BUNNIES, GARDENING, AND GRINDCORE: CAPTURED! BY ROBOTS’ JAY VANCE

Jay Vance (better known as Jbot) is one of the most interesting people I’ve met. Growing up as a punk rock kid, Jbot played in notable bands like Skankin Pickle and The Blue Meanies but became tired of human bandmates and their bullshit. So, he built his own band from scrap metal. However, the robots turned against him, and he’s been enslaved by them ever since. Jbot’s band, Captured! By Robots, have evolved their sound and aesthetic the past two decades, but Jbot ‘s DIY mindset and passion for creating have been a constant.

Jbot welds and programs robots, builds and modifies mopeds, writes and screams angry songs, physically punishes himself by single-handedly running six-week tours, and has a sarcastically cynical attitude towards humanity. Jbot’s a fan of heavy and dark music projects such as Primitive Man, Sleep, and Burning Witch.

But that’s just one Jbot .

Captured! By Robots live at Thee Parkside in San Francisco. Photo by Raymond Ahner.

The other Jbot is a nurturing and mellow person who is a bit of a homebody when not on the road. This Jbot takes care of a number of bunnies he rescued from a local shelter and modified his home to allow them the run of several rooms without being in cages. Jbot built gardens and paths in his front and back yards for local animals to relax and play in, and he practices TNR (Trap, Neuter, Release) on stray and feral cats abandoned by their former owners, giving injured ones care, and feeds multiple strays every day.

While finishing his new album, “BROKEN AS FUCK“, and preparing for his current tour (see the dates at the bottom of this page), Jbot was kind enough to show me his home and workshop in the East Bay area of San Francisco, where we discussed “bondage Charleton Heston”, hating being funny, and the importance of bunnies.

  • Jbot’s collection of mopeds
  • Jbot with GTRBOT666
  • Jbot in his home studio
  • Tools of the robot-building trade
  • Tools of the robot-building trade
  • Jbot in his home studio
  • Jbot demonstrating a bike with a body built from a metal cylinder and helmet
  • Jbot in his home studio

“Rough around the edges” is what I’m all about; I’m annoying, I can’t deal with people, I got problems. But it’s cool, that’s who I am.”

– Jbot

Geoffrey Smith: “Your robots often talk during performances, criticizing humans. Is writing that dialogue ever an outlet for what you feel towards humanity?”

JV: “I mean, honestly, I hadn’t really thought about it that much. But ya know, my disdain for people is the robots’ disdain for people. And it’s been reinforced over the past couple years. Every year that goes by, I’m seeing everything getting more and more fucked. And when I look at just how people are, every day… I’m with them [the robots].”

JV: “I don’t see a future for this humanity. There’s no way. I never wanted to be the guy who would be like, “the end is near!” Maybe it’s not; maybe I’m fucked. I think about this a lot, and this is the shit I talk about in my songs; like, “what the fuck is happening in this world right now?” It’s insanity. And the worst thing is, it was [also] really bad back when I was young, but maybe I wasn’t “woke” or whatever. I just never really thought about other people. Because I was always too self-centered. I’m still super self-centered; that’s one of the reasons I can do this stuff. Because it’s all for me.”

GS: “The whole DIY approach, and using these found materials to construct your robots… do you think the project would have evolved differently if you were someone like Author & Punisher, and had the resources, and equipment to do something that was fancier, sleeker, or whatever?”

JV: “I think a lot of it [the style] shows how you came upon it. If you went to school and practiced all this [engineering] stuff, you’re going to be professional about it. You’re going to have no problem, you’re going to do it on CNC [machines], make it all beautiful, extremely accurate, and so on. I never came from that, so of course, I have a natural way of building things, which is the way I started. With a flux-core welder, a grinder, and… I don’t know. “Rough around the edges” is what I’m all about. I’m annoying, I can’t deal with people, I’ve got problems. Ya know, it’s cool. Like, that’s who I am.

