For Waking Robots, Being Different Is the Only Way to Fit In
Angi Chapman says she wrote “Frost” while suffering an incredible fever, days later discovering the recording and hearing it as if for the first time.
She remembers thinking that it sounded “hokey,” with its almost western saloon rhythm, but when she reluctantly presented the sparse demo to a trusted friend, their reaction was so positive that she had no choice but to finish the track. It has since become a fan favorite.
This story is typical for of one of the Quad Cities’ most unique bands, Waking Robots. Its lead singer and songwriters staunch refusal to give in to self doubt or ever put her elegant march through her own inner psyche to rest has yielded beautiful results: music heard partially in a dream, partially in an inescapable reality, disarmingly shy but resoundingly cathartic.
Classic groups like Black Sabbath and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young; ‘80s pop masters like Duran Duran and The Cure; and alternative powerhouses from the ‘90s such as Alice In Chains, the Beastie Boys, Nine Inch Nails, and Blues Traveller; all served as a common language while the trio evolved musically through a string of projects. First The Geckos, then Profusion, then Super Fix, after all of which Angi found herself marrying drummer John Chapman, temporarily putting their musical journey on hold to have two sons.
Four years ago, guitarist Chad Ramsey called Angi and John asking if they’d be interested in playing again. John took Chad up on the offer, and they began gigging regularly as PermaSmile, enjoying success at all the main QC venues and the occasional out of town festival.
This return of creative energy to their lives rekindled Angi’s interest in songwriting. For the next two years she wrote simply for herself, until in 2014 friendly peer pressure and some inspiring sets from local artists put her back in front of an audience at a house show, nerves jangling in a familiar way, voice quaivering slightly as it remembered how to rise angelic above the new chords under her fingers. The response was unanimously positive.
More than a year later, Waking Robots is making a strong impression. After one performance, a sonically smitten new fan asked Angi where the bassist was, perhaps believing that they were performing to a backing track. Angi smiled and raised her left hand: this is the bass, she explained. It’s also the throbbing pulse of a synthesizer, or the galloping lower octave of a piano.
This fills out the sound tremendously, each song benefitting from the flexibility of texture available from the keyboard, adding flavor to otherwise out of reach to more conventional instrumentation. The band maximizes this advantage to sound different, making it difficult to directly pin any one of their influences.
Certainly The Doors seem an obvious reference, with their 6/8 time signatures and keyboard-focused sound, however Angi doesn’t croon like Morrison, she keens like Morissette. Chad plays his guitar like a conversation with the vocals, adding punctuation and emphasis until his turn to unleash a fluid, melodically rich solo. John’s drumming walks a razor edge between progressive rock and jazz, tom-heavy tribal cadences contrasting with flourished fills underscoring themes as much as they transition song sections.
Angi’s composition process starts at the keyboard, finding chords which fit the mood she’s looking for, melody following shortly thereafter. This is songwriting in the tradition of every artist you love: they sit down and do the work, no magic bullet, no chemical guiding hand. It’s just the musician, their instrument, and their heart. Some of the songs are born all at once, some are pieces the whole band must hammer into shape.
Lyrically, Angi admits to being inspired by real world events of all kinds, as likely to write a line because of a close friend as she is a global event. For some time she was writing songs directly inspired by a person she calls “her muse,” taking from their life and expanding it to song. Only the most attentive ear might connect the sources with the final product, but the connections remain, all the same.
About the entire process she says “I’m much happier when I can write.” It allows her to exorcise demons by taking small peeks into the darkness while holding hands with listeners as they draw their own conclusions. Through this process, Angi plays the role of aural alchemist to everyone’s benefit.
In their studio (decorated entirely with locally produced artwork), the wife and husband team record their parts to twin Tascam 16-track digital machines, one dedicated to the numerous drum microphones and the other to keys and vocals. This system, which grew in response to constantly having to unplug and replug the various inputs, allows them the freedom to work on individual ideas while bouncing tracks back and forth with Chad.
Ramsey is responsible for mixing and mastering duties, every finalized track crafted with Angi’s microscopic attention to detail taken into account along the way via long email chains ironing out details and minutia. This dedication to every moment is part of the reason Waking Robot’s music lends itself so well to the visual medium, and why the live shows seem to hypnotize.
Their setlists are constructed in a classic way, big opening and closing songs, a chance to catch your breath in the middle, but the individual songs take on new life with expanded middle sections for solos or winding, almost psychedelic arrangement changes.
This mini-rollercoaster keeps fans from getting too used to a track, hooks new fans, and forces Angi, John, and Chad to perpetually re-evaluate the songs as individual entities, almost like a child growing up, ever changing. They admit to intentionally playing songs before they’re “ready,” much to the delight of their longtime followers, stepping out on a limb to test the music before it’s even committed to arrangement.
Some of the most convincing evidence of the remarkable talent and appeal of Waking Robots is the number of projects they’re involved in outside of performing live. Since just last fall, the sound of this group has caught the ears of numerous artists, quickly filling the band’s calendar.
Initially, filmmaker Josh Davidson of Joshin’ Around Studios requested to use the songs Tricky Sun and Human for his upcoming third feature An Evening With Fiends, but this quickly grew into an opportunity to score the entire film. The sardonically titled “Already Dead” is the result of a direct request from Davidson: write an upbeat and happy sounding tune that hides all its menace in the lyrics. A keys-only taste of the impressive results can be heard in the trailer for the film, tying together the strangeness of the eerie comedy.
Quickly following, Matt Moody, artistic director for theater company the Prenzie Players, and an actor in Davidson’s film, also asked to use their music in the summer production of The Revenger’s Tragedy. Again the song Human is appearing, and with it Frost. Due to the band’s welcome unwillingness to say “No” to working with other passionate artists, and Angi’s prolific output, they then found themselves effectively scoring it from start to finish, providing 4 more songs inspired by the play and multiple instrumentals to fill out it’s running time.
Finally Joshua Kahn, one of the writers and directors of the locally produced web series Against the Odds and long time actor with Joshin’ Around Studios, contacted the group not only seeking permission to use their newer song Blink as the opening theme for the series, but also for assistance from Chad Ramsey with audio engineering and episode mixing, which so far has been paying dividends in the quality of the output and benefits to both artistic entities. Of course the song Human was also requested, as well as more original compositions as the series is released.
What about a debut album? Soon, they say, when they’ve fulfilled their obligations to their other projects. It’s a mountain of composing and recording that the band seems to delight in devouring their free time with.