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Dan Henry is one hell of a drummer. Screaming, "Keep it movin'!" into his mic, the International Robot's Ludwig beater snaps his head forward for a breath, staring blankly at some void in the crowd out in front of him. He repeats this back-and-forth head-jerking throughout the song, which makes him look like a horse jockey in a race, constantly checking over his shoulder to see if Secretariat is snorting fire on his flanks. Most of his frantic energy goes toward his high hat.
"He's a pretty good singer," I confide to a friend sitting with me at the 7th Street Entry in early November. My friend agrees but adds that drummers really shouldn't sing leads--it confuses the audience.
Perhaps. That is, unless he brings along an 11-inch television, spray-paints "International Robot" in black stencil on the tube's screen, illuminates the name with the T.V.'s static, and sticks the whole affair into his kick drum. The prop not only draws your eye to the drummer/singer; it's also a nice bit of shameless self-promotion. And it also looks pretty cool.
Anyway, even an audience dumber than my toothbrush would be able to find Henry between the other two International Robots: The trio give each other plenty of space onstage to cut loose. Sharing vocal duties with Henry, guitarist Brian Shuey carries a groovy garage-rock rendition of the old soul classic "Goin' Back to Philly." Meanwhile, bassist Morgan Kinnaman (who is also a guitarist for local mod rockers the Dirty Robbers) is often preoccupied with hitting John Entwistle-style walking basslines, as well as attempting crazed looks. He frequently succeeds at both.
Sitting in Shuey's Uptown apartment a couple of weeks after their Entry show, Kinnaman and Shuey begin a bit of friendly bickering about the band's amount of get-go, or lack thereof. Feigning helplessness, Henry shakes his head. "See how they are?" he asks about his bandmates.
I do. International Robot are seemingly directionless yet artful and intelligent DIYers who know how to craft excellent rock even while holding down a day job. They are also a bunch of record nerds. (The band's name is taken from a song title of the Saints, an Australian band that formed in the late Seventies.) Henry doesn't like to talk about his "Frankendrums"--his worn-out Ludwigs--while Shuey will jokingly contend that if anything happened to his precious Stratocaster, it would end his musical career. The regard the band members hold for their respective instruments may differ, but their feelings for Little Richard do not. "You can't feel bad if you have a couple of Little Richard records," Henry says.
Having brought their record collections to the Twin Cities almost two years ago, International Robot are a result of what might be remembered in local rock lore as the great Pennsylvania migration. (This phenomenon traces back to the mid-Nineties and to Travis Ramin--the guitarist for the Short Fuses, and the first musician in a stream of artists who grew up in central Pennsylvania and relocated to Minneapolis to play in a variety of punk acts.) Henry Shuey and International Robot's original bassist were all part of that relocation. Kinnaman, who joined the band more than a year ago, is a Minneapolis native--and he seems to feel pretty smug about that fact.
Currently, these locals have one eponymous CD: a self-titled album recorded in 2000 and released on Solid Sound Music. It covers the ground between lustful garage songs (such as "See It Tonight") and classic, flipping-off-the-U.S.A., straight-ahead-punk dance tunes (like "Do the Stick It"). It also contains the ballad "Make You Understand," but this song's unfortunate trills are thankfully left near the record's end. International Robot plan to record a new CD in the near future and to go on tour. That is, Kinnaman jokes, if anyone in the band gets around to it.
For now, they're sticking to playing local shows. During an early December performance at the Terminal Bar in northeast Minneapolis, International Robot and a few of their friends watch the opening act, which is some awful Jethro Tull/Crash Test Dummies hybrid. This night's bill is woefully mismatched. Yet as International Robot begin to play, an additional 15 to 20 or so fans come out of the shadows to stand on the crusty tile floor in front of the stage. Where these people suddenly materialized from is uncertain, but their presence suggests that International Robot is gradually gaining enough drawing power to fend off even the most painful of co-bills.