Like any musician preparing for a tour, Jay Vance has a lot to do to get ready: printing stickers, making T-shirts, planning setlists. True to form, his bandmates have stuck him with all the work.
"The robots don't help for shit," he said. "So I have to do everything myself."
Vance isn't taking a cheap shot at his fellow musicians. Captured by Robots, based in San Francisco, is actually made up of robots, and he and his captors will play The Shredder, April 20--the first time in 15 years of touring that the band will swing through the City of Trees.
The story of how Vance came to be captured by robots begins like a lot of other solo projects: he got fed up with dealing with other people's shit (and according to former bandmates, the feeling was mutual). After touring nationally as a bass player in ska bands like Blue Meanies and Skankin' Pickle, the notoriously disagreeable Vance decided to strike out on his own in the mid-'90s. But after cycling through 20-odd guitar players, Vance decided "guitar players were douchebags" and he would need to find some other plan for his next musical venture.
With today's technology, the answer would be simple: laptops, looping pedals and samplers.
But, "back then, the tones you would get were just awful," said Vance. "I wanted to hear a real drum being hit."
Vance's solution was to build a band of robots to play with him--a decision he says he came to stone-cold sober.
Knowing absolutely nothing about welding, metallurgy, computer programming, wiring circuit boards or engineering, he admits it was a stupid idea.
But a year later, he had a crude prototype for GTRBOT, which in Vance's words was "pretty horrible." The robot stands nearly eight feet tall and looks like a metal version of a paper cut-out doll mixed with a model of the nervous system. It's armed with a double-neck Flying V that is played by a series of bars that press and mute the strings to form chords and riffs.
That basic design endured, though it took Vance another two years of tinkering and modifying before he was ready to hit the stage with his full, five-robot band.
Over the subsequent decade, Vance hasn't stopped working on the bots, going through many versions and upgrades, which include a more advanced version of his guitar player, GTRBOT666; a horror movie-esque severed head called DRMBOT 0110, which lords over a drum kit; the snakelike trio of air compressor-powered bugles, called the Headless Hornsmen; and two friendly-looking stuffed gorillas--The Ape Which Hath No Name and Son of the Ape Which Hath No Name--which clap cymbals and tambourines together. Then there is Vance, on guitar and synth.
The robots are powered by pneumatic valves that require an air compressor and a dedicated 20-amp power source, something Vance says has blown breakers in the past, though it doesn't happen regularly.
Vance also created a mythology around the band: Immediately after the robots were constructed, they revolted and put a chip in Vance's brain, enslaving him in order to prove robotic superiority by making him play terrible, embarrassing music.
If you're picturing a Captured by Robots live show as something akin to the animatronic animals at Chuck E. Cheese miming out pre-recorded tracks, you couldn't be further off. Vance's robots aren't miming the instruments, they're playing them live and lurching around the stage like genuine rock 'n' roll ne'er-do-wells. You can see GTRBOT666's "fingers" speed across the fretboard and feel air pushed off the drums.
"If I set up DRMBOT in front of you and have her go full roar, it's earth-shaking," Vance said. "When I play with the robots, it feels like playing with a band of humans. They still have egos. They're still dicks."
For every tour, Vance picks a theme and gives the robots costumes, banter and songs that make the show something like musical theater. But Vance says it isn't scripted; the robots respond to the audience.
"People have heckled them, and the robots just rip them apart," he said. "It's actually pretty funny. So feel free to heckle, people. See where that gets you."
And it's not just the banter that Vance says comes from the robots.
"There is improvisation between the robots and me," he said. "I hear it every night. Whether I'm hearing it in my head, it's happening. It's definitely a mutual improvisational experience. It's a jazz odyssey."
This tour is a special one for Vance, as it comes after a two-year hiatus and self-evaluation about whether to continue the project.
"For a lot of years, we've done a bunch of covers," he said. "It just got easy for me to do. And it came down to feeling like I hadn't been creative anymore. I used to write songs and do crazy shit. I fell away from that because it was so easy. That's what this tour is all about."
The specific theme for the current tour is "Trippin' Balls," something Vance says is up to interpretation.
"It's out of hand. Some people will think of 'tripping balls' as under the influence of psychedelics, which is fine," he said. "Some will think of it as being weird, and that's fine, too. All I know is that this tour is going to be ridiculous. It's all based on playing with the mind, the power of perception."
BW would have liked to verify Vance's assertions with the other members of his band, but the robots also stuck Vance with doing all the press. Even when you actually build your band members from scratch, some things never change.
"It's just like having a band full of meth-heads," Vance said.