JV: “I’m not fancy. Engineer dudes like Author and Punisher — I love that guy – he’s awesome. But he’s an engineer guy, ya know. He makes shit that looks really professional; not me; I take a piece of garbage, and I attach it to another piece of garbage, and then it works. That’s as far as I want to go; I mean, fine-tuning it, I can’t be clean with my stuff. I’m just a junk guy, I’m not a clean guy — I mean, you saw the mess at my house — my builds are messy. If it’s easy to do and it will still work the same, I’m just like fuck it. I’m not going to spend any more time on this stuff than I have to.

GS: “Your old onstage persona, and the robots you had, and the appearance of it all, is significantly different than the appearance now. You had a mask, and fake guts coming out of your stomach. So, I’m just wondering when that whole transition happened with scaling down the robot bandmates, and the different aesthetic.”

JV: It started in like 2013 or 2014; I started getting really unhappy. The schtick got really fuckin’ old, and ya know, the mask got old — I just got tired of the whole thing. And at the time we [the band] were doing great. People were coming out to see us. But deep inside I knew I was a fucking fraud. Because I was just… Sure, I made robots that work. But what was I really saying? What was I really doing? I was just doing covers [of songs] for a while. And man, fuck that. It’s great for financial reasons, but if you’re a musician that’s striving to get some kind of recognition, or strive to become an artist, ya know, that’s the wrong path. For me, I couldn’t handle it. I went nuts and kept trying to change the band and do something I’d like more. 

JV: “And then I tried wearing street clothes and just being me. And that didn’t work. Oh my god, that was horrible, HOLY SHIT. I did that one tour, and wow. It was like… no “zazz” at all. I found out that I can’t perform in street clothes, man. There’s no way. It just feels like you’re phoning it in. For me, I feel like I’m not giving a show. And it’s weird, because a lot of people I know, that are in much more extreme bands, and who I respect greatly, they don’t do anything fancy with themselves [performing]. And there’s nothing more in the world that I would want to do than to do that, but I just don’t feel right when I do. I feel like there’s a showman in me.”

JV: “That sounds really lame. I don’t want to be an entertainer, but I am an entertainer. The problem is that I’m funny, and that sucks, and when you’re funny you can’t stop being funny. I’m always thinking about what’s funny, I’m always cracking a joke, and I don’t know when it started. It’s like this horrible thing, where I could be serious, but… being funny comes out in what I do, and I feel like I’m a joke because of that. Like, when I played Fun Fun Fun Fest, I was on the comedy stage. And I was like…. “Fuck. Really?” But it’s a blessing and a curse because I love laughter, ya know.”

GS: “And so, the whole post-apocalyptic, almost “Mad Max”, slave, drab clothing you now have when you perform…”

JV: “The first really strong image I had in my mind for the new look… was bondage. And I don’t mean fuckin’ bondage. And I think of two things — both involved Charleton Heston. One was Planet of the Apes, and the other was Ten Commandments. I’ve always liked him — not politically or whatever — his acting when I saw him as a kid. It was fucking great. In both those movies he’s a slave at one point, and there was a certain aesthetic to that, a kind of brown rag you’re wearing with cuffs and chains. So when I was redoing all this stuff, it just seemed like, “Would a slave to robots be dirty? Yes. Would they be chained up? Yes.”

GS: “And the robots themselves, how did their new appearance form? Or was that just like naturally based on the parts you used?”

JV: “I never wanted to admit this. One of the things that got me back into playing with robots [around the time Jbot was quitting CBR] is I have a mean competitive streak in me. A band came out, and it went viral. Millions of hits. Compressorhead — they play Motorhead songs, and they got super popular. That was very strange, because, I saw this robot band playing and I was like… “They’re pretty cool.” I was digging it for a while.”

JV: “But then I looked at my old robots, and they were so campy and ridiculous, and I was like, “I can make robots that kick ass!” They could be angrier and shit. And so I did [their current design]. They [Compressorhead] were an inspiration.”

If you’ve never met a rabbit, I mean really met a rabbit, you’re missing something in your life. 

– Jbot
  • Two of Jbot’s rescue bunnies
  • Jbot’s bunny Chip
  • Two of Jbot’s rescue bunnies
  • Jbot in his backyard
  • Jbot’s “medical needs bunny”, Chip
  • Jbot in his backyard

GS: “So, you talked about the band, engineering aspects… But you as a person. You got a bunch of bunnies. Tell me how that started.”

