturday morning, and Phenomabomber Beta is rolling mightily across the upper deck of the Bay Bridge.
Phenomabomber Beta is a 1995 Dodge “Wide One” van whose exterior is adorned with several pounds of random junk: Toy rayguns, beat-up computer parts (motherboards, mouses, keyboards), VCR displays, a Tamagotchi, a slide projector, a birth-control pillbox, and several mixing bowls serving as the rear boosters. Silver spray paint coats every inch of it. It’s an art van that compels fellow motorists to drive off the road in shock. Its brethren include Phenomabomber Alpha (a similar-looking ’83 Dodge, now retired after too many breakdowns) and the Phenomenator (the aforementioned 2081 Corolla, immortalized in Angel’s aptly named go-go surf tune “The Phenomenator”).
Though acknowledging their van’s role as the ultimate conversation piece, the boys are a little tired of that conversation. Specifically, the three questions they’re constantly asked:
1. “How long did it take you to do this?” (A couple barbecues.)
2. “What kind of glue did you use?” (The really strong kind.)
3. “Are you going to Burning Man?” (No.)
No, today the mother ship is homing in on Pier 30-32, site of today’s Warped gig. The Phenomabomber lumbers through the gates, where it encounters an armada of shiny tour buses, a random conglomeration of half-erected makeshift stages, a pristine row of unbefouled Port-a-Johns, and a wayward stream of comatose punk rock dudes stumbling about in a pre-dawn purple haze.
The Warped Tour prides itself on artfully constructed chaos, a joyful clusterfuck featuring fifty-plus bands mashed onto two constantly alternating main stages and an endless convoy of tiny ones, scattered throughout the piers, raceways, and giant parking lots the tour infiltrates. Since its mid-’90s inception, the tour has boasted huge lineups featuring the most profitable punk bands. Rancid, Pennywise, Face to Face, the Ataris, and the Dropkick Murphys lead the assault this time around.
But while the chumps in those bands are drooling on their diamond-encrusted silk pillows aboard their guided-missile-launching, air-conditioned tour buses, the Phenomenauts are yawning and cussing and strolling around the grounds waiting for tour organizers to decide where the Phenomabomber can park. In an hour and a half we’re forced to move five times. The entire process takes about four hours — the band has given it an official name: “Hurry up and wait.”
Far from being low men on the totem pole, the Phenomenauts barely cling to the pole at all. At every tour stop and wacky new venue, the Warped organizers must determine what goes where and how — dealing with those spaceman rockabilly goofballs who bribed their way in via breakfast burritos is not a high priority.
The band has grown accustomed to this neglect, however. At Warped, you display your wealth and hipster cachet by purchasing some sort of ridiculous motorized scooter contraption and jetting it around as the crew toils the morning away — the big-shot production manager barks orders astride an absurd circus bicycle with a giant front wheel. Not to be outdone, Jimmy Boom bops around on one of two long, silver Phenomacomet skateboards, handmade for the band by enthusiastic neighbors. As he curves around the half-constructed lighting rigs, Jimmy is perhaps reflecting on last year’s Warped concert on this very spot — a glorious triumph indeed. Last year his band snuck in and played, without even bothering to make breakfast.
Though the Phenomenauts are no strangers to the standard-issue club gig, the boys get off by staging commando performances, which involves infiltrating a high-profile location — the California Music Awards and the Fillmore, among others — with battery-operated equipment designed to foil security guards who literally can’t pull the plug. Show up, uninvited and unexpected. Play a few tunes. And when the heat is on, get the hell outta there. “Last time when we went to the Gay Pride Fest, we set up next to all the Zen tents,” Jimmy Boom recalls. “‘Are you ready to rock?’ ‘Nooooo! Get these guys outta here!'”
Last year’s Warped commando raid was the Phenomenauts’ gnarliest yet. The bandmembers somehow talked their way through the production entrance on foot, and when a few walkie-talkie-brandishing security toughs caught on and formed a search party, the band sequestered itself behind a Dumpster. “I got grabbed by a lady, ’cause I was carrying a huge commando rig,” Professor Greg recalls. “And the lady was like, ‘Where are you supposed to be going?’ and I was like, ‘Over there somewhere.’ I thought we were done at that point. And I just kept walking, and she was sort of wondering what to do. And I just walked really fast.”
