In the chaotically artful vicinity of Hillcrest's Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf, a freeway of sundry patrons comes and goes as Ryland Bouchard orders a tea. Perched in front of the counter, the frontman for local band The Robot Ate Me shifts his weight from one foot to the other, his oversized trench coat covering up any evidence that he has feet. His hair is a bird's nest of curls and his eyes are so moon-like and expressive that he wouldn't be out of place in one of those adopt-a-foreign-child commercials.
"I have a healthy sense of humor," Brouchard blurts after a sip on his tea. He sits silently to digest what he just said about himself.
What? Is he funny in the head? Bouchard, who is sweating nervously after just two questions, has a sense of humor? Bouchard, who can't seem to crack a smile even at the most over-the-top promptings, has a sense of humor? Bouchard, the earnest, highbrow multi-instrumentalist, seems absolutely above such base assumptions about himself.
But he's not kidding. He is in fact very serious about his sense of humor.
"Everyone in the arts scene takes themselves so seriously and yet they're not saying anything at all," Bouchard explains. "If you're going to release really bad music, you should at least be aware that it's really bad and be able to laugh at yourself about it."
So, this political aficionado's sense of self-humor is alive and well. Maybe that's why Bouchard was so utterly eager to be a CityBeat guinea pig for a day. Armed with a Discman, a set of headphones and a camera, Bouchard set out with CityBeat to hit the streets of Hillcrest and find anyone, everyone, who would listen to his new record, On Vacation, and share their opinions.
The 24-year-old California native admits that he was initially nervous about this gig. The Robot Ate Me has been his musical focus since graduating from UCSD with a political science degree-and since leaving his first group, Bedroom Heroes-and the project is still in its infancy. A few snide comments from the general public and a band's confidence could be shot.
But Bouchard said it himself: He has a healthy sense of humor. And on this particular night, he would need it.
The victims of The Robot Ate Me's First Annual Public Audio-Testing of San Diego (as it shall henceforth be called) were many and varied. The first, a security officer, volunteered himself when he heard our shtick, but others were a little less eager. One such candle-shop patron thought we were trying to sell her something. Undaunted, Bouchard and CityBeat sought true public opinion through the eyes of the Hillcrest population-and maybe a little anxious conflict in the process.
Hey, Cake did it, why can't we?
THE SECURITY GUARD
The first Robot audio-tester is Tom, a coffee shop patron who eagerly dons the headphones after his coworker turned us down. Listening to "Genocide Ball," Tom nods his head in subtle agreement and puckers his lips like he's about to pass judgment on a death row inmate. He takes the headphones off and declares the song, "something he would definitely pick up."
Since Tom was such a cheerleader for that track, Bouchard dials in "Crispy Christian Tea Time" (sample lyric: "and sometimes we play crispy Christian tea time, with Barbies tea and toast, and my friend brings this talking version of God, and a full Buddhist Lego set") and the density of Tom's face changes instantly.
He looks down at his feet, adjusts his shirt and furrows his brows to an angled point before declaring, "I don't like this one. I can tell you already because they're talking about the religion aspect. "Let's have a Christian tea party?' No."
He slurs out the word "religion" in the same way one might call you a bitch behind your back.
Bouchard looks a bit more satisfied with Tom's dissatisfaction.
"Over the past 10 or 15 years, we've been desensitized to the extreme effects of Christianity," Bouchard says. "People pass judgment on the Taliban and other sectors of religion as extremist, when in reality the extreme factions of Christianity in the United States are pretty much identical to the extreme viewpoints of the Taliban and the rest of them.
"It's always worth bringing things out in the open-taboo subjects, I mean-because not talking about them is worse."
THE BOOKSTORE CLERK
Bookstore clerk Amanda barely pops a twitch in the five minutes she takes to listen to "Genocide Ball."
This second victim is less than eager to participate and as the song plays, she blinks constantly-could she really be hearing this right? Concerned, she lifts her red-lined eyes every two seconds to make sure we are still there and haven't left her alone with this music. In an effort to cover up any further expression, she sits with her fist over her mouth for the rest of the song.
