For Tech-pop Star ‘My Robot Friend,’ Man Is the Machine

By Lisa Keys

Published January 10, 2003, issue of January 10, 2003.
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You could say that Howard Rigberg rocks the “computer programmer” look: He wears wire-rimmed glasses and sports a heavy backpack draped over both of his shoulders. His hair is graying. He walks with a shuffle.

Ask him a simple question — how old are you? — and you realize that Rigberg is possibly more of a technophile than the average programmer (his day job). “In my robot age, I’m 1,” he says, after a long, thoughtful pause. “Or I’m 32.”

At this point, you may stop, scratch your head and think: Robot age? Or, more to the point: Is this guy insane?

Not quite. Over the past year, Rigberg has been making a name for himself as My Robot Friend, a one-man act in which the musician decks himself out in an elaborate robot costume — complete with a flame-dispensing phallus — and performs his wacky, intelligent, sex-laden electro-pop-influenced sounds.

Rigberg, who lives in New York City, is part of a growing music scene known variously as “neo-electro,” “tech-pop” or, most commonly, “electroclash.” Over the past few years retro-influenced, performance-art-based acts such as Fischerspooner and Chicks on Speed have made names for themselves embracing the synth-pop sounds of the 1980s — think New Order or the Pet Shop Boys — and retooling them with a sexually charged, distinctly millennial feel.

Much of the hype has centered around DJ-producer Larry Tee, who throws electro parties in Williamsburg, Brooklyn; operates a dance music label, and has trademarked the term “electroclash.” “There is a movement going on,” said Rigberg. “It’s a world thing; it isn’t only a Club Luxx-Brooklyn-New York thing.”

It’s unfortunate, too, said Rigberg, that when many people think electroclash they think “retro, shallow, ’80s-fashion-oriented, crass, look-at-me-I’m-sexy” kind of attitude, which lacks meaning. “I like things that have a genuine emotional depth to them, artists that have something to say, not just get attention and make money,” he said.

Rigberg certainly has a lot to say, whether he’s singing about unrequited love or declaring he’s a robot who wants to “$%&# the human race.” In at least one song — “Walking Jewish” — Rigberg declares himself a Jewish robot; among the song’s many shocking lyrics is the statement, “If the messiah’s gonna come than I might as well, too.”

Although he talks in broken sentences — waving his hands and excitedly jumping from one idea to the next — Rigberg is remarkably clear in explaining how, in creating his robot persona, “I developed a robot theology,” he said. “It’s kind of simple. The irony is that when I’m onstage as the robot, I’m very human, emotional, goofy. I’m a robot for humankind. In my day-to-day life, I spent a lot of time feeling like a machine, but when I became the robot, I became less of a machine. I am more human when I am the robot.”

But it didn’t start out that way, Rigberg said. Having first tried his hand at music in 1994 after graduating with a degree in neuroscience from Brown University, Rigberg eventually formed a band, Princess, which wrote “Walking Jew.” Princess, based in New York City, broke up in 2001 as it was negotiating a record contract with Too Pure, a United Kingdom-based record label.

“I knew I wanted to make electronic music,” he said. “I wanted to work in a non-democratic environment. I wanted to tell machines what to do. The idea was for me to be with my robot friend; be able to do my music, tell the machine what to do.”

But by the time Rigberg got his first gig in November 2001, he realized he had what he called “a performance problem.” “It’s a very now type of problem,” he said. “You have one person, a specific vision, who makes a particular kind of music — you don’t need other people to do it. How do you make it interesting?”

So Rigberg opted to be everyone’s robot friend. His performances are known for being laugh-out-loud funny, and his first EP, “The Fake” on Germany’s Dekathalon records, is sold out. “I’ve been embraced by the club community. A lot of DJs play my record, and it’s strange to think that people dance to my music,” said Rigberg. Still, on a typical night, “I don’t go out clubbing,” he said.

In becoming the robot, “There is a sense of transformation,” said Rigberg. “Wearing the robot suit gives me the courage to do this — the armor that protects me from embarrassment, in a way. If I was to do the robot show without the costume, I think I would have a nervous breakdown. But there’s also an element of presenting a side of who I am.”

Part of that identity is a Jewish one. Having had a “typical suburban Jewish experience” growing up in Cherry Hill, N.J., “I have a Jewish identity; it’s in the mix,” he said.

Rigberg has, however, explored synagogue membership since he began residing in the city. For a while he attended a Reconstructionist synagogue. “I liked it philosophically and spiritually, but I didn’t feel at home,” he said, noting the lack of young people. “Different things affect your commitment to a community. My community is more the electroclash community.”

Nonetheless, “all the robot politics stuff is tikkun olam,” said Rigberg. “It’s healing the world.”

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