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Wednesday, July 23, 2008

None of Them Knew They Were Robots

The mysterious sounds of Wooden Robot

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   Local band Wooden Robot couldn’t be more mysterious. First, there’s their undeniably spooky sound: Think haunted Old World carnival or, better yet, a vodka-drenched dance party with your dead Polish-babushka grandmother.

  Then there are the places they usually play: dimly lit bars, crowded houses of friends and dark corners in cramped basements. The band’s performance at Turner Hall Ballroom on July 26, opening for Secret Chiefs 3 with The Demix, will mark a rare appearance in the spotlight.

  Finally there are the band members themselves, who are enigmatic to say the least—and a bit old-fashioned as well. The name Wooden Robot just about says it all: Though the band members are spring chickens by most standards, they’re a bit cagey about newfangled things. At least one member of Wooden Robot doesn’t own a cell phone and eschews e-mail communication. The others drift in and out of Riverwest like ghosts, vanishing into thin air.

  When they reappear, the faces and names have changed a bit: a new stage name here, a new band member there. For now, Gabe the guitarist, Eilis the accordion player, Faythe the musical saw lady, Luther the upright bass player, Joe the drummer and Bob the bodhrn guy—plus their rotating cast of sidekicks—prefer to remain on a first-name-only basis with the public. If you get to know them, though, you’ll learn that Faythe is Faythe Levine, the Paper Boat Boutique owner and filmmaker behind the much-talked-about indie craft documentary Handmade Nation, Eilis (Eilis O’Herlihy) co-owns the Tool Shed sex-toy shop, and Luther (Luther Paul) is brewmeister general at Lakefront Brewery.It’s just their phantom selves that populate the band.

  Being so otherworldly is both a blessing and a curse. In terms of organizing band practices, it’s a bit of the latter, says Bodhrn Bob. “Everyone’s super-busy, which makes it hard to even think about a tour, let alone practice,” he says.

  However, practice sessions usually come together in round-robin fashion, he says, and the band has even managed to record a new album, which is due out any day now, with Call Me Lightning’s Shane Hochstetler at Howl Street Recordings in Bay View.

  “It’s a full-length album that we’re releasing ourselves, and we might shop it around in the future,” Bob says.

  And, true to form, the story behind the album is a bit eerie as well.

  As it turns out, Gabe, the band’s guitarist, wrote a pen-and-ink letter to “Big” Jim Martin, one of the guitarists behind alt-metal legend Faith No More and the cult-classic Faith No More side project Mr. Bungle, one of the only bands to date to mix death metal with kazoos.

  “We’re just so sick of e-mail,” says Bob, “and lucky for us, it worked: He wrote us a physical letter back.”

  The correspondence became a driving force behind the new album, which led to the birth of a new sound for the band, plus a gig opening for Mr. Bungle offshoot Secret Chiefs 3.

  “The new album is definitely different from our other albums in terms of sound,” Bob says. “The sound has gotten a bit more epic, we don’t have a dulcimer player anymore, and we recorded this one way more professionally, which meant way more time and effort than in the past.”

  The time and effort paid off, though, Bob says: “We recorded the whole album live but added overdubs with awesome extra instruments, like a bunch of bells and a ba%u011Flama,” which is an ethereal-sounding stringed instrument popular in the Near East and parts of the Mediterranean.

  “We also did some crazy things we don’t usually do, like clapping,” he says. “We’re like a totally new Wooden Robot thanks to this record—and Mr. Bungle.”

  For more music coverage, visit ExpressMilwaukee.com.