By Jacob Katel
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To most of us, "weird sounds from Boca Raton" means diamonds caught in a disposal or wheezing geriatrics struggling with groceries. And that stereotype is unlikely to change soon. Finding something edgy and hip in this subculturally deprived suburb is about as likely as finding bean sprouts on a Big Mac. But if you look beneath the cookie-cutter-condo veneer, where the words scene, alternative, and cool are rarely heard in conjunction, you will find some odd, intriguing aural emanations.
"It's a complete oxymoron in this town," asserts Bobby Baker, the guitarist, singer, and songwriter responsible for spearheading a rebellious swell of avant-rock in a town where al dente pasta is considered challenging. A member of four local bands and the protagonist of an amorphous collective/record label called Ant Lunch Musick, Baker doesn't care if Boca isn't particularly interested in his exploits. In this inhospitable dry socket of suckdom, he's introduced a virulent strain of experimental underground flavors into the water supply -- or at least into the strip malls.
Although Baker plays bass and guitar with Mr. Entertainment and the Pookie Smackers, adds keyboards to shambling lo-fi outfit Wolfboy and the Fantods, and plays guitar in the noisy Game 4, he's best known for his own group, Baby Robots. "We all joke about it," Baker says with a chuckle and a (badly) affected Jamaican accent: "How many bands you got, mon? You got four bands? Oh, you can have a lot more bands, mon!"
Baby Robots' stormy mixture of often horrific noise and droning, dreamadelic pop is as ethereal as it is punishingly loud. At least it is now: Say you'd wandered into a Baby Robots show back in 1997 (the year Baker began the project), 1998, 1999, or last year: You'd have witnessed a completely different animal on each visit.
"Baby Robots has had so many incarnations," explains Baker. "It started off with me on acoustic guitar, another guitar player, and a guy who played drums with a sampler. It was almost Beckish in a weird way." By 1999, the 'Bots had transformed into an even gentler beast, with Jackie Hartman on acoustic guitar and vocals and her husband, Vinnie, supplying bass. "It was going ... not folkie but very, very laid-back and mellow," Baker recalls. "I used to call it acoustidelic music. It wasn't coffee shop stuff; it had a harder edge to it -- or as hard as you can with an acoustic guitar."
Nowadays Baby Robots are Baker on guitar and vocals, Steve Johnson on bass, Matt Cohen (also of Whirlaway) on guitar, Tamara Engle (Baker's girlfriend) on vocals and guitar, and Steve Bristol on drums. And there's nothing mellow about the Robots, testifies Baker: "It's flat-out insane music with psychedelic noises and long jam-outs. I'm into spaced-out songs, but I also like pop songs." This psychedelia, however, isn't as conducive to tranced-out, meditative bliss as it is to elevated moods and increased energy. It's "go music," the bandmates agree as they collectively search for an apt description. And indeed it is -- the sound of the band's live shows and new album, Lakitu: The Baby Robot, is like a beat-up scruffy pair of sneakers with jet engines in each sole.
Baker has been moving toward the buzzed-out drama of today's Baby Robots for a decade now, first with his band Blanket ("I listened to the Jesus and Mary Chain and tried to learn those three chords") and through his friendship with seminal Palm Beach County punkers Postface, former home to Steve Johnson and members of the Ex-Cretins. In fact Cretins frontman Rick Ambrose heads up Ant Lunch Musick with Baker, having released a Postface disc on the "pseudo-label" in 1993. To date, Ant Lunch has issued two Baby Robots discs, a pair of Ex-Cretins platters, a Game 4 album, a compilation of local groups, and another record from Doersam. Additionally, Baker reports, the majority of Ant Lunch participants dabble in the visual arts as well.
Engle contributed artwork to Lakitu, Baker's most accomplished work and Ant Lunch's best recording yet. Jesus and Mary Chain comparisons aside, the album drunkenly crosses the yellow line between buzz saw melody and absolutely pretentious wankery -- with remarkably listenable results. Baker says he was turned on to Pink Floyd at age three; Lakitu argues that the experience addled him just as much as sleeping next to a radiator would have. From the opener "Park Your Car" and its slo-mo Crazy Horse chorus to the drum-machine and feedback pulse-piece "All Good Stories," the music is laboriously layered, with a mélange of effects pedals and Baker's tentative voice competing for airspace. But it's Johnson's lumbering bass that carries much of the melodic burden -- and a song like "Say What I Say" feels as if it weighs a ton. Live, however, Bristol's deft drumming keeps the noise aloft.
"This band came together because we're all Bobby's friends," says Johnson at a recent Surf Café gig, with an approving look thrown to his diminutive cohort.
Bristol, who has been Baker's pal since middle school, laughs and agrees: "We're just trying to help a brother out!" Baker basks in this admiration; his expression is one of utter gratitude toward his mates. A steady river of beer doesn't hurt the mood, either. This evening the Surf Café is full of frat and sorority types who appear to be firmly in the trenches of Sugar Ray or Dave Matthews -- not the type who are searching for South Florida's answer to My Bloody Valentine.