INTERVIEW: Christian Jacobs of The Aquabats

Christian Jacobs’ résumé can make you either completely awed at the amazingly fun things he’s done, or completely depressed that his life is so much more fun than yours. As a child actor, he had bit parts on everything from The Love Boat to Married…With Children to Roseanne. In 1986, Annie Potts shot staples at him in Pretty in Pink. In 1989, he appeared in Gleaming the Cube, in which Christian Slater solves the mystery of his Vietnamese brother’s murder by skateboarding and blowing things up. It’s even better than it sounds.

In 2005, Jacobs and a friend filmed a bizarre pilot for a show targeted at preschoolers. The show featured a strange DJ with thick glasses and a bright orange hat who carried five toys in his boom box; toys that came to life on command. The show, Yo Gabba Gabba!, was eventually picked up by Nickelodeon and became an international phenomenon.

Perhaps most importantly to music fans, Jacobs is one of the founders of The Aquabats, one of the most over-the-top theatrical bands to ever exist. Born out of the Orange County ska scene of the mid-90s, the band quickly became much more than a simple ska band as they donned matching superhero uniforms and began fighting Tokusatsu-style monsters on stage (some of whom evolved into characters on Yo Gabba Gabba). Their stage antics and superhero personas practically begged to be turned into a television show, but it wasn’t after several false starts (and the success of Yo Gabba Gabba) that Jacobs finally got the chance to create the show.

The Aquabats! Super Show! premiered last March on The Hub. A fantastic mix of live action and animation, it took the band’s wonderfully frenetic stage show and massively expanded it, as each episode is spent fighting one giant rubber monster after another. It’s part Ultraman, part Adam West-era Batman, and part Sid and Marty Krofft, all with the hilarious surf-punk tunes the band has perfected. While ostensibly a kid’s show, the irreverence and random humor of the show has sparked comparisons to Flight of the Conchords (albeit with more large rubber monsters).

We caught up with Jacobs to talk about season one (which will be released on DVD on May 21) and get some insight into season two (which will debut this summer).

ChunkyGlasses: I was listening to your song “Playdough” from your first record; I have a 10 year-old son who loves Star Wars, Scooby Doo, and Lincoln Logs and just about everything you sing about in that tune. Things don’t change that much in terms of what kids are into, do they?

Christian Jacobs: Yeah, I guess not. My kids get super stoked about Star Wars and a lot of that same stuff.

CG: In the song you’re singing about wanting to go back to your “happy land;” seems like the Aquabats show is the show you would have made when you were 10 if you had the opportunity.

CJ: Exactly. I got in my happy land and wished and pined and mined away that we could make this show. It’s unique about our generation, as dads; outside of World War II movies and cool, fake Tommy guns that would we could buy when we were kids I don’t remember a lot of pop culture bonding between my parents and myself. I guess there was 50’s music and my dad’s records, some of his music, but it’s really weird that I collect action figures and my kids collect action figures. Our generation was raised on TV and pop culture and cereal boxes. It’s a unique trademark of our generation that we’re still kind of kids at heart.

CG: I’ve tried to show my son some of those old Japanese shows that inspired your show – Ultraman, for example – but as you’ve noted in other interviews, the pacing on those shows is very slow for kids today. Whereas with the Aquabats, he just keeps right up with it.

CJ: It’s weird, the pacing of those things. If you could do an edit of all the stuff we would watch when we were kids and make it really fast I think it would hold our kids’ attention. There’s a weird fad in Japan and Korea right now that they’re taking movies and TV shows and speeding them up. They’re making them faster – and kids are getting used to this instant gratification, everything fast-fast-fast - to the point where people are literally speeding up the pacing of things so they can get through it quicker. Which is so weird. I always go back to Joey Ramone saying two minutes is too long for a song, people got things to do. Our fast-paced world has kind of created a now-now-now-go-go-go kind of a pacing. We really try to put that in the show - add in all those Godzilla/Ultraman kinds of things but make them as fast as we can.

CG: There is that faster pace but there’s also a timeless feel to the show, possibly because of the big rubber monsters. It could have been made in the 70s, 80s, or 90s.

