Before it took over Pap’s Bar on Penn Avenue last fall, The Mr. Roboto Project spent 10 years in Wilkinsburg, hosting shows for “free-thinking weirdos” of all ages.
Building a Better Robot tells the story of that first decade through interviews, essays and photographs. Andy Mulkerin, music editor of the Pittsburgh City Paper and a Roboto regular back in the day, explains how a group of punks lead by Mike Q. Roth and Eric Meisberger rented a simple storefront in Wilkinsburg in the hopes of getting bands they liked to play shows in Pittsburgh, and ended up creating an influential local institution.
The book details the ups and downs of one community building something on its own terms. It shows how the Roboto’s cooperative do-it-yourself spirit resulted in hundreds of punk, hardcore and indie rock shows (and a much-referenced iced tea drinking contest), helped spawned The Big Idea Bookstore and Free Ride, and inspired others to start venues. It also shows the conflicts — both petty and significant — that arose when those democratic ideals ran into the punk philosophies of individual members.
The Ongoing History of Pittsburgh: Why was The Mr. Roboto Project necessary?
Andy Mulkerin: At the time there was a lack of all-ages venues for smaller bands to be playing in town. Club Laga was where a lot of punk shows happened. There were a lot of shows in basements around Oakland, but there really wasn’t an official venue for those kinds of shows. The folks who founded Roboto realized it would be helpful to get these shows out of people’s basements and make them more appealing to folks who might not feel comfortable going to someone’s house for a show, but still wanted to check it out.
TOHOP: What did the local music scene look like in 1999?
AM: That was right when that wave of 90s Pittsburgh Punk was starting to die down, the Anti-Flag/Aus-Rotten scene that had come up in the early 90s. It was a moment of flux, when people were trying to figure out what was coming next, much like, I would say, what was happening a year or two ago again here. That’s what Mr. Roboto fell into: this scene that was a little bit in flux. Maybe the straightforward rock, or alt-rock scene was a little bigger, but the punk scene was in slightly more dire straights at that time.
TOHOP: What happened a couple years ago, when things were in that state of flux?
AM: There was a lot more infrastructure by the time things came to that weird period again in the late 2000s. People started reorganizing. There were a lot more galleries having shows and there were a lot of bands. It was a bit easier to have that transition.
TOHOP: Do you feel like Roboto played a role in creating that infrastructure?
AM: Yeah, I definitely feel that way. Modern Formations based their entire structure of how they booked shows and ran their music side of things on the way Roboto ran. They were looking for ways to use their gallery other than just as a gallery. So they started having some shows there. And there ended up being a nice stretch during the mid-2000s when there were some notable indie rock shows there. But it was based, almost letter for letter, on the way Roboto was run, as far as people renting out the space and what all the rules were and what cut of the door went to the venue and what went to the promoter.
So, in a very direct way, it inspired other people to create these venues. And on another level, for the first few years of Roboto it was bringing in folks who might have skipped over town when they were out on tour, punk bands and up and coming indie rock bands.
Roboto really gave a lot of bands a place where they could check in. They built up a fan base by coming around to Roboto. Bands like Lucero played there a few times in the early 2000s. No one had any idea who they were, and like 10 people showed up. Now they play to a crowd of hundreds and hundreds at Mr. Smalls. I went to see them a couple of years ago and a woman literally flung a bra at the guy. I think that was the first time I ever actually saw that in real life. That never happened at Roboto, that I know of.
TOHOP: When the founders of Roboto were looking for a space, they worked closely with Mark Harvey Smith, the head of the Wilkinsburg Chamber of Commerce. You write that he championed the venue because he saw it as a way to rejuvenate Wilkinsburg by bringing in “a different bunch of businesses.” That didn’t end up happening in Wilkinsburg, but it is happening now along Penn Avenue in Bloomfield and Garfield, the home of the new Roboto. Why did Penn Avenue succeed where Wilkinsburg didn’t?
AM: One thing is that there was more of a concerted effort. The Bloomfield-Garfield Corporation and the Friendship Development Corporation have a lot more behind them and can work a lot easier with the city. The city really wanted to bring people in.
Wilkinsburg is just a really disorganized place where it’s hard to get things done, quite honestly. I grew up in Wilkinsburg and know a lot about the inner workings of the borough, so feel confident saying that. I know Mark ran up against that same stuff.
And it’s further out. When students first move into the city, they move to Oakland. Moving to Bloomfield or Friendship is a logical next step. Going all the way out to Wilkinsburg, away from the other music venues and bars, that’s a little less likely. It takes a little while to want to move out to somewhere like that. There were some people who did move out to Wilkinsburg around the time Roboto was starting. A couple of the founders were living within a few blocks of the venue for several years. And there are still people who are in the rock scene who live in Wilkinsburg because it’s a neat place, but it’s a little more difficult to get something moving in that town, for those reasons.
TOHOP: This was a venue run by punks. Did that change how they operated?
