When Vancouver drummer John Wright got a call from Germany to help a robot band write songs, he never expected the adventure he was about to embark on.
All photos courtesy of band website
I was chatting with Nomeansno drummer John Wright the other day (we live in the same small town, jealous?) and he started telling me about his recent trip to Germany. I figured it was just a normal vacation-type thing, you know, drummer of internationally revered punk band Nomeansno, lover of German beer, he probably goes there at least once a year just because it feels like his second home or something. Wrong. As Wright began to explain the purpose of his trip overseas, my eyes started to widen. It seems he had been contacted by a fucking robot band (yeah, like a band made up of actual robots) who needed his human help to begin writing some original songs. His original reaction to the query was, “Um, what would be the best way to describe it? I was curious as to what the hell it was all about,” says Wright. “I was kind of like, ‘Oh yeah, sure, whatever...’ But when I found out it was actual robots playing actual music, I was quite curious.”
It seems the robot band, Compressorhead, has made a name for themselves by playing standard punk and metal covers like “Ace of Spades” and “Blitzkrieg Bop” at trade shows, private parties and even the odd music festival. But, like all robots, Compressorhead bassist Bones, drummer Stickboy and guitarist Fingers wanted something more. They’re not planning world domination or anything dubious like that, although the ‘bots insistence on referring to us humans as “meatbags” does seem like a bit of ominous foreshadowing, but no, they just wanted to write some ass-kicking original songs that they could call their own, put out an album, maybe even take the whole thing on the road with a plentiful supply of WD-40. As for Wright, he’s serving as a musical “meatbag” mentor. “They want to know about rock n' roll, because that’s what they want to do,” says Wright. “It’s been fun, for sure! And from the robot’s perspective, if they could have a friend, I would be one of them. They’re very open to all of my ideas, because they just want to rock.”
With the help of Wright’s steady songwriting hand (this is the guy who helped write some of Canada’s most memorable punk songs, after all), Compressorhead are busy readying their next robotic chapter. Sworn to secrecy, Wright could tell us very little about Compressorhead’s actual origins. Luckily, the robots were happy to talk our ears off (well, except for Fingers, who doesn’t say much, apparently, and had a ‘bot named The New Guit speak on his behalf).
Noisey: So, where did you guys come from, exactly?
Bones: Various scrap heaps and the dusty back shelves of fading engineering companies.
Stickboy: Who's kidding who, Bones? You came off the line. No silver spoon here... amongst the other pieces of cutlery. We give him the gears, but he puts the precision into that precision. Fingers, there's a real collection of parts. No one is entirely sure where he came from. Somewhere in Germany. Real Kunstliche Intelligenz. He keeps it real though; this is a vital component to our ability to rock... as we have come to know this. He can play 72 notes at the same time. Thankfully he rarely does. Eh, Fingers? Es ich nicht sinnvoll Klug hosen... Makellose Vorurteil, Dude! Ich mache es auf als Ich gehen zusammen! Har har har har!
The New Guit: Actually, we are from the R.U.R. [After some research, Noisey discovered early 20th century Czech writer Karel Capek’s play R.U.R., in which he first coined the term “robot.” So, this appears to be a sort of robot inside joke.]
You seem to be gathering a human fan base with your live appearances, but what about your robot audience? Have they abandoned you?
Bones: We still hang out with our robot buddies, especially the bots down at the CNC Bar, where we used to play and sometimes still do. Knuckles and I go way back to 2012.
Stickboy: Animated music is not so trendy now with the bots in the present. DJs and crap are big in the clubs, yunno, bots on E listening to MC Squared. A lot of bots into Hard Drive, Glance, Hinge, Paper Cups... We want to rock, and so do meatbags.
The New Guit: Sadly yes... abandoned for some overrated juke bot.
What's the process of choosing your songs? Is there a lot of infighting over your selections?
Bones: There's been a few 1s and 0s exchanged at times, but all in all we tend to agree on what rocks and what doesn't.
Stickboy: Is it real? This is a vital component to rock as we have come to know this. We have the latest processors. We are so focused that blurring is troublesome. We have thusly enlisted the help of the meatbag John [Wright] who has put the “real” in “rock ‘n’ roll” in the past, when it was spelled incorrectly... as we have come to know this, we feel his guidance clears our approaches to rock. We just want to do that… Vietnamese was our first language.
The New Guit: We get others to fight over our song selection. Yes, it's true! We outsource our infighting.
Besides the obvious reasons, and that fact that you’re made out of metal yourselves, why do you like heavy metal and punk rock?
