Editor’s Note From Ed Roland: “I first saw Kick the Robot at SXSW [South By Southwest Music Conference] this year. I had no idea who they were, I didn’t even know it was Gerry’s kid up there. Gerry Hansen is a great Atlanta drummer and producer who played drums in the Ed Roland and the Sweet Tea Project. I remember turning to [Collective Soul bassist] Will [Turpin] and saying, ‘Man, this band reminds me of [1980s Atlanta rock act] The Producers.’ It was incredibly cool pop but it also had these great guitar riffs floating around it. It was the coolest thing I saw at SXSW.
I went on iTunes and downloaded their debut album [‘Music to Fight the Future’]. When we were talking about bands opening for us on the tour, we knew we wanted Kevn Kinney on some dates because he and Drivin N Cryin meant a big deal to us and Kevn means a lot to me as a songwriter. But we knew we needed somebody else too and Will suggested Kick the Robot. I said, ‘That’s perfect.’ For being so young, they’re a tight little live outfit. And just by listening to them, you can tell those boys have done their homework. It’ll be exciting to see what happens next with Kick the Robot for sure.”
Sitting behind the recording studio console, Kick the Robot songwriter-drummer-singer Dylan Hansen punches the playback button on the chorus to “Supermassive Automatic,” a freshly recorded rocker slated for the Atlanta trio’s next album. Singer Jesse Scarpone’s vocals leap out of the speakers, ricochet around the room and instantly commit aggravated assault on your eardrums. The voice is equal parts Thin Lizzy frontman Phil Lynott smirk, falsetto-laden Freddie Mercury showmanship, Al Green growl and John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band-era primal scream.
It’s a voice that can rearrange the nerve endings of your spinal column and cause your jaw to lower to half-staff. And while he sounds like a millennial Robert Plant, Kick the Robot’s singer-guitarist looks more like the kid who swipes your Am Ex card while ringing up your $150 pair of black skinny jeans at Urban Outfitters.
In short, Scarpone, 23, Hansen, 22 and singer-bassist Daniel Remel, 22, are an audio anomaly. They’re young men out of time. They look like boys who would pile in down front at a 5 Seconds of Summer concert at Aaron’s Amphitheatre but sound like guys who would gleefully assist Pete Townshend in reducing a Fender Stratocaster to splinters on stage at the Monterey Pop Festival.
Over the past five years, unlike many of their peers who believe stardom is as easy as a Ryan Seacrest-issued golden ticket to Hollywood, Kick the Robot has organically evolved as a ridiculously tight rock trio — the old fashioned way. Playing on stage night after night, sometimes with blown monitors, over-served jaded sound guys and indifferent audiences. They’ve also experienced magical nights, when the sound is perfect, the air is electric and fans sing along with every syllable coming out of Hansen, Remel and Scarpone’s microphones.
Currently, Kick the Robot is on such a career high, opening dates on Collective Soul’s “See What You Started By Continuing” tour. Between gigs, the band has pretty much taken up permanent residence at Hansen’s parent’s Gwinnett County home studio (run by Dylan’s dad, longtime Atlanta drummer and producer Gerry Hansen) as they record the scheduled 2016 follow up to their 2013 debut album, “Music to Fight the Future.” The trio laid down the basic bass, guitar and drum tracks together live in the next room.
“Sometimes we hear, ‘Oh, Kick the Robot is a throwback rock band,” says Dylan Hansen, parked behind the recording console with sound-absorbing burgundy velvet curtains hanging behind him. “My response is, ‘Well, if you mean that we’re writing melodies and playing real instruments and singing live, then yes, we’re old school, I guess.”
Crashed on the studio couch near a prayer candle accented table, Remel snickers and adds: “Guilty!”
Sitting across from Remel near a bubbling blue lava lamp, Scarpone explains: We’re always just thinking about the audience. That’s what’s most important. We always want to sound great and give them something to respond to. They’re why we’re up there.”
While most music fans their age are currently having animated arguments over whether the Ryan Adams or the Taylor Swift version of Swift’s “1989” album is artistically supreme, Remel, Hansen and Scarpone possess an almost eerie encyclopedic knowledge of 1960s and 70s classic rock. For the Throwback Thursdays covers posted on the band’s YouTube and Facebook pages, they’ve swapped verses on an organ-accompanied arrangement of “Cry Baby Cry” from the Beatles White Album and filmed a poolside version of Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Daydream” spotlighting Remel on acoustic guitar, Scarpone’s unamplified voice and Hansen breaking the water’s surface in time to tap out the beat on the concrete with his water-logged drumsticks.
“We just gravitate to those types of songs,” Hansen explains. “I got the idea to record ‘Cry Baby Cry’ because we would sing it in the car together. It’s the human element that makes us passionate about making music together. It’s real, it’s imperfect. If there’s no edge present, if failure isn’t possible, why do it?”
“We’ve learned that it’s OK to be wrong,” says Scarpone. “If you listen closely, there’s a lot of stuff wrong in Beatles recordings but they were taking risks and trying new things.”
“Could you imagine someone trying to use beat detection [recording software] on Ringo Starr’s drumming?” asks Hansen, shaking his head.
“Technically, Ringo is not the best drummer but he’s a complete original,” says Remel. “There’s something charming about the way he plays. When we’re in the studio and we’re trying to communicate a certain drum part to Dylan, we’ll say, ‘Go for more of a Ringo feel’ and we all know exactly what that means.”
