“Baseball is a game of inches,” Brooklyn Dodgers GM Branch Rickey once said, speaking on the thin line between success and failure.
Brian Kehew and Roger Manning — the musical brains behind L.A. electro duo Moog Cookbook — understand this. During the mid-1990s, both Moog Cookbook and Daft Punk debuted, toting vintage synthesizers and quirky spaceman outfits. It was a total coincidence. Yet, as fate would have it, while Daft Punk are once more the biggest act on the planet, Moog Cookbook have largely faded from memory.
“Back in 1994-95,” explains Manning, “no one was using keyboards on record anymore. It was all guitar rock, all the time. The original concept behind Moog Cookbook was just to make the most pro-keyboard album possible.”
Formed after the breakup of Jellyfish, Manning's successful power-pop band, Moog Cookbook set their sights on re-creating the kind of late '60s exploitation album that employed the other-worldly Moog synthesizer to cover the latest in Top 40 fare with broad, kitschy strokes.
By re-casting alternative rock staples by Soundgarden, Nirvana and Pearl Jam as retro space-age anthems, Moog Cookbook's 1996 self-titled debut was loved by critics. It yielded solid overseas sales amidst the retro-obsessed landscape of Pulp Fiction, the Swing revival and thrift shop mania. The duo even performed live on MTV in full space regalia and found a small domestic audience attuned to similar electronic psych-pop coming out of Europe by bands like Stereolab, Mouse on Mars and the High Llamas.
“Daft Punk actually came to meet us,” remembers Kehew from his home today near the La Brea Tar Pits, speaking on the French DJ duo. “They were huge fans of Moog Cookbook and came into the music store I was working in at the time. They were friends with Air, the French band, who came to meet us a month later.”
In short order, Moog Cookbook became 1/2 of Air's backing band for the inaugural tour and remixed their hit single, “Kelly Watch the Stars.” A second Moog Cookbook album — Ye Olde Space Bande Plays the Classic Rock Hits — saw the band working with one of its heroes, Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo, who joined them for a techno deconstruction of Van Halen's “Ain't Talkin' 'Bout Love.”
“Devo had a huge influence on us,” explains Kehew. “The look of Moog Cookbook can be traced back to those kinds novelty bands like the Spotnicks and French disco band, Space, who had a hit with 'Magic Fly' in 1977 and wore astronaut helmets and plastic jumpsuits. I know Daft Punk were into them too.”
Yet as Daft Punk's 1997 album, Homework, was giving DJ culture its first crossover smash in the American pop market, Moog Cookbook found themselves treading water. A year later they'd decided to hang up their space suits and call it a day.
“As creatively fulfilling as it was,” asserts Manning, “Moog Cookbook was not financially viable. We weren't coming out of rave culture and house music like Daft Punk. Not writing original songs, we didn't see a future in continuing to make what were essentially comedy records.” Manning has since become a session keyboardist, playing with folks like Beck and Jamiroquai, while Kehew continues as a producer/engineer.
As to the Daft Punk comparison, Kehew and Manning insist it unfairly undermines the core intelligence at the heart of Moog Cookbook.
“They were more of a smirk than a joke,” concludes Kehew. “Where they took it serious, Moog Cookbook was like Spinal Tap in so much as we loved the early synth sound enough that we could parody it. If those efforts played some small role in the larger electronic music explosion, then I'm proud of that.”
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