Midtown humanoid Junobot brings Reagan-age synth pop into the Bush II era
Nathan Crow is an oddity in the Sacramento music scene. In a town that usually favors electric guitars and turntables as weapons of choice, he goes for the barely domesticated electricity of analog synthesizers, with a synchronized light show to boot. Hence, Crow horrifies a few venue owners. “People are afraid of me playing my keyboards through their PA systems,” he lamented at a table in Sacramento’s Fox & Goose. “They think I’ll blow them up.”
Ironically, Crow’s music pulls you up a chair and buys you a drink without shouting into your ear. As Junobot, he conjures up the asymmetrically groomed ghosts of Depeche Mode, Human League and Erasure—reviving the “feel-good” personality of 1980s synth pop, while adding a 2000s edge. Witness his ritual at the Townhouse this Friday.
Suzuki and Molly Ringwald sowed the seeds of Junobot. At age 6, Crow learned piano with the Suzuki “Learn by Ear” series, through which the General Motors of student instruments sent him several tapes that he imitated on the ivories. But along came his next muse: the Pretty in Pink soundtrack on his brother’s stereo. Crow became engrossed with Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark and New Order’s synth-pop contributions that sang to Ringwald. Those songs’ keyboard-chiseled precision of interlocked melodies, which followed pop music’s call for chord changes and rhythms that never feel redundant, all minted the now-25-year-old’s current aesthetic. “It’s really easy to just throw [sound] loops together,” he remarked about the current time, when many electronic musicians eschew keyboards in favor of computer sound files. “But that’s not a song to me.”
Crow gathered a motley collection of vintage ’80s analog synthesizers and drum machines, naming himself after the Juno keyboard. “I just like the truth and rawness of analog synthesizers. … Today’s [digital] keyboards sound bland and mass-produced,” the purist explained. Crow titled his upcoming debut album The Nature of Technology, inspired by how his analogs appear to have minds of their own. “They sometimes don’t work like how you want them to,” he marveled.
Garnishing the music is his vocoder, a vocal toy that makes anyone sound like a bona-fide robot, as demonstrated by Afrika Bambaataa on “Planet Rock,” or Peter Frampton’s “Show Me the Way.” Crow’s vocals switch between a vocoder-ized gurgle and a bedroom-eyed croon, and they usually address “past and current relationships.” In his single, “Baby” (found on the compilation CD Hear You Soon: Part One), the vocoder disguises him as a teary-eyed android that begs for its ex-lover’s forgiveness, while bouncy melodies assure it that everything will be OK.
Such balladry dwells in The Nature of Technology (set for an August release on local label Blue Bell), where instant hooks, rubber-banded synth melodies and mid-tempo beats set one bare foot in the early Reagan years and the other in the less-naive ’00s. Nothing is tainted by the pretension of “electroclash,” an early-’00s synth-pop/house hybrid that ironically emphasizes the decade of greed’s sleaze for hipsters who are too young to remember it. “None of that appeals to me,” Crow remarked.
In the studio, Crow records everything on a computer, where he draws together bits from a catalog of more than 50 recordings into coherent songs. Onstage, he replays his songs live on two keyboards, a drum machine and a setup of lights and dry-iced fog that trigger on cue. “I’m a one-man band, so I try to make my show really interesting to watch,” Crow explained. “Some people just stand and stare at the lights.” His seven years of performances include a rave and a set with fellow keyboardist and local favorite Dusty Brown.
Overall, the Junobot sound is sheer comfort music, much like Crow’s choice of cover art for the demo version of Nature he gave me. It appeared to be snipped from a waiting-room rag at a doctor’s office. The front image is a cozy, pastel drawing of a farmhouse, and the back features a list for “What to Do if You’re Concerned About Your Loved One’s Driving.”