NORTH ADAMS -- Musician Howard Robot has determined that the future of music -- at least, his music -- is not in the control of either machines or humans, but some in hybrid of the two.
My Robot Friend performs at Mass MoCA on Saturday, Feb, 23, at 8 p.m.
My Robot Friend is less a band and more a performance project, which sees Robot take to the stage in a costume of lights and sing songs with a number of props, particularly electronic ones.
Robot began making electronic music around 2000, and the name My Robot Friend comes from that early collaboration with his own computer.
"Before then, I had been in a band, and I found the process of making electronic music very liberating," Robot said. "At the time, it was becoming more reasonable for ordinary people who aren't wealthy to make electronic music at home with a computer, which is what I started doing. "
"There were happy accidents and things that happened, and ideas that weren't entirely my own, so it had some of the aspects of being in a band. It had a lot of benefits, in that, depending on the band you're in, there's always a lot of tension and a lot of emotions, people getting upset if somebody's part's getting cut or somebody wants to cut your part."
It was a collaboration involving no ego from the collaborators. He could cut the machines' parts or just take their ideas as his own, and no animosity wedged its way into the work.
Making the music meant Robot was in his room alone, but when it came time to perform it, he had to figure out exactly how he wanted to present it and himself.
There were precedents for electronic music onstage, but he wasn't sure any of them fit what he wanted to do. He opted for the theatrical.
"I have an interest in technology, and I have an interest in visual arts as well, so I started building up very slowly from nothing," said Robot. "The idea of the lights really just came about from me thinking it was neat and wanting to play around with lights, figure out ways to do that."
Robot said it was a bumpy performance start and, if a video of his first show existed, he'd probably be embarrassed by it. Not discouraged, Robot moved on from the first attempt to create a more full experience, one that would unexpectedly take his concept a step further.
"I built up the semblance of a costume. It took me about three shows, and I had a real solid costume, and people started thinking of me as the robot," he said. "Once I realized that, it was a question of figuring out a philosophy that could fit that."
"I didn't like the idea of make believe, like I'm pretending to be a robot on stage, when people interview me I'm going to talk like a robot. I wanted to adopt something that allowed me to be me, yet also allowed me to be the robot at the same time."
With this aspect, Robot brought in the concept of humans as squishy robots, or rather, advanced biological machines. It all fit together and even guided his songwriting.
"Anything goes as far as the songwriting," Robot said. "Some of my songs do deal with technology, but if you're writing a song about human emotion, you're still under that umbrella. The idea of thinking of ourselves as machines is becoming more understandable as a concept for people, given what computers can do and thinking about what we have inside of ourselves, and nature versus nurture as we learn more about what's pre-programmed inside of us."
Robot's first album was fashioned largely from samples, with some synth and bass guitar mixed in. As he progressed onto a second album, he also included acoustic and electric guitar, as well as making use of a MIDI keyboard controller for virtual instruments.
He also expanded by bringing in one of his influences to perform a song -- Allison Moyet, who sang the song "Waiting," which is very reminiscent of her early synth work in Yaz.
"I just reached out to her and sent her a song," he said. "The song she recorded wasn't the first song I had sent her, that was one called ‘One More Try,' which is also a Yaz-like song. She really liked that, and that paved the way for me to send her something else. She's the kind of person who does what she wants to do, and if she's interested in something, she'll do it. It's a blues song and an electronic song, and that's very much what Yaz was and she responded to it."
Robot also points to Devo as a major influence on his work, both in terms of music and presentation.
"I liked the weirdness that they had going on," Robot said. "For me, just a suburban kid, that was the first thing that brought me outside of my world and said that, hey, there's a lot more out there, weird stuff out there. I think, in and of itself, if you can really weird someone out, that's a political accomplishment right there. That is something. It makes people feel uncomfortable, and Devo had that."
Robot admits that he is at a creative crossroads, where he has to give thought to how much the stage performance will affect the songwriting and music releases in the future. His style is evolving, and he needs to configure a performance that reflects it in an entertaining way that also works with the concept.
"It's difficult because my arrangements are becoming more full, and to do them justice, I'd almost want a band to do it," he said. "And they're also becoming more mellow, which is difficult, in terms of the way my show is currently set up. I'm not sure what I'm going to do."
Robot looks to examples from his past as he soul searches his next move. He might be a robot friend, but the creative process is more complicated than merely reprogramming himself.
"There was a song I did once where I was thinking, ‘oh, this is an idea for a live thing, this could work live,' " Robot said, "and I recorded the song and I liked it okay, it was something that I ended up releasing, and it also ended up not being played live either. So most of the time, I don't think about it. Right now that's exactly the problem I have, is that going into the future, I'm not sure. I'm going to have to do some reinvention to get things to work."
Find My Robot Friend online at myrobotfriend.com.