Be Bold Brave Robot
I’m riding in the passenger seat as we soar down 19th street. Catie Turner, viola player for Be Bold Brave Robot and determined road warrior, is in the driver’s seat. We’re running a few minutes late for a gig at Sacramento City College where Turner and Dean Haakenson will perform live for a show hosted by the college’s Independent Record Label class, a show that serves as hands on practice for students learning the ins and outs of the music business.
Haakenson, the creator and songwriter of Be Bold Brave Robot, sits in the backseat seat, and explains the origins of the band’s beautifully alliterate name: Be Bold Brave Robot.
“It came graffiti that I heard existed somewhere up north in Humboldt,” he says.
This was several years ago, and Haakenson barrowed the phrase for his zine, a rag he wrote, photo copied and distributed in his spare time. Like a tag, the name took, and he transferred the title to his band name, a catchy expression that when made into acronym – BBBR, is reminiscent of a man stuttering for an order of Pabst. Hipsters, hippies and even hip hop lovers; they all drink it up.
Though the zine has since retired, the band has solidly been performing for six years, with Haakenson having performed with a variety of artists and friends at different points throughout the band’s lifespan. Though bassist Matty Gerken has been with the band for many years, Turner is a newer addition. She says she met Haakenson on the patio during a show. Upon learning that she played viola, Haakenson immediately asked her to record with them.
The car turns sharply across from Curtis Park, and we finally reach our destination. A series of failed parking attempts, stirs wishes of biking, guitar strapped, to the venue, which is a common practice for Dean, an avid bike rider. We finally find a spot, and walk into the classroom calmly, and actually on time.
“Who rode their bikes today? It’s bike month!” Haakenson asks the crowd as he tunes his guitar. No one answers. “You guys should get some bicycles,” he adds. “You can keep it in the house. Ride it around every once in a while. It’s fun. It’s a lot of fun… Can I get an A minor?”
The room then grows silent as Haakenson introduces the first song.
“This song is sung in the first person from the point of view of an older sister talking to and about her younger sister…”
Turner plucks the viola’s strings playfully, a staccato dance skipping across the air. Haakenson’s voice speeds up and slows down, the violin add a crashing crescendo before the chorus. In the voice of the Frenchmen, Haakenson sings to the little sister. The audience’s laugh interrupts his flow and he starts again, sounding more French than ever. The dynamics shift again and he starts humming as the viola trills triumphantly. The classroom applauds and, rather unexpectedly, Haakenson begins to rap a fashion friendly beat about shopping at Target.
Although such a rap juxtaposes Haakenson’s otherwise folk-influenced songs, they couldn’t be more fitting as they prepare for performances in between hip hop artists such as Crazy Ballhead and Crooked Face.
“In the back in my mind, I’ve had this idea that I’d like to be a rapper. I’ve liked to rap since I was in the 8th grade,” he says.
The last song of the show is the more emotional, “Take a Deep Breath,” also the title of Be Brave Bold Robot’s 2010 release, a compilation that serves up warm and cool, emotional and witty all in one balanced bundle.
Haakenson and Turner give their thanks and the show raps up to the excited release of information, laughter, and even a Live in the City of Trees shout out! Be Brave Robot was the first group to be filmed for Live in the City of Trees, a production that presented their harmonies and quirks on the 3rd floor warehouse building on the corner of 2nd St. They played the song “Gridlocked,” a performance that unleashed sweeping strings, sign language and haunting echo off the bricks.
The show ends and we’re back on the road. Somewhere gliding through the elm tree lined grid of Midtown, the three of us get to talking about the meaning of “Gridlocked, the importance of being silly and more.
Julia: So tell me a little bit about that song – Gridlocked. So what inspired the song?
Dean: It was “Going to the city…coming back again and kind of wishing that you hadn’t maybe. You know, gridlocked…. you know there’s a grid. It’s three miles by three miles. You know, it’s a little play on some Sacramento things. And specifically it stemmed from a going on an a little trip up 50 to these cabins up 50 nearing Tahoe. And it’s a family cabin. And we had done a little bit of mushrooms. It embraced…. that sensational feeling about being out in nature, on mushrooms and thinking, I never want this to go away because of how magical it is. And so this song is formulated from that thought of how here we are stuck in this place where we have all these obligations and things, and we don’t go back as often as possible. I more and more want to embrace going camping as often as possible and getting out and seeing nature.