Joebot, meanwhile, was so terrified he “downloaded in his pants.”
During a set break on a nearby stage, the band suddenly sprang to life nearby, blowing through two songs before someone tapped Angel on the shoulder. The pissed-off security guys? The fuzz? No, just a friendly stage manager saying that the next band scheduled was a no-show — and would they like to hit the stage instead?
Glory. Absolute, hysterical, “We Are the Champions” glory. A “rock ‘n’ roll victory,” Joebot calls it. The Phenomenauts played a full set and afterward sold every single item of merchandise they had along. “It’s the hardest thing to do, but when you’re done, and you’re actually sellin’ those CDs at the end and cheering and you came uninvited, you feel like a million spacebucks,” Jimmy Boom says. “You feel like you conquered the world. And really, you just got in free to a concert.”
“Yeah, really, you’ve worked for nothing,” Angel adds. “You’ve broken in and worked. ‘Let’s break in and work and leave!’ We’re actually the world’s stupidest band.”
This is difficult to dispute, as the Phenomenauts brazenly decided this year to lay siege to the Warped Tour for a solid six weeks. Venue to venue, city to city. Surmising that bum-rushing the gates every single day might not cut it, they concocted the breakfast scam instead. They dreamt up a deceitful way to go legitimate. As a result, they now proudly display laminated all-access, photo-ID passes.
And now they’re hurrying up and waiting.
Finally, the Phenomabomber is permanently docked, next to the main entrance gates. The band scrambles to unload their gear — standard plug-in amps this time — from the trailer they’ve been towing, which is painted silver and outfitted with huge fins to match the Phenomabomber. They build an elaborate merchandise table as well, the placement of every CD and T-shirt finalized just as the gates burst open and the hordes of awkward, bumbling, squinting kids pour in.
The ratio of attractive people to alarmingly awkward dweebs is approximately one to thirty. Low-Slung Pants + Belly Shirt x Giant Near-Beer Gut = Complete Disaster. Ah, youth.
Angel thoughtfully surveys the teeming masses: “I’m tired,” he says.
For perhaps a half-hour the awkward, dweeby people roam the grounds and marvel silently at the array of distractions laid out for them. Along with the obligatory stands for every crappy band and washed-up record label aboard, every remotely youth-oriented organization has snagged a kiosk: The Marines (with a chin-up bar). Spin and Alternative Press magazines. Anti-Racist Action. Boarding for Breast Cancer. A Playstation 2 free demo area where you can try out the new Tomb Raider (sucks) and The Hulk (sucks less). Action for Animals. Subway. Yoo-Hoo, complete with enormous blow-up Yoo-Hoo bottle. Free samples of Kraft Easy Mac, the official snack of the Warped Tour. And a little somethin’ called Chronic Candy: “The Future of Candy,” it boasts. “Every lick is like taking a hit.”
Dirty Old Colonel bides his time lording over the Phenomenauts merch booth. In addition to the usual spate of T-shirts, tank tops, stickers, buttons, and CDs ($10 for a newly remastered copy of Rockets and Robots, the Phenomenauts’ debut), one can also acquire official Phenomenauts silly string, squirt guns, and space visors (all $2 apiece), and the newly minted Phenomenauts yo-yo ($5).
The yo-yos aren’t moving so well yet. Eventually Dirty Old Colonel wanders off and returns with the schedule for the “legitimate” side stage about fifty feet away; determining when the between-band set breaks there will open a small window of opportunity, he posts today’s afternoon schedule inside the Phenomabomber — 12:20, 2:35, 4:50, 6:20. Fifteen-minute sets apiece.
A small crowd has already gathered to see the interlopers. A kid with a Mohawk turns to his buddy and says, “I’m just gonna stand here until they start, because the Phenomenauts are great.”
Just a few minutes later, decked out in their snazzily cheesy uniforms, the Phenomenauts spill out of the Phenomabomber and directly onto their makeshift ground-level stage. Angel then begins the countdown to rock.
