Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Sad Robot

Sad Robot's Katherine Pawlak, Nick Perez and Jake Hogenson on the patio at Mohawk Bend


At Mohawk Bend

2141 W. Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles (Echo Park)

As the new fall TV season begins, there is always a barrage of commercials touting the premieres of different shows, and they usually fail to make any impression on me at all. This year, however, the premiere promo for "Bones" caught my attention with the bad blonde wig hanging out on Emily Deschanel's head and, more positively, with the use of the song "Hold On" by Los Angeles trio Sad Robot. Its striking melody and soaring vocals haunted my memory, and I found myself absentmindedly humming the chorus throughout the day.

"Hold On" is part of the band's debut full-length album, 1.0, set for release on Oct. 30. In anticipation, Sad Robot is in the midst of a monthlong, Monday-night residency at Silverlake Lounge. Vocalist Katherine Pawlak, guitarist Nick Perez and drummer Jake Hogenson invite me to meet them before one of the residency dates at one of their favorite places, Mohawk Bend. The transformed Vaudeville theater is also one of my favorites in the neighborhood. Whether you're sitting in the main dining room/enclosed atrium, the pub area or the fire-lit front patio, Mohawk Bend is a great setting to grab a cocktail like the luscious Vanilla Bean Daiquiri, a plate of Sweet Potato Fries and just relax with some friends.

"I usually go with the flatbreads or the Fish & Chips. The Fish & Chips [IPA-battered cod, fries, horseradish slaw, malt vinegar and caper aioli] here are very good," informs Jake, as I hop on a stool and join the group at a table in bar area.

"We normally get burgers, too," adds Katherine.

Just like owner Tony Yanow's other establishments (Tony's Darts Away, Golden Road Pub), Mohawk Bend only serves California-sourced food and drink using low-waste/sustainable materials. I love that they only offer stainless-steel kegged wines and that there are many vegetarian and vegan menu options, but the main attraction of this bar/restaurant are the 72 beers on tap. As I select a pint of the Barney Flats Oatmeal Stout, Jake chimes in with facts about several of the selections on the list, and it becomes apparent that he's quite the craft beer lover. I can't help but to ask about his preferred breweries.

"Golden Road around here, Stone down in San Diego or Firestone up in Paso Robles. Anything from San Diego County like Port Brewing or [Orange County's] the Bruery. I haven't met a lot of these craft beers that I haven't liked. For the most part, I will take them any day over drinking High Life or Steel Reserve. Most of those other beers don't taste like anything, just like water with a little bit of piss in it. Big exotic animal urine and water, that's what they make Bud Light out of," he jokes.

Aside from Mohawk Bend, the members of Sad Robot can usually be found at the Federal Bar in North Hollywood.

"I love it," admits Nick. "It's such a great spot."

"We were there on Friday," offers Katherine.

"We had a lunch meeting, then we went there after," says Jake.

"For a drink meeting," winks Katherine. "That whole area is insane. It's like bar row, with some really cool bars."

"Most of the time we rehearse at Katherine's house. There's a place right across the street that one of her friends bar tends at, the Hollywood Way, and usually we go there, too," says Nick.

Katherine, a Connecticut transplant, has a great sense of style and admits to loving the hunt for a good bargain.

"I love Wasteland. It's pretty much my absolute favorite of all places," she says. "Some of the best places in L.A. are thrift stores. I like Melrose, picking through people's crap, finding stuff I like from whatever they threw out. I love it when you find something that is really expensive but you get it for $5. I'm also a Forever 21 junkie because I'm about quantity not quality when it comes to clothes. I want a lot of it so I can piece outfits together, then throw it out when it starts to thread apart."

Nick and Jake have their own obsession when it comes to fashion: tattoo art.

"Jake and I have the same tattoo artist, so all of ours have been done by the same guy," says Nick. "His name is Luis Vargas, and he's a genius. Like any genius, he's really weird and out there. He's great."

"Getting a tattoo from him is an experience," adds Jake. "His studio is in Northridge, by the CSUN campus."

