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.
"Some of these people," opines Johnson, "have been here since happy hour." Since the 'Bots rarely take the stage before 11:30 p.m., the crowd should be well primed for Baby Robots.
"We got the noise," Baker says optimistically. "We got melody. We have it all."
And when the four rather normal-looking men stop warming up and goofing around (Engle hadn't yet officially joined) and lead off with "Park Your Car," the song seems to spin itself into a cyclone from an ungainly mix of guitar twaddle, jazzy drumming, and that piloting bass. "Sometimes the chorus will just come to me while I'm cutting the grass," offers Johnson.
Bristol adds, "When things are going good, I'm just lost." And in fact the musicians seem to be channeling the music instead of playing it. Patrons stop talking -- it's hard to hear a goddamn thing, anyway -- and several move their asses and beer glasses to the front of the stage. The first song results in more than a smattering of applause and leaves a few mouths agape.
"I don't know if my music could ever be commercial," Baker says. "It's definitely weird." That's why Baby Robots' success in their own hometown seems so unlikely. Yet at the Surf Café and the nearby Boca Pub and Nite Gallery, the band is given free rein to be as loud and as uncommercial as possible. In fact Baker is allowed to hold any type of Ant Lunch-related ritual at either room when he feels like it (usually several times a month).
"We've made these places," bragged Baker a few months ago outside the Boca Pub, which opened in February. "It used to be a really bad dive bar before with toothless derelicts in there." But the venue's new owner happened to catch a Baby Robots show in Fort Lauderdale and was impressed enough to offer them a place to be themselves: "[The owners] basically let us do whatever we want. They trust us, knowing that some nights will be creatively crazy but that people will show up."
And show up they do, amazingly, in a vapid town in the middle of an already hipness-repressed zone. In his apartment Baker cranks out songs that flow from his mind to his hands to a cassette four-track, creating an endless catalog of handcrafted experimental music. "That's the best way to write songs," he says. "Just let 'em stream out of your head onto the tape, then go back and listen to them and say either, “Hey that's good!' or “We're not using that one.'"
And to Baker, Boca Raton is "kinda like paradise. I'm from Akron, and this is better than farms and the dreariness of Ohio. We've made our own little culture here because there's nothing else ... and if we don't make it no one's gonna make it for us."