Something is different about Nobunny. It's apparent as soon as he picks up the phone and says hello. It takes six calls and two days to track down the Oakland-based man who dons a ratty old bunny mask and little else to play classically catchy garage-pop gems. Such flakiness has long marked his relationship with the press, as have his rambling, contradictory answers that almost always end up in a far different place from where they begin. But this bunny has indeed changed, a point he proves with the first words that come out of his mouth.
"Hey, how's it going?" he offers with rough, nasally warmth. "This is Justin."
It has long been common knowledge to anyone willing to do a little research that Nobunny is the stage name of Justin Champlin, who started the project in Tucson, Ariz., 11 years ago. But for most of that run, he has kept his real-life identity separate from his musical persona. Nobunny insisted he was the bastard offspring of a human woman and a jackalope father, not the former drummer for Arizona's Okmoniks who decided to grab a mask and start playing street corners and house shows. And yet, here Champlin is, happily revealing his identity and candidly discussing the motivations behind his unconventional stage show. The misinformation, he explains, is no longer worth the effort.
"I'm a fan of a lot of trashy pop culture and a lot of hustlers and hoaxes and strange things," he says. "I did used to very much try to separate any sort of reality from my quote-unquote 'reality' from Nobunny. I don't try and hide it so much anymore, because if someone wants to know who Nobunny is, people have Google and there's information on the Internet. At the same time, you can't really believe everything you read. I like quote-unquote 'building the myth.' It's fun."
Champlin confirms the persistent rumor that Nobunny began as a failed Elvis impersonation act. Noticing there were Taiwanese Elvises, female Elvises and a litany of other disparate attempts at honoring the King, Champlin decided he would attempt an animal-themed version. He quickly realized he wasn't cut out for the tribute circuit and re-imagined the act as a shambling, effervescent garage project fusing buoyant '50s and '60s melodies with a roughshod approach that drew inspiration from '70s punk. He called himself the No Money Bunny, imploring his audiences to "Please, please feed the No Money Bunny. The No Money Bunny needs money."
"I guess I settled on a bunny because it seemed better than a bear suit," Champlin says, explaining that he holds no special affinity for bunnies. "People like bunnies. They're kind of cute. They're kind of stupid. They're sometimes kind of creepy with their red eyes. It just seemed fun — fun and horny maybe. I think it was honestly just a better looking mask than the bear mask or the pig mask or the other options at the time when I was looking for a first mask."
Nobunny's songs are catchy and cathartic in a way that's sublimely approachable. For instance, "Live it Up," from 2010's First Blood LP, pairs a girl-group melody with a snot-nosed Ramones-style delivery as Champlin makes a series of supremely simple declarations: "I'm going to see the world/ I'm going to talk to that girl." But his stage show is far more challenging. Last fall at Carrboro's Cat's Cradle, he showed up wearing a bondage strap and thinly stretched tighty whities. Sometimes he winds up wearing nothing but his mask. To some, Nobunny's mix of irresistible pop and confrontational live show might seem an odd juxtaposition. For Champlin, it's a natural paring.
"I would actually think a lot of people would be able to get into both," he says. "I certainly don't get naked if it's an all-ages show. And I don't just get naked if it is an 18-and-up crowd. That's certainly not a guarantee. I honestly don't do it much nowadays, though I guess I do it a little more than the average performer. It's certainly not even a weekly occurrence. Although I guess it's maybe once a month that it happens."
Despite his quirks, Champlin sees himself as the next progression in a long line of rock 'n' roll provocateurs. In his view, it's surprising that no one beat him to the Nobunny punch.
"I'm looking at my wall right now," he says. "There's a picture of GG Allin right next to Weird Al right next to Blowfly right next to Dee Dee Ramone. I wouldn't say that I am those four, but just looking at them — Why not Nobunny? Of course Nobunny. It's time for Nobunny. It just is Nobunny, and it feels like a no-brainer to me. No pun intended."
Nobunny with Bad Sports, Homewrecker. $10. 8 p.m. Sept. 9. Haunted Mill, Belmont. www.thehauntedmillnc.com.