For the Mechanical Walking Robotboy, the third lineup is the charm
When Chris Smart formed the Mechanical Walking Robotboy in 1997, he was so fed up with the unkempt, ear-splitting attack of grunge rock, he decided to go as far in the opposite direction as possible. Along those lines, he and his new bandmates established a set of anti-grunge rules to follow.
“We said, ‘We’re all going to have short hair, we’re going to wear suits because everyone else wears jeans, and we won’t have any distortion guitar, because everyone else is distorted,’” Smart says.
|The Mechanical Walking Robotboy: From left, Mikey Jam Smith, James Traugott, Chris Smart, Chris Branca, and Shawn Terry.|
Because of this willful turn against the grain of rock fashion, Smart found that listeners experienced a delayed reaction to Robotboy’s electro-pop/goth hybrid. After the band released its 2000 debut CD, Baby, Baby, Baby, We’re All Doomed, even some of Smart’s friends responded with shrugs and half-hearted words of approval. Others suggested that the group was “lightweight” compared to the likes of Nirvana or Soundgarden. A year or two later, however, people began approaching him to say how much they liked the album.
“When I said it had been out for a year, they’d say, ‘Yeah, but I didn’t really like it that much before. I didn’t really listen to it,’” Smart says. “If you grew up listening to grunge, you’re not ready for something else.”
For Smart, it was a clear case of deja vu all over again. In the 1980s, he fronted Lung Overcoat, a group that mined much of the same sonic turf as Robotboy. As electronic rock attained a foothold on MTV, Lung Overcoat became one of San Antonio’s most popular bands. But as Smart recalls, “Lung Overcoat started out as punk rock and then evolved, and all the punk rockers hated it.”
Regardless of how bash-it-out punk rockers view things, Smart has never been much interested in the simple, old-school approach of putting a band together in a room and letting the tape machine run. He prefers to manipulate sound like a filmmaker building a montage, cutting sections and moving them around at will. Robotboy’s long-awaited second release, Slow, is a prime example of that strategy. Recording at home with the use of a computer, Robotboy constructed tracks with combinations of live drums and drum machines, slashing guitars and digital samples, including a couple taken from Lung Overcoat.
| “I was trying to get to something |
combining ’70s glam with more modern
electronica like Portishead and Air.”
– Chris Smart
This lineup — including drummer “Mikey Jam” Smith, bassist Shawn Terry, guitarist Chris Branca, and synth player James Traugott — actually represents the third incarnation of Robotboy. Smart, who’d spent the first half of the ’90s on the brink of music-industry success with the rock band Thirteen, put together the first Robotboy lineup with friends who’d similarly experienced recent band breakups. The group’s second lineup included Eric Sanden and Jamie Roadman, current members of Buttercup.
“We were all buddies,” Smart says of his history with Sanden and Roadman. “When I was in Thirteen, they’d go to our shows, and they were all Trinity students. They cornered me at a club one time and said they really wanted to get an opening slot with our band. So we used to let their old band Evergreen open for us.
“They started doing Buttercup and got really busy and I finally forced them to quit Robotboy. I knew Buttercup was Eric’s thing, and I said, ‘Eric, you just don’t have time for both. This is just going to become a problem, we’re going to get mad at each other. You’ve got to do Buttercup full-on, and let me put a new Robotboy together.’ He lives right across the street and we’re still best friends.”
The second chapter of Robotboy ended as sessions were underway for Slow. In this case, the inevitable disruption that comes with a lineup change allowed Smart to get closer to the sound percolating in his head.
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“`The early tracks` came out of more of a loungy, piano-based sound,” Smart says. “I was trying to get to something combining ’70s glam with more modern electronica like Portishead and Air. The band couldn’t really make that jump, so when I kind of forced everybody to quit the band, that gave me some time to do nothing but record and experiment with stuff. That’s kind of how it got to the next level. When I put the new group together, that was our starting point.”
The resulting album veers from the slow, mood pieces “Double” and “Flipped” to the frenetic drive of “Four Leaf Clover” (with a riff reminiscent of Pink Floyd’s “Lucifer Sam”) and the insinuating electro-funk of “Black Light.”
When Thirteen split up in 1996, Smart wasn’t sure he ever wanted to be part of a band again. After years of constant touring and spirit-crushing flirtations from record labels (the group even released a single on I.R.S. Records shortly before that label’s demise), Smart says, “The music got crappier and crappier and the friendships got worse and worse. By the end of it, when we broke up, we were all in horrible debt and sick of the record industry.”
Having played in bands non-stop since the age of 16, he decided to take a break. He spent a year writing songs and playing solo, before determining that he badly missed the musical interaction and emotional camaraderie that comes with a group.
“I know there’s all kinds of crap involved with bands, personality problems and hassles, but I love it,” he says. “I hate playing alone and I don’t like recording alone. I don’t know how David Bowie’s done it all his life. That always-being-alone thing has got to suck.” •
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