Insects vs. Robots: The Band that Invents Music

The paper provides insight into the creative existence of the band Insects vs. Robots, a modern phenomenon in the LA music culture that has created an authentic “free” music subculture of its own. The band stands out on the music background primarily because of the original use of multiple music instruments – both traditional and rare – to create what they call the “psychedelic freak-folk-rock space-punk” music. The essay overviews the music background of the members, in particular, Micah Nelson whose father happens to be Willie Nelson, a known folk singer. An extract from Willie’s autobiographic book contains the evidence that can explain, at least partially, his son’s inclination to and passion for music. In addition, there is a timeline of the band’s history from the year of its formation till present, with much attention paid to circumstances that led them to LA and each other, as well as the critical factors that shaped the band and its style. In addition, the paper attempts at thoroughly listening and analyzing one of the brightest music compositions created by Insects vs. Robots, namely “Eucatastrophe”, a ten-minute epic that incorporates the elements of a pop-folk-country song, tribal chiming, psychedelic acid hard rock and melodic mourning, all accompanied by a modern pop beat. The song is the best testimony of band’s unique style that synthesizes various music genres, such as folk, pop, rock, and country into one complex, multifaceted fabric of diverse sound.

The Band that Invents Music

Insects vs. Robots (IVR) is a music phenomenon. According to the band’s official website, they apply various “sonic confibulations to weave landscapes of otherworldly, folksy, and volcanic rock music”. Indeed, the range of the instruments they use cannot but astound. Violin, guitar, drums, bass are the instruments that may be labeled as typical of any modern band or artist, whereas charango, harp, banjo, saran wrap, kazoo, harmonium, megaphone and sitar are quite original pieces that not any musician can operate. Insects vs. Robots do, and they do it with passion and taste. The distribution of music roles among the band members is as follows. Tony Peluso is responsible for drums, screams, engineering and production. Milo Gonzalez plays guitar, acoustic guitar and sitar, as well as contributes in vocals and engineering. Jeff Smith plays bass guitar and groves. Maggie Lally is for vocals, hoots, hollers, whoops and screams. J. Micah Nelson’s specialization is percussion, vocals, drums, as well as noises, whispers and sounds. Finally, Nikita Sorokin plays violin and guitar, contributes vocals, whispers and screams, as well as provides album cover art.

It is difficult to describe the band and its music in simple and common terms. The band describes themselves as “a psychotropicturesque quasi-nomadic music tribe roaming the jungles of Los Angeles”. Such a description is both an emphasis on the Insects vs. Robots’ being the modern street musicians and live music performers, as well as an attempt at identifying the genre of their performance. In fact, IVR is more about inventing and synthesizing the music genres than fitting into the already existing ones. A viable explanation is the multitude of music forms and styles encapsulated within Los Angeles where the band resides and performs. However, it can also be explained by the variety of cultural backgrounds and family histories of the band members. Micah Nelson is a perfect example.

It is unclear if inclination to music (or music talent per se) is something genetic or hereditary, but very often music persists as an inter- and trans-generational tradition that runs in families from grandparents to grandchildren. Micah Nelson from Insects vs. Robots happens to be the son of the famous Willie Nelson, a legendary performer of folk music. The book My Life: It’s a Long Story by Willie Nelson contains much insightful information on the issue. In fact, the first chapter of the book starts with the words:

“Music in the blood. Music in the house and music in the fields. […] Music in the heart of my father, a fine fiddler, and my mother, a beautiful singer, who gave birth first to my sister, Bobby, a wonderful child of music before two years later giving birth to me. […] Myrle [mother] was a Greenhaw, a big family that included a big number of moonshiners and musicians. […] Ira’s [father’s] people grew up among the Irish and English who carried with them the tradition of Old Country storytelling, folk singing and fiddling. […] I was born in the middle of what I look back on as a musical miracle.”

The aforecited extract makes it clear: music has prevailed in the Nelson family and embraced nearly all, if not all, of the family members, through generations. Willie’s parents divorced, and the boy was often taken care of by the grandparents who happened to be music teachers. Thus, Micah’s great-grandparents were involved in music, as well. It was only natural for him to continue the tradition of love to music that persisted in his kindred through hundreds of years.

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Micah spent his childhood touring with his father, Willie, and brother, Lukas. He even contributed to Lukas’ band, POTR. Evidently, the time and place in which Micah was born and is now living have left an imprint on the type of music he performs. He hardly copies the music of his father. Instead, he is in the constant search for his own sound – he is a singer, songwriter, guitar and charango player, and a visual artist which means he explores and often combines different forms of expression through sound, color and words. Nevertheless, one trait dominates Micah’s current creative existence. One of the main genres to which the music of Insects vs. Robots relates is folk music (or “folksy”, according to the band’s official website). Micah’s roots clearly illustrate the reason and the prior connection.