AM: One of the things that I don’t necessarily say outright in the book, but I definite believe, is that several of the folks that started the venue have very radical punk ideals, but are also really reliable, anal-retentive personalities. They were very specific about trying their best not to make it hierarchical structure, which is really important if you’re going to live by certain ideals, but at the same time they were pretty specific about laying out a lot of guidelines: This is how things are going to happen. This is what we need to do in order to make this really work. I’ve seen plenty of places where people were a little more idealistic and a little less detail-oriented, and those places fall apart.
TOHOP: Does that say something about the evolution of punk in general?
AM: I think it speaks to the melding of hardcore punk and cooperative political ideals, and the libertarian-socialist or anarchist-socialist model that people started getting into as punk as an entity matured. Of course, at this point, “punk as an entity” doesn’t really exist, it’s so many different things that you can’t really put a finger on it, but this is definitely one model that didn’t exist, say, in the first five to ten years of punk rock.
TOHOP: The reputation of the Mr. Roboto Project is divided. Some people see it as a very inclusive place because of its rules prohibiting any racist, sexist or homophobic speech, but other people see it as being really cliquish. How did that split come to be?
AM: I think there are a couple of things that went into that. One being that some people just don’t like dealing with rules. Some people are really into the concept of “free speech,” a do-whatever-you-want model of punk rock. There’s definitely a libertarian camp of “punk” that doesn’t want to be told what to do. And there’s a really strong history of weird imagery within punk aesthetics that might be considered offensive. So people who were into the GG Allin part of punk rock would automatically be offended by having any kind of rules concerning what they may or may not say or do in the space.
Another thing that played into that, and I remember specifically Deanna Hitchcock mentioning this when I was interviewing her, was that early on a lot of the people who were running things at Roboto were a bunch of friends. So in a way it was a clique.
I’m pretty sure all of them would admit that as much as they tried to be inclusive, they were a bunch of friends. And, as with any group of friends, they’re going to have their in-jokes, and all that stuff, and other people are going to feel a little excluded. That was what the community was like, but it definitely wasn’t impenetrable. I came in about two years into the venue and I slid my way in and made friends with people eventually, and anyone who knows me knows that I’m not a particularly aggressive friend-maker.
This was also at the time that online forums were starting up, and online forums are a way to spread rumors. That definitely happened a lot. Somebody starts a joke about something you can’t do at Roboto, or something that happened at Roboto, and other people believe it, even if it’s totally ridiculous. So that was another thing that caused this bifurcation within the scene. There were definitely people who would have had a good time at Roboto, but never even stepped foot in the place because they thought it was going to be this oppressive environment where they weren’t going to have fun, but a lot of people went there found out that it was a totally decent and fun place to hang out.
TOHOP: What made you decide to write a book about Roboto?
AM: The idea for the book had been kicked around for a few years before the original space closed down. I lived with Q for a couple of years. We knew each other pretty well. His idea, more than anything, was to put together photographs and documentation from the venue. There are similar books about other places. There’s one about 924 Gilman St. There’s a book called Banned In DC, which documented the Revolution Summer stuff of the mid-80s and the Dischord Records stuff. So there was precedent. He asked me if I could put together the bulk of the text because I was someone who knew Roboto, knew a lot of the people who were involved, but I wasn’t a founder, or a board member.
TOHOP: How did writing the book change your understanding of the venue?
It was interesting looking at thing from a slightly more removed position, where I could see the story arc of the venue: where it came from and where it went. Obviously when you’re there and in the middle of it you don’t necessarily understand that. It’s just a place where you went to do to your thing. I always knew it was important in my life, because I spent so much time there, and my old band practiced next door for a long time, but until I stepped back and put it all into one narrative it was difficult to really understand its importance in my life. I remember talking to folks who were starting this recycling program. It became a big deal: Free Ride. The same thing with the Big Idea; I’m honestly pretty shocked that they have such a beautiful space in Bloomfield now. It’s such a great spot. It was just a desk with a few books on it and a crate of records next to it when it started out. Being able to watch how all that stuff grew up is really pretty inspirational.
TOHOP: It’s interesting that you describe its importance in personal terms. This is an institution that is really important to a subset of the Pittsburgh population, and it does have a legacy, but it seems like what you’re saying, and what a lot of people in the book are saying, is that it seemed to have a much greater personal importance to them than anything else. There’s very little discussion in the book about its significance for the city.
AM: When you’re in the middle of something like that, it’s just, “This is a thing that means a lot to me and to my 30 friends, and it’s fun.” But it feels just like any other club that somebody is in: your stamp-collecting club. It’s just a way to spend your time, a way to explore your ideas. Honestly, on any given night it was just a bunch of disgusting sweaty kids making an awful racket and running into each other. And that was fun, but it was just goofy shit. But when you look at what actually grew out of it, and how it affected other things in the scene, you go, “Oh. All that goofy shit that we were doing actually added up to something that was bigger than what it seemed to be at the time.”