Insects vs Robots

Insects vs Robots

Insects vs Robots

📅28 December 2014, 01:18


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Insects vs Robots


Micah Nelson – charango, guitar, vocals, percussion, piano, drums

Jeff “FEJ” Smith – bass, grooves

Tony “Grandma” Peluso – drums, percussion, synths

Milo Gonzalez – electric guitar, acoustic guitar, vocals

Nikita Sorokin – violin, guitar, banjo, vocals


It’s late at night at Hen House Studios. We’re steps away from the Venice Boardwalk, home for generations to oddball artists, musicians, surfers, body builders and pretty much anyone who doesn’t fit in easily back where they came from.


Insects vs Robots is inside, working on “TheyllKillYaa,” the title cut to their next album. It’s an apocalyptic warning — “If you got a real idea, they’ll kill ya! If you want to speak too free, they’ll kill ya!” — set to an incongruous groove that bubbles through a tricky 9/8 time signature. Guitars burble merrily beneath evocations of a brutal police-state repression. It makes you want to lie for a while on that sun-bathed lawn just outside your fallout shelter.


Which makes what happened next really strange.


“We were recording the vocal track,” recalls guitarist, singer and songwriter Micah Nelson. “Suddenly we start hearing helicopters through our headphones.”


“It’s not that unusual in Venice,” bassist Jeff Smith interjects.


“Yeah,” Micah agrees. “Usually there are cops around. They’ll come every night at 8 o’clock and break up the drum circle that’s been on for decades. But then we heard sirens and more helicopters. We realized the helicopters were hovering right over us. So we go outside. There are ambulances and cop cars everywhere. The road is blocked off.”


In a few moments, they learn that a short while before police had shot and killed Brendon K. Glenn, a young and unarmed black man, who had been acting drunk and disorderly just outside the studio door.


Everyone — Micah, Jeff, guitarist Milo Gonzalez, violinist Nikita Sorokin, drummer Tony Peluso and co-producer Harlan Steinberger — went back inside, closed the door, sat down and tried to process this tragic synchronicity. “We were like, ‘I don’t know what this means. But we’ve got to keep recording this song. We’ve got to put it out.’”


“It was a crucial moment because it made the guys realize how important it is for artists to try to change the world,” adds Steinberger. “Because the world is fucked up right now, especially if you’re as young as these guys are. So it gave the record a serious purpose, like, ‘What we’re doing is important.’”


That’s an understatement. TheyllKillYaa is the culmination of all that Insects vs Robots has fought to achieve since coming together in Venice eight years ago. They always set their bar high, with a commitment to combine social commentary with sophisticated musicianship and influences that embraced psychedelic rock, ancient folklore, absurdist humor and science fiction.


“A lot of my generation has grown up feeling the same kind of paranoia that existed in the ‘60s but nowadays it’s on another level, with technology exponentially accelerating that feeling,” Micah explains. “I think Insects Vs. Robots is an organic reaction in the sense that we’re filtering that experience through the lens of a science fiction fairytale.”


This thread traces back to their earliest local gigs, runs through performances at SXSW and Farm Aid, critical acclaim from Rolling Stone and other media, three albums and an EP. Then on TheyllKillYaa It splits and weaves into a contradictory tapestry. On “Infection (Time Grows Thin),” another sunny vibe sets the stage for a narrative involving a “nightmare apparition,” “cancerous growth,” “terrified animals” and other gruesome imagery. As the title suggest, “Fukushima” addresses an actual disaster through with similarly dreamlike lyrics, this time over a stream of stately sad piano chords building to a furious finale.


Yet among these tracks we find “Matilda’s Galavant,” an elegant instrumental piece featuring liquid violin lines, intricate finger-picked guitar and a bit of jaunty whistling, suggesting a carefree country ramble. A little later, “Nothing” seems to question reality itself while nonetheless constructing a complex structure based on difficult time signatures and meticulous arrangement. Finally, after all these ruminations, some dire, the rest merely ominous, IvR shakes it off with “Ole Lujøje,” a kind of Greek dance complete with handclaps, inspired by the Danish folktale. Never mind that the words once again ask more than they answer — “Is this the place you wanted to show me? … Am I awake? … Are my thoughts all chemicals?” And don’t worry about the head-spinning rhythmic structure. Just get up and dance. That at least is something we can hang onto even in perilous times.


“On ‘Matilda’s Galavant’ and ‘Ole Lujøje’ we’re visiting our alternate universe/fairytale/sci-fi land,” Jeff muses. “Maybe that lack of clear lyrics creates more of that space whereas with specific lyrics you’re putting the listener in a bubble. Purely instrumental offers a lot more room for interpretation.”


“Often music speaks louder than words,” Micah suggests.


The well is deep and mysterious on TheyllKillYaa partly because IvR decided to explore a radically new way of recording. Much of the credit goes to Steinberger. “He really inspired us,” Jeff says. “He said, ‘Hey, come down to the studio. We’ll hang. When we’re ready, we’ll push Record.’ We’d never worked with that kind of pace. It was much more conductive to creativity than anything we’d done before. The sessions flowed through many days and nights, squeezed between Micah going on the road and doing other projects. It was very much a continuation of the hang.”


“Maybe we’re trying some takes and it’s not flowing,” Micah says. “He’ll say, ‘Hey, let’s walk down to the Boardwalk and get some coffee,’ or ‘Let’s go up to the roof and watch the sunset.’ Then when we come back after that brain cleanse, we nail it.”


So TheyllKillYaa opens on many levels — as the deepest dive yet into IvR’s unique resources, as a kaleidoscope of musical colors that somehow resolve into a single compelling statement. But Micah believes that the story only begins with the completion of this milestone project.


“Having grown up in this era of the world always ending, from Y2K to 911 to 2012, this age of chaos, it seems our generation has always needed to escape back to some form of innocence. So this record, to me, is like an opera representing what we stand for, that says what we need to say about our experience as a band and as people of our generation.”


He pauses briefly, then advises, “Feel free to paraphrase that.”


No need to. Like all of TheyllKillYaa, it’s fine as it is.

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