photo by Ashworth (1984)
Interview by Jack Partain
The Earons flashed onto the scene in 1984 with the catchy, socially conscious single "Land of Hunger," which quickly rocketed to the top of the dance charts. Comprised of five mysterious space suit clad individuals known only by numbers (.28, .33, .22, .69, .18) who claimed to be from Earon Earth, the band was known for moving both minds and asses, getting people to think while having fun. But after their first album Here on Earth, the band seemed to disappear. As a result, a small cult of dedicated fans developed, and bloggers have been asking for years - "Who were the Earons?" and "Why was there no follow-up to Earth?" while commenters invented crazy theories about their identities (a YouTube commenter claimed that .28, the lead singer, was actually actor Chris Elliot, of Get a Life and Saturday Night Live fame). I asked renowned author, actor and podcaster John Hodgman, who blogged about the band in 2007, for his thoughts on the band and he was nice enough to send this along:
"The video for 'Land of Hunger' was like a weird fever dream. I spent years wondering if it actually happened. But the Internet returns all things to us, and when I finally saw the band again, in their anonymous white speed suits and full face motorcycle helmets, I was no less astonished. Here, at the moment that music was becoming almost a purely visual medium, was a band concealing not only beauty, but race, background, genre--every identifiable visible sign we use now to label what we are listening to. It could have been anyone in there."
It took a while but I got lucky and was able to track down .28 through The Earons website (earons.net) and he was gracious enough, after a day in the studio, to consent to an over the phone interview on a Saturday evening in late October, 2012.
PSF: How did The Earons form?
.28: The Earons came together from electronic energies. Just sort of travelling, playing at different times in studios, being in the same circles. It was an amazing group of musicians that culminated, you know. It just manifested itself.
My best friend in high school, that I met in my sophomore year, this guy was a junior and he already had a record contract. He was an amazing piano player and singer and he was the original keyboard player for a group called Machine. And that's how I met the bass player and the drummer for The Earons, 'cause they were in Machine. And they had some personnel changes and their new keyboard player ended up being .33, my best friend. And one day somewhere in 1980 or '81, someone said 'hey someone's looking to write stuff together and you should call them up and go check it out.' And I walked into this rehearsal studio in Queens, and someone said 'man, I can't believe it's you' and that's how it was. And I said 'I'm writing material and looking for something concrete. I want to get a project going, and submit my reels to a record company.' And that's how it happened.
PSF: Where was the band most active?
.28: We had different areas we used to use. Studios, mostly in Manhattan, Italy, France, Florida, and LA.
PSF: What were you doing prior to The Earons?
.28: I had worked on many other projects in the studio with different musicians around the world. Right before I played with the Earons, I had another band that was amazing, but I hadn't been able to write original songs with them as fast as I wanted to. I was using a big loft in Brooklyn that belonged to Miles Davis. He owned the building. Someone had recommended a couple musicians and it turned out two of the guys had just graduated from Julliard, and one of those guys was Muzz Skillings, who went on to play with Living Colour. And it wasn't coming together as I wanted it to. So when I went and met with The Earons, they had it a lot more together, and it was the first time it felt really good because we weren't going to be in rehearsal, learning Bob Dylan songs. We were going to get some work, we were going to be in this rehearsal studio writing our own material.
PSF: What were the influences on The Earons and where did the term "astro funk" come from?
.28: I don't know who coined that [term]. I never signed up for that, it's something that followed us. I think that's something people assume from the numeration and the helmets and that type of thing. I don't feel associated to that term. Musically, we were influenced by world music, all of it, from James Brown to King Crimson to Elvis Costello to Aretha Franklin to Andrea Boccelli - it's endless.
But [in the studio], there was nobody but myself. We would go in, I would play a beat, get a rhythm going and just get a vibe going.
PSF: Today, The Earons seem to get lumped into this sort of late-disco category. Are you comfortable with that?
.28: Any time you can write a song and make a socio-political comment about what we've observed as people and musicians from here on earth and it gets a beat that people can dance to, I don't have a problem with that at all. Musical categories are something that people put on you. If Queen, for instance, would do "Another One Bites the Dust," are they disco? I wouldn't have said ‘disco' then. Now all of a sudden, Queen is disco? I think they're just a well-rounded group. But the fact that people have picked up on that beat and it made them dance and there were some thought-provoking lyrics, which is what I live for, that's wonderful.