The Phenomenauts are well aware that they did not pioneer the “rockabilly in outer space” concept. Man or Astroman?, for one, precedes them, true. But if the costumes, the goofy names, the dry-ice blasts, the flaming cymbals, the Toilet Paperator, and the relentlessly catchy sci-fi tunes the band specializes in (“Earth Is the Best,” “Robot Love,” “Space Mutants 4”) are all gimmicks, they comprise the biggest, tastiest sonic cheeseball ever constructed. Few bands devote more energy, intensity, and ingenuity to their Official Band Vision, no matter how corny that vision may be.
A month earlier the Phenomenauts headlined a Saturday night 924 Gilman gig, taking the stage after a pair of violent, deadly serious Japanese hardcore bands. The change in tone and attitude couldn’t have been more abrupt or more drastic. And the crowd loved it, turning choruses into sing-alongs, and transforming what a half-hour ago had been a brutal mosh pit into a space-age dance floor. The Phenomenauts excel at turning a potentially skeptical crowd into hooting, devout believers in fifteen minutes or less. It’s an invaluable skill to possess when faced with a crowd as sonically bombarded and attention-span-deprived as your typical Warped Tour crew; literally from the word “go,” the band’s first fifteen-minute guerrilla set on the Pier sucked in the curious hometown crowd like a black hole.
See? The space imagery is contagious.”Hometown crowds are the best,” Jimmy Boom says following the 12:20 p.m. show. “That’s the most emotional show we could’ve played. They knew the words.”
And to think this all started with an ’80s cover polka band.
Angel, Joebot, and Jimmy Boom began their musical partnership in the mid-’90s as Space Patrol, which turned Blondie tunes into country dirges, and Billy Idol’s “Dancing with Myself” into a waltz. “Roxanne” and “Walking on Sunshine” were also crowd favorites, which is perhaps a bit of a misnomer, as Space Patrol never drew much of a crowd. It was an all-commando busking-on-the-street-for-coffee operation, and, as Angel admits “no club would ever book that.”
“I played a box and multisized tin cans,” Jimmy Boom adds. “We called it the beatbox.”
This behavior continued, Angel explains, “until our girlfriends left us.”
This is not a joke, he insists: “These are five-, six-year girlfriends.”
“We came home one day with $15,” Jimmy Boom recalls. “And a couple days later, they were gone.”
So, the band picked up Captain Chreehos and Professor Greg, booted polka in favor of rockabilly, and the Phenomenauts emerged at the turn of the century. “I remember thinking, ‘I don’t know anything rockabilly,'” Joebot recalls. “I don’t know the first thing about rockabilly.”
“And now you’re wearing a theremin helmet,” Angel says. “Now you’re the epitome of rockabilly.”
“We weren’t in that whole rockabilly scene,” Jimmy Boom explains. “We were more just trying to have fun. We came from ska bands, rock bands — everything but rockabilly. In fact, most of the guys that like that stuff, they get mad at us. They think we’re making fun of them. And we are.”
But whether the Phenomenauts are laughing with you or at you depends entirely on whether or not you’re laughing. So far, folks are getting the joke. At this point the Warped Tour infiltration is a little over a week old — from Seattle and Portland the caravan rolled down through Southern California, hitting Los Angeles, Long Beach, Pomona. A few good shows for our heroes. A few bad ones. Largely it depends on where fate (and the Warped brass) stashes the band — whether it’s a plum spot near a main stage or a godforsaken lonely corner near the increasingly befouled Port-a-Johns. In San Francisco, it’s a little of both: The toilet location turns out to be a good one. Spirits are high, merch sales higher — well over $1,000 before day’s end — besting the previous record of around $800 and utterly destroying the band’s Warped Tour low point of forty clams.
The Phenomenauts are just barely awake enough to enjoy their victory.
Angel concedes that the band might even break even from merchandise sales on the Warped adventure, but it’s early on and he’s already feeling surly. “We’ll break each other’s necks,” the singer says, launching a little tirade. “I feel like I’ve been doing this for a year — it’s been a week and a half, one-fifth of the whole thing. The bags under my eyes have bags under their eyes. I got an hour of sleep last night. Night before that, I got two hours and then three hours. And that was a really good night. I’m not used to this. It’s uncivilized.”
