Outside the Boxes: a look into the many musical faces of Daniel Robison
Daniel Scott Robison has what some people might consider “musical schizophrenia.” It has been less than ten years since Robison began his public career as a musician, and in that brief period of time, he’s gone through more changes than most musicians go through in a lifetime.
Robison started his career by writing humorous songs to make his friends laugh while he was only an eighth grader at Hazelwood Junior High in New Albany, Indiana. At that point, he liked the idea of having a band, and although he was the sole songwriter and the only person performing on the recordings that he made in his basement, he credited two friends as having played bass and drums, and called the comical “death metal” band Bloodee (sic) Apocalypse. As Bloodee Apocalypse, Robison made about twenty copies of a cassette with four or five songs on it. The cassette, which was known as The Red Tape, because each cassette was wrapped in red duct tape, became a favorite among his group of friends and received extensive play at parties and other friendly gatherings.
Although Robison was enjoying his local success, it didn’t take long for him to decide that he could enjoy much more artistic freedom and write a much wider variety of music if he changed his band’s name and moved away from the whole “death metal” joke. Bloodee Apocalypse quickly became Plastic For President and soon Robison dropped all pretenses of the “band” being anything other than a solo project and creative outlet for his sometimes quite demented sense of humor. Plastic For President had four official releases (PFP EP, PVPVII, Delightful Chili Supper Moments With Shopping Cart Cuties and Asian Truck Driver Lovers, and The Sweethearts’ Collection Vol. I), and at least two unofficial releases (The Great Outdoors and Raritease or Bewarities) in his catalog in a period of about four years. Each album contained a mixture of weird recorded clips from phone conversations with friends and funny songs with titles like “Pancake Playa,” “The Knee Dance,” and “Sucks to be You Homeless Guy.”
Robison had never intended Plastic For President to be anything more than an inside joke among his friends. He made about forty copies of the PFP EP and they were distributed during passing periods at New Albany High School to friends and friends of friends over a period of a few months. With each subsequent release, however, Robison began receiving more and more requests for albums. His listening audience soon consisted of more people who didn’t know Robison personally than people who did. Each album sold better than the one before it, with The Sweethearts’ Collection selling more copies in its first week of release than the previous album had sold to date. Ultimately, The Sweethearts’ Collection ended up selling over three hundred copies, which is astoundingly well for an inside joke among a small group of friends in a medium sized school in a small town. Especially considering that Plastic For President was only publicized by word of mouth. Eventually the New Albany High School newspaper, The Blotter, did a story on Plastic For President and afterwards, took to reviewing each new Robison release.
Robison’s progress with each subsequent Plastic For President album was odd because his popularity increased and his musical talent grew with each new album he released, but at the same time, with each album he grew more and more restless. Musically, Robison began to experiment more and more, bringing in a constant barrage of new and different elements into each album. Paradoxically, each new album sounded more and more forced with regards to the lyrical content. It was still funny, and listeners still laughed along with each song, but where the earlier songs had a spontaneous feel, the new ones often came off sounding contrived. And this was not without reason. Much of the early Plastic For President material was recorded in one take with Robison not deciding on the song’s subject and lyrics until after he pushed the record button on his four-track recorder. The later songs would go through countless revisions before finding their way onto an album.
Each Plastic For President album would be received by rabid, eager fans, desperate to know what “that Plastic For President guy” was up to. Unfortunately, each Plastic For President album suffered the same fate that most humor-based or novelty-type music deals with. Within a few months of the albums release, fans would already be asking for new material. The jokes had no staying power, and as soon as they got old, people needed more to stay interested. This was torture for Robison, who loved it when people thought his music was funny, but hated the fact that he was being forced to be funny at the expense of his art. Robison found it more and more frustrating that he was being rushed in his creative endeavors. In the last year or so of Plastic For President’s existence, it became increasingly clear that Robison was growing bored with being a “funny band,” and between Plastic For President’s third and fourth albums, Robison started a new project called The Brisk and recorded a demo album with a limited pressing.
The demo album, humbly entitled The Performance of a Lifetime: (Live from Analog Tape) 04/08/67 clocked in at just around 19 minutes but contained 15 songs. The date in the title was decades before Robison’s own birth and suggested that the music on the album had existed for decades or centuries before Robison was able to capture it and reveal it to the public. Performance was a big step away from the work of Plastic For President, but not necessarily in an immediately describable way. Performance still contained Robison’s quirky use of drum machines, random changes of beats and tempos, and driving, pounding keyboard work. But any listener following Robison’s instructions in the liner notes—“Just give me 19 minutes. All in one sitting, and totally attentive.”—would immediately hear the difference. Basically, it was what Plastic For President should have developed into if it had been given the chance. It was a way for Robison to make music in his own terms, without the pressure of being Plastic For President. Though the lyrics are still cryptic at best, one gets the impression that with Plastic For President, Robison was writing weird lyrics for the sake of being weird, but with The Brisk, Robison’s lyrics are weird in the way that some of the best poetry is weird, or cryptic in the way that much of Bob Dylan’s lyrics were cryptic. The most obvious change is that it feels as though for the first time, Robison is writing songs for himself, rather than the entertainment of his friends and fans, for better or for worse. And thankfully, it’s better. Much better.
