by Niles Schwartz
You may have heard that, after being absent for more than a decade, a sci-fi legend from a galaxy far, far away is returning this weekend. Fans are lined up, braving the cold and ready to get down, nostalgically reaching out for bygone years and embracing the transcendence of a soul-enlivening cosmic force.
I don’t even have to tell you that I’m talking about Minneapolis’ own space rock band Manplanet, and their upcoming show this Saturday at the Triple Rock. A group of magic marker colors and names–Jefferson White, Tim Crimson, Pete Green, and Benny Blue–I first encountered their intergalactic synth rock charm on a cold November night in Iowa City where they opened for the iconic (in as much as bands that didn’t “make it” are iconic) indie band The Frogs, appropriate considering The Frogs’ stage pomp and befuddling personae of bat wings and black face mirrored the theatricality of the opening act.
As founding member Jeff Ham puts it, “Manplanet was born from the ashes of the local band Detroit [Ham and Grand Eull],” being active from 1998-2003. Their rockin’ new wavey space act was infectious stuff, backed up by stellar showmanship and addictive candy-flavored EPs (Skylab and An Introduction to Musicianship). For me they stand out in those lost and foggy years of the early aughts, the time Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke had some 30 years earlier predicted extraterrestrial convergences, dawning artificial intelligence, and journeys beyond the infinite. And yet Manplanet lamented, between the giddiness of their hip-shaking exuberance of crashing spacecrafts and malevolent robots, how the Future as anticipated by television never quite materialized; quoting their song “Jetpack,” No flying cars, no living on the moon, no photon ray guns on the market soon.
As bands do, Manplanet faded away as members moved on to various projects and the Future meanwhile continued to take (mis)shape. Years past Kubrick and Clarke’s off-the-mark 2001, we just hit Marty McFly’s 2015, realizing how Robert Zemeckis’ visions of Back to the Future II haven’t really got traction other than the remarkable similarities between Biff Tannen and the ascendancy of Donald Trump.
What’s different is that in the Future the Past is King, to the extent that what’s happening Now is basically Then’s ideas for Soon (if you’ll allow me to get all Spaceballs: The Videotape for a sec). We have reboots of Twin Peaks, Evil Dead, Star Trek, Star Wars, Rocky, and Mystery Science Theater 3000 either already in circulation or being prepared.
But best of all, we have Manplanet, reunited, revitalized, and ready to rock. Apparently the space suits still fit and founding member Ham has set his blasters for glam rock stung as he once more adopts the persona of Jefferson White; joining him are drummer Pete (Green) Jelsma, bassist Tim (Crimson) Holly, and keyboardist Ben (Benny Blue) Perlstein. Marking the occasion, I sent out some transmissions into the ether, and was fortunate enough to get back some signals.
The band’s shiny synth rock aesthetic had a retro vibe anticipating mainstream bands like The Killers, The Sounds, The Faint, The Bravery–who all kind of broke out when Manplanet left Earth.
Manplanet: “MP was definitely influenced by bands that used synthesizers (Devo, Kraftwerk, The Cars) and was happy to see bands like the ones mentioned incorporate synthesizers. However, MP was sad when banjos and mandolins seemed to recently replace many synthesizers in popular music.”
What’s the allure of theatricality for you, from the costumes and hair to the band’s distinctive choreography to the on-stage TVs and explosions?
Manplanet: “As far as the MP stage show, probably a combination of bands like Kiss and Devo (again) would be cited as influences… we always tried to bring as big of a show as possible to smaller venues.”
The concept question remains. Are you guys robots or extraterrestrials?
Manplanet: “We are an extraterrestrial robot space cult.”
Unlike White, Red, and Green, the “Blue” member has sort of become like the Spinal Tap drummer. “Blue #4” (now Bennie Blue) is the credited member on An Introductory to Musicianship. What’s the story of the mysterious Blue member?
Manplanet: “Many of the ‘Blue Guys’ were re-programmed by family, friends, and co-workers over the years… attempts to re-program Blue #4 (Ben Perlstein) were unsuccessful.”
What have the members been doing in the intervening years?
Manplanet: “Jeff (White) Ham, Pete (Green) Jelsma and Ben (Blue) were all involved with the Electric Light Orchestra tribute band E.L.nO. Tim (Crimson) Holly played in a band called International Espionage. Ben has also been part of the management team of The Replacements.”
What was the germ sparking the band’s return to the stage?
Manplanet: “MP did short set of songs for a friends moving away party last year… we had talked at that time about possibly playing a full show if the opportunity presented itself. We were asked recently to play again and we said yes!”
In addition to robots and a sci-fi mien, you have a song with a local geographic reference (“Ball of Twine”) and a catchy drug song (“Silver Car”). What went into inspiring both of those particular tracks.
Manplanet: “I’ve always liked to use events/news stories I thought were interesting/weird for song inspiration… the Skylab return to earth, the John DeLorean cocaine bust are a few examples. I guess ‘Ball of Twine’ is kinda in the same vein too. I guess we figured someone should cover those important subjects…”
We still don’t have flying cars, photon ray-guns, living on the moon, but Television Phones are indeed here. Is the future looking more promising?
Manplanet: “I would say MP is not satisfied with technology… hover boards are catching fire, people rarely use their smartphones to video call, and vinyl records still sound the best…”
Is this show a one-time nostalgia trip, or can we expect more of Manplanet?
Manplanet: “…for that very fact, we’ve been discussing a plan to reissue our music on vinyl. I’m sure we will play a few shows if the plan comes to fruition.”
For the uninitiated, you can listen to the Manplanet canon on Soundcloud right here!
For information on Saturday night’s Manplanet show at the Triple Rock, go here.