article by dave madden|
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San Diego's The Robot Ate Me is one of those bands I ask people about to hear the response, "Oh, yeah. I've heard the name." That way, I hope, people actually will hear the name, process it, look up the band's website and fall in love with their music, just as I did last year after listening to their first disc, They Ate Themselves. RAM's songs are intricate and honest, with lyrics that range from painfully introspective to revolutionary anarchistic to downright witty, often over the course of a single track. A Robot Ate Me album is best experienced a couple of times in a row, the better to solidify an interpretation -- and even then, your view might change with subsequent listens.
In preparation for this interview, I attempted to research the band online, and was shocked and dismayed to find almost nothing about them, interview-wise. I felt lucky to actually have a chance to communicate with Ryland Bouchard, the man responsible for RAM and owner of the band's label, Swim Slowly Records. Rather than introduce the band with a bunch of information you'll read again in the article itself, I will let Bouchard's graciously elaborate responses tell you all you need to know to get started with The Robot Ate Me.
Splendid: Could you talk about the evolution of The Robot Ate Me?
Ryland Bouchard: The Robot Ate Me started in 2002 as my solo project -- I was playing in another band at the time called The Bedroom Heroes, which was my first real band. We played these long melodic songs with guitars, builds and tempo changes, which was fun, but I really wanted something that was more personal at the time. I recorded They Ate Themselves over a few months and just focused on having fun, playing any instrument that made sense, and recorded almost everything really late at night (because that's when the studio wasn't booked with other bands). Friends would come in and play drums, bass, violin and horns on the tracks and I would pretty much do everything else. I was having fun with recording but at the same time dealing with a lot of personal issues, so the lyrics focused on my life and what was happening to the people around me. Last summer I moved all of my recording equipment into my bedroom and started working on what became On Vacation. I knew I wanted to do something different, and I started piecing together sounds from the hundreds of old records passed down from my grandmother into these pop-type songs. I was burnt out on songs with guitars and synths, so I made it a point to not play them -- or even consider recording them. Meanwhile, I was going to work everyday and reading news article after news article on the administration's absurd policy decisions. So, a bit obsessively, I started writing lyrics like, "I kill better when I drink Pepsi" after seeing Fox news photos of soldiers in Afghanistan drinking Pepsi while aiming their machine guns at the locals.
Splendid: So you have a day job?
Ryland Bouchard: Yes, I work as a web programmer. It's not very rewarding, but it pays for the label.
Splendid: Swim Slowly is your label, right?
Ryland Bouchard: Yeah, it started by accident with the Bedroom Heroes release. We had recorded the album ourselves and just decided to release it under Swim Slowly Records in order to make it seem more official…although at the time I really had no idea what running a label would actually consist of. Then came They Ate Themselves and I hoped if I kept adding releases to the label it would eventually become a self-sustaining entity…
AUDIO: They Ate Themselves
Splendid: What is your interaction with the other bands on the label?
Ryland Bouchard: We are all really friendly and I try to keep things as casual as possible. I'm mostly only interested in releasing friends' music...just because the label is more about creating a community of like-minded musicians than it is trying to make money or market music that is commercially viable. West Dakota is just a few of our friends from New York, and they came out to San Diego to record their debut EP a few months ago. We played with The Winks in Vancouver and have kept in touch and just decided to help them release Slippers and Parasol. We are hoping they come down and record with us this spring as well.
Splendid: I perused the Swim Slowly forum the other night and noticed your frustration with running a label that has to fight tooth and nail against a league of Sonys. Why do you keep going?
Ryland Bouchard: I guess the main reason I don't give up is that I really like being able to make music a personal experience. I want to give people something real, something that they can identify with, and without sounding too cheesy, I really feel that giving music to people gives my life some sort of meaning -- and that is worth any amount of debt or frustration I might have.
Splendid: That's refreshing to hear, especially because you back it up with great music. What other bands have you been in?
Ryland Bouchard: Just the Bedroom Heroes.
Splendid: Are you involved with any other projects at the moment?
Ryland Bouchard: None. I think we'll record another West Dakota EP next month -- and I'll probably start working on the next record for The Robot Ate Me fairly soon. I've talked to Edan in West Dakota about working on a few albums together over the next year. One of the projects is going to be just vocals, synths and cheesy drum machines, called The Big Spoiler. Of course, don't tell anyone about that project -- it's a secret.
Splendid: Your lyrics are often third-person dialogs about little kids or insane dictators (or someone who is both...um, Bush?) How personal are these words?
