St. John’s, NL, Canada: “I’m the head robot’s daughter.” These are the words of the young girl in a black skirt and Justin Bieber t-shirt who greets me at the door to the house where about sixteen people have gathered to be a part of improvisational electronica band Robot Scout’s RPM (Record Production Month) recording project.
The band plays in their socks to an audience surrounded by finger foods that range from mango slices to orange ginger chocolate. The house studio used to be a trunk factory, and two of the original wooden pillars support the ceiling.
Robot Scout is Chris Driedzic on drums and percussion (including some fun toys like a tin whistle and mbira, or thumb piano), Greg Bruce on winds, Jason Hayward on keys and laptop, and Rick Bailey on bass. All of them are dressed in Boy Scout shirts.
As they play their assortment of grooves and sounds, they sometimes exchange long looks like lovers, but it’s not each other they’re in love with. They’re in love with the music they are creating.
Many of their tracks start off with more widely accessible sounds and rhythms and then slowly draw you into a new dimension filled with unpredictability.
“Sometimes when we’re improvising, the track takes on a life of its own and we don’t really know when it’s going to end,” says Hayward after a particularly strong track. “But that was great. That worked out really well.”
You can almost see their ears twitching as they fine-tune their playing to one another’s improvisations. All at once, they switch musical directions, as if they are communicating by ESP. Their individual and collective musical skill lets them follow the track wherever it takes them, which leads to some very original progressions and movement in each tune.
For example, their second last track of the night starts off with what sounds like whale song from Hayward’s keyboard and Bruce’s saxophone, and then switches over to feature Driedzic’s demonic laughter distorted through the mic.
The fifth track they play evolves from an off-kilter uneasiness of the kind you might feel if you saw an attractive stranger walking naked down a dark, empty street. From there, it becomes a run in the summer evening sun before eventually settling into mellow contemplation reminiscent of petals floating on a cloudy lake.
Bailey explains the trajectory of the band that got it to where it is today: “Me and Chris started when we first met, so maybe like 2009. We were going by the name Neighbourhood Watch, then we thought we’d shorten it to N/W, you know, make it all cryptic for people. That didn’t really work out. So then we figured we were doing kind of new and exploratory stuff, so Robot Scout seemed to fit. Then we got Jason and Greg on board, and it changed completely.”
Within the band’s new configuration, any sound is fair game. Driedzic switches on the radio and loops voices saying “incredibly boring” and “they share cute cat pictures”, phrases which manage to slide between the music seamlessly. They hold onto certain musical lines a little longer than other elements; they are looking to explore these sounds in more depth.
“The good sets are like what we just did,” Hayward says. “They’re balanced in terms of who’s featured, and you’ve got to have a little bit of craziness, but not too much.”
The quartet has a quiet chemistry among themselves. The joy in the band members’ eyes makes me try to think of something that I enjoy doing as much as they enjoy this, but I can’t think of anything. The shy smiles that slip out and broaden and their serious head bopping reveal the pleasure they get from performing sounds that will never be repeated.
“We’re an improvisational ensemble,” Driedzic says. “What you hear won’t be done again.”
At the end of the night, the audience has thinned out a little, but those who stay are treated to a funky track that really showcases the unique style Robot Scout has developed over time.
After about two hours of playing, with a short break in the middle, Driedzic tells us with a laugh, “You don’t have to go home now, but we’re not playing anymore.”
As I head out into the surprisingly warm winter night, I can hear them behind me making plans for the next show.