CJ: We definitely wanted to do that. It got brought up a couple times, “how are you guys going to do the monsters, are you going to use CGI?” We said no way, we always wanted to stick to the traditional way of doing things but put it at a little bit of a quicker pace for today’s short attention span and make a show that looked like it could have been made in the 60s, 70s, 80s…it should seem timeless. We definitely leave out a lot of current technology or make up our own so that it seems like it could be any time, anywhere.

CG: The first season is coming to DVD in May; did you sit down and do commentary for it?

CJ: We did, I think we did commentary for four or five episodes. It’s tough because of the pacing of the show - there are so many little stories that could go along with literally every cut and shot. You know, “setting up for this shot, this happened.” It’s hard trying to talk about that stuff as it machine guns so fast. All the ‘Bats were there and it was super fun. It would be really fun to do a sort of dissection of an episode. I was talking with the DVD house and asking, “Is there a way people at home could pause it on a certain part, and then activate a director’s commentary so that we could talk about one specific point?” You know, just trying to invent a way to really dig down deep into the DVDs. But there will be some commentary, and a bunch of behind-the-scenes stuff. In fact, we were going over the special features last night and this morning, all the outtakes and bloopers. There’s a bunch of deleted scenes that hopefully we’ll be able to pull together for the DVD. We really want to stack it with as much as we can – there’s so much fun that lies beneath the surface of our show.

CG: The level of detail is kind of insane. I’m thinking of the “Cowboy Android!” episode where not only is there a reference to a fictional cowboy android movie, but you guys actually wrote a theme song for it, which plays during the closing credits.

CJ: Even the pamphlet that we’re reading about the cowboy android theme park (is real) – there’s so much detail that we put into the tiny things. For me that’s the most interesting stuff. Granted our show is very campy – if it’s a little rough around the edges the campiness gives us license for that. Those are always the things that bug me about movies or TV shows – you have this huge budget and then there are a couple of details that are out of place. Luckily our show is humorous and you can smile if something isn’t quite right, but we strive for a lot of detail in there. And hide stuff, little Easter eggs and hidden weird things in the show that kids will hopefully talk about and email and look for on YouTube and discuss. It makes it more of an experience for everybody; instead of tuning out and being a zombie watching it, there’s stuff in the show that could create discussion and conversation. We’ve always tried to do that. Not just in the TV show but with the band as well, create things for people to talk about.

CG: One of those things is the Fox Man that keeps showing up for just a second in every episode. The one generational difference between my son and I with the show is he said “let’s just go on the internet and find out where he is in every episode,” and I said that wouldn’t be any fun.

CJ: We knew there’d be two schools of thought for that. “Let’s just go and find the person who uploaded all the spots where he’s at.”

CG: That’s cheating, you have to put in the work.

CJ: That’s my school of thought. No cheating. You’ve got to figure it out for yourself.

CG: Doesn’t matter if you have to watch the episode two or three times, just keep your eyes open and you’ll find it.

CJ: We made him a little more difficult to find in season two because a couple of the season one foxes were so easy to find. He basically just walked across the camera and waved at one point.

CG: But in a way that’s good because you might not know he was ever there otherwise.

CJ: Exactly. Now that the fox is out of the bag I can talk about it freely. Nine months ago I would have denied knowing anything about it. That’s one of the things that make it fun. Hopefully kids discover things like that and they go to school the next day and – these are all pie in the sky ideas – but I hope kids are talking about it. “You know, I saw the fox last night. You gotta tune in tomorrow!” Because with the internet and YouTube it makes it hard to build anticipation for things like we got to do when we were younger. You’d know “Batman” was coming on once a week, or “Spiderman” or whatever it was we were watching when we were kids, but you had to wait for it. You couldn’t just – I can’t say “pop in a video” now because that’s obsolete - you couldn’t type on the keyboard and watch whatever you want.  You had to wait for it.

CG: Exactly, somebody’s leaked it somewhere and you can find it if you know where to look. There’s not that sense of joy.

CJ: Right. “I knew it was there, there it is. Confirmation. Check.” We hope to try to work with that modern sensibility and build things into the show that can lead to that anticipatory feeling, and get kids talking about it. My son and his soccer team last season would be talking about the fox. That’s like, mission accomplished.

