Interview with Sarah Ellquist of Robotanists | DOA

Interview with Sarah Ellquist of Robotanists

Hi Sarah!  Wow, what a treat to be doing this interview with you.  I found out about Robotanists a few months ago and your atmospheric, electro-pop songs have been floating through my mind on ‘n’ off over this period of time.  Speaking of time, you are at an exciting point in your career right now, with the February 15th release of your album Plans In Progress, plus the even more recent release of your highly ambitious and accomplished cover album of Radiohead’s new album King Of Limbs!

Thanks! We couldn’t be more excited about all that we’re up to. We’ve had such a busy year building up to the release of our new album.

Before we go into those cool details, could you let us know who’s in the band and what you play for the uninitiated?

We are… me, Sarah Ellquist (Vocals), Daniel DeBlanke (Guitar & Keys), Preston Scott Phillips (Drums), and Keith Boyarsky (Bass) – aka ROBOTANISTS.

So, I just have to ask, how did the impulse arise to cover (and reinterpret) Radiohead’s new album – and in such a short timeframe of under 24 hours since it was released?

We spent most of last year in the studio, recording our new album PLANS IN PROGRESS, so when Radiohead announced they had a new album coming out, we were eager to record again and impulsively saw it as a once in a lifetime opportunity to challenge ourselves musically. Trying to make an album in 24 hours would be a difficult task in any case, but we thought it would be interesting for us, as musicians, to try to cover an album of assumed complexity that we had never heard before in such a short amount of time. If we had spent any more time with it, or waited to learn it until after we had an opinion of it, it just wouldn’t have been the same. The time constraints forced us to use our gut, and built a frame work that gave us only ourselves to disappoint.

It must be pretty daunting to tackle the musical side of covering a Radiohead song, let alone a whole album.  How did you work it out?  Did you employ the same type of instruments and stick to the original blueprint or did you go off the map, so to speak?

We are big Radiohead fans so we knew to expect the unexpected. Seeing the video for “Lotus Flower” before we heard the actual album gave us a head start, but didn’t prepare us for the overall complexity and subtlety of the record.  Figuring out the meter and form of each song was the most challenging part. These are complex songs going down unfamiliar paths, so we had approach them as composers rather than songwriters, as the “verse, chorus, verse” formula didn’t generally apply. We gave ourselves about 3 hours per song, outlining the beats and form, then worked on building vocal harmonies and textural layers. We made some instrumental changes to compliment the different vocal quality of our recording, but we stuck to the basic form of the originals, and tried to simplify in the interest of time while still adding our own emotive touch.

How about the vocals and lyrics?  Could you decipher all of Thom Yorke’s words?  Is your vocal delivery in keeping with Thom’s or did you change up your delivery?

The vocals were tough. Thom’s melodies are amazing, but his phrasing can be unpredictable. It was a challenge to keep the integrity of the song, and deliver it in a way that felt emotive on a personal level. Learning the lyrics was a brutal process. I’m sure I messed up a few. I tried to watch some old clips of Thom performing the songs live in the last year to compare what I thought I was hearing, but it didn’t seem to help. I felt capturing the emotion of the song was most important, so I just did what felt natural to me, sometimes it was spot on, and sometimes I meandered from the original.   I really wanted to reinforce the harmony I was hearing in the songs, so every track has at least 3 voices recorded. We opted to go for a wetter vocal quality than Radiohead, to give everything a more ghostly choral quality.

From what I’ve read, this album is available as a free download.  Can you let us know where we can go online to stream and acquire the songs?

Yeah, since we did this as a sort of musical exercise, it isn’t something we wanted to profit from, so we’re offering it for free at our online store through Bandcamp, to whoever is interested in it. http://robotanists.wordpress.com/2011/02/21/robotanists-covers-new-radiohead-album-in-a-day/ will get you there!

I think you had a little more time to develop your own album, Plans In Progress, which is actually your 3rdstudio release.  Can you give us some details into the style, mood, and/or theme of the album?

We actually made Plans in Progress in only a few months, whenever we weren’t out playing shows. A week ago (before our Radiohead covers), we thought that was pretty fast for an indie band doing the sort of music we do. Plans really feels like a debut for us. Every minute of it is who we are at this moment – upbeat, complex, and hungry for more. It’s an album about moving forward while still yearning familiarity, musically and lyrically. We pushed ourselves to write more complex harmony and rhythm than we had before, in the context of what is essentially pop music. Vocally I really wanted to focus on setting a tone, rather than sending a message. I hope people can listen to the songs and words and extrapolate what they want, to make them their own.