Ryland Bouchard: I think even the most detached lyrics I've written still draw from my personal experiences. As much as "Crispy Christian Tea Time" is about our President, it is also about my childhood, growing up Catholic and trying to interpret spirituality as a young kid. Often the third-person voice helps me provide the setting for a song -- it helps create a mental picture of some kid drinking tea, completely misunderstanding the religious symbols given to him and turning into this misguided Tea Land Dictator. Instead of abstracting my emotions, I've been trying to translate them into more understandable images. My goal has never been to preach my views to the world -- it's more about my need to communicate frustrations with things in my life that I couldn't deal with in other ways. I think a song being personal also involves trusting your listener with your lyrics. I was really afraid to sing, "All the human Africans are statistics; it doesn't really matter if they die...", but in a way I knew I had to, even at the risk of those lyrics being misunderstood. Just singing, "Baby I love you, I miss you" doesn't involve any trust and would probably be the most impersonal thing you could do to a listener, even though that might really be how you feel.
AUDIO: Crispy Christian Tea Time
Splendid: Hence punkers suddenly turning emo by singing about how miserable their last breakup went, rather than bashing on the Parliament. On Vacation's lyrics talk a lot about religion, specifically Christianity. I'm not sure how much is sarcasm or your actual opinion. What are your views on organized religion?
Ryland Bouchard: I've had a lot of negative experiences with organized religion and feel it can have a tremendously negative influence over large groups of people. I don't mind religion at all when it's used for comfort, as a community center, and as a spiritual guide for people who need help. But it's not something I personally participate in. I think it was John Adams who said that "this would be the best of all possible worlds, if there were no religions in it" -- and he was elected to the Presidency. Two hundred years or so later, it's impossible for any President to get elected who openly doesn't believe in God. Somehow one's belief in God has become more important than a lawmaker's ability to make sound policy decisions and it is basically a voting shortcut. Instead of understanding a candidate's stances on an issue, or their policy record, people ask if he subscribes to a higher power and then assume that if he does, that makes him a good person. Religion can be wonderful when used for the right reasons, but somehow it has been warped into this marketable set of complicated and contradictory beliefs that are used to justify political decisions...and I feel that is only slightly different than a maniacal leader like Hitler marketing the absurd concept of German nationalism as a justification for world domination. When leaders have to call on intangible concepts like "God" or "Nationalism" to justify their policy goals, their motives should be closely scrutinized by the voting public.
Splendid: Yeah, the same happens with businesses around where I grew up in Utah. Who cares if you can manage, or if your family is a wreck, but are you an active member of the predominant religion? People like to rook other people into pyramid schemes with the same ploy. It's sad. So, do you subscribe to any certain spiritual center?
Ryland Bouchard: My most spiritual experiences involve making music, being in nature, and connecting with people...and for me that is enough. I look around and generally I'm humbled to be alive.
Splendid: One of your B-sides subtly derides a certain action-star who somehow became Governor of California. As a Californian, how did you feel about Arnold being elected?
Ryland Bouchard: It seemed a bit absurd and surreal, but I don't think anyone was at all surprised by the results of the election.
Splendid: Who is the "Hollywood art band" that reacts?
Ryland Bouchard: No band in particular. In a way it was self-mockery, but I loved the idea of having the band's reaction being an empty line with no lyrics -- with the intent of commenting on the post-modern tendency in art to use abstraction over thought out criticism -- just because it's safe and easy.
Splendid: You graduated from UCSD in Political Science? I'm trying not to sound like an idiot with this question, but why Political Science?
Ryland Bouchard: I thought I was going to be a lawyer. I later realized that the law career path would have made me miserable -- so I focused on music.
Splendid: Did you find yourself to be more nihilistic about the world after you graduated?
Ryland Bouchard: Not at all -- if anything, I was just sick of theories without any practical application.
Splendid: A friend of mine, who is 40, lamented to me a few weeks ago that bands, particularly "punk" bands, have ceased to say anything that might make waves in a Dead Kennedys way. I had just received my copy of On Vacation and played it for him, saying, "look, musicians are still speaking their minds about the government!" Saying that On Vacation is overtly political seems like an understatement -- or am I way off base here?
Ryland Bouchard: No, you aren't way off. Several of the songs from Part One were based on current events, and the concept of the album as a whole was to contrast escapist pop with music that seeks to address the dire political situation in our country. For example, "The Genocide Ball" is a reaction to the 2003 Pentagon plan that would allow investors to bet on the likelihood of a terrorist attack, government overthrow, or various other events. "Oh No! Oh My! (1994)" is a song about the political response to the Rwandan genocide, where 800,000-plus people were murdered -- the hope is that people will see the similarities between the actions of previous administrations and the possible outcomes of the current US policies toward Afghanistan and Iraq. Somewhere between 10,000-20,000 civilians have been killed as a result of the administration's decision to invade Iraq and Afghanistan... Political agendas come at the cost of thousands of people's lives -- all without accountability.