The Brisk quickly became Robison’s passion and everyone knew that Plastic For President’s disappearance was inevitable, but Robison promised the fans of his work as Plastic For President one last album before hanging up his Plastic For President hat for good. Originally, the final album was to be called Plastic For President is Dead. Robison even wrote a song with the same title, which described his death and dismemberment by a Rogues Gallery of wild animals. Ultimately, Robison chose to make the end much less definite. He changed the album title to The Sweethearts’ Collection Vol. I, which suggested that at some point there might be a volume two, and he omitted the song “Plastic For President is Dead” from the final track listing.
During the last half of his time as Plastic For President, Robison was also playing lead guitar for another local band, Visions of Cody. Whereas Plastic For President and The Brisk relied heavily on multiple layers of sounds and electronic equipment including drum machines, synthesizers, and various instrumental and vocal effects, Visions of Cody was a simple four-piece garage rock outfit along the lines of The Velvet Underground. Robison didn’t write much for the band, but definitely made use of his time with the band to hone his skills on the guitar, and he enjoyed the musical change of pace. Also during this time, Robison worked briefly with several other local acts including the electronica duo Spy Versus Spy and the Magic Eight Ball, the indie rock band Lenny and Okay, a friend’s solo project.
Visions of Cody ended up breaking up at around the same time that Robison was closing up shop on Plastic For President, and Robison briefly attempted to develop The Brisk into and actual band, but ultimately opted to stay with his solo approach, finding that he could work in a band only when it wasn’t his band. When it came to Robison’s own compositions, he couldn’t stand to rely on others to do it the way he intended. Robison chose the “if you want it done right, do it yourself” approach.
With The Brisk, Robison has given himself only two rules: “number one, write each song for yourself and only yourself and number two, ceaselessly experiment and look in new musical directions.” Robison has recorded two albums in the past few years as The Brisk, Tennis and Index. Tennis expands on Robison’s ideas on Performance, moving The Brisk from a half-cocked idea to a full-blown musical force.
Ever enigmatic, Robison sets up a curious connection between Plastic For President’s Sweethearts’ Collection and The Brisk’s Tennis. On Sweethearts’, Robison includes a song, “Cheetah Cheese,” which is a keyboard and drum machine instrumental that sounds like it may have been an outtake from The Brisk’s Performance demo. Then, The Brisk’s Tennis contains “Thought I Grew Up?” which is, for lack of a more delicate description, a song about farts. It seems as if Robison is pointing out to his listeners that the problem with Plastic For President was that every song had to fit into the category of “Plastic For President song” that his listeners had created. Robison was not encouraged to venture too far from the well-beaten path of midget jokes and rap parody that he had created for himself. With this strange connection, Robison seems to be saying that all of the music by Plastic For President and The Brisk are Daniel Robison compositions, and because he is both Plastic For President and The Brisk, any song released by one of those bands will be partially “created by” the other band, too. You can’t have one without the other.
With The Brisk’s most recent album, Robison finally seems to bring everything together. Index finally marries the Daniel Robison of Plastic For President with the Daniel Robison of The Brisk into the one person that it has always been. The songs are new and interesting. Robison experiments both musically and vocally. And lyrically, the album is funny, but in a dark and disturbing sort of way that Plastic For President never could have done. The difference is that the songs are funny not because Robison is trying to be funny, but because he is funny.
The development of Robison as a songwriter and a musician over the past decade brings up a lot of questions about the effects of audience response on songwriters. Many people in the world of popular music would probably say that audience opinion should one of the most important determining factors in a songwriter’s development. Audience satisfaction is a highly valued commodity and the only way to achieve audience satisfaction is to follow what the audience says, some would advise.
Robison’s development goes against this ideal entirely. When Robison focused on what his audience thought, his music suffered. During his career as a musician, Robison has repeatedly chewed his way out of one box only to find himself in another box. A slightly larger box, sure, but a box nonetheless. Bloodee Apocalypse’s death metal niche was much to restricting for Robison, so he expanded to the slightly more comfortable realm of Plastic For President, which worked for a while. Eventually, however, Plastic For President started to feel a little cramped and Robison found himself moving on to, literally, bigger and better things. Eventually, it’s possible that The Brisk will start to hold Robison back, though it seems impossible that Robison could need more musical freedom. Plus, he has plenty to keep him busy. Right now, Robison is working on writing and recording a new album as The Brisk. Robison says he’s been writing songs on the Grand Piano at the Evansville University music building and plans to lay off the electronics on this next album. Also, he’s been toying with some new ideas for a band called The Noun, which play what he calls “ugly music.” The exact direction of Robison’s musical career in the future may be unclear, but that very lack of clarity is what makes the journey more exciting for Robison, and he hopes, for his listeners too.