Robotanists Interview: Know Your LA BandsBy Brian McConnell
As our BeatCrave Fave Pick of the Month and a band whose concert we have joyfully reviewed, it seems there is little left to be said about the awesome foursome comprised of Sarah Ellquist (vocals), Daniel de Blanke (guitar), Preston Scott Phillips (drums, percussion) and Keith Boyarsky (bass). BeatCrave however, thought it would be a great idea to go beyond singing (pun completely intended) the bands praises and take some time to talk with some of its members.
The Robotanists thought it would be a good idea as well and Sarah, Dan and Preston gave us a rare glimpse behind the scenes of this truly spectacular group of artists. Take some time and get to know, even better than you already do, the one and only Robotanists!
What is the story behind the genesis of Robotanists?
SARAH: Dan, Keith and I were in another band together before this one – one I started in college, and began as more or less a solo project for me while I was finishing up music school. I sang lead but switched between guitar, bass, and keyboards on stage. Daniel joined the band within a few months of starting it and played guitar and bass too. Things started moving fast so we needed a full time bass player… that’s when we met Keith, when a fan and now friend of ours, musician/artist Dan Grayson encouraged him to auditioned for us. The chemistry was always great between the three of us, so when Dan and I decided to start a new band and take the music and live show in a different direction we asked him to come along for the ride. Preston has been a friend for a long time and before ROBOTANISTS, he and Daniel played together under the name “The Faux Hipsters” for an actress’ one woman show. When we started the band he was the only drummer we wanted to work with, and luckily he was available.
In what ways does living in Los Angeles affect the music you create?
DAN: I personally love Los Angeles. It has more passion, soul, and depth than people give it credit for. We try to reflect that in the music we write. I don’t really deal with lyrics, but I definitely let the pulse of the city filter into the sonic landscape that I attempt to create. There’s a melancholy always simmering beneath the “always sunny” facade that LA has, and I think our music encapsulates that. Everyone thinks life is so easy and so beautiful here, and it is to a certain extent, but it’s really much more complex than it seems.
SARAH: LA is full of these haunting and ever present dirty/beautiful and vintage/modern, dichotomies, that find their way into the melodies and lyrics I write. A lot of ideas come out of the solitary time we spend in our cars in Los Angeles… Dan and I are both always humming ideas into our cell phones when we’re stopped in traffic on the 101.
PRESTON: I happen to think, or at least hope, that our music reflects this city in a way that a Raymond Chandler novel does.
What are Robotanists presently working on?
SARAH: We’re still promoting our EP “Close Down the Woods” and finishing a digital only covers album now that should be out this summer, called “Shapes and Variations.” We’ve got songs by Lykke Li, The Black Keys, Gnarles Barkley, Bryan Adams, and a few more on it. We were also asked to do a cover of a Tears for Fears song called “Ideas as Opiates” for an iTunes exclusive album that Tears for Fears is putting out at the end of the year to benefit Alzheimer’s research, and then there’s always new material.
DAN: The covers record is consuming a lot of time right now. Arranging is a passion of ours. I’ll take a song and re-imagine the harmony, the form, the tempo, and completely change the feel, and then Sarah will change the melody, and words… we work hard to deconstruct popular songs, but put them back together without regard for the original work.
Why did you decide to change the bands name from Philistine! to Robotanists? Were there any other band names you were originally considering?
SARAH: Philistine! was a transitional period for us. Dan and I came out of a band break up and started writing new material right away, and needed a name fast. I think we’d just watched the Squid and the Whale, and decided “Philistine!” would work for a minute. We were surprised when things took off so quickly, so as soon as we were ready to record, we started looking for a new name. Dan actually came up with ROBOTANISTS – the dichotomy seemed to fit us perfectly. We bought robotanists.com that day. Lol.
DAN: Yeah, we literally spent hours and hours brainstorming band names, checking myspace, the internet, etc. Not everyone in the band (Keith) was a fan at first. To this day 1 in 100 people (scientifically studied) despise the name, and stumble through it as if it is written in Sanskrit. Some names left on the chopping block: The Living Daylights, Clockwork Tin Soldiers, A Thrilling Calm, Clapping Music and a million more.
What are some of your favorite venues to play?
SARAH: Spaceland and Echo Curio in L.A., and Detroit Bar in Costa Mesa is great too. We love setting up our gear and performing in unconventional musical environments, galleries, glitzy Hollywood lounges, backyards, retail spaces etc. Adapting our volume, texture and arrangements to unusual spaces is a fun challenge.
The song, “Close Down the Woods” is, dare I say, “hauntingly” beautiful. What is the story behing that particular track?
