A Slavish Devotion

With Captured! By Robots, Jay Vance survives a hostile robot takeover and lives to sing about it

For the past six years, San Francisco's Jay Vance has been living a life that movie directors, science-fiction authors, and paranoid kids have feared for decades: Vance is the prisoner of robots. The story is a little complicated, though. Vance actually gave birth to his rock 'n' roll-minded machines -- a guitarist named GTRBOT666, two drummers called AUTOMATOM and DRMBOT 0110, and a tambourine-playing ape with the moniker the Ape Which Hath No Name -- who then turned against him and enslaved him. This computerized faction has taken control of Vance's life, forcing him to interact with the public in the form of a rock band called Captured! By Robots. Vance -- rechristened JBOT after the coup -- is incapable of escaping his mechanical overlords, who torture him onstage, meddle with his work and relationships, and demand he aid in the furthering of the robot race.

Vance's abduction occurred in 1996, when the former bassist for ska acts Skankin' Pickle and the Blue Meanies got sick of working with temperamental drug-addicted musicians who always arrived late for shows and bitched about the songs they had to play. Hoping to remove himself from the trappings of a typical (read: dysfunctional) rock band, Vance hit on the idea of building bandmates. "If you're playing with a band, even if you're trying to play what you hear inside, you're still depending on all these people to put out your ideas," says Vance, sipping water at People's Cafe on Haight Street. "I tried to play with people -- I played in a bunch of bands for a long time -- and when that was done, I was on this path of desperation. ... Now I know what to expect [with the robots], which is good."

"[Vance] is not meant to be in a band with other people, he's just not," laughs Jimbo Matison, a television/Web director who does animation and commercial work with Vance and who played in a band with him called the Invincible Magnificent Heroes. "He made the robots because he can't get along with other musicians. He's just so obsessed [with music] -- but he's very honest about that."

Vance had his true epiphany while watching the members of Steel Pole Bath Tub use foot switches to activate backing tracks during a live show. After deciding to invent his own mechanized guitar and drum players, he realized he still had one major problem: Although he had a degree in music from DePaul University in Chicago and worked as a tech for Haight Ashbury Music Center, Vance had no formal training in mechanical engineering. But, after checking out works by local robotics group Seemen, Vance was able to teach himself how to create a robot. By his own admission, the original incarnations were awful.

"I'd never built a robot before, and the first attempts were ridiculous," he says. Vance controlled his prototypes with pedals activated by his hands and feet, while simultaneously playing bass and singing into a strapped-on mike. The equipment required to make the original C!BR shows run weighed heavily on Vance, wrecking his knees and pushing him to decide to give the "musicians" more autonomy, a task that was easier imagined than done. "I have a feeling about how things work and then I build it, but there's no mathematical equations necessarily, it's all instinct," he says. "It's like experimental physics."

By the beginning of 1998, Vance had discovered a way to make his bandmates independent: He ran data cables from a computer to the robots, leaving him free to play the half-guitar/half-synthesizer instrument he'd created. His first "indie" co-conspirator was GTRBOT, a 6-foot-tall creature with steel-scrap fingers, stubby legs, bulbous eyes, and an autoharp abdomen who made music by dragging cable ties across his 12 strings. Then came DRMBOT, who had the body of a full drum kit and the mangy dreadlocked head of Medusa and who hit her kit with a kick drum pedal and three sticks attached to motors. According to Vance, both DRMBOT and GTRBOT hate humans, so they are ruthlessly nasty when they speak, humiliating and threatening to kill "JBOT" during performances. On the recent Captured! By RobotsCD, the duo makes him inhale propane, eat boogers from a homeless man's nose, and say, "JBOT is a butt-sniffing butt-licker" (to which they laugh uproariously). According to C!BR lore, Vance is at the mercy of the robots because, once he finished the pair, they planted a "biocerebral chip" in his brain that allowed them to control him by administering shocks. Vance shows his supplication by performing in shackles (with red guts spilling out of his white shirt) and a black mask that exposes only his mouth and two reddened eyes.

To balance out his hate-filled 'bots, Vance secretly built the Ape Which Hath No Name. The Ape is an oversize stuffed animal with a movable mouth and eyes that light up. When he's not shaking the tambourine attached to his head, the Ape expresses his love for Vance, complimenting him on his hair, eyes, lips, and music and making the other 'bots even more pissed. The band's newest member is AUTOMATOM, DRMBOT's baby, who is constructed of three drum toms, a China cymbal, and a black trunk with big white teeth.

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