JV: “Here’s the thing — if you’ve never met a rabbit. I mean, really met a rabbit, then you’re missing something in your life.” 

JV: “Basically, my girlfriend had a rabbit, and I got to meet it when we moved in. And at first, I was like, “What the hell is going on with this rabbit?” I didn’t know anything about it. But then you get on the ground with the rabbit. And you see how he reacts to you. And how he tries to communicate with you — there’s communication going on, it’s just non-verbal. And you get on the floor, you play with him, you give him some treats. I had this boy Toby and he had learned ten tricks by the time he couldn’t do tricks anymore. They’re just as smart as dogs.”

JV: “We don’t even use cages. We use baby gates to keep them from where we don’t want them to be. But they’re respected as pets of the house. I don’t think a caged animal is respected — but that’s just my thing. It’s a joy to have them in my life. It’s another challenge to keep them alive because rabbits are notoriously easy to die; they can die at any time for any reason, and I’ve had my share, but I’ve learned a lot along the way. It’s another challenge for me, but one with a really cute creature that needs help. Because these [bunnies in his home] are all rescued animals. A rabbit we have right now is a medical needs rabbit, fostered from House Rabbit Society.”

GS: “It seems like a good portion of your interests outside of music and engineering type stuff involve nature in some way. You’re working on a pretty big garden, in front, and in back…”

JV: “The garden’s so cool because I have kitties. I used to have a LOT of feral cats. I was up to seven or eight feral cats at one point. People dumped them and stuff like that. So, I practiced that TNR, Trap Neuter Release, and I also had my cats I brought with me that were strays, born in my backyard in SF. Other families just left and left their cats behind, and nobody got them spayed, so I got them all spayed. And when I was building the garden, I was thinking that it would be so great to have a little “kitty playland” that has little paths and plants and places where they could rest in the shade on a hot day. And in the summertime, they love it.”

JV: “It’s fun because I live my life mostly sitting on the floor. And when you’re down low, it’s crazy the way things look compared to when you’re standing up. When you get low, you can see all these things that you’d never seen before. So, in my garden, I get low, and I think of it like a kitty or a possum or a raccoon coming through, and built the paths.”

GS: “Have you always been an animal person? When you were growing up, did you take care of animals?”

JV: “I had some, dogs and cats, ya know. I don’t like seeing animals suffer, or any animals without a home. Any feral cats that come to my house — I mean, within reason — they have a home for life. If they want to hang out and they can get along with everybody, I’ll feed them to the day they die. I’ll catch ‘em if they have a problem medically — because, if they’re hurting, why wouldn’t you help them out? It’s such a small amount of money to help a critter that’s in dire straits. I mean, I had this cat Ashy that came into the yard. She looked like a kitten, dude, but she was old. She was so skinny. At one time her side got torn open by a raccoon or something like that, so I caught her and treated her, and it was great, man. She became one of my friends, got along with the boys I had in my backyard. She went from being a skinny, disgusting little animal to being a chubby little kitty who would bitch at the window for food. Just… [imitates the cat sound] “Mehhhh!””

JV: “To look outside and have a constant TV show of animals living out there. And it’s only the cost of food, to watch all those antics. I don’t see how anybody wouldn’t do that if they had the opportunity.”

Writer’s note: for the sake of privacy I didn’t include photos of the front garden.

GS: “So, you have robot bandmates. Animals are a pretty big part of your life, and a lot of your attention goes into those. It’s interesting to have at home this sort of… I don’t want to say isolated, but… you go out on the road, you’re in the middle of crowds, entertaining them. It’s such a weird contrast. Do you feel like you need to recover from a tour? Does having animals help?”

JV: “Oh my god…. Do I need to recover? What the fuck – of course! I’ve been touring for more than 20 years [with Captured! By Robots]. Probably 30 at this point with the other bands I’ve been in. And there’s one rule of thumb: it’s going to take me generally just as long as the tour to fully recover from the tour. And be normal again.