The sleep-deprived frustration reaches its apex during the Phenomenauts’ third set, which, alas, isn’t meant to be. Again a crowd has gathered, cheering lustily as the countdown begins, but half the equipment isn’t working. The amps keep cutting out. After a series of false starts — Angel twice apologizes to the crowd and turns it away, only to call it back fifteen seconds later when the problem seems resolved — the next band on the nearby side stage kicks in. The window of opportunity has closed. The crowd disperses, bummed out.
Your average headlining Warped vets hardly plug in their own guitars — many stumble off their tour buses and directly onstage, mumble something to the crowd about their hangovers, bumble through a half-assed half-hour set, and stumble right back on the bus, where a full-time driver forages on to the next city. The Phenomenauts are wearing all those theremin helmets at once, fighting for the space, building the stage, playing, tearing it down, loading it up, and driving themselves off into the night. The third set’s unfortunate abortion probably costs them a few hundred bucks in subsequent T-shirt sales. A splendid fourth set at 6:20 eases that pain a bit. But by the time the sun sets, the dweebs have been shepherded out, and the Phenomabomber is reloaded, everyone’s forming bags under the bags under their eyes.
The pier itself is completely destroyed, buried in a thick layer of trash as though recently invaded by Viking frat boys. Two guys nearby start throwing tiny sample shampoo bottles at one another. Mankind as a whole is rapidly devolving.
Time to get out of here.
Phenomabomber Beta rolls back across the Bay Bridge. Tomorrow’s load-in in Sacramento is 7 a.m. as usual, but for the few short interim hours, the Phenomenauts have the luxury of repairing to their homes, or perhaps to their Command Center.
Angel and Professor Greg both reside in the Command Center, a huge West Oakland warehouse that provides the band a rehearsal den and quite impressive performance space, with a stage higher and grander than any legit Oakland club. There’s an onstage hot tub as well, though at the moment it’s completely concealed and full of sawdust. “We’d rather it had water,” Angel notes. “Bubbles. Girls.”
He plans to rectify the situation as soon as the Warped Tour jaunt is over. But now it’s Sunday at six in the morning and the band is late for Sacramento. Angel and Professor Greg have elected to cheat, sleeping in and making the ninety-minute drive separately with their lady friends. Everyone else piles in the Phenomabomber and promptly falls asleep, leaving Captain Chreehos to navigate his way to Sacramento unaided. Marysville, actually, some distance from Sacramento, in what the Bible refers to as “bum-fuckin’ Egypt.” Though the security guards greet him warmly, Captain Chreehos is tremendously displeased as he deplanes and stretches his legs — the Phenomabomber is driving poorly. Vibrating disturbingly. Losing power. Crapping out.
The band convenes to discuss the problem. Fuel filter? Transmission? Engine? Not enough gas? No consensus is reached. Clearly, Captain Chreehos needs something to relax him, so he decides breakfast is on, and he’s making banana pancakes.
Dirty Old Colonel speeds off to the nearest grocery store. He’s in jovial mode, humming random Clash songs and discussing his band’s blueprint for world domination. “I’ve got a friend who’s a booking agent in the Santa Barbara area,” he says. “And I was tryin’ to get a show goin’ with him, but you know, he’s sayin’, ‘You’ve never played out here, no one knows you out here, gotta wait till the time is right.’ And now we can say, ‘Hey, we played the Warped Tour. We sold $800 worth of merchandise. We put a hundred people on our mailing list, you know? The kids will come out.’
“The way I see it,” he concludes, “it’s one fuckin’ T-shirt at a time across America.”
And with that, he buys five boxes of pancake mix, a gallon of milk, several bunches of bananas, and a great deal of sausage. But he returns to the venue and discovers that today’s “hurry up and wait” process is more arduous than usual. Today’s Warped set-up surrounds a large outdoor amphitheater, but the festival is laid out in weird, sprawling, disconnected patches, and no one can figure out how to plug the Phenomenauts into the equation. The band considers setting up in an oddly decorated circular area just inside the main gates, only to discover that the circle is a gigantic water fountain that will send any electricity-conducting musician to the moon for real.
