Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Robots (SCQ's Year-End Questionnaire Part II)

By the time I’d first heard their muscular debut Hey Buddy, Dummy, The Robots had already disbanded. This distressing news arrived from Peter Rankin himself after the vocalist/guitarist saw Skeleton Crew Quarterly’s glowing review. Disappointing, yes, but Rankin offers a few silver-linings in terms of his recollections from recording as well as the potential for some new songs on the faraway horizon. (Photo by Chris Doiron)

SCQ: Every list-lover's favourite question: what are your top albums of 2010? Feel free to include any older yet worthy records you discovered this year.

PR: To be honest, I don't always do the best job of keeping up with new music. I don't know if that speaks to my opinion of the indie rock being made today, or just to my own laziness, but my favourite "new" albums are often several years old. I guess there's just a certain satisfaction in listening to a really cool old album that you've never heard of before. I imagine it's the same satisfaction Nicholas Cage's character in those "National Treasure" movies must feel whenever he finds a neat hat worn by a secret president. So, with that in mind, I've divided my "Favourite Album" list into two smaller lists, one of my favourite old albums that I discovered this year, and one featuring my favourite albums released in 2010.

Favourite Old Albums
5. The Girls - Reunion (1986)
If you like crude old Devo, then you'll probably like this crude old Boston punk band (not the Girls of "Lust for Life" fame). "Methodist Church" and "Jeffrey I Hear You" are keyboard-addled punk anthems, while "Doggie Auto" is a song about dogs driving cars.
4. Space Art - Play Back (1980)
French synth goodness. The album's centrepiece "Love Machine" is one of the best songs I've heard in years, and might very well be the basis for Air's entire career.
3. Nirvana - The Story of Simon Simopath (1967)
I guess before they got into the whole grunge thing Kurt and the boys cut this, a gentle, vaguely psychedelic concept record about a kid who wants to fly but instead dies. Not sure how they got from here to Bleach, but it's definitely worth checking out regardless!
2. Chakra - Satekoso (1981)
One of my favourite albums from the Japanese new wave scene, the wacked-out, funhouse mirror version of its American counterpart. A great mixture of chugging electronics, cartoon bass, Frippish guitars, and playful, Deerhoof-presaging vocals from lead singer Mishio Ogawa.
1. After Dinner - Paradise of Replica (1989)
A beautiful, ornately-arranged album by a Japanese prog/art-rock group from the 80s. One listen to the opening title track, a repeated swell of strings, horns and lead singer Haco's amazing vocals, will probably be enough to convince you. The rest of the album is just as good.

Favourite New Albums
5. Arcade Fire - The Suburbs
I was afraid that this album might not be very good. Thankfully, my fears were unfounded. It's sonically tasteful and emotionally poignant, without any of the songwriting inconsistency and forced catharsis of Neon Bible.
4. Boxer the Horse - Would You Please
Our buddies from PEI have been getting quite a bit of attention for this album, and for good reason: the songs on Would You Please, informed by the Kinks and Brighten the Corners-era Pavement, are uniformly excellent. "Sketch Me a Glove" and "Mary Meets the Pilot" are flawless Malkmus-style rockers that sort of point to a reinvention of "classic" indie rock tendencies. Very cool stuff.
3. Milks and Rectangles - Troubleshooter EP and Dirty Gold EP
My friend and fellow Islander Chris Ledwell is a very, very talented songwriter. These two EPs from his band Milks and Rectangles include, in my opinion, some of the best songs written by any Canadian indie band this year. "Unring a Bell" from Troubleshooters is like a British Sea Power cover of "Total Trash", while the phenomenal "Welcome Home You Noisy Bastards" from Dirty Gold is all hazy languor routinely interrupted by sharp spikes of white noise and epic guitar pomp. The band is offering these EPs free of charge on their website ( For the love of God, check them out.
2. Deerhunter - Halcyon Digest
If I were to go on about Halcyon Digest, I'd just be regurgitating what many people have already said about the album over the last few months. It's really good. I find it amazing that in a few short years Brandon Cox has gone from slightly overhyped Pitchfork darling to one of the better young songwriters making music today.
1. Wolf Parade - Expo 86
Hands down my favourite album of the year. Krug and Boeckner, in my opinion Canada's two most talented songwriters, have excelled in creating a collection of songs that recall the band's previous highpoints while offering new idiosyncracies to the Wolf Parade canon. It also doesn't hurt that tracks like "In the Direction of the Moon" (my favourite song of the year), "Ghost Pressure," and "Oh You, Old Thing," are among the best the band has ever written. I may be a bit premature in saying this, but I think it's now appropriate to consider this band within the context of all-time great Canadian bands.

