When Robots Go Bad! swaps consistency for the kind of teenage thrill born from lawnmower joyrides and beer theft from the neighbor's garage. Hexstatic members Robin Brunson and Stuart Warren Hill venture miles outside of stagnant dancefloor cuts on When Robots (Ninja Tune, 2007), serving up ambient, glitchy hip-hop and bat-shit hard electro workouts.
Hexstatic is widely recognized for collaborations that showcase its love for cutting-edge technology to create visual and audio art. A well-publicized and awarded achievement of the duo's in audio-visual trickery involved a pairing with Coldcut and Greenpeace in the late 1990s for the striking “Timber” piece, an outing that featured Hexstatic's (then called Hex) meticulous syncing of deforestation footage and Coldcut's dizzying arrangement of breakbeats and atmospherics. As far as their inner tech heads go this time around, nearly 10 years after “Timber,” Brunson and Hill are again operating headstrong in the experimentation department on When Robots Go Bad! On “Newton's Cradle,” they pitched up and down the clacks that could only come from an actual Newton's Cradle, and when they weren't adding nonmusical items to the fold — just as they had sourced toys for previous works — the gents leaned on older equipment. In fact, the early blueprints of When Robots were scripted on vintage synths.
“Things usually started on a keyboard,” Brunson says, “sometimes starting with beats, sometimes a melody, or sometimes a vocal line. It was different from the last albums, which were sample-led. It was a conscious decision to be making our own songs from scratch, as it were.”
Although Brunson confirms that he is more of a “computer man,” he and Hill sifted through vintage synthesizers, including a Moog Source, some Roland JPs, a Novation BassStation and an E-mu Emulator between 2004's Master-View (Ninja Tune) and working on When Robots. In the case of the album's unpredictable and jarring beats, Hexstatic went the software route.
“We mainly used beat machines within software,” Brunson explains. “I use the drum machine in Reason a lot, as you can set up a kick, a snare, a hi-hat, etc., and then it's easy to just flick through samples for each in order to try out different combinations. I like Simpler in Ableton. You can get some mad tweaks in that. I've also got an old Roland drum pad, which is great for playing stuff in.”
The blanket of sonics that smothers “TLC” marks the only track on When Robots in which Brunson and Hill turned to looped beats in propelling the work's slinky treated vocal, which was recorded through a Røde NT1 mic through an ART tube preamp and a Korg MicroKorg vocoder before being subjected to phase, panning and distortion.
“The Soundmasters really helped with the master of ‘TLC’,” says Brunson of the London mastering plant, which contributed “the best mastering” Hexstatic has ever had. The schizophrenic undercurrents of “TLC” required perhaps more innovation and time prior to the magic worked at The Soundmasters, though. After a minute of the track's sustained swirls and synth washes, one of several fast-moving, cracking beats kicks in, only to preface jittery tempo shifts and the introduction of another breakbeat or two.
“‘TLC’ took so much tweaking that it drove me mad,” says Brunson, who explains that he usually gets trapped in perfecting certain elements, preventing him from finishing a piece. “It sounds real simple now, but the mix was a nightmare! It's got the ‘Amen’ break [the famous '60s drum-solo sample] in there; I just always wanted to see if I could use it but in a different way. It's slowed down, cut up and stretched pretty heavily, while the others are cut-up loops. The fuzziness is just a really heavy bass line through a lot of bit-crushing, and then distortion before it is smoothed out with delay.”
Brunson labored like a machine shop worker on “TLC,” and here's hoping his toiling doesn't go unnoticed. “It's actually a love song dedicated to my wife,” he confesses.