Julia: So “Gridlocked” is about having cabin fever in a way, but instead of being in the cabin you’re in the grid?
Julia: What’s the song writing process like for your, both individually and then when you get together with the rest of the band?
Dean: So far, I’ve completed the songs before I bring them to the band. So in that process, it’s just as slowly or as quickly as it comes. Sometimes, it’s just like one line a day, or like half a song in a day. And I’ll be alone, and I’ll be thinking about it. I know I’m on the right track when I’m at work and still thinking about the lyrics and have to run back home and write more lyrics. It’s like an all-encompassing process where getting back to that solitary room with a guitar is always beckoning. It’s thinking about what lyrics could come next to that story, trying to hold on to that theme and not lose it so that the consistency and continuity doesn’t escape.
Julia: So you keep a notepad with you just in case?
Dean: Yeah, usually I have dedicated pages for songs — blank space I know will be for the next verse. I like to write the songs on the guitar and the lyrics all at the same time, in a linear fashion.
Julia: Yeah I think I can tell because yours lyrics and the instrumentation just flow… like they’re growing out of each other. And you’re very prolific.
Dean: Yeah? That’s nice to hear because I’ve felt like I’ve felt a little bit of writer’s block I guess. It comes in waves. But it’s nice to have built up enough songs over the years to where there are enough songs for a band to play different songs at different times. There was a time when I first started playing, when I really only had like 15 good songs.
Julia: How many songs do you think I have total?
Dean: I have about 30 songs now.
Julia: With Be Bold Brave Robot or in total?
Dean: They pretty much know every song I’ve ever done. I’ve had four different drummers in like say, the last six years, and I’ve had four different bassists. And I have a few different friends that have been my friends for years now, and they still sit in and play with me every once in a while. It feels good to have met all these people over the years and maintain these friendships. I always find someone who can come in and play at the last minute for a show and maybe play electric even. You know, if those songs today had electric guitar, there’d be a different sound to it.
Catie: Yeah, or like the banjo or keyboard. I like how the sound is always changing.
Dean: I like that a lot. For me it makes me feel just that right amount of something different happening so it feels fresh, even though maybe I’ve played this song several other times in the past.
Julia: What’s the process like when you’ve written a song, and you’re ready to share it with the band?
Dean: Usually I’ll send a recording. In recent history, I’ve known that I needed to show the song to the band members, so I’ll record it very much for the purpose of knowing that they’ll have something to practice along to, which I know Catie has taken advantage of so she can practice her parts.
Catie: Sometimes, it depends on how I first hear the song. If it’s at a band practice, then we’ll start improvising. Matty comes up with a lot of good idea, or Dean will have an idea. So when it’s at a practice, it’s more collaborative. Sometimes Dean will just send me at mp3, and I’ll just play along with it and write out notes and formulate a part that way.
Julia: Do you ever do any improv on stage?
Dean: Yeah, you know one thing I’ve done is in between a song, I’ll be tuning my guitar and Matty the bassist – he’s really talented – he’ll come and start doing a bass line. And then the drummer might do a hip-hop beat, and then I’ll just stop tuning the guitar, and try to do a little improv rapping.
Julia: So I want to ask everyone who is part of this site. What is your favorite tree here in Sacramento?
Dean: I love all the large elms that stretch on D and E Street, and then there’s the mighty Oak –the larger and older the better.
Catie: I’m going to have to say my grandmother’s grapefruit trees. I just love living in a city with a lot of trees. I think about it every day driving, especially now in the spring with the hummingbirds. It’s amazing. It makes me happy.
Julia: Speaking of that, I read how one writer compared your music to the sound of hummingbirds…
Dean: Yeah, he wrote that watching Be Bold Brave Robot is akin to watching a bunch of drunk hummingbirds. I like that. Too often you see bands that have their look down. They have their look down and are afraid to be silly. And I think life should be a little more silly and playful. I’d like to embody that. Because I think carrying too much about how you look can stunt expression and like improvisation, being completely in the moment, which I think people enjoy. The more you allow yourself to not be censoring how silly you are moment to moment, the more you’re going to live moment to moment.