Are They Not Men?
Animatronics Plug In to the Old New Wave
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Talk to the Animatronics for more than a few minutes, and one thing becomes certain: They know exactly what they're doing. From the uniform black ties, white shirts, and wraparound sunglasses the rock band wears while performing to the catchiness of their edgy, two-minute pop songs, there is a machine logic at work every bit as relentless and deadpan funny as a malfunctioning HAL 9000 in its death throes.
For the uninitiated, an Animatronics live show is part theater, part retro machine-age nostalgia, and mostly very well-crafted rock music. Hailing from the wilds of Carroll County, the trio has been making routine treks into the city for the past year and a half--typically bringing with them a huge Carroll contingent--to spur on the burgeoning New Wave revival in Baltimore's underground-music scene. Of course, the propaganda they distribute at their shows might lead one to believe that the band has more mysterious origins: as the mechanical products of a Japanese corporation known as "Toidinami" (spell it backwards), designed to "relieve humans of the burden of performing live music."
Like so many of the good New Wavers of the past 20 years, the Animatronics started out as punks; they began as a Crass/Subhumans-inspired band called Blood Agent 208. After only one show, the three musicians followed the New Wave pattern by going for a less abrasive but quirkier style. "We slowed down [the] songs and made them more jerky," drummer/vocalist MAR-0208 (colloquially known as Mark Leake) says. Shortly thereafter, they found themselves exploring a whole gamut of early '80s pop influences. "One thing missing from a lot of New Wave stuff [is] real pop rock," guitarist and vocalist GAR-1660 (aka Gary Brown) opines.
The band pinpoints their influences exactly--and they all reach back to the days when New Wave was truly new. Brown, 23, without a pause, lists "Gary Numan, Devo, Missing Persons, [and] the Cars." Bassist JAR5000 (Jared Books, 23) cites Gang of Four and Wire, while Leake, 26, references Stewart Copeland and the Ramones.
All three of the Animatronics are songwriters, with each contributing equally to the band and each having his own solo project. Leake also fronts the more straightforward rock band Young Detectives, while Brown creates "atmospheric art-punk" under the name Children of Science and Books has been making electronic music as Ludivico Technique for years. The disparate influences and interests of the members show up, only partly scrambled, in their work together. "One of the best things for songwriters is acknowledging the fact that [out of] everything you do, nothing is totally creative--you're just rearranging," Leake says. "That is the sum of creativity. You can never imitate something to the full, therefore you just end up with something new."
Despite all the referencing, the band also understands where they stand in relation to their progenitors. Fans of the Numan school will immediately note the lack of any synthesizer in the group's live show (Books plays keyboards on Animatronics recordings). "We're emulating New Wave, but we're not really New Wave--all of [our music is] much more guitar-based," Brown acknowledges. "For about three and a half years, all I listened to was punk rock, so I'm going to be more aggressive."
The cross-pollination of each songwriter's contribution, be it punk, New Wave, or otherwise, can be felt within the songs. "House of the Future," for example, centers on a "bizarre bass line--meant for a keyboard," Books says, revealing the song's author, while "Andromeda," on the other hand, is basically "crude-as-you-can-get rock 'n' roll," Leake says. The results are pop songs that acknowledge rock history while remaining accessible to those less well acquainted with the spirit of '79.
These songs, as well as others with titles such as "Monorail Man" and "Of Men and Machines," appear on the Animatronics' new album, 2000: The Year of the Future, released on local label Morphius Records. Morphius, already home to recent releases by local bands the Fuses, the Oranges, and the Slow Jets, is no stranger to neo-postpunk/New Wave sounds. Brown seems optimistic about the concentration of so many kindred spirits: "I can't think of any area of the country with [so many] late '70s, postpunk sounds coming out of it."
And in the end, it's the sounds that come through, whether the Animatronics are robotically miming their way through a set or playing a rare show in street clothes. "We've got a shtick, we've got a gag, but we've got rock 'n' roll," Leake says. Again, the Animatronics know exactly what they're doing.