JV: “It’s a relationship. It’s a relationship with myself, the control of having to be “on” all the time, but also to have to channel away bad thoughts, to maintain my shit, which is sometimes very difficult to do. To keep my body healthy, which has been challenging.

GS: What’s something you’re excited about on this new tour? You’re going to be playing material you just recorded.

JV: “I’m doing the vocals tomorrow, so, godspeed to me. I’m much happier with my voice now; on the last album [“Endless Circle of Bullshit”], it was the first time I ever recorded more “extreme” screaming vocals, and it wasn’t… a great technique. And I sing a lot differently — or scream, whatever. But what I do now, it feels like my body’s a pump, and I’m just pumping out the vocals. It feels good. Learning to sing was very tough for me, man. I had never tried. I “sang” gruff, but I always lost my voice. That was another one — for like twenty years I’ve been working on this shit, I’m almost there. I’m a slow starter.”

GS: “So, you’re really stoked about this new vocal style?”

JV: “I’m excited for sounding on the record as I sound in real life. Because everybody’s going to sound their own way, and I don’t have any allusions to sounding like anybody [else]. I can’t help it, man, [the band] Killdozer is coming through all the time with me. It’s a drag. I mean, I love Killdozer, but I don’t want to emulate them all the time — I’m from the Midwest and from around the same era, and I also listened to them like a billion times.”

The band is robots, I’m not oppressing anybody, except for myself.

– Jbot

JV: “Captured! By Robots is always going to be, and always going to get, more extreme. What I really want is, at some point, to be [a band] where people are like, “Holy shit! Did you hear that new Captured! By Robots record? Like, what the fuck!” To where they don’t even think about the robots themselves, but just what comes out of them. It’s just a pipe dream, and it’s probably never going to happen, but I want it to be something which, [in terms of] compositional quality, it’s epic. And it’s not because of the robots, it’s because of what I’m writing. Because I don’t really give a shit about robots. They’re just a means to an end.

JV: “I mean, I love that I figured out how to make them happen. I love that it’s kind of become my medium… it satisfies a real need in me. I need a band. And I wasn’t ready to deal with any people who’d fuck that shit up, which they will, all the time. There’s always so many attitudes [in bands] with people acting like assholes, not treating each other kindly — and I was guilty of it too. The band is robots, I’m not oppressing anybody, except for myself.”

GS: “And the lyrics themselves?”

JV: “The lyrics that I have, I’m really proud of a lot of them. But I don’t know if I’m going crazy deep with them. I mean, one of the songs is called ‘I REALLY WANNA KICK YOUR ASS’. That sums up what I’m thinking. It’s not what I’m going to DO — I’m not a violent guy, but you can have violent thoughts and not be violent. But then I have another song called ‘FUCK IT ALL’, and it’s kind of been the way I’ve been feeling the last year or so, where it’s like I never really have any more goals. I’m happy with my life. I’m just doing shit ‘till I die. But yet, I’m trying to keep evolving [in what I do]. But there’s nothing more that I want in this world.”

GS: “That’s a very uncommon state for people to reach. So, for Jbot, what elements have to be present and kind of come together for you to reach that point of contentment; still evolving, still improving, but being more or less happy?”

JV: “Well, when you do what you love… I mean, you like doing what you do. You like taking pictures, framing shit, and making it beautiful. And you have a lot of experiences; years and years. Well… mine was always music.”

JV: “And, the other thing I have a passion for is really, really, REALLY heavy music. Past where most people like heavy music. Stuff that people would walk by my garage and go, “What the hell is that?” I got turned on to a lot of heavy shit from [local college radio DJ] Cy Thoth. He was a DJ at KFJC for years. And he’d be like [talking in a gravelly voice], “It’s THORssssdayyyyy, and this is CYYY THOOOTH on KAY EFF JAY CEEEEE”. He’d play Burning Witch, and Sleep, and so many other heavy bands. He opened my eyes to so much heavy stuff.”

JV: “That’s where I want to be. That’s what I love. And so now, [on the new album] I’m finally doing that [style]. And I’m not great at it yet, but I’m doing it.”