CG: Watching my son talk about the show to people who haven’t seen it makes me think of when I was young and had discovered a good indie band – you wanted to tell everyone about it. My son has the same reaction, his eyes light up when he meets someone who hasn’t seen the show and he says “you’ve gotta see this thing.”

CJ: That’s great, that’s awesome. Same with me and bands, I was obviously a huge music fan and I loved turning my friends on to bands they hadn’t heard of, especially back in the punk days. That was always super fun. There’s kind of an underground, undiscovered feeling to the show, but that comes from the cloth that it’s cut from. We all played in underground bands, went and saw underground bands, so there’s this kind of cult campiness to the show. It’s unique to have that kind of a flavor, I think, especially on a kid’s show. They can be so pasteurized and homogenized, even action shows. Everything feels so contained. But there is something about the Aquabats show – and of course I’m a big fan – but looking at it objectively, you never really know what’s going to happen next. This could evolve into something crazy or transition into something really weird. I love that about the show, and I love that about television done right. Good kids TV done right, you’re kind of on the edge of your seat, and you should be.

This is pretty self explanatory

CG: There’s a lack of explanation for why things happen on the show, which is refreshing. Watching the entire run of the series not once did my kids ask, “Well where did these guys come from?” I knew the band and the various origin stories, but they just accepted it.

CJ: That’s what’s great about kids, that’s why kids can learn everything so fast. They accept the rules and they’re ready to play. It’s the same with the other show that I do, “Yo Gabba Gabba.” If you really try to break it down and figure it out, it’s insane. There’s a guy with a boom box with a bunch of magic toys in it, and there you go. It doesn’t make any sense to us as adults, but to kids it makes perfect sense. We answer some of those questions about where we came from in season two – a little bit of a spoiler. We will have origin stories addressed.

CG: I’ll see if I can squeeze another spoiler out of you – the astute viewer will notice that the live action portion of season one ended in the exact same way the animated portion of season one began – with the ‘Bats floating in space. Will that continue the same arc?

CJ (Starts and stops on several answers, clearly not wanting to give too much away): Not to spoil it too much, but we come back from space. It starts at the point in the narrative where we left off but it leaves a bunch of unanswered questions that we want to try to answer with – cross our fingers – subsequent seasons and more episodes. We want to answer the question of how we got back, and what happened after we were thrown into space. There’s definitely a return from that predicament that we don’t really understand or remember. It’s kind of like a “Lost” kind of thing where we’re trying to figure out what happened. There is somewhat of an arc and somewhat of a serialization with season two, but working with the Hub, they said so many of their favorite episodes didn’t have anything to do with each other. And now that the cat was out of the bag and everything had a meaning, they didn’t want us to try to go that way, making the show over-serialized.

CG: That was great about the first season; you could drop in at any time and pick it up relatively quickly.

CJ: And I think they wanted us to continue that. We had to find the balance between that and, “yeah, but we just told everybody that everything was tied together…” I think we quickly get back to each episode as its own animal.

CG: There were a lot of guests in season one. How much notice did they have of what they’d be doing going in? Did Samm Levine know he’d be playing a shape-shifting, Michael Jackson-channeling pilgrim?

CJ: We sent everybody the script before they came. With Samm Levine, we went out to a couple of actors but Samm was right there. There were a few people who we wanted and Samm responded the quickest. It worked out perfect and Samm was great. But that’s kind of how it goes, you always want to have one or two options. Samm was definitely one of our top picks. Lou Diamond Phillips was our top pick to play the Spirit of the Sun. We just wanted Weird Al to be on the show period, so we found a couple of spots for him that ended up working out really, really well. The most interesting (guest star) was working with Al – he’s such a great guy and so down to earth and obviously he’s a genius. But he took the part SO seriously. No one wanted to mess with him when he was on set, or even talk to him because he was very focused. But then when he was done he was back to being cool and down to earth and talking about stuff.

