Robbie Sparks of Spaztic Robot
OVER the last few weeks; I have been interviewing artists from Stourbridge…
and gaining an insight into the music scene there. Taking time out of his busy schedule: Robbie Sparks, A.K.A. Spaztic Robot, gives me an insight into his music and the artists that drive him. It is hard to describe Spaztic Robot as a project so best left to its creator to join the dots:
“Spaztic Robot is a mongrel. It’s a mixed breed. It’s the bastard son of a thousand albums, hundreds of novels, and the little devil that hides within the darkest crevice of one’s mind…On an empty sunny day in 1990, when I was nine years old, I saw two dead dogs. Each at opposite ends of the same street. One was big and brown, the other small and grey. Both greeted me with the exact same pitiful manner. Their sunburnt tongues bathing on the gravel gave the illusion of salmon rising from black tar rivers. As the odour began to rise with the dusty heat, I felt like I’d snorted fizzy pop. I chucked up. Through teary eyes I scanned the motionless street in which I stood. Nothing. Nothing but ugly new houses. Ugly new houses with identical square gardens laid out in front of them”.
Hi Robbie. How are you? How has your week been?
I’m very well Sam, thank you for asking.
You hail from Stourbridge. What is the music scene like there? Are there a lot of like-minded bands/acts around?
If I’m honest I don’t believe there is any credible music scene in Stourbridge-certainly not one that I’m aware of anyway. The town has a strong history, and one can occasionally be reminded of it: you might see Jonn Penney, singer of Ned’s Atomic Dustbin, pull up at some traffic lights, or Miles Hunt of The Wonderstuff taking a stroll down Memory Lane (or Stourbridge High Street to be more precise) but anything current? No. The last ‘scene’ that I can recall was probably Lifted, which was heavily Drum ‘n’ Bass-orientated, and definitely had community vibe to it. The energy in the room at any Lifted night was there for all to see. They were certainly lively occasions. That’s not to say that there isn’t an array of talented people in Stourbridge. There most certainly is. In recent months I’ve spent time with Andrew McBurney: a horrifically funny comedy writer and performer, Jodie Whittle: a multi-talented filmmaker and a number of dedicated musicians…too many to mention, and all of them living in and around the Stourbridge area. There are, without doubt, certain cliques in the area, but nothing particularly inviting or intriguing. I keep my distance.
Spaztic Robot is your project. What are the aims/goals of that project?
In one word…sanity. Writing keeps me sane. That accounts for 99% of why I do it. I have wrestled with the idea of turning Spaztic Robot into a live act, but I doubt it will ever progress that far. Film scores or other collaborations seem somewhat more enticing and are areas that I’ve never previously explored seriously. But until the offers come rolling in I’ll just continue writing.
Skip Rope Rhymes has been released and already picking up great reviews. What kind of things inspired the album? What made you decide to venture solo?
The Spaztic Robot project had been a foetus in my head for several years. It was, for a long time, a collection of half-finished ideas: random verses, stories, chord sequences and melody patterns. Then, after a pretty intense 12 months with Rebel City Radio, prior to the release of Hello Hypocrite- Hypocrite Hello, the decision was taken to have a break from writing, rehearsing, touring, and to an extent…each other. In hindsight, we were burned out. I get bored very quickly without a platform to vent from, and Spaztic Robot naturally filled the gap. Inspiration? As much as I’d love to see the good in all things, I just don’t. Quite the opposite. I’m not sure why that is. Richard Yates, a favourite author of mine, once said: “I’m only interested in stories that are about the crushing of the human heart.” Now I wouldn’t say that they’re the “only” stories that interest me, but they’re certainly seductive sluts from hell.
On that note; how does your solo work differ from that of Rebel City Radio? Are you guys releasing any new material soon?
Honestly, I felt a lot freer writing for Spaztic Robot, which I guess is natural considering it’s been a solo venture. To an extent, I felt the need to censor myself when writing lyrics for Rebel City Radio. Not through pressure from band members, I should add…not at all, and by censor; I don’t mean shy away from controversial areas or water down the content, but I more so felt the responsibility to be more selective when choosing the subject matter of songs. I was overly-conscious not to repeat myself too much. I could quite easily write ten songs about SeaWorld’s Orca captivity practises, or the shark-finning trade; so being aware that I was only 25% of the band certainly encouraged a more disciplined approach to writing. It’s funny you should ask about R.C.R. as we’ve recently had a rehearsal of sorts. The first one for more than two years. There has been a few gig offers surfacing of late…one or two of them quite appealing. Watch this space is all I can say at this moment in time, but if we were to hit the road again…I’d certainly like to get back in the studio too. There was, shall we say, unfinished business in that area.
