Beth Bombara | A Foundation of Robots

prof_bombara_sm.jpgThe case for Bombara’s artistic growth and creative expansion is evidenced by the staying power of the six songs that constitute what you could call it an EP.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Advanced music is one of the perks of music journalism, and in some cases the only return you get for your time and work. The catch is not every advance is worthy of the time and work a review necessitates. When an advance is actually worth the effort, you have honor and obligation of doing it justice. …And the Robotic Foundation by Beth Bombara and the Robotic Foundation has earned its fair day in court.

The case for Bombara’s artistic growth and creative expansion is evidenced by the staying power of the six songs that constitute what you could call it an EP. That classification doesn’t do Robotic Foundation justice. These songs feel like a playlist that selfishly mines your favorites from a great full-length, totally robbing the artist of her creative control. The crime of being finicky and pinching only the best bits (skipping dinner and going straight to dessert) is indeed a guilty pleasure. In this case, the pleasure’s completely innocent, like PB & J’s made with that sliced bread with no crust so kids the world ‘round can munch unfettered.

Where her 2007 release Abandon Ship flowed like silica in an hourglass’s uppermost to its base, …and the Robotic Foundation creaks, coils and then springs at forward (in the span of one song), and then, having traveled to new ground, cools off and recoils with even more tension than before, poised for the next expansion. It’s kinetic, it’s engrossing, but above all it’s pure. The addition of JJ and Kit Hamon (on bass and drums, respectively) has given Bombara’s songs heft, and a propulsive force that’s anything but robotic. As a band, the chemistry is there, and it’s downright impressive.

With a couple helping hands from her bandmates, Bombara kindly submitted to a thorough round of questioning. Any reservations I had about giving Robotic Foundation an A have been acquitted. We may just be witnessing the humble beginnings of a graceful assent.

Musically, you seem to be able to play just about any instrument I’ve ever heard recorded on in pop music. What inspired you to pursue and develop your talents back when you were growing up, and since?

I started playing the piano in third grade, so I guess that was the start of it., Thanks Mom…you didn’t let me quit until I was half decent, and by that time I had picked up your guitar and started plunking out chords. Even when I was little, I was always interested in learning new things. Along with piano, I played trombone for a couple years. I just really enjoyed making music. I also loved going to see live music throughout my high school years. I went to a lot of local shows, and had great times meeting bands and hanging out with old friends as well as discovering some great music. It was kind of a package deal, and that hasn’t changed. Now, I intentionally try to surround myself with talented musicians and other creative people. I’ve found that it’s stretching and inspiring, whether we are playing music or just hanging out.

What brought you to St. Louis, and how has that impacted your development as an artist?

I finished college across the river, in Greenville, Ill., so that is when I got my first taste of St. Louis. After graduating, I floated around the country for about two years (much of that time spent on tour) and decided my sanity might benefit from being in one place for a while. There’s lots of places to play in St. Louis, cheap rent and a handful of good college friends. From a practical standpoint, the relatively low cost of living is invaluable because I don’t have to spend all my time and energy on paying my bills, like a lot of musicians and artists I know do. That’s given me more time to gain focus, and develop stylistically. There are also a lot of great musicians here that I feel lucky to be able to collaborate with, and be inspired by.

You’re very generous with your talents. What were/are some of your favorite collaborations/collaborators and fondest memories? How did you contribute, and how has that manifest in your solo work?

I’ll always remember the early collaborations with Samantha Crain. It was just the two of us, and we didn’t really know what we were doing as a duo so we tried a lot of different things. The most memorable experimentation resulted in things like a junkyard drum set (more fondly referred to as the "franken-drum") and cellphone feedback loops. That was a few years back, and I’ve had people ask me if I still play the cellphones. Blows my mind. We were just having fun trying new things. My current collaboration with Cassie Morgan is similar in that respect. I find myself playing an assortment of things, some in ways I’ve never played them before. And what I’m playing on each song seems to constantly evolve. It most often involves playing at least two things at once, for example, melody and percussion. I think these collaborations have given me a freedom for experimentation in my own music that might not have been achieved otherwise.

On Abandon Ship, there was a restraint in your vocals that was very evocative given the timbre of that record, and on Robotic Foundation, you’ display a wider range to great effect. Is the difference the product of a stylistic choice then versus now now, or a natural growth as a performer?

I would have to say it’s both. When I started playing in a band, I never wanted to be a singer; holding down a rhythm instrument in the shadows seemed ideal to me. When no one else in the band wanted to step up to the mic, I did it out of necessity. I was 16. Since then, I’ve experienced a lot of growth vocally, and not until more recently have I felt comfortable as a vocalist. But I’m not there yet. The range of style on the new recording has enabled me to tap into my rock/punk roots, blending that with a more confident, mature sound developed by recent pop/folk experiences performing solo as well as singing harmonies with others.

When did you get a sense of how Robotic Foundation was going to sound and feel?