One cool thing he said when we were shooting “Showtime!” when he was Super Magic Power Man, he was talking about making his show and how the tone of the show he wanted to make was so hard to get past the network, because it was on network TV. He wanted to do all kinds of things like Conan the Librarian and the stuff he did in UHF!. There was a tone and irreverence that he wanted to put in the show; he knows kids love that because he’s a big kid. He said how awesome it was that we were able to do this show and be on a network that would allow us to get away with stuff, so to speak, and not be so uptight about things. He got all kinds of notes; they basically tied his show down and what the show turned out to be was not what he wanted. I think it was ahead of its time, but he couldn’t pull it off on network TV. He said he loved working on our show because it was in the spirit of something he would do, and that was a huge compliment.

CG: That is a huge compliment. And I’m the kind of nerd who’s listened to his commentary on my Weird Al Show DVDs, and it makes you wonder what that show could have been if he had free reign and wasn’t forced to be “educational.” Speaking of which, there’s a bit of an in-joke in your show where when something educational does happen you make fun of it with a sappy couple of chords and “learning and growing” written on the screen.

CJ: (Laughs) “The More You Know” kind of thing. I think ABC had Schoolhouse Rock, and NBC had “The More You Know.” We tried to leave that in there.

CG: Well it’s important that kids learn how to summon their invisible bird to tie a ribbon to a tree.

CJ: There are definitely some stupid lessons to learn from the Aquabats show. About monster handling and other things. That’s not out there – you can’t just go online and find those answers. That’s one of things you can look forward to on our show – learning and growing on “The Aquabats Super Show!”

CG: Exactly. My daughter watched “Dora” for years and never learned to fight a monster from that show. Did you guys write new music for season two?

CJ: I wouldn’t say a whole bunch but a definitely a decent amount. That’s always the trickiest part of making the show. We’ve been in the band so long and written music together for so long you think, “oh sure, we’ll get to that, we’ll get around to it.” But it always ends up being super last-minute. We had to recruit friends to help write songs because we’re so involved in the writing and direction and the acting. The way that the show is shot, it’s such a breakneck pace because there’s so much to shoot and so little time to shoot it in. In season one we shot a couple of episodes in three days. One day we did 110 setups in one day. Moving the camera and relighting a hundred times in a day is enough to kill everyone. It gets really tough to write songs. We definitely have some new songs, though I’d say there’s not as many standouts, at least as of yet. Nothing seems to beat “Burger Rain” at this point.

CG: That seems to be the frontrunner though I’m going to go with “B-R-O” as my favorite from season one.

CJ: “B-R-O” is really good. There’s definitely some songs (in season two) that compete with “B-R-O;” they’re those cheesy 80s soft rock songs that we were playing around with in a few episodes. But that’s what’s great about the show too, we can write in any genre that fits the narrative of the episode. That just makes it fun for a band. Like if Kenny Loggins wrote a hip-hop song it would be so lame, but for the Aquabats, we can say hey, what if Kenny Loggins wrote a hip-hop song? Let’s write a song like that. We can get away with a lot and have fun with it.

CG: Was there ever a thought that you could take music from the already existing records and use those? When I first found out you guys were doing a show I was thinking you’d do what Flight of the Conchords did and write the show around the already existing music. Your music lends itself to that because it’s so theatrical.

CJ: That was definitely part of the plan and in a couple of episodes we used a few songs off of the new record (Hi-Five Soup!). We wrote a “Martian Girl” episode and a “Cat With Two Heads” kind of thing. But the process of picking the episodes is collaborative with the creative executives at the network. We would put those episodes out there with those songs and they’d be side-by-side with a bunch of other things and the network would say, “we really like these episodes.” So those episodes just haven’t gotten picked yet. Maybe they weren’t as compelling as a “Cowboy Android!” in their synopses. We’re trying to weave the music in there, but we want it to be organic – we don’t want it to feel too obvious, like putting “Super Rad!” in an episode. It has to fit the right spot and be self-aware enough and tongue-in-cheek enough to make sense.

CG: Which is how it was on the Conchords; it was so over-the-top-that-song-makes-no-sense that it worked. But if you force it it’ll look weird, especially to a kid.

CJ: Right. But I think it could work; a lot of the songs are so narrative that they’re almost stories, like “Captain Hampton” or “Cat With Two Heads.” You would almost have to shoot a small episode for that one song to get it in there, rather than something about one idea. Now I’m remembering we wrote a synopsis for a “Tiger Rider” episode and “Captain Hampton and the Midget Pirates”…there’s a bunch of ones we’ve written little summaries for, but they just haven’t gotten picked. Some of the reasons they didn’t get picked were network notes that said, “this is a great idea but how are you guys going to pull that off? Maybe you better think about the movie.”