SARAH: Dan and I write together in some capacity on every song, but for this one I remember that I’d worked out the verses on my own, completing the lyrics and piano part at once. It was a unison that doesn’t usually happen. I recorded a rambling demo and left it to die somewhere… Dan came across the performance weeks later and decided to finish it.
DAN: The phrase “Close Down the Woods” came to me in response to the abundance of “Save the Meadow” signs in the area we live, near the Silver Lake reservoir. There is a huge potentially public park that essentially stays closed to the public. Some people think that the wealthy folks whose houses are across the street from the area sport the “not in my backyard” type of attitude to the people who are stacked upon each other a half mile across Sunset Blvd. “Save the Meadow” in their case means keep a fence around the park. If the same sign was a mile away it would mean “take the fences down and let us use the park.” A simple phrase can mean a million things depending on the context, and when you see something like that it’s interesting to contemplate the opposing point of view, which in this case is, “Close Down the Woods.”
Sarah, what are some of the benefits to being the only girl in the band? Any drawbacks?
SARAH: I think as a group we try not to focus on gender when it comes to music. I work hard to keep songs gender neutral, and as a group we want to make music that is self applicable, transformational. It’s my job to give my heart, through words, to the listener, for them to use and apply to themselves as they see fit, male or female. If I had my way I wouldn’t be compared to other female musicians at all, only great musicians. I probably don’t have to haul as much heavy gear as the guys when we’re on the road, but the reality is, frontwomen have to work harder than frontmen. We’ve got to put on a show and be sexy, sweet and engaging and still maintain musical integrity. I always have to prove to the audience that I’m not just some “singer with a pretty face.” I am a musician, a writer, an experimental noise maker, and at home and in the studio the rest of the band and I are equals. If the audience appreciates my music any more or less simply because I am a woman, we have failed as a group. If I shine in the group, I hope my talent is what makes me sparkle.
What has been the craziest, zaniest and/or most downright outrageous fanboy/girl experience?
DAN: That’s 100% Sarah. All the people who talk to me after shows want to know about my guitar, my amp, my pedals, etc…
SARAH: Fans have been pretty tame, actually. I get a lot of collaboration requests after shows – people wanting me to sing on their albums (which I love to do by the way). I had a girl ask if I’d wear her clothing line on stage after a show recently, which was cool, but nothing too outrageous… yet! Lol.
What are some bands you are currently listening to that you wish more people knew about?
SARAH: Mulatu Astatke is amazing! Ethiopiques Volume 4 is the soundtrack to my summer every year. If you’ve never listened to late 1960s Ethiopian jazz, you are doing yourself a disservice.
PRESTON: Bobby Bare, Jr. He was nominated for a Grammy at age eight for a duet with his father and he wrote a song called “I’ll be Around” that really should have been a massive hit. It’s perfect.
DAN: Long Beach band called Deep Sea Diver.
If you could go on a nationwide tour with any band, active or disbanded, dead or alive, who would it be and why?
DAN: Miles Davis Quintet, (the first, with Miles, Coltrane, Paul Chambers, Phillie Joe Jo and Red Garland) for me, in terms of the perfect place between modern western art music and accepted pop culture music, it was them.
SARAH: David Bowie (circa 1969 – 1973)… “Space Oddity,” “Moonage Daydream,” “Suffragette City,” “Life On Mars?” …need I say more?
PRESTON: 1970′s Tower of Power. A bunch of white guys with afros. Since this is fantasy, I’m also giving myself an afro for this tour.
If you could only listen to five albums for the rest of your life, what would they be and why?
1. Radiohead – Kid A (a reminder to my brain that melody and texture can be stronger then structure and form)
2. The Best of Miles and Coltrane (just one of those records that I have owned for 15 years and it never leaves the rotaion)
3. Portishead – Live in NYC (the ny phil accompanied by the best “trip-hop” band ever)
4. Lonnie Johnson with Elmer Snowden – Blues and Ballads (I have a soft spot for old blues, and Lonnie Johnson was genius at everything from country blues to jazz)
5. Doves – Some Cities. (the most under rated record of the last 5 years)
SARAH: Since Dan and I are married, I’d probably get to listen to his 5 records… so I’ll go with these:
1. Édith Piaf – L’Intégrale (OK, so this is a 20 disc set, big deal)
2. Stereolab – Dots and Loops
3. Getz/Gilberto (João & Astrud Gilberto + Stan Getz + Antonio Carlos Jobim = classic!),
4. Prince – The Hits / The B-Sides (another collection, to cover all my bases)
5. Jeff Buckley – Grace (Deluxe Edition, cause I have to listen to “Forget Her” and “The Other Woman” repeatedly)
PRESTON: If I could only listen to five albums for the rest of my life, I’d hope that my life was short.
Enjoy getting to know the Robotanists? Let us know! Have a question you wish we would have asked? Ask away!