Manplanet: All Systems Go

Paul Sand

You might think that after sharing a stage with a huge inflatable gorilla, there is nowhere left go in the world of theatrical rock. Jeff Ham, frontman, guitarist and songwriter for Minneapolis space rockers Manplanet, has proved otherwise.

“Detroit (Ham’s previous band) did a show at First Avenue and we had scaffolding, an inflatable gorilla, pyrotechnics, crazy outfits… We were always trying to outdo each other and the previous show,” Ham said. “With [Manplanet] it’s more than trying to outdo. It’s about finding something that’s cool and going with it.”

Ham hatched the idea for Manplanet before Detroit split-up in late 1999. His idea was synth-laden space tunes played by four guys, each assigned a different colored set of instruments and equipment with a name to match. Or as Ham puts it, simply “pop-rock with a concept.”

Ham leads Manplanet as the white-adorned Jefferson White. His cousin, Pete Greene, is the green-clad drummer with the unsurprising name, Pete Green. Bassist Tim Holly suits up as the red-wearing Tim Crimson. Guitarist and keyboardist Adam Prince is head-to-toe in blue as Atom Blutron.

“All the guys were pretty cool to go with it right away,” he says, still sounding a bit surprised.

While playing shows locally, the band recorded and released Skylab, an EP that immediately blasts off with Cheap Trick-style guitar pop and interesting lyrical humor. The poetically titled “I, Robot” is Ham’s response to Styx’s “Mr. Roboto,” complete with mechanical vocal delivery and a robot character with a mind of its own. The slow, layered “Jet Pack” finds Ham lamenting the fact that Jetson‘s technology still isn’t widely available, while he sings of patiently waiting to see a cultural anomaly in the quirky “Ball of Twine.”

“I’ll write a song like ‘Space Station Disaster,’ Ham says of his lyrics, “[and] it’s basically about a long-distance relationship. So I’m thinking about that, and I’m using space terms to put it in a setting to fit our concept,” he says.

 

Onstage, Manplanet is part automaton, moving mechanically to the beat, and part Devo, working the crowd with visuals including television screens, blasts of pyrotechnics and-probably the most recognizable and memorable part of their show-tight vinyl space suits. So it was a problem when the custom-made outfits were stolen from the band’s van last September at a tour stop near Philadelphia.

“The new ones have a little tag in them [that says] ‘If stolen please return to Manplanet’ with a P.O. box number,” Ham says with a laugh.

Although the stage show may sound like a bit much, Ham keeps it in perspective.

“I’ve always tried to have a good balance of people wanting to buy the records or listen to the songs, as well as come and see a good stage show,” Ham says.

Perhaps it was this strange mix of catchy tunes and memorable stage presence that caught the attention of Tim Scott, a Manplanet fan, and a producer of Comedy Central’s series Let’s Bowl. Before the show’s first season, Scott asked Ham to contribute some music to the show.

“I was psyched. I’m an Oingo Boingo and Mark Mothersbaugh fan, and those guys have always done cool stuff in TV and movies,” Ham says. (Danny Elfman of Oingo Boingo wrote the theme for The Simpsons, Mothersbaugh of Devo wrote the theme for The Rugrats.)

Let’s Bowl‘s producers later asked the band to appear in the show’s pilot episode. The band will also appear in three new episodes of the upcoming season, airing in April, Ham says.

While Let’s Bowl has afforded the band national exposure, Ham sounded more excited about hanging around the set with the show’s newest writer, former Mystery Science Theater 3000 star and Minnesota native Mike Nelson.

“After we did the three tapings, the whole staff came out and we [took] a group picture. We were like, “Oh my God! That’s Mike Nelson!”

Don’t expect any members of Manplanet to appear as contestants on the show though.

“We bowl occasionally when we’re on tour in order to kill time, but we’re all really bad,” Ham admits.

Despite a lack of bowling skills, Ham and Manplanet plan to push on, promoting their latest release, An Introductory to Musicianship.

The EP is a thicker and meatier successor to the Skylab, from the mellowed-out vibe of “All Systems Go” to the rapid-fire rock of “Silver Car.”

After having the EP distributed to college radio stations around the country this year, Manplanet is returning from a month-long East Coast tour that Ham described as their “best so far.”

“We’re building followings in these cities-some small, some big,” he said. “It’s a lot of work touring, but if you stop coming back, it’s like starting all over again, you know?”

Manplanet plays two shows Saturday at the 400 Bar (400 Cedar Ave., Mpls. 612-332-2903). 4 p.m. all-ages show with Caught Her Eyes and the Sugar Divas. 9 p.m. 21+ show with Angry Atom.