PSF: So how did the whole concept behind The Earons develop?
.28: Believe it or not .33 discussed the concept with me. He's a very talented individual. I did find the music business, rock and roll, whatever you want to call it, very disillusioning when we were doing The Earons. It was based on what you look like, the color of your skin. There were a lot of posers out there and the idea of this rock and roll image of these great, amazing human beings on stage doing great things when they were just putting coke up their noses, needles in their arms, making millions of dollars, and alcohol, and drugs, and sex, and that was the image. I didn't want anything to do that at all so we covered ourselves. And the whole thing about fame - you're famous in your mind. I've had people say to me 'What were you doing? You were a rock star?' But they don't get it. I never did this for fame.
PSF: So, what was "Land of Hunger" about?
.28: 'Land of Hunger' is about - when you look all around you, not only do we hunger for food and understanding, we hunger for peace and love on this earth. You can never get enough of that. My lyrics and my delivery were meant to be on the outside observing what's going on here on earth.
When I wrote it, I actually thought I was going to get shot in the head on stage at that time. Seriously. I thought it was a pretty straight ahead message. Let's bring this pain to an end. 'We're in a land of hunger / A land of waste / Kind of makes you wonder / About this place'. Again, we don't hunger just for food, we have plenty of food. We hunger for love and understanding. that's what I write about.
PSF: What about 'Video Baby'?
.28: 'Video Baby' was actually, um... I never really liked that song to tell you the truth. .33 came to me with the music and he said 'What do you think?' And I said (laughing) 'What do you want me to do with this?' And I did that voice that you hear on it and when I was done I said, ‘you know, I just did a voice that sounds like Carol Channing!' It was tongue in cheek and sarcastic, but a sign of the times.
PSF: How did you get hooked up with Island Records?
.28: Ironically, we had two record deals in one year! I was on the cover of Billboard twice in eight months! (laughs) I'm signing one deal and then eight months later, I'm signing another. That's what cracks me up the most. I mean, how many people get one record deal in their lifetime- I had two in eight months! We were originally with Boardwalk Records, which was founded by Neil Bogart (founder of Casablanca Records). And when he got sick and passed the person who brought us into Boardwalk, we were signed by Chris Blackwell at Island, and I'll always be thankful to him.
PSF: The Earons were pretty popular for a time in the early '80's. Any good stories from then?
.28: My attorney's office was on 57th street in Manhattan and the Hard Rock Cafe had just opened. We were coming back from an interview in a limousine, and I hated limousines- I hated that whole swanky B.S. that goes with rock and roll. I would rather have gone in an unmarked car or a taxi. Actually, rock and roll and the whole music business made me ashamed of being a musician. But we pulled up in front of the Hard Rock Cafe and we were going to go up to my attorney's office. And the Hard Rock had just opened and standing outside was Yul Brynner's son, Rock Brynner, Mariel Hemmingway, and one of the investors of the Hard Rock. It was winter 1984 and we got out of the car and they grabbed us and said 'Would you please come in? We would love for you to make an appearance!' We walked in the front door and there were all these TV's going and they were playing our video on MTV! The place was packed and we got a standing ovation. And people said 'We love that record! We love that song!', and they proceeded to bring us to the bar, and they tried to buy us drinks. But we had our helmets on and what were we gonna do? Lift our visors and start drinking? It was one of the instances that made it fun.
PSF: How was the band received live?
.28: We had this amazing sound system that you could literally put underneath the bus and go into any venue and plug in. We spent $150,000 on it. We had a sixteen track board, all the outboard gear, and we had 8 stacks of monitors, 18's, 15's, and 12's, plus six wedges on the stage. And we had a snake and we would take the mix from the stage and give it to the house. So when the sound came off the stage it was thunderous!
When we first came out, we played at Stonybrook University and and a few weeks later, this story came out and it said "Saw The Earons at Stonybrook. Pretty impressive show. Despite the conspicuous black dude working the tape loops on the stage this group fared pretty well." This writer actually thought we were playing tape. I never had a chance to write to him and say "Seriously? We were playing live! There was no tape loop!" He had just never seen a stage like ours. He as used to seeing sixty Marshalls on one side of the stage and 60 on the other!