The history of the band formation and evolution is lively and interesting. It resembles a creative process of songwriting or music performance. The band assembled its members gradually, but one may say that the city of Los Angeles played the major role in the process.  Micah Nelson came to Los Angeles to attend college. He had left another band and left behind a four-year relationship. Full of losses and alone in the new city, he decided to take a walk along the beach. During that fateful walk, he met Milo Gonzalez and Tony Peluso. At that point, Milo and Tony already performed as Insects vs. Robots. The band had existed since 2007 and had been initiated by Peluso. Similarly to Micah’s story, Peluso moved to Los Angeles from Connecticut in 2006 to attend college. In search for the place to perform, he found the dilapidated warehouse that they would later call “The Cozy Castle”. Amateur-decorated with carpets, canvases and Christmas lights, the place became the band’s safe haven and stage for many years. The doubtfully ideal conditions from the standpoint of acoustics and conveniences did not scare the members, neither old nor new (bassist Jeff Smith would join soon as a substitute for the original bass player who left for college). Micah recalls that period and remembers how they spent time together, listened to records, practiced their own music, received noise complaints and faced the police that reacted to those complaints. Micah says, despite the odds, they were bonding and did what felt natural.

In January 2009, Insects vs. Robots gave their first show at The Smell, an underground warehouse situated in downtown LA. The audience, mostly composed of teenagers, received the band with much enthusiasm and screams. Micah says it was the moment when they all realized that they were doing the right thing and needed to continue. Soon afterwards, another fateful meeting took place. This time, one of Milo’s walks led him to a Venice café where he met Nikita Sorokin, the Russian-born violinist who worked there playing music and making sketches. Milo simply sat next to Nikita while the latter was drawing. That evening, they played music together. A week later, Sorokin invited the band Insects vs. Robots to play at Muckfest, an all-day-long music festival that he organized together with Jules Muck, the local graffiti artist after whom the festival was named. Insects vs. Robots asked Nikita to join them on the scene. Sorokin played a violin. At that period, the band’s music style could be described as “a fever dream of acoustic and electric guitars, sundry vocalizations, bass, violin, percussion and far-out effects” (Louie, 2014). Nikita’s sound blended into the music congruously making it more dynamic and ethereal.

In July 2009, Insects vs. Robots released the debut album called Geryl and the Great Homunculous. Their band became a “psychedelic freak-folk-rock space-punk gnome-orchestra”, as someone from the band members called it. Insects vs. Robots made their first tour around the West Coast. Jeff Smith recalls playing at various locations, many of which were odd, but for the band, it was only an additional attraction. From then on, the band performed at a variety of Venice Beach festivals, an art gallery in Echo Park, a post-apocalyptic commune Slab City, the Echo Curio, as well as an old Santa Monica church (aka The Sanctuary) that curated multi-band shows. That summer, Insects vs. Robots formed a loyal and ever growing ‘feeling the music’ crowd of fans around their original oeuvre. In Los Angeles, free music like that was a true phenomenon. Thus, Insects vs. Robots created their own subculture.

In 2011, the second album – Tales from the Blue House – followed. It was recorded in the Cozy Castle. However, soon afterwards, the members started to pursue individual careers and projects. Nevertheless, the creative stasis did not last long, and in 2012, the band merged back together to play in a few shows in 2013, only without Maggie Lally. Once again, the Cozy Castle gathered a crowd of old fans along with many new people. The show had tremendous success. The reaction and support of fans made Insects vs. Robots rethink their future. They decided to see where their music could lead them and resumed the song writing process. As a result, one of the band’s masterpieces, a ten-minute epic “Eucatastrophe” was born. “Eucatastrophe” resembles a multi-layered music story that has an introduction, the culmination (part two called “Laser Cloud”) and a conclusion. The song evolves through these three parts. “No Beginning” sounds like a pop-folk-country song with the elements of Irish country music, something like a tribal chiming, and an underlying modern pop beat. “Laser Cloud” is a short psychedelic acid hard rock passage. “Crumble and Sigh” provides the feeling of the post-apocalyptic wind blowing the dust over the ruins of civilization. It is overall melodic, mourning-like and wavelike, with pauses, except for the dynamic and riotous Carmen-like passage in the end.

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Apart from starting a unique, authentic music subculture on the premises of Los Angeles, Insects vs. Robots contributed to social activities and community work. In 2013, they launched a crowd-funding campaign on PledgeMusic.com. To attract pledges and make people interested, the band members used all their talents and capabilities. In purely musical terms, the band offered download bundles and limited-edition vinyl pre-orders (with original cover art by Nikita Sorokin), house shows and even band membership that included hula hoop lessons. In addition, they submitted original drawings with their signatures, handmade books, screen prints and custom in-home murals. To top it all, they awarded the most generous partaker with a privilege of being the hero on an animated short of their own making. As a result, Insects vs. Robots managed to raise 104% of their initial goal of which 10% they donated to Sound Art, a non-profit organization based in LA that provides free music education to children.

In conclusion, Insects vs. Robots is an authentic band that synthesizes various music genres and styles, such as folk, pop, rock, and country into one complex, multifaceted fabric of diverse sound. At times, it appears as if they invent music instead of playing it. The band has created and popularized a separate subculture of the “free” music in Los Angeles and beyond.