Michael Buchmiller gets all kinds of reactions when he tells people about the Satanic Puppeteer Orchestra. Everything from “What the fuck?” to “Cool!” and, of course, “Are you high?” But for him, the standout came in the emergency room while explaining to a nurse how he busted his ankle.
“Once I said I got it onstage, of course, the next logical question from her was, ‘So what's your band called?'” he recalls, seated at a table in his Kensington apartment. “And I have to say ‘the Satanic Puppeteer Orchestra.' And I just get this half-confused, half-scared stare. And as I start to explain it further, I realize I'm not really helping myself here—I'm just making it worse.”
Such is the life for a man and his robot.
What started as a fascination with a computer program 12 years ago has come to fruition in a very auspicious, perplexing way. When I first interviewed Buchmiller three years ago about his rock-poster art, I asked a rather arbitrary question: Had he any other passion projects? I didn't realize what a loaded question it actually was.
What he proceeded to enthusiastically explain over the next half-hour was that for the last decade or so, he had been working on a musical project called the Satanic Puppeteer Orchestra. The band consisted of himself (channeling a mad scientist character), playing music using samples and a keyboard, and a robot named SPO-20 that would sing nonsensical lyrics about time machines and Jacques Cousteau.
Uh, OK, well, why has it taken so long?
Because, he explained, the debut album was to be a self-released, four-CD box set that moved thematically from one disc to the next (a “comeback” CD, B-sides, cover songs, live performances, etc.). I remember my reaction:
Yeah, OK, man. I'll believe it when I see it.
But here we are, talking about not only the successful completion of the project, but also the S.P.O. live shows that have garnered quite a following since debuting last December. For most of us, the genesis of a major idea often leads to a period of active pursuit, only to later leave it incomplete so as to move on to the next endeavor of perceived brilliance. For Buchmiller, a project he started when Bill Clinton was still in his first term seems the very definition of tenacity.
“It was such a ridiculous idea. No one ever thinks it's really going to happen,” he concedes. “There were times where I questioned whether or not it was the stupidest thing I'd ever done to spend all of that money on a box set for a band that no one's ever heard of, but clearly I wasn't smart enough to not put it out.”
A former Chicagoan, Buchmiller attended San Diego State University, where an acquaintance introduced him to text-speech software that turns written text into a robot-voiced recitation. A novelty with no practical application, he found it so cool that he combined his creative writing skills and his obsession with sci-fi and movies like This is Spinal Tap and developed a fictional band that somewhat resembles Buchmiller's own history: A mad scientist (Professor B. Miller) who was never quite cool enough decides to create a robot to be his band-mate, only to watch the robot become the star of the show.
Buchmiller started perpetuating the band's bizarre history online while also learning to play and record music. The music became a minimalist cross between Laurie Anderson's “O Superman” and Kraftwerk, as sung by the Model B-9 robot from Lost in Space. He realized he had something when one of the songs reached No. 1 on the experimental charts on the then-hot music website Mp3.com. He slowly chipped away at it while working as a graphic designer, poster artist and editor, writer and publisher for Hand Carved magazine. As buzz picked up, labels and management companies became interested, but only if he whittled things down to one CD.
“I was like, ‘You just don't get it.' I'm about breaking every unwritten rule in the music industry. It's really the only way to do justice to this ridiculous idea and get it the attention it deserves.”
Once he had enough music (and money) to produce the set, he ran into other obstacles. When contacting a Kentucky company about silk-screening CDs—well, let's just say the good ol' boy on the other end of the phone line didn't see the humor. After inquiries into whether Buchmiller actually practiced satanic rituals, the man decided that he'd have to hold a company-wide meeting to discuss “the issue.” The company ultimately decided to print the CDs on the condition that Buchmiller sign a contract swearing he wasn't satanic.
When not dealing with the touchy sensibilities of the rural South, Buchmiller worked with his girlfriend's father on building SPO-20 out of random Home Depot-purchased parts, complete with a projection screen on the robot's chest to be incorporated during live shows (which also include smoke machines, synchronized lights and—beware—audience participation). So after dropping somewhere in the neighborhood of $8,000, booking live shows and developing an eclectic following that included both GG Allin's guitarist and Ashley Olson (yes, that Ashley Olson), it seems only appropriate for Buchmiller to reflect.
“I thought it would be funny to have a fictional 10-year history of the band, and by the time I finished, it really was a 10-year history,” he laughs. “It gets hard to remember which things I made up and which actually happened.”
And with that history also came an understanding of the thin line between the serious and satirical side of art. While a musical cousin like the band Captured by Robots can come across as kind of creepy, Buchmiller keeps the project rooted in humor.
“The world is so surreal on its own that I really don't have to make it any weirder. It's not going to stop me from trying, but I don't spend time trying to discern which is which. I just put it out there and let people figure it out. Or not figure it out. Eventually there's enough truth in all of it that people just start believing everything, which is when it starts to get really fun.”
And like any good jack-of-all-trades-but-master-of-none, Buchmiller doesn't plan to rest on his artistic laurels (or his lab coat), even if it takes him another decade.
“I think once people know what to expect, then it's going to get even more fun for me to pull the rug out from under them. I don't want to give away any of the details at this point, but I've got some more Andy Kaufmann-esque pranks up my sleeve.”
Danger, Will Robinson! Danger! Satanic Puppeteer Orchestra will make an in-studio appearance with Tim Pyles on The Local 94/9 radio show from 8 to 10 p.m. Aug. 3 and perform live on Saturday, Aug. 23, at Speakeasy Studios, 2403 Industry St. in Oceanside. Visit www.satanicpuppeteer.com