Unearthing the music of Xerobot, Madison’s no-wave misfits

An extensive new reissue documents the mid-1990s career of a genuinely odd and memorable band.

An extensive new reissue documents the mid-1990s career of a genuinely odd and memorable band.

Madison band Xerobot, which created a prolific burst of unhinged but precise No Wave music during the mid-1990s, got the reissue treatment this March from Atlanta label Chunklet Industries. Featuring 37 tracks recorded between 1995 and 1997, the new self-titled retrospective highlights unreleased, live material as well as the entirety of Xerobot’s 1996 album Control Panel—initially released on Madison label Coat-Tail Records—and tracks from split releases with Tokyo’s Melt-Banana and Chicago’s Duotron

Twenty-five years after the fact, listeners seeking No Wave from the mid-’90s or early aughts might immediately think of San Francisco’s Erase Errata and projects in that vein. Or, on the other side of the country, one might dig into the likes of Providence’s Six Finger Satellite and other fast paced, equally messy-and-mathy Load Records affiliates. In the Midwest, Chicago continues to spawn new projects by old No Wave heads from Skin Graft Records. The proximity to Chicago seems as imperative as it does today, though in hindsight, Madison seems to have its own nuanced place in the mix. In the retrospective’s extensive liner notes, members of Xerobot, as well as a number of their friends and fans, give readers a good idea of what Madison was like in the mid-’90s for a No Wave-esque, but truly original project. 

As much as No Wave was circulating around Chicago and throughout the states, singer Greg Peters clarifies in the liner notes that he “was an old Wisconsin boy and had never heard of Six Finger Satellite or any of that stuff,” and adds that in his mind, they were more influenced by Devo. Former Onion writer/editor Joe Garden, a friend and fan of the band, is quoted in the liner notes saying that he viewed Xerobot as “a kind of reaction against the funk of Madison.” 

Apparently the Xerobot members had some mixed opinions on and affiliations with the white funk punk that was running rampant in Madison––such as Clip The Daisies (which included Xerobot member Steve Coombs)––according to Ethan Swan’s compiled reports in the Xerobot liner notes. Listeners might pick up on some of that funkiness in Xerobot’s discography, such as on the track “D-Con”—perhaps it’s a mix of parody and influence. The melodic, groovy basslines and sultry hi-hat work hold down the funkiness, but they don’t stand a chance against the nutty vocals, and the true No Wave guitar spasms. 

Xerobot drummer Steve Coombs, who went on to leave a mark in the equally strange one-man band Trin Tran, makes a point in the liner notes that’s sure to resonate with anyone who’s struggled as a misfit artist in this town: “Madison sucked and ruled simultaneously.” 

Coombs shared with Tone Madison that being in a transient college town and the possibility of over-saturating the local audience made it difficult for Xerobot to find its place. The band ultimately moved to San Francisco—and broke up shortly thereafter—but up until then would regularly play in Chicago, where it had better luck building an actual following, and bring Chicago No Wave bands, such as Mr. Velocity Hopkins, up to play in Madison. There were a few local bands with whom Xerobot identified and played shows, according to Coombs, such as Jackwater and Martini Gunmen. 

Weasel Walter (of Flying Luttenbachers, and more recently, Cellular Chaos) remastered the entirety of Xerobot. Walter writes in the liner notes that there was “not really anything normal about [Xerobot], but they were from the Midwest, which meant they had a serious work ethic, and their music showed that.” Listening back to the retrospective—37 tracks, averaging at about a minute a piece—one hears that work ethic in a number of ways. The essentially patternless, though meticulously structured arrangements display an almost neurotic narrative from song to song. Guitarist Dave Broekema admits that “in retrospect it wasn’t really a lot of fun to play Xerobot songs.” Peters explains that if the band didn’t practice multiple times a week, songs would fall apart. 

“Lil Pudgy”—originally released on the Control Panel full-length—is a perfect example of a song spasmodically structured but tightly executed. Under a  slew of animalistic vocalisms from Peters, it could be easy to take for granted the uncompromising instrumentals that both hold the song together and offer equally brazen oddities. There’s no mistake that beyond the uncompromising energy that screams fervent rawness—familiar to any good punk or noise rock—is hours of work at the practice space.

Control Panel, recorded in Madison in 1996, makes up the first 22 tracks on Xerobot. Broekema recounts how the metalhead who owned the recording space couldn’t deal with Xerobot’s style, so they brought in Eric Brusewitz, the engineer for O’Cayz Corral at the time, who ultimately recorded the album. Listeners might find it an impressive surprise to know Control Panel was recorded completely live—no overdubs at all. Comparing the tracks from Control Panel to the live tracks from San Francisco in 1997 included in the retrospective illustrates that the hard work in songwriting and rehearsal translates completely from the studio to the stage. On the 36-second live track “Captain Cookers,” Xerobot’s awkward drum shuffles, static synth, rumbling bass, and octave-jumping vocals somehow fit right into place.

Xerobot were not just putting on a show. The recordings on this retrospective capture a deep-down weirdness that sits apart from the “crazy frontman” fad among the band’s  No Wave contemporaries, such as Al Johnson of U.S. Maple or Eric Paul of Arab On Radar. In the liner notes, musician Sarah Hennies  recalls seeing Xerobot play at legendary Chicago venue the Fireside Bowl and says that “Greg crossed the line for me from acting crazy to actually crazy.” Regardless of what was really going on in Peters’ head, live Xerobot shows were indeed an eccentric spectacle, as you can see in surviving video from a 1995 set in San Francisco.  

Garden comments in the liner notes on the band’s attire and stage presence, noting “the stark contrast of Greg flailing around without a shirt, and the rest of the band dressed in suits and moving as little as possible.” As charming or quirky as the suits might seem, Coombs recounts the unsurprising fact that after playing shows of that athletic caliber, Xerobot would “soak (their) suits every night.” It is interesting to note the influence of Kraftwek on bassist Eric Landmark—who admired the “anti-hippie” industrial look—that ultimately influenced the album cover for Control Panel. Anyone who knows Kraftwerk immediately pictures four clean-cut gentlemen with matching dress shirts and ties—a close resemblance to Xerobot sans Peters. 

Coombs told me recently that he had not listened to his old project in years, though he performed a “labor of love” by going through everything they ever recorded ahead of this retrospective, and really enjoyed it. He recalls how his “parents didn’t like [Xerobot] because of all the screaming, but even they had to admit that [the band] has some interesting musical ideas.” 

Now, as a parent himself, having formed Solid Freex with two of his sons, Coombs continues to play in Madison despite his mixed feelings on the city and has played with Greg Peters and his band Bob Piggins at Mickey’s Tavern. Peters also stepped in as the singer for Chicago No Wave band My Name Is Rar-Rar. Broekema and Landmark went on to form the San Francisco band Numbers, with future Peaking Lights member Indra Dunis. 

Landmark recalls in the liner notes that “Xerobot was the first band I was in that toured, which was like my life’s goal.” Coombs shares a heartfelt reflection that “the best part [of being in Xerobot] was the relationships with those guys.” Jon Skuldt of Coat-Tail Records adds in the liner notes that Xerobot “always won hearts and minds. Impossible not to love them, unless you’re stupid, and even then, you still have a shot at happiness.”

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