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 Robots CD, 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.
Although Vance claims the robots all have minds of their own, they're really controlled by a computer he calls the Motherfucker Board (MFB), which is named after all the frustration it causes when not working properly. Even with the MFB in place, though, Vance says there is still room for improvisation at live events. "While there is stuff that's preset, there's a variable feature," he says. "Like if DRMBOT is triggered to play something, sometimes all the triggers don't come through, or, by the way [the command] will hit, different effects come out, depending on what breaks or what works well."
After self-releasing two CDs and embarking on numerous national tours over the years, Vance is fully aware of his inability to separate his band from himself. "I've been captured by robots in a literal and figurative way," he admits with a smile. "I'm captured in every sense of the word. I find myself thinking about robots all the time. All my money goes towards them. I talk about them all the time. Anybody who disputes [the capture] should just look at the facts: Everything comes after the band -- and that's what's made me break up with girlfriends, lose friends, and lose jobs, but if you have something that you want to pursue, you can't let anything get in the way."
Jimbo Matison, who's known Vance for the past eight years, concurs. "When he says he's been captured by robots, he is truly obsessed with those things," Matison laughs. "He's said several times, "Oh my god, I have the coolest idea for a new robot,' and he will just go off about it, and then you won't see him for a couple months."
Vance does have one major problem, though, besides his enslavement: He has to fight to be treated as more than just a really cool sideshow. "When [Vance] started explaining what he wanted to do [with C!BR], I said, "You're just going to get lumped into being some kind of goofy contraption band,' and he was like, "No, it can go beyond that,'" remembers Matison. "I just hope he doesn't go down in history as some kind of novelty act, because he really is a lot more than that -- as the robots have progressed and gotten better, so has the music."
C!BR's newfound comic complexity is on display on Captured! By Robots. Vance sings emotionally about his horrible plight ("Pain in My Head"), his health fears ("Breakin' Balls"), and his favorite Stooge (it's Shemp, not Iggy Pop). Meanwhile, he and GTRBOT shred some impressive metalish guitar riffs, DRMBOT and AUTOMATOM keep the simple beats steady, and the heaviest of songs fill with pop hooks and keyboard melodies.
"I played the gallery next to CBGB's, but the band is not designed for that -- it's designed for playing stadiums, it's designed for big rock clubs," Vance explains. "I want people to like it for the rock -- and for people to say that these robots sound just like people basically."
As much as Vance protests, though, it's difficult not to call C!BR a novelty act, which by definition means something new and unusual. After all, there's no way you can focus solely on the songs when there's a man and four robots jamming on the stage. While C!BR is more than just a bunch of expensive noisemakers, it's impossible to separate the music from the impressive technical feat that allows it to happen.
Luckily, the freak factor doesn't seem to be holding Vance back. (Sometimes it helps, like in scoring a recent New Yorker "Goings On" preview.) He's already planning on expanding the C!BR family further, as well as moderating the current members so they can play more "metal" (a GTRBOT upgrade will allow dual guitar solos). And in the distant future he envisions masterminding a completely different kind of electronic act.
"The goal one day is to create a teddy bear orchestra," he says, grinning. "It would be a full big band with [robotic] teddy bears playing all the instruments. I would be the bandleader -- like a [short-tempered] Buddy Rich character, just yelling at the teddy bears like, "You call that a fucking note? You're hitting clams!' I'd be disheartening the teddy bears and I'd have them crying and weeping while I'd be the bad-guy conductor. It's fanciful dreaming, but that's what this is really all about."