The Aquabats are a band from Southern California who dress as superheroes and are also the stars of their own television series. In "The Aquabats! Super Show!," which airs Saturday mornings on the Hub, they travel about in their Battle Tram to play concerts and fight monsters. It is a show, in the old circus parlance, for children of all ages.
Recently, on the occasion of the start of the series' second season and a DVD release of its first, I traveled down to Orange County to interview three of the five Aquabats in their world headquarters, a small suite of offices in a Santa Ana office park. The resulting feature, which ran in last Sunday's Times, can be read here.
Present were Christian Jacobs, Ian Fowles and James Briggs, also known as the M.C. Bat Commander, EagleBones Falconhawk and Jimmy the Robot. (Absent were Chad Larson and Richard Falomir, also known as Crash McLarson and Ricky Fitness.) Jacobs, co-creator of "The Aquabats! Super Show!" also co-created the very popular Nickelodeon series "Yo Gabba Gabba!," which one might say is for smaller children of all ages.
Present as well was Joel Fox, an animator and filmmaker who works on both band-related series and appears as the Fox Man (a man dressed as a fox) in the background of every episode of "The Aquabats! Super Show!"
What follows is some of the rest of our conversation, which ranges over the band members' early days on the punk/ska/surf/skateboard scene, the influence of old TV shows, their heroes, their fans, and a few of the nuts and bolts of making their series.
What did you learn as musicians that helps you make television?
Ian Fowles: Before we were even in bands, we'd just go to shows, growing up, and try to be part of that. And no one was better than anyone else.
Christian Jacobs: It was part of that late '70s/early '80s punk rock, DIY thing. Also, I worked in skateboarding for a long time, too, so that's also very "just do it yourself, don't wait around for someone else to sign the check, just go get it done." We were doing skateboard videos, being in punk bands, touring. But, at least with "The Aquabats," even though we were doing so much ourselves, the one thing we seemed to be waiting on was the TV show -- we were waiting for somebody to say like, "OK, we see what you're doing, let's do this." Whereas with "Yo Gabba Gabba!" it was like, "No one is doing that, so we have to go do it."
James Briggs: We kind of missed the Somebody Else Doing It For You movement.
The costumes you wear now, how far back do they date?
JB: Within the first year the general concept was pretty nailed down.
CJ: The costumes were an initial thing. Myself and Crash -- Chad, who plays bass -- were really big Devo fans, and we were like, "Let's do something where it's more uniform." But also around that time there was that kind of surf band explosion, like the mid-'90s bands like Phantom Surfers and the Go-Nuts and Man or Astro-man? -- there were a lot of those kind of bands doing that thing, which I thought was really cool. But at the same time it was a little bit exclusive, it was a little bit 21-and-over, like, cool guys with cool cars and vintage equipment. And we were just surfer kids that were joking around. We wanted to combine Devo with surf music and ska. But we all came from punk bands, so the whole ska thing was more of a reaction to the scene at the time -- there were a lot of ska bands, like No Doubt and Sublime. Reel Big Fish and Save Ferris were all happening at the same time. And we were like, "Let's get in on this and just be silly about it."
At one point, we were trying to do something where every night you wouldn't know what to expect: One night we'd come out with suits and fezzes on, or the next night we'd be dressed like chefs, or in hula skirts. One night we dressed up like Abba-Zabas, like, black and yellow, and we just looked like candy bars.
What was the reaction?
CJ: The punk bands really hated us and then the ska scene didn't really like us that much either, because we were coming from a different angle.
JB: They didn't like that we were just messing around. They were so serious about what they were doing.
As a band you played all-ages shows, and now you make all-ages kids' shows. You've always been kid-friendly.
CJ: I think from going to all-ages shows as a kid, like, taking the bus and going to Fender's or going over the hill, 'cause I grew up in the Valley, right in North Hollywood, so taking the bus over and seeing shows at the Whisky or the Roxy ... just that kid out there on the sidewalk with a skateboard that can't wait to get in to to see the Descendents or whatever -- that's always driven the music part. We never wanted to play 21-and-over clubs. We played a few in the beginning, Jimmy was ... 17?
JB: Eighteen or 19.
CJ: Even though he was in the band he couldn't come into the club unless he was onstage playing; so the whole time we were in there waiting to play, Jimmy was sitting on a stool in the alley. And I was like, "You're never doing this again." All my favorite bands used to sing songs about this, Minor Threat and Black Flag. I think that was at the Tiki Bar, which used to be the Cuckoo's Nest. So the focus of the Aquabats has always been all ages, to be an inclusive thing, which definitely comes out of the punk scene and doing something fun for kids.
What did skateboarding mean to you?
