Borrowing from glam, new-wave, punk, pop, and former members of Beck's touring band, Ima Robot tell SPIN that their sound is more organic than their name would imply. In the full transcript of their interview, lead singer Alex Ebert and bassist Justin Meldal-Johnson reveal that they are ready to slap fans across the face--but don't be surprised if they cry about it later.
By: Caryn GanzBorrowing from glam, new-wave, punk, pop, and former members ofBeck’s touring band, Ima Robot tell SPIN that their sound is moreorganic than their name would imply. In the full transcript oftheir interview, lead singer Alex Ebert and bassist JustinMeldal-Johnson reveal that they are ready to slap fans across theface–but don’t be surprised if they cry about it later.
SPIN: When and how exactly did this project come together?
Alex Ebert: It was me, and then Tim (the guitar player) and that was all about six years ago. And then Oly the keyboard player joined–that was about five years ago–then Justin about two and a half years ago now.
Justin Meldal-Johnson: It was late 2001, October, after I got back from out of town.
Alex: And about a year with this line-up, we’ve always gone through drummers, and then finally we got “the” drummer. This line-up is a little over a year old. It seems to be working. I like it. Tim and I in particular, and Oly as well, we just sort of steam-rolled out. It didn’t matter to us who was in it. Like, we did a lot of programmed beats. It was more about the effort than about the line-up or even the music itself in a weird way. It was cool, I guess it was what attracted you.
Justin: Very much. I didn’t see them play, I had a friend who was recording demos with them, and he said “Can you help play bass on one of their things? There’s no money or anything, can you just come down and help out?” And I rolled in and heard their music and saw–it was almost a visual experience. It was like hearing glimmers of greatness poking out, and I was entranced. I had been Beck’s bass player for eight years and I was on a break from touring. It was a long hiatus, he was writing or whatever, and it was time for me to get mine done. And then early, early on in making demos with these guys, they really flippantly said, “You should be in our band.” And they recruited me, we started jamming. And jamming turned into a gig at a club. And the gig at the club turned into more recording and then more gigs at clubs, then record companies, and I found myself on this whole unstoppable train.
Alex: Yeah, it just gained momentum really quickly. Actually, shortly after Justin joined we still were kind of dealing with who we were going to be, which direction we were going to go, and then we just upped it. We decided to just go for it and write songs that actually had choruses that came back. Before, we would write choruses that would never return.
Justin: I was hearing songs like that from them early on that were like movements. They were still really intriguing.
Alex: It was cool, but it didn’t make any labels feel very safe with us. Especially bigger labels. And we always wanted to make a serious impact. We’ve never wanted to just be some kind of artistic obscurity. We’ve always wanted to cause an impact and to create something different in a big way, so when things started to get tenuous we were like, “Okay, this is what we’re going to do.” We all set this September limit on ourselves. It was April and we didn’t talk about it openly, but we were all basically like, “Things happen by September or we split.” But within a month of April, it was already happening. It was really a matter of focusing it on the goal and making it a priority.
SPIN: So where did this name come from?
Alex: I don’t know, I thought it was really fun. I wanted it to be the name of the band for a long time and no one was feeling it. We went through a bunch of horrible names and finally I suggested it again two years later and everyone was like, “What a great name!”
SPIN: Can you describe what the Ima Robot live experience is like?
Justin: We’re not improvisational. It’s just frantic chaos, an exuberant party up there. It’s really something. To me, when I try to look at it objectively, it seems almost like a classic band in a way because it’s musicians that are going for it. Everyone’s doing their job. We’re always inviting the audience in. We’re not very cold or alienating or anything like that. We like the contrast of being confrontational and stuff, but we’re always inviting them in.
Alex: To me it’s funny, but our sense of humor comes without a laugh. It comes with a small smile that comes as an after-thought. It’s an interesting thing and to me that’s kind of how our live shows can be sometimes with the audience. I feel like the audience has to be indoctrinated. The energy can be very intense. Like last night was an example. It wasn’t as exuberant as it was brooding in a way.