CG: But it is funny to see original material there, like in “We Got This” when Crash is running and singing “cherry soda cherry soda” because it’s part of the plot. It adds to the humor of it.

CJ: Right, and again, if it makes sense or if it’s random enough we try to think of ways to weave it in. I think there’s one or two songs from our catalog in season two, I’m honestly kind of blanking right now.

CG: You’re obviously busy - with season two, “Yo Gabba Gabba” is on tour, and the ‘Bats are playing some shows in Vegas and Europe - but are there any plans for a larger tour? You guys are coming up on your 20th anniversary.

CJ: Yeah, that is crazy. We’re going to do some stuff around Comic-Con down in San Diego again this year. We’d really love to do the Comic-Con circuit, New York and Seattle. It’s weird because before the TV show, working out tours was so much easier even with our schedule as dads and the full-time whatever we’re doing. Now that the show is a presence it’s hard to really work out a touring schedule when we could start shooting more episodes again in May; taking a couple of weeks off just to tour could be difficult. I think we’re doing some Warped Tour dates in June. Not the whole tour, I think we’re doing ten dates. I don’t know if that’s been announced yet. We’re working on it.

We're sorry Christian Jacobs

CG: Finally a non-Aquabats question; fifteen year-old me would beat up current me if I didn’t ask a Gleaming the Cube question.

CJ: (Laughs) Go ahead.

CG: It’s probably the one you get more than any other; Christian Slater is skating around on a regular board, then suddenly he’s on a Mike McGill freestyle board which as far as I know didn’t even exist. Did such a thing exist? Were you witness to this miracle?

CJ: (Laughs) Yes, I was. The best was when we got to go to the premiere of Gleaming the Cube and it was all the skaters in one room, including their friends. Mike McGill, Lance Mountain, Tony Hawk, Tommy Guererro, Natas Kaupas, Eric Dressen…all these really amazing skaters, and I was sitting in there with them because I was kind of part of the posse. I wasn’t as good as they were, all those guys…it was like sitting next to Michael Jackson and Lebron James…the best skaters ever sitting in a row. The funny thing is when we were watching the movie the skaters would just bust out laughing and booing and throwing popcorn at the screen during those little details that were super messed-up.

If you watch the movie, Christian Slater was taught how to skate regular foot. Russ Howell was Christian’s trainer. For about six weeks before we started shooting we would go a couple times of week and skate together, and Christian Slater was just learning how to skate, so he would skate with Russ Howell and all of us would go off and skate the park benches or street skate or find a jump ramp, which was awesome. So Christian learned how to skate regular foot, and Mike McGill is goofy foot, so literally from shot to shot he’s switching his stance and no one picked up on it. But all the skaters were just laughing so hard. I remember the director of the movie turning around and being so upset with us that we were being so rowdy about this during the premiere. We were just wrecking it the whole time. Stacy Peralta was brought in to be the second unit director on the movie so all the custom boards were all brought from Stacy and the people at Powell, they made special stuff. So suddenly Christian Slater turns into Mike McGill and then he turns into Rodney Mullen. That was Stacy’s doing. He knew it wasn’t going to be that accurate as far as “real” skateboarding. But for the uninitiated it was ok. (Laughs) It wasn’t really a box office smash.

CG: True, but I remember being young and thinking, well at least somebody made a real movie at least tangentially about skateboarding, which is better than watching the low-quality videos we were all watching back in those days.

CJ: I could keep talking about that forever. But that was a great experience and of course I got to hang out with the best skaters in the world and got to be friends with a bunch of them. I keep in touch with Tony to this day. There might be a little Tony in season two of the Aquabats. I’m just saying, there might be.

CG: Excellent. Well thanks for taking the time, I know you’ve got a lot going on right now.

CJ: No problem, I love talking about the show, obviously. It’s my favorite show on TV right now. And I think it would be even if I didn’t make it.

CG: It’s fantastic, keep it up.

CJ: Mission accomplished, thank you man. Hopefully we’ll get to meet one of these days and high five.