Confetti Crowns is the debut single from the album. I love the video and the song’s mix of Underworld and Aphex Twin elements. What can you tell us about that track?
Confetti Crowns was the last song I wrote for the album. From out of nowhere, I had a desire to write an out and out ‘Pop song’. So I did. Immediately it was clear that it was the most accessible track on an album somewhat shy of instantly accessible tracks, and so it became, in a way, the sacrificial cow. By that, I’m referring to a practice that has been used for generations by inhabitants of the Amazonian jungles where they would need to ensure that piranhas wouldn’t detect them and their cattle splashing in the water whilst crossing rivers. So a chosen cow would be led upstream and forced into the water. As the piranhas gathered for the kill and reduced the hapless animal to its bare bones, the rest of the herd would cross the river before the piranhas were done devouring the scapegoat. I kind of see Confetti Crowns as that scapegoat if I’m honest. It’s not that I don’t like the song…I do. I’m just also aware that it needed to be pushed ‘out there’ in an attempt to allow the other songs to pass through
Looking back at this year so far: any particular highlights that stick out to you?
David Bowie’s Blackstar. The man was the greatest gift ever given to Rock ‘n’ Roll. Even his death was a work of art. I must add that I’m not a bandwagon jumper or a grief thief…my son’s middle name is Ziggy, and Bowie’s passing hit our household pretty hard and continues to do so! I heard a lot of fake tributes around that time and I found them difficult to accept. I must say, though; Michael Stipe’s covers of Ashes to Ashes and The Man Who Sold the World; were heartbreaking in the most beautiful of ways. Other than Blackstar: albums from Daughter, Hinds; JINX (Roughneck Records), Let’s Eat Grandma, and of course Aphex Twin have all been strong, and I’m really looking forward to new releases from Nick Cave, New Model Army and Warpaint later in the year.
Your music has been, by various sources, described as dark and intense. Is music a cathartic experience for you? Do you think it is necessary to put a certain amount of anxiety and intensity into your songs?
Writing, for me, certainly is a cathartic exercise. I have to write. There is no alternative. I carry a pen and notepad with me most of the time. There are cupboards, folders, and drawers all over my house crammed with note pads, scraps of paper, and receipts…all of them decorated with almost legible scrawls of some kind. As a teenager at high school, I never had the confidence to approach a friend and discuss any insecurities that I may have had…who does at that age? But writing, and songwriting in particular, gave me a license to explore those areas of insecurity in a more fictional manner- or one that could at least be perceived as fictional. So from day one, musically speaking, I guess my songs did serve as a hiding place for my apprehensions, rejections, concerns, and weaknesses; and in return offered me a relatively detached platform to voice them from. You could say it’s been an amicable partnership ever since.
A lot of modern bands and artists lack grit, originality, and spark. Do you feel fatigued by the current crop?
I fail to find anything remotely interesting in most of the music I hear if I’m honest. But that’s always been the case. At a guess, I’d say that I like between 1% and 2% of all genres of music. The other 98% to 99% I find to be watered-down imitations. That doesn’t mean there isn’t exciting or enriching music out there…it’s rare that I’ll go a month without discovering a few recent releases that strike a chord with me. Do I feel fatigued by modern music? I’d have to say no. I think the older you get, the more you learn to avoid the stuff that is of no use to you. You recognise the warning signs much earlier.
Any particular bands or albums- either underground or mainstream- you would recommend to the readers?
Spaztic Robot! Just kidding. Or am I? On a serious note I’d probably just encourage fans of ‘Rock’ to listen to Beethoven, or fans of ‘Metal’ to listen to Tracy Chapman; or fans of Drum ‘n’ Bass to listen to Red House Painters, or fans of Hip-Hop to listen to The Smiths; or fans of ‘Folk’ to listen to Roni Size etc. etc. etc. Absorb as much as you can, then interpret and manipulate it appropriately. Sounds pretentious but hey…
Growing up, which musicians were particularly important to you?
