Jay Vance, who performs as Jbot, plays brutal music with robots.
This year, Vance has relaunched Captured! by Robots in time for the project's twenty-year anniversary. Vance, a former member of ska-punk bands Blue Meanies and Skankin' Pickle, had built his first set of robots in 1996 out of frustration with the usual band stumbling blocks: musicians with varying levels of commitment and relationship strife. The new group, which grew to include a handful of other robots, performs campy covers and Vance's original compositions. But by the end of 2014, Vance grew terribly disillusioned and unsatisfied with his own band. The following summer, he played a weekend show that made him realize he was miserable doing what had once been a fun project for him, so he put Captured! by Robots on indefinite hiatus.
But Vance didn't want to stay away from music forever, so he found a way to enjoy it again without the artistic compromises he'd felt were necessary during the first run of Captured! by Robots. He got rid of a mask he wore in the band — a symbol of stripping away the inessential — and retired the stuffed-animal robots that provided comic relief.
Deep concern for the state of the world has provided Vance ample fodder for lyrics that reflect his opinions, and with the election of Donald Trump, those words flowed more easily. And so Captured! by Robots released its latest album, Endless Circle of Bullshit, in 2017. We caught up with Vance ahead of his Saturday, April 1, concert, about changes in the band's lineup of robots and its new direction.
Westword: Why have you reduced the band lineup to GTRBOT666 and DRMBOT0110?
Jbot: People keep telling me that they see why I did it — so that I don't have as many robots to set up. That's not it at all. I don't mind the work. I made a robot opening band years ago. That was four hours of setup for every show! The reason why is necessity. Do I really want to have horns in the band? Do I want to be the grindcore or death-metal equivalent of Lucero or Voodoo Glow Skulls? Hell, no! None of my favorite bands have stuffies in them, either. I stripped out a lot of the bullshit and the camp. I watched a recording of us playing, and there'd be talking and more talking, and I got to thinking, “Would you shut the fuck up?” with the characters all talking. But I'm not in this to have a Chuck E. Cheese, where they just talk all the time. I'm in it for the music.
It's a great feeling now every night, talking about things I believe in about this fucked world we live in today and how politicians need to be under the threat of death all the time just so they don't take money from people constantly and be corrupt and lie about it. This democracy is hardly a democracy anymore. The only saving grace of the Trump presidency is to see him fail so much. But that won't last forever, and all it will take is one terrorist attack and Americans will say, “Oh, Trump, save us!”
With the new album, you've also taken quite a different direction with the music.
The music I was writing felt middle-of-the-road and shitty. The goal that I had with restarting this band was restarting and playing music from in my heart — death metal and grindcore — and pushing as much energy as I could from the band of robots into the crowd, with me just being a lead singer as much as physically possible. I'm really close to that now. It feels like a hammer fist to the face every night.
People these days probably assume you use Arduino technology to program the robots, but that wasn't really around when you started.
Most of the stuff is straight up MIDI; most of it's sequenced. There might be other ways to do it, but MIDI is the fastest, easiest and probably most reliable way to do this. It's designed for shit like this. It's got a lot of capacity without a lot of fluff. What I want this band to become is just another band that just happens to have robots. When I listen to the new recording we did, if you told me those were robots and I didn't already know, I wouldn't be able to tell.
Being in and around San Francisco, did you encounter the projects of Mark Pauline and Survival Research Laboratories?
I never got into that so much, because I didn't have the room to build anything like that. Also, I'm not into destruction. Their stuff was cool, don't get me wrong — but it wasn't really my bag. We're total opposites. The common thread is that we're both artists putting our imagination into the world.
Your robots can't be a one-off, either.
That's a challenge on the road. I met an engineer once who said, “I could do what you do, but I choose not to.” And fuck you, dude, try this shit for one week on the road and tell me you could do it: balance running the merch table and writing songs that matter, trying not to get sick, keeping robots running. Anyone that runs a robot band has absolute respect in my book, even if I don't like their music or their robots.
You're calling this tour Twenty Years of Suffering?
This is the first tour that I've done where I did some suffering, but not half as much as I have in the past. For the first time in a decade, I'm happy. I really like grindcore and all this shit, but I never did it before. I didn't want to alienate the people that came to see me by playing this brutal stuff. So it was art as commodity. Now that's over, and I'm doing what I do with no care about that sort of thing. Luckily it's something so hyper-aggressive and exciting. I'm getting old people to mosh, and that's great. Now I've just got to play to hardcore kids. People think that just because we've been playing for twenty years that it's going to be stuffies and such, but this is a great re-introduction to the band. Now we're finally a good band, and I can say that unequivocally, and I'd put us against any other band as far as power and aggression go.
Captured! by Robots with Major Sports and Cover Boy play Saturday, April 1, at 9 p.m. at 3 Kings Tavern. For more information, call 303-777-7352. Tickets are $10.