Digging for recognition
“We tried to play everywhere, but nobody would let us,” says Ted Robinson, taking a long drag off his cigarette. “If you see a picture of us playing, or hear any description of us, it’s really a test for people. I mean, who would trust a guy that said, ‘I’m in this awesome band, and I play a keyboard with my foot?'”
(Yes, Robinson really does play keyboard. With his foot.)
“I mean, I would be like, ‘Awesome’ — but I’m sure that for most people, it’d be a hard sell,” he acknowledges. “It just looks crazy.”
Consequently, Robinson — one half of local rock duo Dig Shovel Dig — has had to get used to all kinds of people trying to pinpoint his music.
Many folks just stop at “crazy.” Yet in talking recently to Robinson and bandmate Mark Williams at a round concrete table in the Vincent’s Ear courtyard in the bright, mid-afternoon sun, neither seems particularly nuts.
Of course, they’re not onstage. And that makes a world of difference.
In the past year, Dig Shovel Dig has gone from being a nearly un-bookable novelty act to becoming one of Lexington Avenue’s biggest names. Credit their unforgettable live show — furious, punk-styled drumming and melodic bass, played as a lead instrument, overcut by heavily distorted vocals. Add Robinson’s pedextrious — if understandably wonky — keyboard playing, and a massive amount of energy and stage presence, and you get some sense of how the duo’s made such a mark on the downtown rock scene.
For a band that as recently as last summer had trouble getting applause at open mics — “Those are the people that needed to see us more than anybody,” Robinson maintains — Dig Shovel Dig has come a long way. A chance encounter with DrugMoney’s Fisher Meehan at the Town Pump in Black Mountain led to DSD’s memorable — though heckler-ridden — debut at Vincent’s.
“We were like, ‘God, we’re playing at Vincent’s Ear!'” Robinson recalls. “We were so excited. We were all nervous for, like, two weeks before.
“There were maybe 20 people there,” he continues, “and after we finished to a slight clatter of applause, I hear this guy who had come in and seen the last two minutes of the show say, ‘That was boring.'”
The chance critique set something loose in Robinson.
“I was like, ‘What’d you say? Why don’t you come to the mic and say that!'” Robinson recalls. “I started yelling at this guy, just screaming at him. And then he walked out. That was enough motivation to keep playing, because that one comment summed up everything that pisses me off anyway.”
In other venues, such a public comeuppance and stage response might have been the death knell for any future gigs. Yet Dig Shovel Dig soon found themselves booked again at Vincent’s. Before long, their reputation for such “crazy” antics grew into a following.
But that doesn’t mean they now have it easy. For one thing, the band’s songs often suffer in transition from live show to tape. For another, Robinson continues to believe that most people have horrible taste in music.
Nevertheless, in the past year, he and Williams have tried to broaden and diversify their audience. They’ve played a variety of shows, including opening slots for local heavies DrugMoney, and have avidly documented their own musical growth, releasing a full-length album (DIMN) and several demos.
But like so many local rock acts, Dig Shovel Dig is still struggling to make their passion pay. Booking shows outside of their own peer group, for instance, is still a problem.
“If you promote yourself to the people who are already in on it, you keep on squeezing everybody else out until it’s you and your 10 friends,” Robinson observes.
While few Dig Shovel Dig songs are particularly narrative — one key exception being their much-requested “I Don’t Want No Job,” which Robinson describes as “the most literal statement I’ve ever made” — the group feels their lyrics have potentially broad appeal.
“There is so much opportunity for metaphor when you’re in a band that plays for three dollars and you’re covered in sweat,” Robinson declares.