SCQ: What were you listening to a lot of while recording the excellent Hey Buddy, Dummy?

PR: We recorded the album well over a year ago, so it's kind of hard to remember, but I think we pretty much listened to the same bands that we had always listened to together, probably Wire and Devo most of all (the only two bands that we ever really covered). Other than that, we would have been listening to a lot of Eno, Wolf Parade, XTC, King Crimson, the latest Portishead album, the Microphones, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, old Japanese new wave stuff, and I'm sure many other bands. Also, I vividly remember driving to the studio in Halifax on the hottest day of the year, with The Fall's This Nation's Saving Grace blasting out of the speakers. In retrospect, The Fall is a pretty fitting musical representation of five sweaty men spending a nauseatingly humid day indoors.

SCQ: Be cocky for once in your life: what was the finest thing you did all year? That moment where you actually thought "shit, I nailed that..."?

PR: Well, we haven't really done anything musically this year aside from a show this summer back on PEI, so to answer this question I guess I'd have to go back to 2009 when we were recording the album. As an album, Hey Buddy Dummy has its fair share of flaws, both in composition and execution, but there were definitely a few moments during the recording process when we all rose up from our chairs and gave each other furious, endlessly repeated high-fives. Specifically, I remember listening to some early mixes of the album while driving back from Halifax with Keith (the keyboardist and current prescription-abusing med student) and his younger brother. After each song, we sort of made mental notes of what needed to be tweaked, or what parts needed work, etc. Pretty much every song needed work, but then "The Cape" came on, and we just sort of started listening, and eventually realized that what we were listening to was pretty much exactly what we had imagined the song sounding like when we pryed it from our brains over a year ago. I dunno, making music is hard sometimes, but moments like that make the whole process very satisfying.

SCQ: Effect and Cause: 'I Didn't Know What I Was Saying' and 'Shutterboxin' ' provided the visceral dose of adrenaline I needed this past Spring, helping me push through the work-week one shift at a time. Okay, your turn: confess a true tale that inspired one of the songs on Hey Buddy, Dummy.

PR: Oh man...I dunno. To be honest, a lot of my lyrics are pretty stream-of-consciousness...they usually have more to do with the inner workings of my semi-functional brain than any single personal experience. But if I had to pick one example of a song with its roots in a true story, I guess that I'd have to go with "Tiny Paws." A long time ago, I think when I was in high school, I was hanging around outside of the Dairy Queen in Charlottetown with some friends (presumably after having shared some hot eats and cool treats), and I remember seeing this group of kids, who couldn't have been older than 9 or 10, sort of roaming the perimeter. They were all banging on the windows, and cursing in their tiny, gravelly voices at the patrons inside. One of them turned around, and looked at me with these weird eyes that were far too old and dull to be in that child's small skull. It seemed like he was going to start running at me, but then one of them sort of tripped and fell down in the bushes next to the window. I'm certain that these kids were either drunk or messed up on some sort of crazy kid drug. The experience freaked me out, and the fear of high, disheveled young children I got from it was probably the thematic genesis of "Tiny Paws," a song (sort of) about freaky, uninhibited kids gone to seed way to early.

SCQ: If all the reasonable and implausible ideas in your head came to fruition in 2011, what would they be?

PR: I'd be playing music in a band again! Unfortunately, the Robots don't get a whole lot of time to play anymore. Keith and the bassist Chris are both in med school, while Phil is back on PEI doing school and playing drums for the awesome Danks. I am currently in Toronto, and hope to get a new project going shortly. Literally, my expectations do not go beyond that. My experience with the Robots taught me that creating and playing music with your friends is a lot of fun, and can be a pretty satisfying end in and of itself.

Oh, and I want to go on a world tour with Lit.

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