ROBOT LOVE, NOT WAR

Battery-operated battery: Eclectic electronic music from Pony Trap and Robot Baby

Battery-operated battery: Eclectic electronic music from Pony Trap and Robot Baby

Austin Photo Set: News_Justin_robot baby_april 2012_3
Robot Baby, the drummer with the battery, bangs with articulated beaters on the snare and tom-tom pieces of a typical acoustic trap kit and does so with, well, mechanical precision. Courtesy of Pony Trap
Austin Photo Set: News_Justin_robot baby_april 2012_3
Austin Photo Set: News_Justin_robot baby_april 2012_2
Austin Photo Set: News_Justin_robot baby_april 2012_1

Through the alley off Brushy Street between 5th and 6th Streets you can find the entrance to a cozy chamber called the North Door, where, about halfway through the show this past Saturday, Pony Trap took a short break to change the battery on their drummer.

The battery was a rechargeable automotive power supply, a hard plastic box of lead and acid marked 'Duralast' and designed to produce 500 amps at 12 volts of power. The drummer, naturally, was a robot.

"We're trying to rig up an engine that runs on alcohol," the band said during the swap of the power source, "like a regular drummer."

Robot Baby, the drummer with the battery, bangs with articulated beaters on the snare and tom-tom pieces of a typical acoustic trap kit and does so with, well, mechanical precision. Quentin Oliver, violist and vocalist of Pony Trap, built the bot on his front porch in a little more than a year's time.

Oliver isn't an engineer, he'll be the first to tell you. He's a classical musician by trade, inspired by a play about Paganini to take up the viola in his 20s. He's held tenured seats in several orchestras over the years, including the Fort Collins Symphony in Colorado and the celebrated Wyoming Symphony in Casper.

Throughout his musical life, Quentin Oliver had a vision of viola melodies accompanied by the driving rhythms of industrial music. The trouble, as it can be for musicians with vision, was finding the right people.

 "We're trying to rig up an engine that runs on alcohol," the band said during the swap of the power source, "like a regular drummer."

One moment last year, Oliver says, it just hit him. Why try and find the right people when you can build them?

Many trials, errors, and consultations with smart friends were necessary for Oliver to find the right path to a functioning robot drummer. He found inspiration in an (alleged) exchange between Thomas Edison and a reporter, who asked him how it felt to fail 2,000 times before successfully engineering the electric light.

"I didn't fail even once," Edison says. "It just happened to be a two thousand step process."

For Oliver, some of those steps included scouring the hardware sections of thrift stores, looking for electric drills and other cast-off tools from which he could harvest working actuators and brush motors. After nearly 2,000 steps and multiple boxes full of half-built prototype machines, Robot Baby was ready to say "Hello, world."

What better rhythm for a newborn robot, honestly? Check out Robot Baby's evolution from pencil-tapping robo-infant to full performance machine on the little fella's Facebook page.

Oliver's string-section partner in Pony Trap is Hilary Thomas, a cellist, vocalist and native Texan who arrived in Austin from Fort Worth in 1995. She hit the stage scene as a slam poet and has performed on and off in town ever since.

"It's cool when you're sitting here," Thomas said from the stage on Saturday, "playing next to a robot drummer for whom you have a dedicated fire extinguisher, and you start to smell something odd."

If you know any robot percussionists looking for work, try and give them the motivation to get themselves out there.

"We haven't set anything on fire, yet," Thomas went on. "But you never know. We try to be prepared."

Musically, Thomas holds down the bottom end with long, powerful cello drones while Oliver alternates between swashbuckling sequences through the higher register and stomping pedal effects into sustained pitches. The human pair team up or take turns on vocal lines that haunt or perk and fit each rhythmic mood.

The stage show is a pretty one: the cellist seated between the intelligent machine and its maker, the trio moving, playing and singing in a whole that exceeds the sum of its parts. Pony Trap treats audiences to chamber music for the age of electricity, at once intimate and thundering, rigid and fluid, classical and industrial. Thomas switched to glockenspiel near the end of the set and the prolonged ringing of the little bells made new counterpoint to Robot Baby's syncopations.

The night's closer — a cover, and an appropriate one — was captured on video by numerous members of the audience. Oliver gave his phone number through the microphone and expects to soon release the collected recordings, through Facebook or otherwise.

Pony Trap doesn’t have another show scheduled just yet, but keep an eye out. Also, if you know any robot percussionists looking for work, try and give them the motivation to get themselves out there. Almost all music towns are short on drummers, and robots keep pretty good time.