The Aquabats are 20 this year.
If that sounds crazy to you, imagine what that means to the band members: That's two decades of tights-wearing, gravity-defying, villain-fighting, ska-playing shenanigans onstage. Led by MC Bat Commander and backed by Crash McLarson, Jimmy the Robot, Ricky Fitness and Eagle “Bones” Falconhawk, the superteam never really planned on staying together for this long. And yet here they are, middle-aged men in superhero costumes, entertaining kids and kids at heart everywhere. Guess the old adage is true: Time does fly when you're having fun.
Over the phone, the indefatigable MC Bat Commander (Christian Jacobs to you noobs)—lover of fast food, sporter of black, obsidian tooth and curly, drawn-on mustache—is pretty matter-of-fact about it. “We've never had any ambition to be a band; we were just having fun,” he says. “It's pretty ridiculous and very absurd that we've been able to do this for 20 years. But . . . pretty cool, too.”
The “we” includes a steadfast and loyal bunch of sidekicks/musicians. Bassist Chad Larson has been in the band since 1994. Keyboardist James Briggs, since 1996. Drummer Richard Falomir joined in 2001, and guitarist Ian Fowles—the newest Aquabat—has been in the group since 2006. Jacobs says, “We all scratch our heads and ask ourselves, 'How is it still happening?'”
Consider everything that goes on within an Aquabats show, and that headscratcher becomes even more of a mystery. Jacobs admits he still gets nervous before live shows, especially when thinking about the technical flow. “We have stage props and videos, and monsters come out,” he says. “Once you get onstage, you can't say, 'Wait, cut, let's do that over.'”
Back in 1994, however, their performance challenges were quite different. “[When we started out,] we were definitely more on the defensive,” Jacobs says. Before riding on the third-wave-ska heyday, the Aquabats would perform at punk shows with hardcore bands such as the WhiteKaps or HFL. “We'd be playing shows with these tough dude bands, and people would be angry, like, 'Why are these guys here? We hate them!'
“We used to provoke it a bit, too,” he added.
Not that the Aquabats were ever violent—quite the opposite, in fact. “Onstage, we'd tell them to go do their homework or listen to their parents because . . . they're always right,” he says. “HA!”
Jacobs' anxiety in the Aquabats' early days was less about what the band was doing wrong, and more about what the crowd was going to do to them. “Like, will someone throw things at us? Is someone going to spit on us?”
But, Jacobs says, the mantra was always to try to put on the best show they could. “We were always trying to do something crazy to make people go, 'Oh, man, did you see the Aquabats last night? They jumped a golf cart off the stage with dogs flying out!'”
That didn't always make the Aquabats too popular with the bands they performed with, though, who would more or less accuse them of trying to steal the show. Jacobs says he would tell them, “Dudes . . . you're headlining. Everyone's paying money to see you. If you're not doing something to make people remember you, that's your fault. We're only getting paid $100, if that. So . . . we're lighting our cymbals on fire! We're going for it.”
This silly, all-in stage persona is probably the source of the band's staying power. “We were never that cool band, which is good because cool has an expiration date,” Jacobs explains. While diehard fans have no problem imagining a 70-year-old MC Bat Commander doing backflips onstage, he's quick to add, “I don't even think I can do that now—I'm getting old!”
Still, many fun bands call it quits before they have to (hear that, 'N Sync?). Luckily, the Aquabats had a few brilliant maneuvers that helped to keep them sane—and together.
First, they stayed consistently silly. “We always did the band for fun first. We didn't do it for money, to meet women, or have a pool party every day of the year,” Jacobs says. “It was just because we enjoyed making music and making people laugh and smile.”
They also resisted following trends for fame and fortune. “If we wanted to make money when we had a record deal back in the day, when we had a shot at KROQ and MTV, we could've changed our sound to pop-punk or emo or whatever was popping at the time,” Jacobs says. “But we wanted to be who we were: a silly bunch of dudes.”
And then there was the idea of transforming the band into a TV show. What eventually became The Aquabats! Super Show! germinated in 1996; similar to The Monkees or Jem and the Holograms, Jacobs and his crew made a pilot for Disney in 1998 and pitched it to various major networks for 15 years. It finally premiered in 2012 on the Hub Network. “We never wanted to make $100 million and buy a castle in Ireland like Bono,” Jacobs says, “but our goals were realistic to us because they were always within our grasp, and there was always interest in it.”
In between playing the Weenie Roast and early Coachella festivals, Jacobs had other projects, such as the hugely successful children's show Yo Gabba Gabba! That meant the Aquabats didn't have to tour constantly. “We're all really close and like brothers, but it's interesting to see how many weeks on tour it takes for all of that to unravel,” he says. (The answer? About five weeks.) Going on tour just a couple of times per year keeps the band's energy levels up, something Jacobs is keenly attuned to. “I remember watching the Smashing Pumpkins from the stage at Lollapalooza in '93—before the Aquabats started—and they were yelling at one another between songs,” he recalls. “I took some mental notes. I thought, 'I bet if they were all stoked on each other, they would sound so much better.'”
And then there are their fans. Aquacadets are probably some of the most devoted fans around, and despite how cliché it sounds, Jacobs stresses how they wouldn't be around without them. (Luckily, they keep regenerating new generations of fans through their TV shows.) “In essence, the Aquabats were always a band for kids and kids at heart,” he says. “People who are perpetually young at heart are the core of our crowd. And as long as they're coming to our shows, we're going to be a band.”