[EXPERIMENTAL POP] There's one question you ask yourself after listening to Ryland Bouchard's music or seeing him perform—often while wearing a giant, stuffed rabbit head: What on earth is this guy thinking?
On the surface, Bouchard, a.k.a. the Robot Ate Me, is not unlike many Portlanders: He's a 27-year-old transplant who came to town with an experimental pop project in tow. But his records are nothing if not unique. In fact, nowhere is the sense of "What's the hell's going on here?" more blatant than during the 22 minutes (17 tracks) of his most recent effort, 2006's Good World. And while there's clearly a grand design behind this and TRAM's other three albums, it lurks in the shadows. To understand them, you have to understand Bouchard himself.
In person, Bouchard speaks quietly, employing his hands and pausing mid-sentence—with a look on his face that says he's totally disgusted by how inadequate his words are. Perhaps that's why he based Good World—which comes off like the score to an arthouse remake of Peter and the Wolf that only Bouchard saw—on imagery rather than narrative. He says the record was inspired by the atmosphere of the Native American myths he was reading at the time. But its dark feel also comes from where Bouchard was living at the time—an artists' collective (the Department of Safety) in Anacortes, Wash., that didn't have heat or hot water for several weeks. "That kind of stuff changes your perspective on the world after a couple of weeks when it's freezing outside," says Bouchard.
His previous album, 2005's Carousel Waltz, came during a dark time in Bouchard's family life, but, contrarily, ended up a very straightforward, stripped-down pop album. "I was just trying to be really positive and work out those issues in sort of a '60s pop context," explains Bouchard. Different still is 2004's On Vacation, which commented on the lack of political music in the early days of the Iraq war. A two-disc set, On Vacation offers one disc of heavy-handed political satire (set to music Bouchard made by sampling his grandmother's record collection) alongside a disc of disposable pop songs. Bouchard says the record aimed to show that music can be more than just escapism.
"I don't do music to sell a lot of records or to make people happy with this predictable style," Bouchard says. "It's always been more about the creative process and exploring different concepts, and trying to invent new music in a way." And though TRAM's music and performances elicit an "wtf?" response much of the time, Bouchard knows what he's doing, acknowledging, "It appeals to some and not to others." .