GS: “Happy, but you perform really heavy music. Is it ever a struggle to pull up that emotion, that kind of intensity if you’re having a really good day, but you have to record a track or be onstage? Is that ever a challenge?”

JV: “No way. After being on the road for six weeks? Maybe. But I’m happy in my life. The reason why I’m happy in my life is because I gave up. I gave up on everybody and everything in this world. And that might sound weird like that’s the only reason why, because I expect nothing from my fellow man anymore, and if I get it, that’s great. But I expect nothing, and I’m expecting the worst out of people, and I’m expecting to be disappointed.

So I’ve decided that I’m going to stop being disappointed. So I’m going to say “fuck it all”, and live my life, and when the apocalypse comes, if I’m lucky enough to survive, I’ll be one of the guys who build tools for people. But most likely I’ll be vaporized, or starve, or get the plague, like everyone else. I can’t be emotionally invested in this world because it’s just fucked. The human race is in general.” 

JV: “That’s me, man, right there. That’s what I’m talking about on this new record.”

GS: “Any last words for the readers?”

JV: “So, we have a record coming out, and I hope you give it a chance. And I’m very proud of what the robots have done on it. And it’s not perfect, but they sound close to being perfect. I mean, when I listen to it, it sounds like a pretty tight [human] band. That’s what I would say if I didn’t know it’s robots. I could criticize it all day about little things that I hear in it, but want to get better, but next year… […] I’m just going to keep pushing it every year, and before you know it, it’s going to be just as good or better [than a human band].”

GS: Also, catch him on tour if you get a chance!

Note: due to heavy background noise where the interview was recorded, portions of dialogue were inaudible and had to be omitted from this article.

Captured! By Robots ‘BROKEN AS FUCK’ 2019 Fall USA/Canada Tour Dates:

09/16 – Salt Lake City, UT – Metro
09/18 – Denver, CO – Three Kings
09/20 – Kansas City, MO – The Brick
09/21 – Dubuque, IA – Busted Lift
09/22 – Madison, WI – Crucible
09/24 – Milwaukee, WI – Cactus Club
09/25 – Chicago, IL – Emporium (Wicker)
09/26 – Urbana, IL – PYGMALION FEST
09/27 – Lansing, MI – Mac’s
09/28 – Detroit, MI – Sanctuary
09/29 – Cleveland, OH – Now That’s Class
10/01 – Rochester, NY – Bug Jar*
10/02 – Toronto, ON – Garrison*
10/03 – Ottawa, ON – House of TARG*
10/04 – Montreal, QC – Le Ritz* (early show)
10/05 – Portland, ME – Geno’s*
10/06 – Boston, MA – Middle East*
10/08 – Providence, RI – Dusk
10/09 – Brooklyn, NY – Saint Vitus*
10/10 – Baltimore, MD – Metro
10/11 – Lancaster, PA – Chameleon
10/12 – Richmond, VA – Richmond Music Hall
10/15 – Charlotte, NC – Milestone
10/16 – Savannah, GA – Jinx
10/17 – Orlando, FL – Will’s Pub
10/18 – Miami, FL – Churchill’s
10/19 – Tampa, FL – Crowbar
10/20 – Atlanta, GA – 529
10/21 – Johnson City, TN – Hideaway
10/23 – Memphis, TN – Bside
10/24 – New Orleans, LA – One Eyed Jack’s
10/25 – Lafayette, LA – Freetown Boom Boom Room
10/26 – Houston, TX – White Oak
10/27 – Austin, TX – Lost Well
10/29 – Taos, NM – Mothership Brewery
10/30 – Albuquerque, NM – Sister
10/31 – Tempe, AZ – Yucca Tap
11/01 – San Diego, CA – Brick By Brick
11/02 – Los Angeles, CA – 5 Star Bar
11/15 – Nevada City, CA – Coopers
11/16 – Reno, NV – Jub Jubs
11/24 – Oakland, CA – Metro w/Nile and Terrorizer
* = w/Dysrhythmia + Behold… the Arctopus

 

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Geoffrey Smith

Geoffrey Smith

San Francisco Bay Area-based photojournalist and event photographer.

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