It was somewhere in one of our early practices while working on the song "Lights." After fumbling around with different stylistic ideas, the bass and drums locked in with a sort of sideways rhythm that just felt right. That somewhat happenstance, always-laborious process of feeling each song out for the best possible sound kind of defines our way of working as a band. That’s why, in a live show, we’ll go from a full-on raging rock band to the acoustic guitar, pedal steel and violin. We each have our own tastes, but are always trying to find our way as a band. Once we fine-tuned each song live, we went to the studio to flesh the songs out.

Working with Dan Mehrmann (engineer/co-producer) was a pleasure, because he has an ear for all things production, and the studio experience to capture the instruments in great detail. The basic sounds were top notch, but our real work and success in the studio came in the vocal production and other touches that (we think) takes this record to a level above the simple "band in a room" records (don’t take that statement the wrong way, cause the right band in a room sounds better than we ever could…see also Muddy Waters, early Beatles records, Nirvana and plenty of other bands, some of whom are our friends, like Theodore or the now-defunct Bad Folk). When we started adding some of the more exciting layers, like background vocals, lead guitars and the occasional gang-handclap track, the songs themselves really started to jump at us. Each person that had a hand in the process of recording altered the original vision slightly without ever taking away from it.

There’s an interesting thing going on in Robotic Foundation: three of its tracks, "Beautiful You," "Anonymous" and "Conversation," are both restless and melancholy all at once, a unique combination that really strikes a nerve. At the same time, those songs feel very intimate, at times sensual as far as the arrangements and tone. What’s the genesis of that?

Without going into the gritty, bloody, personal details, those songs come from some really rough spots in life over the past few years. As much as we all like angry, "screw you"-type songs, sometimes it’s just not that simple. Those songs especially come from an honest assessment of relationship problems, feeling let down or alienated, or a host of other seemingly negative events/happenings. The reason for the tense, restless/melancholy feel is probably just a musical admission that, even in the situations where we’re getting screwed over by someone or something, there’s always another side to the story, and we likely don’t know the whole of it. Even if we do, we probably can’t understand it, but it’s natural to try. Those songs are an attempt at understanding, with all the messy, blurry lines that come along with that attempt.

The other half of Robotic Foundation plays like a lesson in the connection/evolution of new wave, college, alternative and indie rock’s most anthemic aspirations. What are some of your own personal anthems, or the music for your life?

Hmm… I might have to say that the band Nada Surf has pretty much written the soundtrack to my life. I’ve been connecting with their music ever since high school, and there always seems to be a song that goes with whatever I’m experiencing or feeling at the time. A couple theme songs/anthems to highlight would be "Popular" and "Always Love." "Popular" helped me come to terms with my place in the crazy social jungle high school, ultimately accepting myself for who I was and not trying to be something I wasn’t. The song "Always Love" is a great reminder of what I think is one of the most important thing in life; it’s what I strive for. Of course there are also anthems like "Praise Chorus" by Jimmy Eat World, and going back to my punk roots, "Should I Stay or Should I Go" by the Clash. These are also songs that I would sing at the top of my lungs with the windows down. I probably should add Weezer in general (Blue Album) to that list. Yeah.

What are the CD release show (April 10th at Off Broadway with Grace Basement) and subsequent performances going to be like?

Well, the release show should be lots of fun. We’re working up a couple new songs as well as keeping some of our standards going. We’re finally going to drag the Wurlitzer 200A out for "Beautiful You," and it might show up elsewhere in the set, too. We’ll keep our regular stage setup, with the usual rock band stuff alongside pedal steel, violin and some acoustic guitars.

As for future shows, depending on the venue (and the band’s availability), it can range from super loud and aggressive rock ‘n‘ roll (like some of the heavier moments on …and the Robotic Foundation) to much more quiet, folksy music. There have even been shows with just acoustic, Wurlitzer and violin. We usually try to give a good mix, though, often sandwiching the quiet songs between the louder stuff. You know, something for everyone, without straying from the music we write and enjoy.

We’re always in flux as people, and the band is no different right now. JJ is the best brother/bass player/pedal steel player/budding sousaphonist, but he’s going to be gone for the summer, and our good friend Ryan (from The Slightest Nod) is going to stand in and play some bass/other toys for us. And Kit seems to have developed an insatiable appetite for vintage electric pianos, so don’t be surprised if more of them start finding their way on stage, too…speaking of which, anyone want to give away a Farfisa or Vox organ?

How can people best support you and your projects?

We’re all inspired by our friends, many of whom are musicians and/or artists themselves. If you want to support us, get (or stay) involved with the arts in St. Louis. The creativity of this growing artistic community keeps many of our favorite spots open for business. Go out and see live music. Plant a garden. Write a story. Do some sweet graffiti art. Your creativity will feed ours. (Of course, you can also sign up for our mailing list at www.bethbombara.com or www.myspace.com/bethbombara. Sign up and score a free download.) | Willie E. Smith

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