Nobunny is hard to catch. After a series of texts and missed calls, the enigmatic garage rocker calls. He's just finished playing a show on a bus, driving through Oakland's famous Mountain View Cemetery. Nobunny points out that it's the graveyard where the Black Dahlia, murdered actress Elizabeth Short, is buried. Now he's driving a friend to the train station. Reception is, of course, dodgy as well.
Somehow this all seems fitting. Nobunny himself is plenty dodgy. The project is often attributed to Justin Champlin, a thirtysomething garage rock vet with stints in bands like the Okmoniks and Sneaky Pinks. But Nobunny won't verify it. "As far as names to faces, there's never been any official word from Nobunny or the Nobunny camp on who is or isn't Nobunny," he says. "We're all Nobunny. There is no bunny, it's just Nobunny."
Though he'd been busking in the streets of Tuscon, Ariz., for months prior, the first official Nobunny show took place on Easter Sunday of 2001 at the Fireside Bowl in Chicago. "It was opening up for a hip-hop band and a noise band, and I'm not really sure where I fit into that, or if anybody fit into that," Nobunny says. The gig was filmed, and might someday be released on DVD with a collection of various other performances.
By the time of that first show, though, the Nobunny mythology was already in place. One version of the story claims Nobunny was bred from a jackalope and a human. The other, more probable version of the story is a surprisingly logical outgrowth of lifelong influences and inclinations, failed musical concepts and some fortunate whims.
Nobunny was born a hopeful but failed Elvis impersonator. "I had seen fat Elvis and skinny Elvis and extreme Elvis and black Elvis and Thai Elvis and female Elvis and young Elvis and old Elvis, and why not be bunny Elvis?" Nobunny says. "There had never been an animal Elvis that I'd seen that was doing the Elvis impersonator circuit, so I figured I could take over as bunny Elvis."
"I was living in the desert and there was a bunch of giant jackrabbits around. I like bunnies, and everyone kinda likes bunnies. They're kinda cute, they're kinda stupid, they're really horny and I figured why the hell not? Plus, I saw a bunny mask and it looked good, and why the hell not? The general motto of the whole band's just, 'Why the hell not?'"
When original songs started to show more promise than actually learning Elvis' catalog, Nobunny donned the grimy bunny mask, a leather jacket and some fishnet tights and became the Tex Avery-meets-R. Crumb wererabbit in Frank N. Furter garb responsible for a deluge of singles and two studio albums of near-perfect garage pop, 2008's Love Visions and last year's First Blood.
And as secretive as he is about his alter ego, Nobunny does nothing to hide his aesthetic influences. "My dad used to let me pick out like a record a month or something. [Kiss] was one of the first ones, strictly based on the cover and how cool and weird they looked, and scary and creepy," he says. Another early entry in the record collection was 1980's Alvin & the Chipmunks novelty album Chipmuk Punk.
Another proto-Nobunny project would have set the masked rocker as a guru for a band of teenage girls singing punk-rock oldies. "Kinda like the Runaways with Kim Fowley or the Donnas with Darin Raffaelli, I wanted to be the creepy svengali puppet master, because I'm pretty creepy and svengali-y, and I love puppets," Nobunny says. When the project failed to materialize, a few songs, including "I Am a Girlfriend," ended up in the Nobunny catalog. Others were turned over to Nobunny buddy Seth Bogart's band Hunx and His Punx.
But playing into the longstanding idioms and indosyncracies is Nobunny's most vital characteristic, and crucial to appreciating what (if not necessarily who) Nobunny is. Even wrapping his identity in self-enforced secrecy is a square on Nobunny's bingo map of pop culture references. "I'm basically ripping off the whole Devo philosophy," he explains. "You can just switch out the word Devo for Nobunny or Nobunny for Devo."
On Nobunny's Facebook page, a string of posts dubbed with some variation on "Roots of the Rabbit" feature YouTube clips of obscure oldies that sound suspiciously like Nobunny songs. One posted song, Utopia's jangly "That's Not Right," is quoted directly in Nobunny's Love Visions standout "Mess Me Up." References are a frequent trick for Nobunny. In the middle of "I Am a Girlfriend," Nobunny sings, "It puts the lotion on its skin, or else it gets the hose again," from The Silence of the Lambs, like it's a punch line. On the ode to self-love "(Do the) Fuck Yourself," from First Blood, Nobunny lifts a prominent line from Green Day's "Long View."
The music itself is a lumpy mixture of '60s rock 'n' roll and '70s punk, girl groups and Memphis garage, lo-fi pop and novelty songs. When Nobunny slips verses from the Ramones or the Cramps into his own songs, as he does on this year's Live at Third Man Records LP, it's a nod to influences and to the audience. The performance is ragged, and the band, like its material, is good-humored and lighthearted. "Well, good thing we're nice and out of tune for our live record," Nobunny jokes after the first song. But the antics garner the most vocal appreciation from the audience. The music is for them. They are Nobunny.
Nobunny performs Saturday, Sept. 17, at Cat's Cradle with Girls and Papa. Tickets to the 9 p.m. show are $14 in advance, $16 day of show.