AUDIO: Oh No! Oh My! (1994)
Splendid: You talk a lot about genocide and the Holocaust, but again, in a sort of detached way, as if you're watching it on CNN. Do you think that we as Americans are drawn to the idea of living in fear?
Ryland Bouchard: Terror unifies people, and is an easy concept to market. No one wants their office building destroyed by planes; no one wants to be invaded; no one wants to give up their family, their house and all of their things. No one wants to be spied on by evil Communists. "In God We Trust" was not consistently on all US currency until 1956, during the McCarthy hysteria. Besides hope and progress -- which are incredibly difficult things to convince people of -- fear is one of the only things that almost everyone can identify with. I don't think anyone is drawn to the idea of living in fear, but they do live in fear because of images they see in the news, in movies, etcetera. I grew up terrified, thinking I would be attacked in the middle of the night because of all the things I saw on the news.
Splendid: I grew up feeling the same way. I was really fatalistic and wholeheartedly accepted the fact that I would probably have to endure radiation poisoning -- just like that scene in The Stand where Trashcan Man rides in on that nuclear warhead with his face melting off. Then I guess I came to the conclusion that the worst that could happen is that I die...kind of a Zen-nihilism, and those fears sort of went away. What do you think is the best way that we as Americans/humans can make a difference, as far as righting the wrongs of the world?
Ryland Bouchard: I wish I knew for sure. I think being kind, thoughtful and reasonable goes a long way. Instead of spending $40k on a new car, buy a used car or use public transportation when available. Support local businesses if you have a choice. Be nice to people, and visit other countries to get some perspective. I think a lot of people assume that problems are too far reaching to personally make a difference, but if everyone individually acted even slightly different, things would drastically improve. Personal responsibility...
Splendid: Do you put much faith in political elections as far as their ability to change anything for the better?
Ryland Bouchard: I wish I could say yes, and I really think people should vote -- but I think our political problems are rooted so deep that voting itself will not change anything. Elections are determined by money, the consolidated media, corporations, special interest groups, and redistricting. Voting is like bread tossed to the poor -- it makes us feel like we are not being completely taken advantage of by those in power. Change needs to come from the top down, and those in power will not easily give up what they already have. My hope is with organizations like www.moveon.org, which are becoming tremendously effective at making political participation easy and are gradually returning politics to more of a grass-roots, personal level.
Splendid: I follow the idea that the only way to really take advantage of voting power is avoiding chain restaurants or going to indie film theatres instead of stadium-seated venues on opening night. Anyway, I respect the fact that although On Vacation is a two CD set, each disc is only around twenty minutes long. Is this your homage to the "A side/B-side" of vinyl?
Ryland Bouchard: Yes. The process of changing the CDs -- like flipping the side of a vinyl record -- was something I wanted to force people to do, even though there wasn't enough recorded material to functionally require two discs. I wanted the material on each disc to be its own entity, and also to force people to choose a disc that they liked and hopefully become a little self-aware as to why they liked a certain disc more than the other.
Splendid: Both They Ate Themselves and On Vacation are really contiguous as far as songs flowing from track to track. Did you set out to make "concept albums" or was it just a matter of what was on your mind that week?
Ryland Bouchard: I never really sit down and decide, "Yes, this will be On Vacation, an album that contrasts politics with escapism." It's definitely more of a phase or obsession that I'm going through that also tends to closely relate to the events in my personal life.
Splendid: You have a sort of four-track aesthetic, in that the music sounds very organic and "first-take", but it's in no way a lo-fi sound. Could you talk about your recording process?
Ryland Bouchard: Sure. I record at home, in my room, so I'm very comfortable with the setting and I don't feel pressured to record things any particular way. I will often use "first take" vocal tracks or guitar tracks just because I like the way the take came across even if the performance was off. I also spend a lot of time making the songs feel natural and personal, whereas most production has the goal of making things sound like they were recorded at a studio. We never used more than two microphones at once during the recording process and tried to keep things very simple. The biggest challenge with On Vacation was getting the 1920s samples and live tracks to blend perfectly, so that everything would sound cohesive even though the sounds were recorded 80 years apart or more. I used cheap ribbon microphones, distorted the vocals, and EQ'd a lot of the high frequencies out of the recorded tracks. I think there's something magical about the way old 78RPM records were recorded and sound, and in a way, I was trying to make Part One create that nostalgic feeling, even though (it) is an obviously modern sound.
