Electric and eclectic: The music of Joel RobertsWritten by Jeff McGinnis | | firstname.lastname@example.org
Many may not know the theremin by name, but they have certainly heard the music it can make. A long wooden box with two antennae attached to it, the theremin is “played” by waving your hands near it. The musician never actually touches the instrument. The eerie, other-worldly sound it produces has provided the soundtrack to many Hollywood sci-fi epics of the past. It’s unusual, it’s interesting, and it fits perfectly into Joel Roberts’ repertoire of instruments.
You never know what to expect when you’re listening to Roberts’ music. Indeed, with any of his myriad projects — whether playing in a group (as he has with Stylex, Jedi Knightrider, the Tropical Dudes and more) or with own solo music project, GoLab — the main impression a listener gets is delightful uncertainty. His trademark is his uncanny ability to create beautiful sounds from the most unlikely of places and instruments.
“About 10 years ago, I found out about a cartridge called Nanoloop that you could use to turn the Nintendo Gameboy into a musical instrument,” Roberts said. “I made some recordings with that, including some sounds that ended up on the first Stylex album. Then, I found out about another new (at the time) cartridge called Little Sound DJ, which allowed more advanced composition. I would use that to make music during downtime at my job and after I had about 10 instrumentals I added vocals to them and they were used as all the even-numbered tracks on my first GoLab album ‘Simplicity Banquet.’”
Yes, that’s right. Roberts made a whole album on which every other track was composed on the most rudimentary of handheld gaming systems. The result is an odd, almost haunting sound, the music simultaneously feeling familiar and alien. Though his tool was constrictive, Roberts said he gained a deep respect for the musicians who composed for video games on such primitive tools.
“I did play a lot of Atari and Nintendo as a kid, but to be honest never realized how good the music was in those games, particularly considering the limitations of the sound chip. Revisiting those videogame soundtracks, I appreciate them all the more now that I understand what the composers were working with.”
Or there’s the “PetZounds” project, which can be found on Roberts’ website, GoLabGo.com. One song at a time, Roberts is creating covers of the Beach Boys’ immortal 1966 album “Pet Sounds.” The only tools he’s using for the job are a Yamaha portable sound synthesizer and a microphone. The resulting tracks are unmistakably Beach Boys, but unmistakably Roberts, as well.
“As I was teaching myself to make electronic music, I always focused on hardware sequencers rather than computers and it was sometimes hard to figure out how to use them. Since I loved The Beach Boys and ‘Pet Sounds’ in particular, I thought it would be fun to do some quick cover versions of each song as a way to learn how to use my equipment better. I ended up putting a whole lot more effort into each song than I originally planned and it’s turned into an on again, off again six-plus-year labor of love,” Roberts said.
“Labor of love” is a great way to describe the majority of his work — he has a strong desire to carve his own musical path, a drive perhaps inspired by his parents, who were both musicians. Their influence led the young Roberts to start taking piano and guitar early on. He was just 15 when he started playing gigs in Bowling Green bars, and it wasn’t long after that the young artist found his true muse.
“When I was 16, I had the honor of opening up for a Dayton, Ohio, band called Brainiac that opened my eyes to synthesizers and forever changed my musical interests,” Roberts said.
From there, Roberts’ work has seen an increasingly eclectic selection of instruments and samples, both when he worked solo or in a group. His most enduring (and endearing) group experience came with Stylex, a new-wave band that first came together in 1999. Formed as a two-piece with Roberts and Dustin Hostetler simply playing keyboards over a drum track, Stylex would later add Brian Kantorski and Jeff Loose to become the group that most fans remember.
“Brian and I wrote the music, and then Dustin would add vocals/lyrics and Jeff would usually add drums last,” Roberts said. “The sound was very much made up of each member’s individual interests and influences which ranged from Six Finger Satellite to Burt Bacharach to The Kinks.”
Stylex would play hundreds of shows during their eight-year run — often at Howard’s Club H in downtown Bowling Green — and release five albums. Roberts spoke of his time with Stylex with great fondness, calling his band mates “some of the most talented people I’ve ever met,” and pointing out how he still works with all of them creatively in some capacity, despite the group’s disbanding in 2007.
“We basically needed to move on to try new things and wanted to go out on a high note. I’m very proud of our last album and I’m glad that we have that as our final item in the discography.”
Recently, Roberts’s main group has been the Tropical Dudes, formed with fellow musician Jason Clever, who Roberts described as “one of my favorite people in the world.” The two first worked together in the 90s with a band named Cletro, and kept in contact even after Clever moved away from the area after graduating from Bowling Green State University.
“Once I figured out how to use digital multitracking software, and most importantly FTP Internet file sharing, I initiated an online music project with Jason,” Roberts said. “We would send each other tracks of a song back and forth on a near daily basis and each add new tracks until a song was completed.”
The Dudes released their first album, “Tropical Monsters,” in 2008, but had never actually played together in public until an appearance at the Black Swamp Arts Festival in September. That gig went over so well that Roberts and Clever are performing together one more time on Oct. 23, at the Ottawa Tavern in Toledo.
“Jason Clever is an amazing composer, so it’s great to add to his ideas and have him add to mine,” Roberts said. “The online aspect of the band allows for the private creation that I sometimes work best in, and after I send him my tracks I never know how the song will have changed for the better when I get it back.”
Fans hoping to experience the Dudes’ music in person will definitely want to make a point of making it to the Tavern, as Roberts describes the upcoming performance as their “Last show ever. For now.”
But though Oct. 23 may be the Dudes’ last stand, for Roberts, creating unusual — and unforgettable — music will always be one of the driving forces of his world.
“When I’m not at work, there is not much to my life that doesn’t involve music. I’ve kind of wrapped my life around it. I find that other than spending time with my family, nothing brings me more joy in life than creating music.”
Win a 4-CD set of Joel Roberts’ music
Pretend Records and Toledo Free Press Star are giving away ten 4-CD sets of Joel Roberts’ music. The set includes: Stylex’s “Tight Scrapes”; Tropical Dude’s “Tropical Monsters”; and GoLab’s “Simplicity Banquet” and new disc,“Strangle Holds.” To enter to win, send an e-mail with the subject line “Joel Roberts” to email@example.com by Oct. 25.