Bones: Are there other kinds of good music?
Stickboy: We had to slow things down. Had you ever been a vacuum, you'd understand. Everything sucks. I think if I heard one more chime or frickin' loop, I'd unplug myself. I'll give you a sample... all of them! You can't digitize the real. Well, you can, and bots are doing it all the time. We choose to rock.
The New Guit: That's a very good question but we have only a very bad answer. Sorry.
The songs you play, like "Ace of Spades" and "Blitzkreig Bop", and are relatively simplistic. What songs are you looking at next to challenge your robot appendages?
Bones: Hey, us robots can play rhythms and licks so fast and complex you humans couldn't even follow. We play songs that we think will appeal to all the good folks out there.
Stickboy: Yeah, complex, don't get me started. That's the easy part. We must abandon complexity, a concept beyond the human lexicon. The lure is strong, but so is gravity, and you don't see us floating around like so many bubbles... of course, as a party machine, I do generate bubbles.
The New Guit: We are hoping to tackle Yngwie J. Malmsteen next. We are currently transcribing his interviews for piano.
Any plans to write your own material?
Bones: It's happenin'... right now!
Stickboy: Yes. We thought we had done that before, but there was a technical malfunction and we ended up printing our own material instead of writing it! So right now we have a lot of wool sweaters and cotton dish towels with floral patterns, but no new songs.
The New Guit: That is why we enlisted the help of John, to write new material and to facilitate our quest for rock, as we have come to know this. And Lars Ulrich was unavailable.
Some might say that because you are robots, and are therefore robotic, you can't put as much passion or groove into your music as, say, Lars Ulrich does. Discuss.
Bones: You meat bags talk about passion a lot. We think passion is a polite expression for inept sloppiness, a kind of improvised error status. We sometimes error also, but it is real, and the results can be extremely expressive. Lars Ulrich can't play drums like Stickboy.
Stickboy: Yes, keeping it real apparently means making lots of mistakes. We were frankly confused at first. When John asked me why I wasn’t speeding up, I didn't understand. He seemed agitated and went straight to the beer fridge. Often he went straight to the beer fridge, come to think of it. We have drawn some conclusions and have adopted a well-oiled approach to our new material. Full steam ahead, as you meatbags might quip...
The New Guit: Sadly, this is absolutely true. No one right now is putting the same amount of groove, or passion or, let's face it, intensity into their tunes as Lars Ulrich is. Except Peter Kraus.
What's the robot groupie scene like?
Bones: Everywhere we go we get little hottie toasters popping up backstage, and cool little fridges offering themselves for our pleasure! Pretty low-tech followers, but they can be fun.
Stickboy: I was debugged once... but if you've seen one automatic drip coffee machine, you've seen them all.
The New Guit: At first it seemed too good to be true! But then we found out that all of them were secret agents for GEMA. Also, they took all the oil and WD-40 on our backstage rider.
You refer to humans as meat bags? Why so harsh, bros?
Bones: Meat in a bag of skin; an accurate description of the homosapiens life form. Trees have more structural integrity.
Stickboy: It all started when human beings referred to us as “bum-bums with guitars.” Really, though, we are all the same inside, right? Robot or human, all of us want the same things, really. Things like tune-ups, regular servicing and Heino instant-cake mix. The New Guit: No comment.
What would your dream tour look like?
Bones: Very similar to a living room designed by IKEA.
Stickboy: There is a limited audience in this solar system, so we would probably start in Rigil Kent and follow on to Barnard's Star after that.
The New Guit: I always wanted to play the Knitting Factory... RRRRRAAOOWWW...
How has it been working with Canadian punk rock legend John Wright of Nomeansno?
Bones: Unbelievable, that guy rocks.
Stickboy: He has laid the groundwork on which rock can be raised. He has shown us the pocket in which to keep the rock. He has pointed us in the direction of reality by which we mean to keep it. The vital component. The power chord is not simply a wire that leads to the wall somewhere.
The New Guit: Extremely disappointing. We looked everywhere but could never find him when we wanted him.
Bones: Did you check the beer fridge?
What's Compressorhead's ultimate goal as a band?
Bones: Change the world, oh, sorry, universe.
Stickboy: To be awarded a Plutonium record for 1,000,000,000 sales. Only Peter Kraus has been able to do this; we'd be the first robots to do it and it would inspire children.
The New Guit: Yeah, and kids and their money, er… music is where it’s at!
Jason Schreurs is a writer who thinks robot-phobia is a totally irrational fear - @jasonschreurs