By the time they work things out, the Phenomenauts barely have time to set up their little enclave before the doors open. Breakfast is not served this morning.
Creating a stage would be an even more difficult task, however, if the Phenomenauts hadn’t teamed up with other stragglers as the tour progressed. A sort of “freak-show stage” camaraderie has evolved. There’s the crew from Backseat Conceptions, a low-budget production company filming a slasher flick, Punk Rock Holocaust. (Joebot has already been killed in one scene.) A few of these guys are also members of Beret, an absolutely hilarious “angry French hardcore” band sporting black-and-white-striped shirts, red scarves, berets, and fake pencil mustaches.
“We are so angry we are French and so French we are angry,” explains the bassist, before launching into “Allouette.” In case it’s not obvious, they are not, in fact, French. But they are highly entertaining: In addition to a drummer and a shrieking lead singer, Beret features two large gentlemen who simply thrash around and smash into each other. A sizable crowd watches this with enthusiasm while standing back to avoid bodily injury.
But the punk band Secretions steals the show today, performing for its hometown crowd with the Phenomenauts’ moral support — the bands are label mates on Springman Records (slogan: “Friendly Punks”). Secretions boasts the tour’s most beat-up van, shot to hell and decorated with various pro wrestling action figures. They play standard pop-punk infused with boundless enthusiasm: “Boner,” with its chorus of “Baby, you make me pop a boner,” goes over particularly well, though unlike at the San Francisco gig, there’s no giant pink inflatable phallus bouncing around in the crowd.
The ten-year-old band joined Warped on a lark, sneaking in with the Phenomenauts’ assistance. “They’re like the kings of renegade shows,” explains Secretions singer and bassist Mickie Rat, who boasts a blond streak down the center of his jet-black but hairline-abandoning coif. “They just walk in all authoritative and say, ‘We’re gonna set up right here. Let’s do the show right here.'”
Unfortunately, the band can only afford this hassle for these two shows. “It’s kinda sad,” he admits. “I’m weird like that. I like the adventure. I’ll go through suffering and sunburn and people saying ‘You’re not supposed to be here’ and getting all mad and yelling and whatever. It’s just worth the fun. That’s pretty much it. It’s just fun, adventure.”
Perhaps, but the Phenomenauts themselves play it low-key today. They deliver a handful of passably wacky shows and spend the rest of the day wilting in the upper-90s Marysville heat. They can’t get the Phenomabomber itself into the venue today, so it’s parked some ways away, but the band displays a womblike magnetism and affinity for it. Joebot sprawls out in the back for a spell and discusses his day job as a grocery clerk: “There’s this weird fascination I have with memorizing produce codes. I can’t explain it. I can look at a type of lettuce, and instantly I know what numbers to press and then I hit ‘return.’ It’s really satisfying.”
Delirium has clearly set in. But several band girlfriends have arrived to boost morale. As the Phenomenauts bounce around at the heatstroke-inducing height of the afternoon, Professor Greg’s paramour reclines beneath the tiny shade provided by the merchandise tent.
Does it make her proud to say, “That’s my boyfriend with the toilet paper gun”?
“Yes, absolutely,” she replies. “He’s really important in the band, though.”
Their guerrilla performances concluded for the day, the Phenomenauts hold an informal band meeting in the remarkably posh Warped backstage area. Showers! Air-conditioned chill-out rooms! Free Ms. Pac-Man, and an absurdly extravagant catering staff! The Phenomenauts are getting three square meals a day — everyone insists this is the best they’ve ever eaten. They probably aren’t lying. The Warped Tour has three traveling chefs, including a vegan specialist named François Galipeau. The menu for dinner in San Francisco was
Grilled chicken with a soy ginger glaze
Crispy tofu with a soy ginger glaze
Pineapple fried rice
Sautéed bok choy with snow peas and carrots
Roasted sweet potatoes
Baby greens with wasabi vinaigrette
Now, backstage in Sacramento, the boys are wolfing down Thanksgiving fare — turkey, stuffing, all the fixins — while discussing the complicated matter of their next tour stop.
Tomorrow is a day off, but Tuesday load-in is still 7 a.m., and Phoenix is a fifteen-hour drive.
