Nothing about Semiautomatic is easy to pin down. Take something as basic as who, exactly, is in the Fort Greene-based band. Every photograph of and interview with the genre-busting experimental group seems to indicate that it is a collaboration between former PeeChees bassist Rop Vasquez (a/k/a Ropstyle) and visual artist Akiko Carver, and, indeed, they are the only two people who show up to chat with me in a Hell’s Kitchen park. Yet both the liner notes to Semiautomatic’s weird, wonderful third album, Resident Genius, released this past spring on Kill Rock Stars sister label 5RC, as well as the 5RC Web site, add the name “Orbit” to the lineup. So who is this mysterious character, and how does he/she/it contribute to Semiautomatic’s jarring, complex amalgamation of new-wave synths, hip-hop breaks, garage-rock guitars, and unidentifiable, otherworldly noises?
Vasquez and Carver laugh. “Orbit is our dog,” explains Vasquez. “He’s a shepherd-Labrador mutt. We got him at a shelter in Harlem—he looked like he was gonna get killed soon, so we took him home. We tell people that he programs our beats.”
Orbit, then, has much in common with Semiautomatic’s sound: He’s a cool, lovable mix, he’s space-age, and he’s a product of the New York City streets. (Carver and Vasquez began making music together when they relocated from the Bay Area in 1998.) And, like the “noisetruments” Vasquez constructs by modifying the circuitry of discarded instruments and electronic toys, Orbit is a beneficiary of Semiautomatic’s skill at turning someone else’s castoffs into their own gold. “Rop’s really good at finding trash off of the sidewalk,” says Carver, and he must be, judging by the wacky artifacts on view at his Web site, www.geocities.com/manmatesmachine/. (Check out “The Landscapist”: “The guts of a sound-effects backpack for a toy soldier. Modified by adding capacitors. Housed inside [a] Gameboy Advance candy box toy.”) The duo combines these fantastic creations’ screeches, beeps, groans, and whistles with “normal” guitars, bass, keyboards, and drum machines to make their righteous 21st-century racket. With so much going on, how do they pull it off live? Surely the dog must push a button or two. “It’s all about quick hands,” says Vasquez. “Orbit just hangs out.”
Semiautomatic’s music is exceptionally difficult to categorize, but, well, we media types have a job to do. So, as a group that happens to live in Brooklyn and that happens to play synthesizers, what do they think of electroclash? “I try not to,” replies Carver, as Vasquez sneers, “electroCASH.” OK, maybe not. The pair ends up offering their own analysis. “At this point, I just feel like we’re a punk band,” says Carver. Punk? With drum machines and a deconstructed Speak & Read? “Punk is just how you are, how you think, how you do it,” says Vasquez. “If I do it with a guitar, it’s as punk as if I did it with a synthesizer.” Carver adds, “You could do it with a spoon and a bench.” “Yeah,” chuckles Vasquez. “I can do it with a dog and make it sound punk!” Back home at the mixing board, Orbit barks in agreement.