Originally from Las Vegas, Nick has grown to love his neighborhood of East Hollywood/Los Feliz for several reasons.

"I like it because there are a lot of places to play around here. When I'm not playing with this band, I get hired to play with other people, and there are so many opportunities to do that. There are plenty of places for us to play every night, which is great," he says. "We play at Silverlake Lounge a lot. We like it because it's very laid back and really easy to play there. We also like El Cid, we play there a bunch. We used to play the Roxy a lot, but we haven't played there in a while, and the Troubadour."

"I was thinking about it on my way over here, growing up playing in Los Angeles with other bands. Since I was 15 or 16, I've been playing Sunset Strip, but I grew up playing the west side of Sunset and now we're playing more on the east side of Sunset," interjects Jake. "I grew up playing the Roxy, the Whisky, the Key Club – I played all of those places in high school, just after high school and college. It's crazy because now a lot of the focus has shifted over to this area, the eastern side of Sunset. It's just funny that somehow now, here I am eight to 10 years later playing the opposite side of the same street."

"When we started playing out, we were dominantly west side only: Troubadour, Viper Room, the Roxy," agrees Katherine. "We love playing those places, they're really cool and historic. But why I think we choose to play on the east side is one, there's an amazing music scene out here that's a little bit more indie and people are more open to new bands, and also, you don't have to pay an arm and a leg to see us. We want to play often, as much as we can, but we don't want to make our fans have to spend $100 a night after parking, drinks and getting in at the door."

"I think right now, this is the time to play places like this because the album hasn't been released yet," says Jake. "We're playing places like Silverlake Lounge, El Cid and a few other spots, taking all that we're learning from those experiences, and a few weeks from now, when we have an album that's available for people to listen to, we'll have all this experience in playing the songs in front of people at smaller clubs that don't cost an arm and a leg and you don't feel like you have to demand people come out to. It's real low pressure."

"We get a lot of new fans that way," adds Katherine.

"The more shows like that we play, the tighter we become and the better we are as a group, so that when we do get those bigger shows, we're already ahead of the game," says Jake.

Since their Silverlake Lounge residency goes through the end of October, I hint at the possibility of a Halloween-themed show.

"I think we're going to do a Halloween show on the 29th," says Nick.

"That will also kind of serve as the album release: 'Hey, by the way, 1.0 is coming out tomorrow so come down and dress up like a moron and watch us play, and we'll dress up like morons, too," laughs Jake.

As for memorable shows, Jake was born in Michigan but moved to Los Angeles when he was 6 or 7, so I ask him about some of the highlights of his L.A. concert-going experiences.

"I'm not going to go there because that can go for like two hours," he laughs. "I've seen a lot of bigger bands play the smaller venues. Some of my favorites were definitely seeing the Deftones at the Troubadour and at the Roxy before they went out on some big tours. That was pretty cool. And then the first time I ever played on stage in front of people was at the Whisky when I was 14 or 15. I played that show in my boxers."

"I would piss myself. I was doing musical theater at that age to not even 100 people," says Katherine, whose first singing performance wasn't too successful. "I was really bad for my first experience in 6th grade. I tried to sing a song called 'Johnny One Note' for a talent show, and it was horrible. I remember being overweight, looking at the front row, and the crush I had was sitting there making faces at me. I get to this one big note, and not only am I completely out of tune but my voice cracks, I'm laughing the whole time, I'm about to pee my pants and I don't even finish the song. I didn't sing for about three years after that, and then I started musical theater, which helped. I actually didn't start this until late, doing music. Before then, I was doing acting. I came out to L.A. for a completely different reason, until I found my pack here."

Once Katherine found her singing voice, she ventured out as a solo artist but soon came to realize that she preferred being part of a "pack" instead.

"It's like night and day. I love working in a band, there's a lot more give and take. When it's you by yourself, everything you created, you think it's gold even if it probably sucks," she says. "Here, all of our influences really meld together. I feel a lot of the stuff I listen to, Jake probably wouldn't listen to in a million years. But somehow, his influences with Nick's and mine, they all blend together well."