Captain Chreehos is off the tour and back to work, so the band’s picking up a new bass player in Phoenix — pre-show rehearsal is required.
The Phenomabomber is shot to hell. Some form of major overhaul is required. Professor Greg says he’ll “start reading the manual tonight.”
It would be nice to sleep, sometime, somewhere, for Christ’s sake.
“I’ve been to two Warped Tours in Phoenix,” Jimmy Boom says. “The asphalt was hotter than the sun. I remember watching NOFX and thinking I was dying. Literally dying.”
The meeting adjourns when Angel sticks his head in a decorative landscaping fountain, and then wrings his hair out in a flowerpot.
Sacramento’s gig adjourns shortly thereafter. The now-suspect Phenomabomber is reloaded, and Joebot and Jimmy Boon stand around talking to an awestruck father and his little girl, who wants to know how the van flies to its next gig while carrying so much stuff. (Special rocket fuel.) The night air cools everyone off, finally. Joebot and Captain Chreehos stretch out in the back and bark at each other in fake butt-rocker voices, arguing about Metallica and motorcycles.
Captain Chreehos would prefer to stay on. He’s already talking about flying out to the East Coast in a couple weeks for the last few gigs. Clearly, it’s not hot enough for him yet.
He should’ve seen Phoenix.
The plan is to leave the Command Center at 2 p.m. The we’re-screwed-if-we-don’t-make-this zero hour is 4 p.m. The Phenomabomber takes off at 6 p.m.
No one is confident that sufficient repair work has been performed.
It’s Monday evening, and we’re motoring toward our doom.
Thankfully, the van is tricked out with a TV/VCR loaded with old Simpsons episodes, a Playstation 2 (Angel’s fond of the new Tomb Raider, which still sucks), a stolen library book of Jack London stories, dental floss, baby wipes, suntan lotion, several T-shirts, random socks, myriad pillows and sleeping bags, and a ton of tapes to bump on the surround sound system: the Brian Setzer Orchestra, the Minutemen, Spinal Tap, Men at Work, myriad Iron Maiden titles.
As the East Bay recedes, Angel hangs his head every time Lara Croft falls off the ledge of some Parisian back-alley flophouse, while Joebot and Jimmy Boom sit in the front listening to “The Too Fat Polka.”
Eight hours later, the Phenomabomber is sputtering along at forty, convulsing wildly. The engine light is on. Smoke has infested the cabin. We’re still an incredibly long half-hour outside of Blythe, California, near the Arizona border. In the immediate vicinity, however, looming buildings and twinkling lights suggest a small town, a gas station, a hotel, a 24-hour car repair shop.
We pass a road sign informing us that this metropolis is, in fact, a prison, and that we should not pick up hitchhikers.
The Phenomabomber keeps sputtering.
This is a rather poetic way to die.
But it never happens. As the guys argue once again — engine? fuel filter? too little gas? — the van never stops lurching forward, and it staggers into a Blythe gas station in its apparent death throes.
Incredibly, the Phenomenauts’ collective mood is upbeat. “We’ve lived through much worse than this,” Dirty Old Colonel insists. The bandmates surround the van, peer under the hood, and crack jokes about what the tow truck guy will say: “Wow, this thing’s wide. Wow, this thing’s got a trailer. Wow, how long did it take you guys to do this?”
Just for decorum’s sake, someone fills the gas tank. Magically, the problem disappears.
Just don’t let the gas gauge dip too low, is all. Fill up every 180 miles, and you’ll never get stranded outside a prison at three in the morning.
Dirty Old Colonel is all smiles as he jumps in the pilot’s seat and points the Phenomabomber toward Phoenix. He updates his world domination mantra: “One T-shirt and 180 miles at a time.”
We pull into the Phoenix Warped Tour on Tuesday morning at 7:15. Perfect. But what transpires over the next fifteen hours is a painful blur.
By 10 a.m. it’s 100-plus degrees. The mercury tops out at 112. These figures are displeasing. Here the tour is jammed into the Peoria Sports Complex, spring training site for the Padres and Mariners. The main stages take up most of center and right field. The Phenomenauts join their freak show brethren out where the center field bleachers would be, right behind a giant inflatable punk rocker that floats above a giant Slip ‘n’ Slide, where a lecherous gentleman spends the day brandishing a garden hose and spraying the cleavages of nubile underage ladies.
