The verdict is unanimous. “Yes” and “easily” are the answers. It may be the only thing all six members of Beware! The Other Head of Science immediately agree on. There’s manic dysfunction in the way the band—quite possibly the tallest and hairiest in Albany—fill a sidewalk, but occasionally—well, more often than you might expect—their swarming geekery synergizes around an arcane subject and, wham, it becomes clear why the band’s oddball formula works so well. The subject in question: Does Champ, the Lake Champlain monster, actually exist?
“Have you not seen the Sandra Mansi photograph?” bassist Jesse Horton asks in disbelief. “It’s clear evidence.”
Citing an episode of the Cartoon Network show Venture Brothers, percussionist and synthesizer player Ryan Stewart acknowledges the faulty conclusion that Champ is either a plastic bag or a beaver.
Logically, Kamran Parwana, another of the band’s four synthesizer players, deduces that Champ is merely a Plesiosaur. “But, who knows what the fuck a couple million years of evolution have done to him?”
“He may have even developed a little finger,” Horton speculates. “It’s only use: to open a pop-top can.”
The whole exchange isn’t exactly incidental. It’s a cold February night, and libations are on the brain as the band members walk to “the good beer store” on Lark Street after a show by fellow B3nson Records act Sgt. Dunbar and the Hobo Banned at the Dovecote (formerly the Amrose and Sable Gallery on Hudson Avenue). The electropop band, B3nson’s most pronounced stylistic anomaly, will release their debut album Big American Godzilla Party tomorrow (Friday, Feb. 26) with a show at Valentine’s, and Champ has earned himself a starring role.
Over a charging death-disco beat led by drummer Seth Tillinghast, vocalist Matt “Terd” Ferguson cries, “Monster of Lake Champlain, where are you?!” in a way that Screamin’ Jay Hawkins might, if cast in an episode of Scooby Doo. For most bands, this sort of thing would serve as a cute gimmick, but mythical beasts, robots, epic battles, and pop-cultural in-jokes are central to Beware!’s very identity.
It’s only natural, then, that the band would much prefer to discuss Dungeons and Dragons, Magic: The Gathering, and favorite Godzilla movies rather than musical influences. In fact, with these guys, there may be no distinction.
“We play music,” says vocalist, guitarist and, yes, synthesizer player Richard Nolan, “but that’s only because people want to hear it. We don’t really listen to it.”
“When we started this band, we just wanted to be exciting,” Horton explains. “So, we had to learn instruments we didn’t know how to play.” For anyone who’s seen a Beware! show, complete with costumes and confetti cannons, it should come as no surprise to hear that the band’s first instrument was essentially a strobe light.
“On one of the first songs I ever recorded,” Ferguson explains, “I miked a strobe light for a beat. I kid you not.”
This, however, took place when Ferguson and Nolan were still in high school, growing up in the Ballston Spa/Saratoga Springs area.
“We used to take the strobe light,” Nolan says, “and sit in [Ferguson’s] bedroom playing Nirvana and Nine Inch Nails with it going because we were like, one day we’re going to need this. His parents hated it.”
Now, it’s kind of hard to imagine what the band would be without their theatrical aids. Halloween is the band’s official anniversary, and every year they seem to up the thematic ante. In 2008, the band performed as McDonalds characters; last year it was Batman villains. Ferguson, who writes the bulk of the band’s material with Horton, confesses that much of their inspiration comes from the “junk culture” they were raised on, as well as some “grossly exaggerated actual events,” like (I’m assuming) “How We Stole Jack White’s Tesla Coil”—only one of their many songs that race at the clip of a cartoon chase sequence. The band’s most impressive thematic feat might have been last year when they performed an original score for the 1925 silent film The Lost World at the Albany Public Library. They’d originally hoped to tackle Metropolis due to its steampunk aesthetic, but the two-and-a-half-hour running time made them opt for The Lost World’s campy stop-motion dinosaur fights—a subject that probably better suits their tendencies anyway.
Big American Godzilla Party isn’t a concept album, per se, but it does sum up what the band aim to deliver.
“[The title] is originally from the Clerks animated series,” Nolan says, but Ferguson explains the idea stems from what would happen if the band ever toured Japan, given how tall they all are. While the titular beast never actually appears in any songs, “Champ” is accompanied by the twisted Norteño waltz “Origins of El Chupacabre” and the Nintendo sprint of one of the band’s calling-card tunes, “Front Row Seats for the Great Beast.”
Nintendo, of course, is an inevitable topic of conversation. And it’s fitting, somehow, that it should come up as this roving conversation comes to rest momentarily on the stoop and bike-shaped bike racks outside the College of Saint Rose’s Picotte Hall on State Street.
“They never changed the access code,” Ferguson explains, “so I was able to sneak in here long after I dropped out of graphic-design school.” His prior band, Parwana (which included Nolan, Stewart, and its namesake Parwana), used the space to surreptitiously silkscreen T-shirts, but tonight the only misdemeanor offense Beware! will risk is an open-container violation while discussing the top five video games to influence the album.
Most tracks, like instrumental opener “Teddy Roosevelt’s Modded MacBook Pro (pt. 1),” feature no less than three layers of squiggly, fuzzy and hovering synthesizer, harkening back to the soundtracks of early 8-bit video games. On “Phase 3: Profits,” buzzing guitars and spray-of-diamonds sequencers are ironed on, giving the track a squeaky-clean groove somewhere between Ratatat and the video game Castlevania. It might simply be a testament to how good home-recording gear is these days, but it’s pretty amazing to realize the record was produced in Stewart and Nolan’s Schenectady apartment, on Parwana’s laptop, through microphones the band bought then returned to Guitar Center.
“The thing that got us through recording,” Stewart says, “was playing original Super Mario World for Super Nintendo.” There was a period of 72 hours when Nolan and Parwana were mixing the record that Stewart remained glued to his console, occasionally offering moral support. With only two members claiming any dexterity with gaming systems post-NES, it was vintage games that provided the most inspiration. Super Dodgeball, Dr. Mario, Home Improvement (“It’s like they took Jurassic Park and put nail guns in it”), and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles in Time rank highest. “Our next record might be called Turtles in Time,” Stewart continues. “It’s going to open with ‘Big Apple, 3 AM,’ and all the tracks are going to be named after the levels.”
Despite the constant temptation of video games and impromptu games of Magic: The Gathering, the band seem pleased with the final product. “We recorded entirely independent,” Nolan says, “and did not have [a big] budget. We did not ask for any help whatsoever. We had $384 and were able to crank out what I like to call golden hits. Straight-to-the-top material.”
Whether out of modesty or distractibility, this is about all they’ll say regarding the record. Already, Nolan is on to the finer points of his blue/black Magic deck, and Ferguson admits his black vampire deck is “kinda in right now.” Stewart quips that, if Nolan applied himself, “he could pump gas or something. Instead he’s just in a local band and plays Magic,” yet confesses in the next breath that all those hours of recording allowed him to build a pretty good black/white/green deck. Horton, Parwana and Tillinghast feign ignorance, yet it’s already been revealed that, later this evening, the band will regroup for a “20-sided die journey” of D&D.
“My mom calls and wonders what I do I do at this point in my life,” Parwana says, shaking his head. It’s kind of no surprise. “She has no idea I’m a musician.”