CJ: Skateboarding is huge for me, and the community in skateboarding was so creative, especially in the '80s, and all the guys that came out of that, Spike Jonze and Jason Lee, and the list goes on and on. [Artists] Mark Gonzales and Ed Templeton and Neil Blender, all these guys that were so great on a skateboard but did so many other different things as well. Matt Hensley who's in Flogging Molly is an incredible skateboarder. Danny Way is still doing crazy stuff. Skateboarding opened my eyes to not just like the tricks you could do on a skateboard but what you could do yourself in the world, like, there's no limits. All the guys I grew up skating with and also looking up to, they said, "Yeah, I'm gonna start playing guitar," "I'm gonna start a band." Tommy Guerrero and Ray Barbee -- those guys are incredible and they started playing music while they were skateboarding. Steve Caballero, all those dudes. Music, or art, or making films. Spike, Jacob Rosenberg. They would just look at things like, "I could do that."
[Skateboard legends] Tony Hawk and Eric Koston were in your season premiere.
CJ: Tony and I were on [the 1989 skate-themed movie thriller] "Gleaming the Cube" together. I ended up hanging out with Tony a lot as a teenager, we got to be friends, and years later I saw him at a concert and I was telling him I had this new TV show -- it was "Yo Gabba Gabba!" -- and he was saying, "That's pretty cool." And I was like, "You should come be on the show, it would be rad," and he was, "Yeah, I'll think about it." You know, he's busy, he's all over the place, the biggest skateboarder in the world. Then about a month later, we booked him and he showed up on set and he was like, "Dude, I had no idea this was your show -- my kid and I, we watch it all the time." It brought us back together as friends, and he came out and did a role on the "Aquabats," which is kind of so beneath him. I love the fact that he just did it.
How did your superhero characters emerge?
JB: They're all based on the individuals, so it's not too much of a stretch.
Joel Fox: It changed a little bit. Like Christian's character got to be a little more of a jerk.
CJ: It's funnier that way. Someone has to be a jerk. In college Ian studied theology and religions and spirituality and things like that, so we thought it was fun to bring crystals and spirit animals into his character.
IF: In touch with the universe.
CJ: Which is a great contrast with Jimmy the Robot; Jimmy the Robot is a straight man. For the most part the characters' personalities have a lot to do with the individuals. Like, Crash McLarson, the fact that he grows large when he gets emotional, that comes from years and years of being on the road with Chad and when things get a little bit ... emotional, everyone ducks. Having been friends for so long, we we can all make fun of each other and ourselves; there's still a little bit of egos left but they've been beaten down pretty hard.
IF: They all kind of fit into archetypes other people can relate to. Everyone has a big hulky friend who smashes things.
JF: And there's a pretty guy.
CJ: Oh yeah, Ricky -- I thought you were talking about me. Ricky is the one character we're still trying to bring out onto the screen. Ricky in real life is kind of a prankster, and he's a lot funner than I think we've repped him on the show. That goes down to acting, too -- being a band first and a bunch of guys that played music together and have toured, we weren't designed to be actors. You look at it, like, "I could do that," but when you get down to it, and they say "Action!," it takes some work. My acting background [Jacobs was a child actor] definitely helped. But I was doing spots on "The Love Boat" and "Silver Spoons."
At the same time "The Aquabats" parodies them, it really is in many ways an accurate re-creation of an old-fashioned kids' show. Not just something obvious like "The Power Rangers," but also something like [the 1976 CBS Saturday morning live-action adventure series] "Ark II."
IF: "Ark II"!
CJ: We were just watching that yesterday, because I was like, "Ian, did you ever watch this show?" [Indicates DVD collection on shelf.] I watched that when I was a kid. I mean, what a concept: Post-apocalyptic science team go out and inspire the world to rebuild and regrow, and that was so inspirational to me. But you watch it now and the acting is horrible, the framing -- it's like they just threw it together. And it was, like, "This is so much like our show, right?" They shot it all in the same place. And they have a battle tram that's giant on the inside.
IF: Now we need a monkey; they have a monkey, and that's great.
CJ: I would have always said that "Ark II" is an influence on our show. But after watching it again a little bit yesterday, I was, "Wow, this is a bigger influence than I realized."
IF: Subconscious -- it just seeps in there.
CJ: But I think we're conscious of that artistically, as well -- like, in designing props and the way the show is lit, I really want it to feel like those shows. Because having kids myself, I want them to like those kinds of shows. There was something to them. The heart of "Ark II" is great, what it was trying to do. But the execution maybe was a little bit weak.
It was certainly cheap.
IF: There was "Batman," too.
CJ: That wasn't cheap. And it looks amazing. That show is incredible.