"I would have to know what the context was to listen to this," she says, "but it was hardly a concise analysis of global politics."
She gives her judgment with a head shake and half eye roll. You get the feeling that she makes this face often, before she runs out to the record store to buy it and let everyone know that she saw it first.
Puffing and listening, puffing and listening, puffing and eyebrow raising, Anthony is our next listener. He stares directly at the Discman until "Oh No! Oh My!" reaches its lalala-filled ending, at which time he proceeds to do a Macarena-type jig on the sidewalk of 5th Avenue. He doesn't laugh, but stares straight ahead and continues his jig.
"Is it over?"
"Is that you?" he says to Bouchard.
"Ohhhh, OK," Anthony chortles, clearing his throat, "It was... nice." He stares uneasily at the sky. He doesn't seem too sure about sharing his true feelings when the author is standing next to him.
"It was a pretty song but wrapped in a little package-like a pretty music box that had a ballerina that came out and said, "Hell with you!' and flipped you off."
THE SMART GUY IN DISGUISE
Mike is the most animated of any listener. Rolling his eyes in apparent disgust, he procures a stroke-patient half-cringe while listening to "Oh No! Oh My!"
His closed-mouth grin camouflages a mile-high eyebrow raise while his accompanying wife declares, "OK, that means he doesn't like it. He only makes that face when he doesn't like things." The wrinkles in Mike's forehead from a permanent eye-raise that threatens to sink in eternally. He looks at each one of us in disbelief, then rolls one side of his face to the sky to indicate that he's finished with this record.
He licks his lips, shrugs and adjusts his duck-adorned sweatshirt before asserting, "This is slightly Monty Python-esque." His neck is shrugged low at this point, as if he thinks that Bouchard or a passerby will hit him at any moment.
"This song has a sense of satire, but it definitely has a social message," Mike says. "It seems like it's talking about the world, but really, [the songwriter] is just trying to get our attention."
If anyone "gets it" or understands any aspect of Bouchard with any clarity, it's Mike. This presumably middle-class man in his mid-40s understands or allows himself to ingest more of the meaning of On Vacation than any of the other eight hip, cool, jazzed and music-savvy audio-testers.
And that seems oddly satisfying.
The public may not be sure what to think about The Robot Ate Me, but Bouchard-on "vocals, guitar, accordion, saxophone, organ, piano, analog synth, toys, rawap, pipa, gutcheng, you name it"-along with RJ Hoffman on bass, violin and percussion and David Greenberg on drums, make sounds that range from radar blips to crashing walls of guitar to thundering free-form improvisations to anti-religious politics.
Funny? In Bouchard's eyes, it is.
Walking back toward our starting point, Bouchard says he's a bit disappointed at the complacency of the people who were interviewed, but that he "can laugh about it." Not that Bouchard thinks his sense of humor is going to change any belief systems. Robot's newest disc is hardly a Ms. Spears tribute to pop music. It may just need a shovel and the Jaws of Life to dig and pry through the layers of subtly placed discontent.
Bouchard declares this two-disc album a split-he routinely refers to either "the serious one" or "the poppy part." Bouchard claims that parts of the second disc are so ridiculously poppy that they're funny.
He isn't far off.
While the first disc talks of going to "The Genocide Ball," "Jesus and Hitler" making out ("Hitler and Jesus are not really that different. Maybe in a way it's so hard for people to think of that concept because they don't want to put those two extremes together-good versus evil") and the mass deaths on the African continent ("Oh No! Oh My!"), the second disc gaily skips from "On Vacation" to "Watermelon Sugar" to "Apricot Tea."
Quite a robust contrast, a distinction that our listeners today don't exactly grasp.
"I think people have just come to the point where they don't want me to say anything," Bouchard says. "They just want a background to their lives and entertainment for the bar or they're more interested in what they're wearing or drinking or the girls they're talking to.
"Substance doesn't seem to be valued."
And yet, through this thick skin of politics and beliefs and worldwide concern, everything seems to melt into a ball of nothing when the Robot sense of humor shines through.
When prompted for the Robot mailing address, the band's website promptly answers, "We live in the pink house on the corner."Visit www.therobot ateme.com.