The most awkward moment I ever had in my music career was opening up for Run-DMC. We were trying to get tour support from Island Records and here we had a record and a video on MTV, but none of the kids from the urban world had money to buy a subscription to MTV or could pick up the signal. People don't realize that. So the early days of MTV were hysterical. They played our record on MTV and it started to catch on and people loved it but they didn't know where to put it on the radio. And the only reason MTV played it was because at the last minute, the director of the "Land of hunger" video asked me to show my face to give them a little something, to let them know 'Hey maybe there's a Caucasian guy under there.' That's the only reason they played it on MTV.
Back to the Run-DMC show. The show was in Baltimore in the winter of 1985, at the Baltimore Arena. I remember walking out and you have to do a thirty-five minute set and no one's giving you any play- they're just staring at you. 14-15,000 people. I had nightmares about it for a long time. All I could see in the first fifteen rows was Pumas, gold chains, and people looking at us like 'What the hell is this?' It was the weirdest thing because here my record was big on MTV, major exposure, and when we went to do these shows on the R&B circuit, all I could remember is we came out and we had our system and we played and no one was moving. I would have loved for someone to just get up, tell us to get the hell off the stage, throw something at us. People didn't get it, that particular audience didn't get it, which is okay. When we got to "Land of Hunger," which was like the third song we did, people started to respond. But finally I got really frustrated. I kicked the mike stand over and walked off the stage and went to the locker room. The Earons let me have it for that. I had never experienced anything like that. The promoter and everybody was like 'You're gonna have to buy a new microphone.' And I was like 'I'll buy ten of them for you, man.' And I remember Run-DMC never even came over to introduce themselves. The whole industry, a lot of it, was just a big facade.
I remember going back to the locker rooms, they had these big locker rooms. And we always had total anonymity and our road crew was told right up front, don't ever bring any groupies back here. Don't bring anybody back here. This is our business, this is our art and that's not the way it's gonna go down. And I remember that two or three girls actually snuck in as I was changing and they were like 'That's you up there?!' And I said 'Can I ask you something? What was that all about?' And they said 'That was their way of dissing you man, they were just quiet.' And I said 'watching thirteen thousand people not make a sound is pretty surreal to me!'
I just remember seeing the first 15 rows with dudes with their arms crossed- it's a visual I have you know. I guess that was the beginning of the breakdown in musical categories that altered me. And I've never fallen for that stuff and I never will.
But, honestly it was a lot of fun because I don't want to stand here and pontificate about anything, but it was show business. But the color of you skin, where you come from, what you believe in- that's all irrelevant. We're all from here on earth (Earon Earth) and that's what we put on stage.
PSF: Did you ever feel like you were expected to sound a certain way on Island?
.28: I think at one point, when they released "Land of Hunger" as a single, they didn't think it was gonna cross over. I do know that bands were scared to play with us.
When we were at Island, when we brought them our second album they said 'What are you doing here? Are you trying to sound like The Police?' At that time, music didn't know what to do with itself, but we know what to do with it. I know for a fact that college radio loved it. There was a station in long island called WLIR- 'The station that dares to be different.' That was their slogan. I remember telling the people at Island we need to entertain WLIR and they said 'Oh, that silly station? They're not even recognized by the FCC!' Meanwhile, this was a station that broke bands like U2 and Oingo Boingo. They were such a progressive, fun station! That radio station was paramount in introducing people to music.
PSF: So there is more than one Earons record?
.28: Yeah, I took the second album back. I didn't let them shelf it. Those songs are alive, I'm just waiting for the right opportunity. We signed a four album deal but they ended up honoring only one. When we brought the second album in, the A&R person was like 'Where do you want me to put this?' I said 'What do you mean, don't you see you need to go to places like WLIR?' When Here on Earth came out, radio stations were scared of us, groups were scared of us.
PSF: How did The Earons dissolve?
.28: The Earons never dissolved. Everybody's still active.
PSF: One last question, who is .28?
.28: .28 is somebody who came into this world with a number- we're all numbers when we come into this world. And you can make a mark or you can't make a mark. And my mark when I finally leave this earth is I need to believe in something that I do and I need to write about things that are positive, that have affected my life and affected other peoples' life. It's always been about the music and the lyrics for me.
[When we started] the business was convoluted. So when I thought about putting the helmet on and using numbers for names and choosing our credo, I said to myself 'This is good, I like this, I'll do this until the day I die.' Because it doesn't matter whether people can see you or not, if you can move somebody with your music and if you can say something with your music, that's all that counts.
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