Adam West is still the only Batman I really accept.
CJ: You watch "The Dark Night" and "Batman Begins," and you're like, "OK, this is pretty cool" -- then, you're like [snaps fingers], "Wait a second -- this could never happen. It's so illegal, what he's doing, and he would get hosed by a machine gun so fast, they would catch him so quickly." I love the "Batman" '66 because it's so aware of itself. It's so like, "Superheroes? They're pretty silly. Let's have fun."
I knew that show was a comedy, but I also watched it as a straight adventure. The same with "Get Smart" -- that was a spy show to me.
CJ: [Indicating Briggs]. Hymie the robot, right? "Get Smart," absolutely. You're watching it as it unfolds, not for laughs. "Batman," too, as a kid, you're watching the adventure. And every now and then you'd hear a laugh track and you'd think, "I think I'm supposed to laugh at this," but not know why.
How involved are you in the scripting?
CJ: It's pretty much us. I write a lot of the episodes, and Jason [deVilliers], our director, writes a lot. Matt Chapman [from "Yo Gabba Gabba!" and co-creator of the Web cartoon "Homestar Runner"] We've all taken stabs at punch ups. The first season we had a great guy named Dani Michaeli, who worked on "SpongeBob [SquarePants]" for many years that came in as our script editor, and he was basically just there to--
IF: --rein it in.
CJ: Rein in the madness.
IF: "Easy, guys."
CJ: We were just going crazy just sitting around in a room like this, just throwing ideas into the center. And he would just--
IF: --simplify things a little more.
CJ: --help keep the stories together. We learned a lot from Dani, and he really helped, you know, popcorn-ball the season into something that made sense.
It seems like you're working with your own established community.
CF: Yeah, like Joel.
JF: I saw the ["Yo Gabba Gabba!"] pilot when you put it online and I was like, "Oh, I should work on this show." And I sent an email and got an email back the next day that said, "You probably should."
CJ: It felt like we were a beacon to some interesting fellows -- and females, as well. It just seemed like there was this strange gathering that happened on "Gabba," and we moved with the gathering onto "Aquabats" -- and hopefully to other things. It just makes a lot of sense working together.
IF: It's like a scene, too, if you want to go back to the punk rock thing again, in a way.
CJ: It's like how you'd go to the same shows and you'd see the same people all the time. Or the art scene -- you'd go to each other's art shows, it's all the same artists, they always hang together and work together. It feels very much like that, rather than the traditional Hollywood way of making kids shows, for sure.
IF: Like in a normal Hollywood show I probably wouldn't be able to tell the director, "Hey, I think we should add this shot or we should go from this angle."
CJ: Well, you are an actor, so it depends. It depends on how much you're getting paid to act.
IF: I'm just saying, on the average show.
CJ: If you were just writing songs you would have got fired. But you're an actor. Directors have to put up with that sometimes.
Who makes your monsters?
CL: Scott Johnson, who did "Where the Wild Things Are" and "Tron" and stuff for the Muppets and "Yo Gabba Gabba!"
JF: Almost every time he surprises you, like, oh my gosh, we had this idea, and he makes it, it's way better.
JB: It shows up on set and you pull the tarp off and you're like, "What? This is incredible."
CJ: We'd made a Cobra Man costume before, back in the day, because a lot of these characters we brought over from the live show; we had monsters that we'd fight onstage. And sometimes we would make them up in the backstage, we'd grab some trash bags or a box and make Trash man, or whatever. Or we'd make up elaborate costumes beforehand. Some of the other characters that show up on "The Aquabats" show we've been fighting for years. But when we made the Cobra Man costume with Scott and those guys, they'd taken 4,000 plastic spoons and snapped off the heads and then done scales all over. They were, "This could have been better but we had to use plastic spoons."
JB: We were so looking at it like, "This is the greatest thing we've ever seen."
Do you have a sense of how the show is being received?
JF: It seems like a lot of fans are making their own fan art from the show.
JB: There are pictures from Comic-Con in Phoenix last weekend, and there's the Jimmy the Robot person, the EagleBones person, there's the Commander person. And they all went together as a group -- as our characters and whatnot.
CB: Right -- where before it was just like you dressed in the Aquabats costume. In the early days of the Aquabats, people were their own thing, like "Kooky Bat" or "Chicken Bat." Exact Change Man, he was dressed as an Aquabat, with a little change dispenser. Like, "$2.37?" -- he could do it really fast. Something about the Aquabats encouraged their individuality; now, because of the show, it's "I identify with EagleBones because my hair is long" -- whatever it is.
CJ: That's a new phenomenon for us.
JB: It's pretty rad.
CJ: The energy is a little different now.
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