COSTA MESA — The outside world may think it has Orange County ska-rock pegged as a particularly lightweight musical form, but the outside world hasn't seen anything yet. Here come the Aquabats.
If ska is the bouncy balloon of '90s pop, the Aquabats fill it with helium and let go of the string. This band of black-masked, silver-helmeted cartoon superheroes exists for the sake of silliness.
Locals No Doubt, Reel Big Fish and Save Ferris have scored hits by appealing to the sense of fun in preteens along with the usual rock audience of teens and young adults. If the Aquabats prosper, they'll be reaching the sandbox set.
The Aquabats, whose founding members hail from Brea, have a script, a marketing plan, and a mission: to reclaim their lost island of Aquabania from the dastardly Space Monster M, although landing a Saturday morning kid's TV show will do.
After a successful 1995 do-it-yourself CD debut in 1995, "Return of the Aquabats," the band goes national today with the release of its more polished and accomplished sequel, "The Fury of the Aquabats."
In concept, the nine-member ensemble is a cannily organized, craftily packaged marketing phenomenon ready to be unleashed on the Power Rangers/Ninja Turtles demographic, the kiddies who know that in parental anatomy, the heartstring's connected to the purse string.
In reality, the Aquabats are a lot more fun than that. The band's shows are anything but slick and calculating. The eight uniformed Aquabats and their lab-coated, Fedora-topped mentor, the Professor, battle such villains as the Silver Skull, Tarantula and Powdered Milk Man with the chaotic enthusiasm of those kitschy punch-ups from "The Monkees" and the old "Batman" TV series.
The group has even put together a TV pilot and has ideas about episodes for a series, but that longshot aspect of its game plan is still in the embryonic stage.
Singer Christian Jacobs, a.k.a. the Bat Commander, conducts concerts as if he were a kid-show host, flashing a prominent Dudley Doright jaw and enough knowing irony to appeal to grown-up kids who miss the entertainments of their more wide-eyed days. Behind him, the crew manages to keep the music catchy and surprisingly coherent, given the constant onstage commotion.
The Aquabats spring from an unlikely incubator: the Mormon Church, where singer Jacobs, bassist Chad "Crash McLarson" Larson and trumpet player Boyd "Catboy" Terry had formed friendships and discovered a mutual fondness for playing in rock bands. They recruited a bunch of other church-based friends, rehearsed once at the Brea house Jacobs and Larson shared, and played their first gig at a party in August 1994.
The founders had a mutual admiration for Devo and its matching-outfit stage concept, so the enthusiastic Terry brought along some costumes, adapted from the wares available at his brother's surf-equipment manufacturing company in Newport Beach.
"The first performance we did as a joke," recalled Larson, who sports a shaven head and a linebacker's build. "We weren't trying to be a band. We were trying to have fun."
The Aquabats began conceptualizing and adapting. Jacobs' younger brother, Parker, was called in to help out as the Professor. In its early days, the band was known to perform in fezzes and chefs' hats.
It eventually hit on its current look, which recalls the commando sperm from Woody Allen's "Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask)." Ask Terry and he'll tell you he never watches Woody Allen movies and that he was just trying to put together a nice, smooth aquatic look.
On a local rock scene then dominated by snide or snarling punkers, the Aquabats fell by default into the ska underground (this was two years before No Doubt hit the Top 10).
"We definitely weren't ska. We all grew up playing different stuff," Christian Jacobs said as the Aquabats gathered last week to rehearse for a national tour that includes shows Wednesday and Thursday at the Roxy in West Hollywood and an early evening mini-concert Thursday at the Virgin Megastore in Costa Mesa.
"But we happened upon a ska show in O.C.," he said. "No one was fighting or pushing each other but having a good time. It wasn't, 'Let's start a pit and maybe my boots will cause someone to bleed.' We started the Aquabats to be part of the fun."
After a few months, the Aquabats decided to tighten their sound, tapping an established local ska band, the Goodwin Club, for fresh recruits: guitarist Courtney "Chainsaw the Prince of Karate" Pollack, horn player "Prince Adam" Diebert and guitarist Charles "Magnificent Kyu" Grey. Two recently added Aquabats are drummer Travis "Baron Von Tito" Barker and saxophonist James "Jaime the Robot" Briggs. The members' ages range from 19 to 30.
The Aquabats' decision to back up their silliness with more serious musicianship wasn't lost on Bill Fold, one of the leading concert promoters on the Southern California ska and punk scene.