Explains Hansen: “My Dad has raised us to know and how to use a musical vocabulary. We’ve listened to everything we can get our hands on and while we may not love all of it as music fans, he wanted us to be familiar with all the various styles. In the studio, he can tell Jess, ‘I need more Jack White guitar there’ or ‘Try a Brian May approach.’ Or he’ll tell me, ‘Try a more Keith Moon vibe on that fill.’
Adds Remel: “And weirdly, we always know what he’s asking us to do!”
While Kick the Robot uses rock’s legendary masters as a template, the band has clearly now carved out its own unique modern musical identity. Lyrically, the band is chronicling the uncertainty of these times for fellow millennials, fans who take to social media en masse to tweet and snap band updates to fellow Kick the Robot aficionados.
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The latest hand-held digital devices are littered around them in the studio, but the members of Kick the Robot are charmingly all analog when discussing the band’s origins. At times, it feels a bit like being dropped into one of the Beatles 1964 U.S. tour press conferences. Asked where they were when they met in the 6th grade, Remel’s instantaneous answer is: “I believe we were in middle school.” Hansen and Remel’s friendship was the result of a well-aimed Etnies skateboarder shoe to the head one morning in math class at Dacula Middle School. The shoe belonged to Dylan, the cranial target was Daniel.
“To be clear, I did not heave a shoe at him as a means of introducing myself,” Dylan explains.
“No, it was more like the third day,” Dan recalls. “He was trying to get my attention and for some reason, I actually had my face in my math book during math class. Jess wasn’t in our class. He was enrolled in the advanced classes.”
The trio soon discovered a mutual love of classic rock and pop and started jamming at each other’s houses after school. By the time they were seniors, they were recording their first album together and opening for the Randall Bramblett Band at the Melting Point in Athens.
“When we’re around people our age, we frequently feel like freaks,” Remel says with a shrug. “I’m OK with that. It helps us retain our uniqueness.”
Adds Scarpone: “With our peers, we’re completely out of touch in a way.”
“It was especially tough in high school,” recalls Hansen. “There weren’t a lot of people who shared our musical interests. Some kids would walk around in Pink Floyd T-shirts. But then you’d walk up to them and ask, ‘What’s your favorite song from ‘Dark Side of the Moon?’ and they had no idea what you were talking about.”
Laughs Scarpone: “They bought the shirt at Kohl’s because they thought it looked cool.”
Just then, a trio of canines, including a great dane named John Bonham, a rescue mutt named Chet Baker and labrador retriever named Loretta Lynn make a cameo appearance after Chet demands entrance by repeatedly ramming his head against the studio door.
Kick the Robot won the Atlanta Hard Rock Café’s Hard Rock Rising Battle of the Bands competition in 2012 and by 2013, the band had been invited to breakfast with Sir Elton John at his Buckhead home and were name-dropped on stage by the Rocket Man at his Philips Arena show.
This past March, Kick the Robot got a last-minute invitation to the prestigious South By Southwest music conference in Austin, Texas after another band dropped out. They only had one minor problem — the act couldn’t get up to the tiny stage of the Chuggin’ Monkey rock club. Because of their age, no one believed they were in the band.
“The people in the crowd just thought we were kids trying to take their spots down front so they were shoving us and yelling at us,” recalls Scarpone.
“My drum kit was set up in the back near this window and the stagehand was having to climb in and out of the window in order to plug in the microphones,” remembers Hansen.
“This place was so small, we had to pass my bass case over the crowd’s heads,” says Remel. “They didn’t realize we were trying to squeeze our way up to the stage. I mean, we’re in Texas in a rock club, we’re 21 and we’re wearing suits! It was pretty funny when we plugged in and the guys who had been shoving us realized they had just been complete jerks to the band!”
Assesses Scarpone: “It was elbows to elbows in there but it turned out to be one of the best gigs we’ve ever played.” Adding to the band’s musical victory lap that night? Collective Soul’s Ed Roland and Will Turpin were among those in the crowd.
On Saturday night, Kick the Robot played one of its biggest shows to date — opening for Collective Soul and Kevn Kinney at the Tabernacle in downtown Atlanta. But with three bands on the bill, Kick the Robot’s set had to start precisely at 7:20, a scant 20 minutes after the venue’s doors were unlocked. At showtime, most concert attendees were still in an Uber car across town, in the ticket scanning line snaking down the Luckie Street sidewalk out front or loitering in the adjacent craft beer room.
However, the band’s unique brand of crunchy guitar licks, tight harmonies, thunderous drums, power pop choruses and lyrics brimming with thoroughly modern millennial angst steadily coaxed the headliner’s fan base into the venue. Collective Soul fans began comingling with Kick the Robot’s fans who were busy down front, chronicling the set on Snapchat and Instagram.
By the time the band’s taut 30-minute set concluded, Hansen, rocking a red ascot and a Ringo Starr “Hard Day’s Night” cap was pulverizing his drum kit with what sounded like two-by-fours. Remel, in a vintage paisley shirt and striped pants (potentially purloined from Roger McGuinn’s wardrobe) and a leather jacketed Scarpone, meanwhile, were writhing on the stage floor while shredding their respective instruments. Kick the Robot had the screaming crowd, regardless of age, in its tight musical grip.
In a reflective moment back in the recording studio, Dylan Hansen quietly tamps down all the expectations and accolades.
Articulating Kick the Robot’s musical mission statement, Hansen says simply: As kids growing up around the music industry, we just always wanted to be a part of it. It’s that jubilation of being in a rock n roll band. And being able play that music with your best friends? There’s no feeling in the whole world better than that.”
For more information on Kick the Robot, go to the band’s official website.
Richard L. Eldredge is the founder and editor in chief of Eldredge ATL. As a reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Atlanta magazine, he has covered Atlanta since 1990.