Geek Out

R.I.P. Robot Monster Weekend, 2001-2003

In the military, they call it a debriefing. In other circles, it's an exit interview. Three of the people at this table at Sol's in Deep Ellum work as animators, the other is an architect and, until recently, all of them played in the same rock band. So it's probably best just to call it lunch.

Whatever the term, this is the last thing the members of Robot Monster Weekend will do as a band. It's early March, and the group finished mixing its first (and last) full-length over the weekend. In a few days, singer-guitarist Mike Gargiulo will leave for White Plains, New York, and a job with Blue Sky Studios, the animation concern that made last year's Ray Romano vehicle Ice Age. By then, drummer Franko Covington also will be gone. He's in town for only a few days, waiting for a new work permit before heading back to a London architecture firm for at least the next eight months. The band is over.

The only thing left is to get together one last time to talk about Funeral Candy, the album they're leaving behind. And it's worth talking about, 10 songs in just over 21 minutes that are more fun than being the groundskeeper at the Playboy Mansion, even managing to make light of death. "It will be just like my birthday, except I won't be there," Gargiulo sings on "When I Die." "Everyone will come and see me...It doesn't sound so bad/Don't know why my death should make me sad." It's not silly, but it doesn't take itself seriously, playing by the simple rule that closes out the disc: "Everything we know we learned from the rock-and-roll show." More than anything, Funeral Candy is a warped children's album, a fitting end to a group whose members are thirtysomething going on 13. And, sadly, going their separate ways.

It's a sad moment for a group that was anything but during its too-short time together, with their songs about "sex and beer and Frankenstein" and cartoon flowers decorating the stage. Yes, yes, very sad. Well, you know, kind of.

"We used to have parties at DNA every weekend, because everybody was young, it was the first movie, everybody was excited. You know, 'Whooo!'" the band's other singer-guitarist, Aaron Thedford, explains. DNA is the animation studio in Irving where he met Gargiulo and bassist Carl Schembri while they were working on 2001's Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius. "Mike got drunk at so many parties. He just made an ass of himself." He pauses. "Sorry. "

Everyone laughs, including Gargiulo, the literal butt of the joke. They don't have much time left. Might as well enjoy it.

"It was kind of like a running joke, though," Thedford continues. "They'd always have pictures the following Monday of him, like, passed out in the pantry." More laughter.

"My thing is I just didn't ever have a really good tolerance for alcohol," Gargiulo says in his defense. "I mean, I'd go through periods where I'd get more of it. But it just didn't take very much of it."

It didn't take much to be won over by Robot Monster Weekend. After all, Turn Down Your Sorrow It's...Robot Monster Weekend, their debut six-song EP, clocked in just shy of 12 minutes. Onstage and on record, the band had the exuberance of longtime fans who'd crossed over to the other side, four guys who played music because they loved it, not because they thought it would amount to much. Which is exactly what they were.

The band got going in 2001 when Gargiulo and Thedford realized that not only did they like the same music (XTC, the Replacements, most of the bands on Rhino's Nuggets boxed sets), they were both trying to make their own. They figured if the project made it out of their respective bedrooms, the furthest it would go was maybe one of Club Dada's open-mike nights. They weren't even sure if they could work together.

"I'd hung out with Mike a few times, but all I knew is that we both connected really well and we were both huge Guided By Voices fans," Thedford says.

"I always wondered if being in a band with another writer, another songwriter, another front person, if it would be like an ego thing or something. 'Oh, he's trying to go in this direction, and I don't really like it,'" Gargiulo admits. "But we never had any conflict about anything like that. I always felt really happy that Aaron had songs and he was singing them. I never felt like, 'OK, I can't wait until he finishes his song so I can start mine.' Nothing like that."

Soon enough, the duo recruited Schembri and rounded out the new band with Covington, whom they found through a flier he'd posted at Good Records advertising his search for a band to join. (To keep the GBV connection going, they first met Covington when Bob Pollard and company came to town, touring behind Isolation Drills.) Over the next few months, Robot Monster Weekend played sporadic shows, mostly to audiences full of DNA employees they'd pestered to attend. That was probably for the best, since there were kinks to be worked out.

"Early on, I wanted to go really crazy with costumes and stuff, and they kind of reined me in," Gargiulo remembers. "They didn't really say anything, but I kind of felt this insurgency happening, like, 'We're not going to put the Styrofoam hats on anymore.' I was always aiming towards the Flaming Lips--I wanted to be that level of goofy but cool."

"I had problems enough with you wearing jams onstage," Thedford says, and they all laugh. "'Please wear pants tonight.'"

Gargiulo turns red, either from shame or the salsa. "I'm not very cool."

None of them is, not that it's a problem. That was one of the best things about the group of guys, their complete lack of self-consciousness. Few other bands could make you buy into a song called "King of the Monkey Bars" the way Robot Monster Weekend could. Of course, they'd probably prefer their relative lack of coolness remain a secret.

"I'd do a 'Robot Monster Weekend' search, and I'd find somebody who had an online diary," Thedford says. "They'd talk about the bands they saw or whatever. 'I saw this really cool band, but they were really geeky guys.'" They all laugh. "Goddammit."

At least people were coming to see them. It wasn't until they released Turn Down Your Sorrow It's...Robot Monster Weekend in the middle of last year that the group started to find a real crowd. You know, people they didn't know from work.

Turn Down Your Sorrow didn't make them headliners, but the short, sharp burst of unbridled enthusiasm (as Cosmo Kramer might say) got them noticed. Clubs started calling them for shows and putting them on good bills. KDGE-FM's The Adventure Club put the disc in permanent rotation. A few like-minded bands, especially the Tah-Dahs, began using them as tag-team partners. By the end of the year, Robot Monster Weekend was no longer just an after-hours goof. It was a real band with a real future. They started working on a follow-up to Turn Down Your Sorrow, their first real album. This would be their breakthrough.

There would be no breakthrough, only a breakup. In February, a day after the group wrapped up recording with Matt Barnhart at the Echolab in Argyle, Gargiulo was offered the job with Blue Sky Studios, an offer he (heh heh) couldn't refuse. "Of the top animation studios, that's the one I wanted to work for the most," he says.

Still, "it was without a doubt the hardest decision I've had to make," Gargiulo adds. "It was definitely feeling like the band was on an upward course, you know? But this was always kind of just a hobby. And it's hard, because it turned into something where we could have pursued it a lot further. It way exceeded our expectations."

But this is where it ends, at a Mexican restaurant in March, a wake catered with enchiladas.

"I definitely wasn't ready for it to end," Gargiulo says.

"I'm just glad we finished the record, so at least we have something to take with us," Covington adds.

"It's kind of good it ended this way, because I really, really like these guys," Thedford concludes. "He's a good friend," he says, pointing to Mike, "and we collaborate on other stuff besides music. Man, that's the worst thing. He's leaving; he's a very good friend. Franko's leaving, too. We just found him out of the blue, and he just kind of fit in. There's no egos. It's just like a bunch of kids with tennis rackets in their room. I mean, we're playing like a bunch of kids in a tree house. That's pretty much what we were going for."

It'll be missed.

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