Compressorhead is the first real band made up entirely of robots.
The acoustic relationship between man and machine has been at the centre of much of the most inventive music of the past 50 years. From the eerie experimentation of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop to the mechanical synchronicity of Kraftwerk, the assembly line pulse of Detroit techno and the icy synth experiments of new wave – the marshalling of taut ‘robotic’ discipline in sound has often yielded startling results, particularly within electronic music.
But while robotics has long provided artistic inspiration for music, the reality of robot music in its most literal sense – real robots, playing actual musical instruments – has been a path less traveled. This year, however, saw the unveiling of Compressorhead – the world’s first true robot band.
A collaborative project between Gibson guitars, alongside German robotics companies Kernschrott Robots and Robocross, Compressorhead are made entirely from scrap and recycled metal. Able to move with electro pneumatics, the robots play via an interface that changes midi signals into switch signals for their pneumatic valves.
The band comprises three full time ‘members’. Guitarist ‘Fingers’, who has 78 separate fingers, attached to his guitar; drummer ‘Stickboy’ (built byRobocross), who has four arms and two legs; and bassist ‘Bones’ who is able to move via mounted tracks on stage. A genuinely dazzling live proposition, Compressorhead recently played the vast Big Day Out Festival in Australia, where they entertained a crowd of thousands with standards from AC/DC, the Ramones and, of course, Motörhead.
Humans Invent was granted a rare interview with Markus Kolb at Kernschrott Robots to get the low down on the project.
How did Kernschrott begin?
It started in the late 90’s, I was living in a squat in Berlin and had no money and started to collect things like discarded typewriters and unused mechanical goods, anything that I could get my hands on, really. I began to pull these things apart to create metal sculptures from them.
And how did you progress into actual Robotics?
A few years later we started going to a few workshops and began to think about turning the sculptures into robots. I think that the very first robot we built was called ‘Cosmonaut’; it could be manually or automatically operated, and had a helmet that lifted up. Of course, you learn by doing and the more we built the more we learnt about the process.
How did you source your materials in the early days?
Berlin in the 90’s used to be a really fantastic place to salvage scrap metal. We used to have a load of places to get great materials – building yards and so on. But now it’s a little harder, sometimes I buy stuff on eBay, we also have a couple of regular businesses we deal with.
How do your robots begin to take on a distinct personality?
The process is driven by the parts we find and the parts we use; sometimes you’ll find a part that will just be a head part, other times you find a part that will be perfect for the body, so the idea depends on the part really. I do absolutely zero drawings for the robots; it all flows from having the correct bits and pieces. In terms of personality, I always like to do human shapes and then everything comes after that.
We’ve done a number of installations and exhibitions where the audience can interact with the robots. For example, there have been mats on the floor that effect the way the robot interacts with the audience: the audience will physically trigger the reaction via sensors – it depends on the amount of people in the room and the machines.
And how did the idea for Compressorhead take shape?
You have to understand that with Compressorhead, we treat them like a real band. To be honest, we don’t like to do interviews where we talk too much about what we do, from a technical standpoint, because we want the audience to view them like a real band. Although with Compressorhead, of course people are interested in what they are doing before they start to play.
And what has the reaction been like so far?
The reaction has been absolutely incredible; we played at the Big Day Out in Australia and the whole audience was singing along to TNT by AC/DC because pretty much everybody in Australia knows the words to that song, you know? We put the lyrics up on screen and it was one big karaoke sing along.
Which robot was made first?
‘Fingers’ was first – he came before Compressorhead formed. But the idea was always to build a band, and this has been a partnership between Kernschrott with Gibson Guitars and Robocross. It took about a year to build and put the whole thing together. The main thing was to programme the actual songs, to get them played via MIDI controllers.
And how does it work on the road?
Each band member has a roadie, we set it all up and off they go. We search for classic songs, AC/DC, Ramones, although we do want to start writing original songs as well, but that might be for the future.
What do you have coming up for the rest of the year?
The most pressing thing this year is to find a singer, a robot singer. We may also have some guest human singers at some point this year.
How about backstage? Do they attract any attention from groupies?
Oh yes! Of course they have groupies. And we also specify a fridge backstage; they have a proper rider. They’re not so keen on beer though – we always ask for a supply of ice cold WD40.