(Drummer Dave Greenberg asked me if he could share a little history behind the use of 78s as sampling source. Greenberg had an idea to sample the La Jolla Symphony and Chorus, as his neighbor at the time records them on a regular basis. The idea fizzled, but grew into the act of sampling Bouchard's grandmother's record collection. "The first song we did was Jesus and Hitler. He (Ryland) was trying to go to sleep, (but) I kept playing the Curious George and Ferdinand the Bull stories and there was a drum break in Curious George. We both instantly knew it was perfect. We had just watched the Scratch DVD that week and had been listening to Fog's Ether Teeth. We had a show with Fog so we got an advance copy of the CD and realized how cool this sampling thing could be.")
Splendid: The first half of On Vacation is really sample-heavy, and that seems to really steer the course of each song, particularly the melodies. Could you talk about the construction of these tracks?
Ryland Bouchard: There was no real formula for the construction of the tracks. Some tracks are complete collages of found sound, and other tracks were almost completely based upon a song I wrote and cut apart. "The Republican Army", for example, is, for the first section, a complete collage of percussion and manipulated samples, and then it abruptly changes into a song I wrote on the Wurlitzer. "Oh No! Oh My! (1994)" was a polka from a 1930s children's record that I just loved. After I recorded the vocals over the polka sample, we added percussion, backup vocals, some Chinese instruments and cello to round out the sound. Other tracks were almost too coincidental in the way the samples and recorded material fit together. One night we recorded the piano and horns for "Every Nazi Plane Has A Cross", and then the next day the first record I pulled out had a clarinet that fit perfectly with the mood, tempo and key of the song we wrote the day before. Actually, what was even more odd is that the piano we record with is about a quarter step out of tune -- and almost nothing can stay in tune with it. Other experiences like that made me believe that using these old records was something I had to do, even if my song experiments completely failed.
Splendid: On the contrary, I think that it all came together nicely. I had my suspicions that there were a lot of wonderful "accidents" on both albums -- or you guys are geniuses with the sharpest instincts around. I'm hypercritical about the whole samples-meets-acoustics albums, and you really impressed me. I can't imagine that mixing these sound worlds was an easy task. Are you a wait-for-inspiration kind of guy or do you just schedule, say, your first three hours each day to work and see what happens?
Ryland Bouchard: When writing songs, I definitely wait until something happens -- I always write horrible material when I sit down and say, "I'm going to write a song tonight." However, when mixing and doing additional recording, I do set aside time for working on the recordings.
Splendid: As far as bandmates go, how do you collaborate with the other guys in the band?
Ryland Bouchard: We definitely collaborate, but it's different than the way I think most bands work together. Instead of writing and recording together, I'll write a song, record it that night, and then give it to Dave (drums) and RJ (Hoffman, bass/violin) and they will come up with ideas. Then a few weeks later we record all those ideas, only to completely cut them apart and make them into something else. Sometimes we won't use parts at all, or other times they will write a part that is perfect and I wouldn't dare changing it at all. I love the fresh viewpoint they provide once a song is already written, because it's a completely different viewpoint than they would have if they had been playing the song live for three months before we sat down to record. I think that touring on material that hasn't been recorded can, in a way, stifle creativity and make people attached to parts that may not be best for the song. The great thing about Dave and RJ is how open minded they are, and how willing they are to experiment, even if it means not using a part they spent the whole week writing.
Splendid: We've spoken previously about graduate schools and the fact that you're considering a degree in electroacoustic music. What excites you about this genre?
Ryland Bouchard: Mainly being able to teach, and being able to make a living off of something other than my current day job. I'm planning on getting into instrument design, with the hope of making tools that would assist me in the recording process as well as performing the recorded material live.
Splendid: You don't really exploit the electronic medium and turn it into a gimmick, even on your most "electronic" of works. Do you see technology as an instrument or simply a necessity?
Ryland Bouchard: It's definitely an instrument, and with the way I work it's pretty much a necessity. I generally do not use any digital effects or filters and use technology more as a tool to assist me in the composition of songs -- and by that I mean cutting up parts, rearranging the structure of a song, and mixing. I basically use technology like someone uses tape, but the nature of digital allows me to work quicker and without a $60,000 tape machine and automated console. Most of the stigma associated with digital comes from a misuse of the technology -- applying excessive reverbs, delays, and recording so many tracks that you lose the original song.
Splendid: Are you a fan of pioneers such as Xenakis, Lucier and/or Stockhausen? Are there any recent artists who get you excited?
