July 23 2014 02:43 PM

Costumed ska heroes spread a positive message

Christian Jacobs (center) leads the Aquabats under the name MC Bat Commander.

There’s no band of superheroes quite like The Aquabats. Combining the crime-fighter charm of Adam West’s 1960s Batman with the sartorial flair of The Power Rangers, these Orange County oddballs have spent the past 20 years saving the world from an array of cartoonish monsters and villains. In live shows and on their albums, they’ve rescued bowls of cereal from the clutches of Powdered Milk Man and fired a rocket into The Floating Eye of Death. On their TV show, The Aquabats! Super Show!, they’ve tamed an enormous, bug-eyed baby chicken and lifted a curse cast by the devious, blue-skinned Überchan.

Granted, these guys don’t exactly have Batman-quality physiques or utility belts with as many cool gadgets. And critics may balk at their relentlessly upbeat aesthetic: the cheerful melodies, the silly-verging-on-inane lyrics and the rampant overuse of exclamation points. But as lighthearted as they are, The Aquabats have also taken on real-world ills, such as the forces of cynicism and negativity. It’s no wonder why they command such a devoted global following.

“Being miserable and depressed and grumpy all the time, it hurts the world. It just does,” the group’s frontman, Christian Jacobs, aka The MC Bat Commander, tells CityBeat. “So, if you’re doing something that you’re having fun and you’re inviting people, you’re being inclusive and you’re smiling: ‘Come on out, let’s have a good time! Let’s wear stupid costumes and be silly and make fun of ourselves!’ It’s simple, but it changes things. It changes attitudes. It helps the world.”

For some, the image of The Aquabats looms large in the imagination. Years before the advent of YouTube, they made their live show a multimedia experience, with video interludes, onstage battles, bopping beach balls and toddlers crowdsurfing on inflatable rafts. I have fond memories of seeing them live back in the early ’00s—the pogo-tastic horn hooks of their 1997 ska anthem “Super Rad!” still give me tingles. But the truth is, these guys are running a super-low-budget operation. Their Santa Ana HQ consists of a small storage unit and a rehearsal studio, which the band shares with another group. The tours and shows are put together by them and a handful of staffers.

“Really, we’re doing the same thing we’ve always done. And that’s just kind of duct-taping a sheet to the wall and [taking] a bed lamp and pointing it towards us and shooting our own stuff,” says Jacobs, 42, whose trademark Bat Commander look includes a doodled mustache and a front tooth blacked out with Sharpie. “It’s kind of one of those things where there’s a lot of stuff that goes into success and making money, and it seems like a lot of times—like many record deals that you hear about— everyone else makes money but the people that actually make the thing.”

When they aren’t suited up in their helmets, goggles and bright-blue rash-guards, the Bat Commander and his comrades—bassist Crash McLarson (Chad Larson), keyboardist / saxophonist Jimmy the Robot (James Briggs), drummer Ricky Fitness (Richard Falomir) and guitarist Eagle “Bones” Falconhawk (Ian Fowles)—work other jobs to pay the bills. But the Bats can always count on selling out their annual show at House of Blues, booked to coincide with Comic-Con.

“I think the Comic-Con crowd is definitely an Aquabats crowd,” Jacobs says. He’s even seen Aquabats cosplayers, though they usually don’t recognize him without his Bat Commander gear. “A lot of times I’ll stop them and go, ‘Hey, can I get a picture with you guys?’ And they’ll go, ‘Sure!’ But they’ll just think I’m some guy.”

As far as origin stories go, The Aquabats’ is unsurprisingly kooky. Jacobs had recently returned from a two-year stint in Japan—where he served as a Mormon missionary—and was doing videography for a skateboard company and playing music for fun when he and some buddies decided to form a giant band. For their first show, held at a party, their trumpet player brought helmets for everybody to wear, made out of material from the wetsuit company he worked for. The superhero mythology snowballed from there.

“It was just a joke,” Jacobs says. “A joke that went way too far.”

In the years since, the band’s been through ups and downs, and the lineup is much smaller now than it used to be. But they’re still lighting up people’s hearts. The kids love it, obviously. And older fans get joy out of it, too—sometimes in ways Jacobs never would’ve expected.

“When you get letters from people that say, ‘I was really depressed, and I was thinking about suicide, but then my friend introduced me to The Aquabats, and it changed my life,’” he says, pausing for a second to reflect, “it’s awesome. It’s really cool. But it feels weird, too. Like, really? The Aquabats? We’re just goofing around.

“We aren’t meaning to change anybody’s life,” he adds. “We’re just having fun. But just being positive, smiling at someone, helping someone laugh—it helps people.”

And with that, the Aquabats’ fearless leader draws on his mustache, climbs into the Battletram and prepares for the next mission. 

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