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Men of Mentos (and Diet Coke)
Port City Life, August 2007

Just beside the front door of Fritz's Grobe's house in Buckfield stands a three-foot high stack of empty two-liter Diet Coke bottles, their silvery labels faded yellowy-white by the sun. It's a fitting visual metaphor. Grobe and his partner Steve Voltz, who perform under the name Eepybird, are done choreographing the epic cola fountains that just one year ago made them internet superstars. And like big time recording artists following up a critically lauded album, they now stand face-to-face with the threat of the sophomore slump.    

Earlier this year Grobe and Voltz took home not one but two Webby awards (the so-called Oscars of the internet) for their "Extreme Diet Coke and Mentos Experiments." The volcanic effect triggered by the mixing of these two ingredients had been known for some time (the porous surface of the candies provides innumerable tiny spots for CO2 bubbles to form, creating a dramatic increase in pressure within the bottle that pushes the soda upwards, often to heights of over ten feet), but the pair were the first to bring this backyard science trick to the level of grandiose performance art. They spent roughly six months and over $1000 developing their first video, "Experiment 137," a Bellagio-style eruption comprised of 101 two-liter bottles of soda, powered by some 500 pieces of candy, which was posted to their website in the wee hours of Saturday, June 3, 2006. The following Monday morning Letterman called.  

It was a moment of fame that should have lasted the proverbial fifteen minutes. It didn't. Over the past year the minty-sweet propulsions have taken Grobe and Voltz on a seemingly non-stop performance tour with stops in Las Vegas, Paris, and Istanbul. "We keep expecting this ride to end," says Grobe. There are few signs that the wheels are even slowing. Several thousand people still visit their website daily, and they're currently talking with a couple networks about developing a television show. But the lasting popularity of the video may not be as random as it seems. Grobe and Voltz, who met in 2000 at Celebration Barn, the Buckfield performance school founded by Tony Montanaro, have spent years studying physical comedy. Voltz, who's 49, started out as a twenty-something juggler, fire-eater, and sharp-knife trickster on the streets of San Francisco. Grobe, who dropped out of the Yale mathematics department to pursue a life in offbeat performance, is a five-time gold medal winner at the International Juggling Championships, and was, for many years, the artistic director of the Brunswick-based performance ensemble Blink. "We brought every skill we have to that video," he says, "what I've done for the last 18 years as a juggler is explore physical phenomena. So whether it's how does a ball bounce or what happens when you drop Mentos into Diet Coke, it's exploring the limits of what's possible."

Since finally coming down to Earth a few months ago, 3,000 bottles of soda and 18,000 Mentos later, Grobe and Voltz have been holed up in "the lab," the second floor of the converted grange hall where Grobe lives, developing a new routine. When I visited, it was still early on in the creative process, but judging by the state of the room the guys had been fairly busy. On a folding table off to the left lay packages of confetti, golf balls, and paper clips. But strewn across the floor were fans, lots of fans, and heaping piles of pink and blue toilet paper. All this stuff came from an intensive R&D excursion to Home Depot and Office Max. The pair prowled the aisles for close to four hours, staring at products, taking notes, tempting inspiration. "We were looking for new dynamics," Grobe explains, "so it started off as, 'what can we do with wind?' Fundamentally that's the question now: what can we do with wind?"

Grobe picks up a fresh roll of pink toilet paper and warns, "You're going to see stuff that we haven't even seen yet." His subtle grin betrays a pixyish glint. He places the roll on the center of a fan set at a 45 degree angle and it unwinds, almost majestically, into the air. The brawny Voltz positions himself opposite Grobe at an identical fan about fifteen feet away and does the same. Slowly, like the intersecting of two corkscrews, the streams of paper spiral into each other.

"Yes! Yes!," shouts Voltz. But right away the streams tangle and sink to the ground. There is a contemplative pause as the duo looks on, their mental cogs invisibly whirring.

"Dude!," erupts Grobe, breaking the silence. He grabs another fan, places it directly between the other two, and points it upwards. Now the streams, instead of getting gummed up, push even higher, almost to the ceiling, before eventually wafting downwards. It's immediately captivating, and easy to imagine on a dramatically expanded scale, with a dozen or more rolls of paper coiling in from all directions.

"I love this!," cheers Voltz.

"Pretty sweet," nods Grobe, standing right below the billowing mass with an empirical expression, head tilted straight back, mouth slightly open. "There's something happening here," he says, "we've just got to figure out what to do with it."

Voltz steps out to get a wider perspective. "Once we figure out what the vocabulary is," he offers, "we can start putting sentences together." 

Welcome to the inner-workings of the Eepybird brain, which is simultaneously haphazard and ruthlessly methodical. Whether it's Diet Coke and Mentos, or toilet paper and fans, it's all about the discovery of some unlikely effect, which is then brought into the lab for careful study. Every possible variable is exhausted. Lists are made of each portentous occurrence. Finally, the most interesting results are drafted into a piece with a beginning, middle, and end. "The entire objective," says Grobe, "is to be able to say today I did something I never did before. And not just that, but today I did something that I never even thought I could do before, like I never even dreamed that that was possible."

Perhaps the unlikeliest trick of all is how these two grown men managed to turn child-like curiosity into a viable vocation. Between the ad revenue from the site, the performance fees, and corporate sponsorships from Coke and Mentos, Eepybird actually pays the bills. Before they went big Grobe was essentially a freelance performer, doing a show here or there, just scrapping together a living. Voltz funded his performing habit by running his own civil law practice in Boston (needless to say he hasn't handled many cases of late). With "Experiment 137" the two started making enough money to drop everything and just be Eepybird. "It felt a lot like winning the lottery," says Grobe. "Now the challenge is to turn it into a sustainable business."   
  
After they're done messing around with the toilet paper the pair uses the fans to inflate a number of black trash bags. They cinch them closed with binder clips and try juggling them back and forth across the air current, keeping in play as many as possible. But the bags keep deflating. "This may go nowhere," admits Grobe, grinning nonetheless, "and I love that. If I knew it was going to work, then where's the excitement? There's no excitement without risk."

You could argue there's risk in whatever Eepybird does next. If they can't keep the buzz going, and thrill the world with some new stunt, they could end up having to go back to their old lives. But Grobe and Voltz aren't feeling the pressure. "It has to be about the work," says Grobe. "It has to be about us coming up here, throwing stuff around, and enjoying what happens. That's the joy for us. If we can keep that joy of exploration than whether people come by the thousands or come by the millions isn't so important," he adds, with a clap of the hands, "If we're a one-hit one wonder great!"

"That's one more hit than we had before," adds Voltz.