Looking back it seems I was always drawn to ‘the songwriter’ more so than individual musicianship. I’ve always enjoyed words. Leonard Cohen, for me, is the greatest lyric writer of all time. I’m still in awe of songs of his that I’ve listened to thousands of times. A primitive and passionate voice with has always been more important to me than a singer with amazing range. That’s not to say the singers that appeal to me can’t sing well…they all can in their own magnetic way. Kurt Cobain is probably the musician that had the biggest impact on me. In some ways, my life began at eleven years old, after first hearing Nirvana. It certainly felt like it had ended on April 8th, 1994. Albums by David Bowie, R.E.M., Nick Cave; The Cure, Tom Waits, Aphex Twin; Morrissey, Radiohead, or The Sex Pistols can usually be found piled up beside the stereo. They’re all artists that have been with me for a long time. Ned’s Atomic Dustbin were also hugely influential at a young age too. I started high school at the same time that their faces were perpetually splattered across MTV. I remember there being a Ned’s poster in our school ‘Celebrating Success’ trophy cabinet, as two members had previously attended the school. It certainly felt as if the sky was the limit, and you could regularly hear terrible renditions of Grey Cell Green and Kill Your Television pouring down the corridors from the music rooms. In the same vein, I was envious of the older kids at school. As a 12-year-old who could barely play two chords on the guitar; watching 16-year-olds perform on stage as a band was a riveting experience. I idolised them for years.
If you had to select five albums to take on a desert island; which would they be and why?
Cockney Rebel – The Psychomodo: I was a 13-year-old kid obsessed with music when I suspected that my dad’s record collection didn’t just consist of Rod Stewart atrocities and that there might just be something in there for me. And boy was I right! Along with Leonard Cohen’s Greatest Hits; Cockney Rebel’s The Psychomodo would become one of the most important records of my teenage years! After a whole evening of systematically assessing my dad’s vinyl, and enduring the bland nothingness of bands like Led Zeppelin, The Eagles, and Thin Lizzy- I was stopped dead in my tracks. What was this weird, evil carnival noise, and this percussion that doesn’t seem to have a beat, and then that fucking voice!?! It was, of course, Steve Harley, and I was sold instantly. I’d never heard anything like it- and still haven’t today. The whole album is a dark and uncomfortable piece of Pop magic, and just about beats The Cure’s Wish into my top 5.
- Levellers – Levelling the Land: Certainly an album of ‘the time’, but stunning none-the-less. Of the same ilk I could have opted for New Model Army’s Vengeance, or The Wonderstuff’s Never Loved Elvis…both favourites of mine, but Levelling the Land just about trumps them. It was my introduction into politics. It voiced an approach towards life that still resonates in me today. I discovered myself a hell of a lot in that album at an age that I really needed to do so, and so for that reason… I’m forever in debt to the Levellers. Either that or they’re to blame!
- Nirvana – Nevermind: What can I say? The album has it all! It changed my life forever. I guess we all have one…and that one’s mine. Life began after hearing Nirvana.
- Carl Orff – Carmina Buranna: This whole piece of music, not just O’Fortuna, is a masterclass in composition. The thorny suspense that it spawns is both heart-stopping and spine-tingling in equal measure…and heavy as fuck!
- Aphex Twin – Druqks: I work better when listening to Electronic music, and I figure there won’t be a Tesco Express on the desert island, for the time being anyway; meaning I’ll have to hand-craft a spear for fishing or create a tool for prizing coconuts open at some point. The album is also a beautifully crafted. Richard D. James is the modern day Ludwig Van Beethoven.
Looking ahead to the next few months: what is like going to be like for Spaztic Robot?
Business as usual I guess. I’ll continue to write and see what unfolds. I was recently invited to lay down a guitar track onto a Drum ‘n’ Bass record by an old school friend. He’s currently enjoying some well-earned recognition on the Drum ‘n’ Bass scene, and the collaboration was an enriching experience. Definitey something I’d be open to do again should the circumstances be right.
Would you offer any advice to young musicians/bands coming through looking to make it big?
I think, no matter what any artists ambitions are, it’s important, to be honest. I understand the commercial importance of accessibility, image, and promotional elevation, but there’s no reason why all of the above can’t be achieved without bullshit or manipulation. It’s ugly, fictitious, and shallow. Just play whatever the fuck you want to play, no matter how shit it is…look at what the Beatles achieved!
For being such a great sport you can select any song- not your own; I’ll pick one of those- and I’ll play it here.
So many to choose from but let’s go for the greatest lyricist of all time, Leonard Cohen – Waiting For The Miracle.
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