Your debut album Close Down the Woods was released in 2008 and you also did a covers album titled Shapes and Variations in 2010.  How do those albums differ from the new Plans In Progress?

We wrote most of Close Down the Woods before we even had a name for our band. We were just starting to develop as songwriters and the album is ballad heavy and more down tempo. The last track we recorded was “Wait a Minute Here,” and it was such a new and different sound, that it inspired us to change our direction entirely. Shapes and Variations is similar in feel and texture, and is more or less a companion to Close Down the Woods, which is why we put them out together on vinyl last year. Plans in Progress is a new chapter for us in terms of production and instrumental complexity, but it still echoes with the same emotive quality of our earlier work.

On Shapes and Variations you cover two 1980s tunes, “Heaven” by Bryan Adams (Oh, I was into that song, and Bryan Adams, in the 80s!) and “Never Tear Us Apart” by INXS (another great one and atypical for INXS).  Why did you choose those non-New Wave songs out of all the 1980s one-hit-wonders and Top 40 hits?

I think songs too easily get dismissed for being “one hit wonders.” Hits happen because they resonate with people. We picked those songs from the 80s because we felt like they were slaves of an era, written and produced in a way that fit the times. But the core of both of those songs is timeless. We wanted to take songs to the place your heart goes (as a fan) when you hear the song for the first time in ages, which is probably why our collection of songs varies so much in selections. The treatment of each song is united though. Jay-Z’s “Empire State of Mind” set the tone for us, and allowed us to frame the songs in a melancholy way. We’re doing a few fan requested covers live right now just for fun… One of them is Joe Esposito’s “You’re the Best” from the original Karate Kid Soundtrack. Google it and laugh with us.

Photo Credit: Beth Stirnaman

You’ve had a residency at Silverlake Lounge all this February.  How did the shows go?  Were you playing as a full-fledged band or as just a couple of members?

The residency has been a blast – it’s great to see so much enthusiasm from our fans and other musicians in our community about the new music we’re making. We’ve had our full line up, Daniel on guitar, Preston on Drums, Keith on Bass, and myself making noise and singing as usual. We’re trying out a lot of new stuff before we head to SXSW and beyond.

Are you based in or familiar with the Silver Lake district of L.A.?  What is the music scene like there?  I’ve heard it’s a really pleasant, inviting, laid-back area for artists in general.

Yeah, we’re all in the area.  Daniel, Keith, and I are all in Silver Lake and Preston is down the street in Echo Park. Both are great communities, full of creative people at all levels of success and age. It’s nice that people outside of LA are discovering it finally, rather than just thinking of LA as “Hollywood.” We live in an amazing city full of diversity and artistry.  TMZ doesn’t do it justice.

You’ve got a lot going on in March too, with several gigs scheduled for SXSW in Austin, Texas, with a showcase gig on March 18th at Bar 96.  Is this the 1st time you’ll be at SXSW?  What are your travel plans and accommodations?  I hope it’s comfy and enjoyable, but I’ve heard stories of bands sleeping on floors and scrounging for food… I hope that’s not the case for you!

We are musicians… sleeping on floors is in the job description. We’re foodies though, so rather than spend money on a hotel, we’re crashing with a great band that we’re friends with that are based in Austin, called The Long Tangles. We plan on eating and drinking the best Austin has to offer, preferably while seeing some amazing bands. It’ll be our first time there as a band, and we’ve got lots of shows lined up while we’re in town, so people should just check our website that week and catch us whenever they can.

Speaking of your website, it’s really cool and detailed and can be found at: http://robotanists.wordpress.com./ Who put that together? What is your opinion about having all your songs available in a streaming format with the option to buy albums (transparency) versus just posting a few tracks (mystery)?

We’re a band with a DIY ethic. I update most of our web stuff and try to answer all of our fans personally (if you talk to us on twitter etc., you’re usually talking to me), but we’re all involved on some level. I think the music world is moving so quickly, that there’s not a lot of room for mystery. If we could make an album and have it available to the world to stream every week we would. Doing the Radiohead album in 24 hours was a test in a way for us, to see how instant music could be made and reach people, and with it behind us, we’re already working on a companion record to PLANS IN PROGRESS… that we’ll hopefully have done by the end of the year.