SPIN: So do people actually dance at your shows?
Alex and Justin: Oh yeah
Alex: The cool people dance at the shows. I’d say the only difference is that maybe it’s not just a party with us. It’s not just clap your hands and dance. There’s a real dramatic element where I can understand why people aren’t moving at times because they’re watching.
Justin: It’s not just like, “turn on the fun!” It’s an emotional roller-coaster a little bit.
Alex: For us, too.
Justin: We’re not inhibited, we’re not precious about being reserved or being careful or whatever–like holding our cards close to our chests. It’s more about whatever’s going to happen with that particular rendering of the song. I’m not trying to sound so theoretical, that’s what happens naturally.
SPIN: If someone was trying to characterize you based on the name of the band, do you think they’d conjure something sterile or antiseptic? Because you guys are actually quite organic and emotional.
Alex: I have fucking epiphanies on stage. I have emotional volcanoes on stage sometimes.
Justin: I cry sometimes and I won’t even know I’m doing it until after.
Alex: I cried two shows ago.
Justin: Me, too. We’re just not inhibited people. Whatever happens, happens.
Alex: We try to have an open format.
Justin: We talk about really emotional things to be honest.
Alex: We let everyone speak and it’s really cool. Totally town-meeting style.
Justin: I haven’t been in a bunch of bands, but what I have done taught me that when you have a band without very good communication going on between band members, you’re going to have a short life. That’s what I’ve learned.
SPIN: I think you guys have a very strong Los Angeles element to your music. Do you think growing up out there and continuing to live there influences you?
Alex: I totally think so.
Justin: I completely, unequivocally agree with that.
Alex: It’s interesting, I feel like I am my music in a way. And when I walk around New York, I stick out because I wear colors. New York seems very grey, very reserved.
Justin: Maybe it’s the proximity that’s required in everyday life. People tone it down a bit.
SPIN: I would say that that sense of space that you’re describing as a West Coast-thing also extends to your music. There isn’t a lot of over-decoration there. Each sound feels precisely placed.
Alex: That was a conscious decision going in to record the record. We went into recording with our parts and we don’t want to get in there, lay the tracks down and start experimenting. We had it all. Justin comes up with all these crazy bass-lines, we do that while we’re writing the song. It’s not an after-thought or anything like that. Neither are the electronic drums or any of the keyboards or guitar stuff.
Justin: It’s very much a live writing style, surprisingly, even though sonically it’s not organic sounding. You’re almost in a band with five guys who are all producers in a way. Everyone comes self-contained to the party with the ability to render exactly what’s on their minds and play it well. We take pride in that. It’s satisfying for us.
SPIN: How are you hoping people receive this record?
Justin: We’re really hoping that it turns a light on and gives that “fresh slap across the face” feeling. Like “Oh my God, put it on again.” Those [kind of] records meant so much to me. Joy Division, Radiohead (The Bends), Fleetwood Mac (Rumours), [the Beatles'] Revolver? We all have billions of records like that in every genre. That feeling is so crucial to us because it’s so reflective of our personalities. We’re kind of crazy about music. We just hope it comes across that way for people who hear it to get that kind of body-moving lift or even that weird feeling or whatever. That slap.
Alex: I hope it inspires people to remember that not everything has to be the same. You can do different things and you can be fresh and you can listen to fresh music and things don’t have to stay in one area, you know? We all get into ruts where we forget that things can be different. The only comments I’ve ever seen are like “Not only did they pull from this band and that band, but they also pull from this little-known band,” and I have no idea who these bands are. Never heard of them, no idea. It’s kind of cool for me because I get to build up my record collection that way. I like to call our music high-clash because to me, it’s elevated. It’s not metal meets rap. To me, it’s just everything-everything all across the board.
Justin: It clashes pretty bad with itself in a great way.