Ryland Bouchard: I've heard their names, but am not familiar with their work. I enjoy more singer-songwriter type artists like Elliot Smith, Songs: Ohia, or The Microphones, although I haven't really listened to anything new in the last year or so. I was attempting to remove myself as much as possible from modern influence.
Splendid: Has anything inspired you, musically speaking?
Ryland Bouchard: I just heard this record I found at a rare records store that is old pump organs, carousels and music boxes. The sounds are really amazing.
Splendid: Your music is a nice blend of "electronica" (sorry to use that word) versus acoustic instruments. The most intriguing part is how you never directly imitate any certain genre (i.e. drum 'n' bass, big beat, glitch). The result is timeless music. Do you purposely veer away from styles or is your music perhaps the result of skewed imitation?
Ryland Bouchard: I think the way a song sounds is often determined by what limitations or rules you set for yourself when you're starting the project. By choosing certain tools you sound like the other people that use those tools, even if you're doing so unintentionally. If there is any reason the songs don't sound like other electronic music recordings, it's because I'll choose a different palette for my recordings than they do. Whereas I may use live instruments to write a part for a song, they might have used a sampler or a synth for the same part. Even though I may be doing similar things that occur in glitch/electronic music, the result is something fairly different.
Splendid: What sort of music background do you come from? Do you have formal music training?
Ryland Bouchard: I played saxophone in middle school, and took a few vocal lessons a few years ago, but other than that I have no formal music training. However there is definitely a tradition of music in my family. My grandmother played in Jazz bands, toured with the USO and taught music. And my cousin is a professional vocalist in the opera/musical theatre scenes.
Splendid: How does your family feel about your music?
Ryland Bouchard: Generally supportive. My brother sends me quotes from the Bible almost weekly, so I wouldn't dare show him anything from Part One of the new album. He still calls and talks to me about the Bedroom Heroes album, even though it was released almost three years ago. My mom has always wanted me to write happy songs so I've played her Part Two of On Vacation. She likes "Apricot Tea". She said some of the song titles from Part One were a little disturbing and tried to be polite. Who knows what the rest of my family think...probably that I'm a bit odd, musically.
Splendid: The Robot Ate Me's music is heavily image-based. That is, I can see parallels with visual artists -- from Rothko to Mark Ryden -- in the songs. Do you work in any other medium?
Ryland Bouchard: I love painting and sculpture but I'm horrible at both.
Splendid: I want to ask you about the artwork on your records. Daniel Gibson did the work on both, right?
Ryland Bouchard: Yes.
Splendid: How do you know him?
Ryland Bouchard: He was a roommate of our friend Bill (who played drums on the first album). I went over to Bill's house and saw Danny working on some of his paintings and just asked him if he would be willing to do the art for They Ate Themselves. He agreed and we have worked together ever since. He's definitely one of the nicest and most interesting artists I know.
Splendid: He certainly captured the heart of the album with his image of Jesus alongside the infant dressed in a KKK outfit. Friends tell me that the music scene is a bit...limited in San Diego. Is your music a reaction to the palm trees, money and blonde Barbie scene there?
Ryland Bouchard: I try not to be negative. Some people here are really supportive and nice, but I really haven't been interested in playing live here for the last year or so. Our reaction to the Barbie scene in San Diego is probably best described with some of the more obvious sarcasm in Part Two of On Vacation.
Splendid: You toured a bit for the first album. Were you better received outside of San Diego?
Ryland Bouchard: Well, yes... Of course, it all depends on the venue, but generally I loved playing outside of San Diego, and we can't wait to do it again.
AUDIO: A Harp
Splendid: As far as touring, how are you going to realize these latest works, particularly those on Side One?
Ryland Bouchard: We played one show at the Knitting Factory in New York and I've played a few solo shows around the country that consisted of some samplers, loops and the full band when it made sense. It was actually really fun to sit down and sing "The Genocide Ball", or "Oh No! Oh My! (1994)" on acoustic guitar. It definitely changes the personality of the tracks when a full band is playing loud, or when I'm not under the protection of samples and 1,500 miles. I'm not sure I could safely tour alone, given how easily the lyrics could be taken out of context in a bar setting.
Splendid: Are you guys touring soon?
Ryland Bouchard: Maybe this summer, but no plans so far...
Splendid: I look forward to seeing you guys live, so I'll keep checking your site. Is there anything else you want us to know about you or your music or the price of tea in China?
Ryland Bouchard: Tea was definitely cheaper and a lot better in China. If it were up to me we would play a show in Shanghai before we even thought of playing a show here; touring China would be really fun.
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Dave Madden wants to buy your underwear.
[ graphics credits :: header/pulls - george zahora | photos - from the band :: credits graphics ]