It is far too hot to find this either repulsive or titillating. The coolers full of official Warped Tour water that all the bands usually receive never arrive — it’s rumored they’ve been stolen. Unfazed, Dirty Old Colonel throws an abbreviated 8 a.m. breakfast near the production tent, dishing up whatever food didn’t already spoil from his fruitless Sacramento journey. Once the main gates open, Joebot leads a recon mission to a nearby Target, which via mirage appears to be a mere couple of parking lots away, but in fact requires a treacherous campaign over miles of baking asphalt desert. Along the way we are attacked by a plague of locusts, a flock of mutant vultures, several sandstorms, and an army of Satanically controlled soldiers of the undead.
We survive, staggering into Target, where we consume a giant Icee/apple juice combo (Joebot) and five consecutive Big Gulp root beers (Joebot’s companion). We return with cheap bottled water and are hailed as heroes.
But on this day, no one is more heroic than Jimmy Boom’s mother, who lives fifteen minutes away. At high noon, at the peak of the hellish atrocity that is summer in Arizona, she arrives in her ice-cold minivan, piles the Phenomenauts into it, and dumps them into her backyard pool near a fridge loaded with beer, lemonade, and coke. Sandwiches are wolfed down, second winds acquired.
She is the messiah.
The band returns to the Sports Complex and delivers two surprisingly fierce sets, led by the more-maniacal-than-usual drumming of Jimmy Boom. Perhaps he’s excited about being reunited with his old bass-playing buddy, Bart. Bart used to play with Jimmy in the mid-’90s Phoenix ska band Conga Shock; now he’s Captain Chreehos’ replacement, and although he has yet to acquire a suitable Phenomenauts nickname, he pounds his upright bass with confidence and aplomb. In the heat and chaos, the band never got around to rehearsing with him beforehand. But prior to their arrival the guys did mail Bart a videotape of one of their rehearsals, with the camera trained solely on Captain Chreehos so Bart could study both his playing and his choreography.
Bart is thirty, with a wife and two kids. He’ll be touring for three solid weeks. “That’s gonna be tough,” he says. “That’s the biggest holdback, leavin’ the family behind, leavin’ the kids. But I have a cell phone nowadays. I can call every day. With my daughter being almost three, that’s the toughest thing — when you come back, they’re like a different person. But I can talk to her every day on the cell phone, so that makes it easy.”
His trial by fire completed, Bart joins the rest of the band in marveling at the freak-show stage’s closing act: Treephort, a shock melodic hardcore outfit from Atlanta. The Phenomenauts have raved endlessly about Treephort, which dropped off the tour before San Fran but reemerged here to play a deeply disturbing set featuring dudes in Speedos lighting their genitals on fire, a smash-the-watermelon salute to Gallagher, and a set-ending milk-chugging contest whereupon everyone pukes in a bucket, which the guitar player then dumps over his head.
“Basically, Warped Tour isn’t a punk festival anymore — it’s a giant corporate event,” explains Treephort frontman Lee Satterfield. “But what we do here is we make punk rock happen again. To me that’s the best part of being here, right here in this spot. We’re doing’ it the right way. We’re doing’ it grassroots. We’re not on a stage. There’s not a big PA. It’s all about you and the audience. It’s like classical punk, classical DIY.”
Every day on the remainder of the tour, the Phenomenauts chatted up the organizers and vied, unsuccessfully, for a stage spot. But as the tour wound down on the East Coast, the Phenomenauts were feeling immensely pleased with themselves. “There’s not very many bands that fight for every little inch that they get,” Joebot says. “I really think that we’ve done that. We really started from square nothing. We really fought hard. We still are. I think that one day, hopefully, someone will really appreciate it.”
“I was thinking they would probably kick us off by the time we played our home city,” Jimmy Boom adds, “that they would’ve just said, ‘Yeah yeah, get out of here. You guys aren’t that great. We don’t have room for you. ‘”
Instead, it’s been the ultimate commando run, and no one ever tapped him on the shoulder. And even if they had, they’d probably just ask for another breakfast burrito.