There’s a scene in the classic record store-set film High Fidelity where one of the nerdy store clerks, intent on impressing a young woman who has shyly struck up a conversation about punk rock and Green Day, puts on a record by the Northern Ireland punk band Stiff Little Fingers.
Although Charleston’s Hale Bopp Astronauts don’t sound especially like Stiff Little Fingers or Green Day, it’s not hard to imagine that scene with the band’s self-titled debut on the turntable instead. They have a sarcastic attitude and a punchy, frantic pop-punk sound that feels like it pre-dates the commercial rise of the genre in the mid-1990s, even if it doesn’t.
“Eighties and ’90s punk is what I grew up listening to,” admits guitarist/vocalist Scott Burns, who formed the group with frequent partner-in-crime Kevin Schmoll on bass and high school friend, Dave Watkins, on drums. “Most of the music in the early 2000s didn’t make much of an impression on me. I hear a lot of great talent coming out of the ether these days though, and the bands from the good ole days of punk are making a comeback. I have hope for the future.”
And indeed, Hale Bopp Astronauts, in some sense, fit a trend that exists in the larger world of indie music, with groups like Titus Andronicus and the Thermals drawing liberally from an older punk tradition even as they forge new ground. Unlike those groups though, Hale Bopp Astronauts incorporates more snotty humor and breakneck speeds, often tying the knot on a song before the two-minute mark. While there are moments of bitterness or anger here, Burns rarely comes across as overly earnest or emotional, something which makes him a bit of an outlier in modern punk bands.
“I suppose I’m just not that angry,” he explains of his distinctive persona on record. “I would rather laugh and poke fun at the insanity that’s going on around us these days. If we’re doomed, so be it. It would be ridiculous to take what I write about seriously.”
Fortunately, Burns’ zany humor leads to some seriously fun subject matter, with “cults, New World Order conspiracy theories, aliens, games shows, a guy who had a love affair with a dolphin, and everything in between” all tackled with unbridled charm and fervor.
Take the high-octane “Phoenix Lights,” where the hook of the song goes something like “Reptilians are coming/ you can hear the space crafts humming/ world domination is the plan/ Look out you, bastards!” Other songs, like “Final Exit,” also take space invasion as their topic, and the group’s debut LP features the three bandmates waiting for a UFO to come pick them up. Other songs, though, have more of a social bite.
“A lot of what I write does not have any rhyme or reason,” Burns says. “It’s just what comes to me at the time. ‘Earl’s Night Out’ is about one of my friends and his disdain for his wife. I just got a kick out of watching him argue with her on the phone while we were at the bar. ‘Bull Street Inn’ is about an escaped mental patient and his adventures while out searching for an old flame. The name of the song was inspired by my dad jokingly threatening to send me and my brother to the Bull Street asylum in Columbia when we got out of line.”
The 10 songs and 16 minutes that make up Hale Bopp Astronauts’ LP were recorded in Columbia at the Jam Room, a long-time hotbed of punk and metal records that inspired the group to seek out the studio.
“I decided to use [studio owner and engineer] Jay Matheson at the Jam Room, because he has recorded bands I’ve admired throughout the years, like the Queers, as well as Columbia-based bands like Self, In/Humanity, Antischism, [and] Guyana Punch Line … It doesn’t get much better than the Jam Room,” says Burns.
True to form, the album captures the rough-and-tumble feel of a punk rock show while giving each instrument and Burns’ voice clean separation, making it both a great document of the band’s songs as well as a fiery listening experience. This becomes particularly important when Schmoll’s bass lines take on melodic leads or when the rapid-fire bark of witty lyrics need to be captured. But it’s also there for the moments of pure joy, as on the gang vocals of “Attention All Punks” or the paranoid glee of the call-and-response, “They’re watching you/They’re watching me” on “Nell ‘Ombra.”
The group’s unabashed embrace of punk-rock ethos and lack of concern for traditional song structures or even restrained tempos makes it more likely to build a small cult following than win widespread appeal, but that’s OK. It’s punk rock in 2016.
“Same as it ever was,” says Burns. “We are probably past our prime doing this, but we’re still having fun.”