Street performers are a fact of life in downtown Austin. On any given weekend, steel drums, jugglers, cowboys, and astronomers can be found showing off their skills. Not all talents are natural though – some are coldly mechanical.
On weird nights when the moon has just the right degree of luminosity and the pedestrians are just the right shade of lightly inebriated, a strangely incongruous hunk of electronics surplus and metal parts with the face of the only man elected as president four times can be found performing broken recorded sounds alongside two sunglasses-sporting besuited gentlemen.
They are Franklin Delano Robot and the World War Two, and they are here to change the future.
Some are born great. Some achieve greatness. For others?
“It was kind of thrust upon us,” explained John Mason, one of two World War members, “He introduced us to himself, what was it?”
“A few months ago,” offered bandmate Jeremy Smith.
“A few months ago,” Mason confirmed. “He was trying to fit himself into a phone booth. … We walked over to him and he wasn’t really able to talk but he gave us a letter of introduction.”
As Smith recalled it, on January 30, they met the strange robot in a strange land – New Mexico.
“John has family in Albuquerque and we were kind of in a strange no man’s land for a while where we lost our GPS and all the things shut down. And then we happened across an old abandoned – what was it?”
“It was a Circle K,” Mason remembered.
“Yeah, a Circle K.” Smith continued. “And so we got out and were like ‘is anybody around? Is anything functioning? We need gas.’ And we look over and we see … kind of a wonky mishmash of stuff.”
“I think he thinks he’s more advanced than he is,” Mason said, giving a side-eye to the band leader. “Honestly we’re still trying to figure him out, he’s a bit of an enigma.”
“From what we’ve derived from the letters, he’s kind of an experiment.” Smith knew FDRobot would not be welcome everywhere, but he hoped the Computer and Chief would find a home in Austin’s street performance community. “If we lived in the middle of the midwest, and we had a robot presidential DJ pull us out into the scene.”
“There’s no scene for that,” Mason said, nodding.
“But here in Austin it feels like a natural environment,” Smith went on. “Some people think it’s just this funny sculpture, and other people get drawn into what’s going on and how we’re working with him. It’s a nice scene to kind of be accepted, because people see weirdness and enjoy it or, at least, are used to it.”
Smith and Mason met some eight-ish years ago at an Austin area Hollywood Video, back when that was still a thing.
“We met because of the tail end of the physical video industry,” Smith said. “We through a love of ridiculous silly films and pop culture, and were just kind of the sarcastic goofballs that worked in a video store in its dying days before it closed down. … Physical media always seems a little quirky and nostalgic in this age, but it’s still worth holding onto in some way.”
The same applies to FDRobot’s retro-futuristic aesthetic. Although FD, as his friends call him, may seem a relic of a bygone era that has yet to come, the would-be leader of the mechanical free world wants a go at guiding his people in the present.
“He’s an outcast,” Smith said. “He’s from this spot called, what was it? Studio 51? Something nearby where we found him. He’s trying at this point to impress his creators, these robots.”
“It seems like he’s almost trying to make peace between these two warring factions of robots,” Mason added.
They explained FD is a JAM – a Junk Automated Machine – built by other robots with scrap pieces.
“It’s very functional and very pragmatic,” Smith said.
With a slight cough, Mason added: “We move him around, for the most part).”
Undeterred by this seeming flaw, Smith continued.
“He’s suggesting that his makers are in turmoil and this could spill out into the public,” he said. “He’s looking for the biggest stage to transmit his message. … Right now his only method of communication are broken records. … These are cracked vinyls, which means they repeat themselves about as much as any typical politician.”
Mason wouldn’t put it past FD to run as a third-party candidate in this year’s contentious human election in the US.
“I think he’d like to get his name in the hat this year. Whether or not that manages to happen is kind of up for debate, but he seems to have further ambitions as president,” he said. “He seems to be under the impression that the only way to garner public favor is to be like a rock star. Now they’re the only people with influence.”
For now they play near whatever shop doesn’t mind having the odd trio performing out front – mostly on South Congress – and they’ll play whenever FD feels the mood, with songs lasting as long as FD feels like continuing. Still, Mason said FD’s dreams are big ones.
“He said, ‘I want to put a man on the moon!’ We said, ‘We’ve done that.’ He said, ‘Has there been a band on the moon?’ I guess probably not.”