Katherine's first musical influences were classical since she started playing the piano at age 11. Nick, on the other hand, found his first musical love in punk rock.

"I actually wanted to be a drummer at first, but my dad thought the drums were going to be too loud. My grandfather played guitar, so he got me a guitar and I joined a band a week later as the lead guitar player. I would play six or seven hours a day. I was really into punk rock, and we would play garages, skate parks and parties. I think the first time I ever played on a stage wasn't until I moved to L.A.," he remembers. "I still prefer to not play on stages, when everybody's eye level. You can look right into people's eyes and tell what they're thinking. You can really get inside people's heads, and you're hearing exactly what they're hearing. Sometimes when you play in bigger places, you can't always tell if what you're doing on stage is translating to people out there."

Since forming in 2009, Sad Robot has indeed played a plethora of stages, from the Staples Center to Silverlake Lounge. The band has also had its fair share of ups and downs. When their original drummer, who had founded the group with Katherine, parted ways with the band, Nick had the perfect replacement in mind.

"I was playing in an indie rock band with Jake. The first time I played with Jake, I fell in love with him and he became one of my best friends right away. The drummer for Sad Robot at the time was getting ready to make his exit, so I suggested we try and get Jake. It worked out that Jake came in and joined, and it ended up being the greatest thing," he says. "Jake really was the missing piece for our band. We have this unspoken communication when we're playing, and it was always there right from the beginning."

Their natural chemistry is evident as they perform on stage and is also an essential ingredient to their songwriting process as a band.

"I call them ditties," says Katherine, of her initial song ideas. "I'll text them, 'Hey, I have a new ditty."

"She'll usually write these five second clips of [sings] 'duh duh da da da,' and then we turn it into a song," says Nick. "That little 'duh duh da da da' actually made that into a song, 'Obeah Man,' that went on the album. We thought she was singing 'opiate man' for a few months. We thought it was about drugs, but it turns out that it's not about drugs."

"There's an artist called Exuma who wrote a song, 'Exuma, the Obeah Man' and I loved it. Years ago, I would sing it, but I had no idea what he was talking about. When I looked it up, it was fascinating, about a witch doctor," explains Katherine. "So we wrote a song about it. It's more or less about cheating, an affair, but it kind of sums up everything: death, the Obeah Man is going to get you – aka karma, the devil whatever you want to call it – you're going to get yours."

When I ask Katherine if she has a particular place where she likes to write lyrics, she replies, "I can write anywhere, mostly at my house. But that's because I'm afraid of sunlight [laughs]. I just don't go outside ever, that's why I'm pasty white. I used to think about going to go to the park or the beach, but I'm actually more inspired in my little four walls. Everybody else is inspired by the trees or the waves, I'm inspired by my own somber solitude."

"I can't write a happy song to save my life," she continues. "I try to think about what the world is going through, a 'people who don't have a voice' kind of a feel. Many times I feel like I don't have a voice. As much as 1.0 was my outlet, I thought it would be great to address everybody, make it more of a global thing. With 'God Damn the Man,' we're in a bad economy right now, and everybody's poor at this point, losing their jobs. Musically, it's more about getting the heart pounding."

Nick adds, "Usually when we write the songs, Kat will play me 10 seconds of something that's got no music to it, and we turn it into a song. Then we bring it to Jake, and it becomes a real song. 'God Damn the Man' was one of those."

While they have developed a harmonic system of each member contributing to the songwriting process, it has been a long road for Sad Robot to get to this point as a band. The title of their upcoming album is a nod to the new start of a journey that the group is embarking on together in solidarity.

"Our first album was called The Beginning (of the End), and in hindsight, it kind of worked out perfect since the band was going through so many transitions," says Katherine. "In January of this year, we decided to become a three piece. It was a turning point that was The Beginning (of the End), and this is literally 1.0. It is day one, ground zero, start over."

1.0 is currently available. For more information, visit

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