Yes Weekly: Zombies, classics, and the Modern Robot

By Katei Cranford
October 18, 2018

He’s coming to get you, “AAAA”/perture.

Modern Robot Plays: Night of the Living Dead will host a round of shows, starting on Oct. 24 at A/perture Cinema in Winston-Salem before taking the show on the road to Raleigh, Southern Pines, and ending with a Halloween screening at the Philadelphia Film Center. The main cog behind Modern Robot is Ben Singer, a man both squirrely and stately, who describes the audio-visual project as a “happy accident.”

“One of the first times we played Modern Robot as an instrumental band, we had a movie playing in the background,” he explained. “But the idea of playing to the movie was immediately more interesting.”

Such a project could easily be this sort of highbrow lofty endeavor, but Singer’s enthusiasm and expansive taste help make it an approachable, everyman sort of experience. A refreshingly grounded avant-garde. “I’m actually new to horror,” Singer admitted. “I’ve only gotten into it recently via Modern Robot shows like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Nosferatu, Faust, and NOTLD.”

Now a fan, Singer was initially drawn to the way Romero deploys everyday monsters in the everyday world. “Sometimes people foist on Romero some of their own ideas,” Singer noted. “But this is something Romero mentions himself. He liked the idea that the ‘bad-thing’ or ‘monsters’ or ‘evil’ is not the other: it’s us.”

“I’m into that.”

For classics such as NOTLD, Singer understands the legwork involved with treading lightly over a film with such a heavy following. “I don’t mind stirring up a little conversation,” he said about facing superfans of the film. “The version I did at fringe festivals last year was my own one-hour edit. I expected some reactions to that. But these upcoming shows are the full 85-minute movie, with all the story and dialog intact.”

Showing the full movie involved creating a “Frankensteined” version of the foley (all the noises and sounds that are part of the movie but not the soundtrack.) And like an undead-elf, Singer has been tinkering way. “I obviously needed to cut where the movie has its own background music,” Singer explained of the editing process. “But that also means cutting footsteps, hammering, scraping, zombie grunts, all that. So I chopped the original audio into tiny samples and recreated the soundtrack with cut and paste.”

Not all Modern Robot performances require such earnest inspection of the source material or technical finesse. “For other shows, I’m just throwing together something fun,“ he said of his smaller, quirkier performances like “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians,” a 1960s sci-fi Christmas movie he showcased at Oscar Oglethorpe during the 2017 Festival of Lights. During the 2018 Folk Festival, Singer put together a score for a round of silent-film shorts from Roscoe Arbuckle and Buster Keaton and played them against a screen on the patio of Cafe Europa. It made for a whimsical environment. “I don’t think just in terms of a performance, but as an interaction, a place for people to be together and for things to happen,” he said. “That’s what it felt like with Buster Keaton and the Europa patio.”

Cultivating an experience is one of Singer’s strongest talents as a performer. “I try imagine how it’s all going to work together,” he said. “The atmosphere, the audience, the movie, the style of music. I work with it until something clicks into place.”

“Even though I’m trying to create a precise, intense show, there’s always this unpredictability built into the event,” he added. “Looking back, I don’t think it’s an accident that I set myself up for this kind of wing-it experience.” That wing-it experience that has taken Singer, a worldly fellow, from Shanghai to Scotland.

He credits his NOTLD experience at the 2017 Edinburgh Fringe festival in the UK with his deeper understanding of the film. “I played 24 shows over three weeks, so every night, same theater, same time. I loved it, and it played a big role in the development,” he said. “But the crazier picture,” Singer noted of the acclaimed Scottish festival, “is that there are 3,400 other shows are doing the same thing, in the same city, in the same three weeks.”

“My first trip to Edinburgh Fringe was some combination of mind-blowing and soul-crushing,” he recalled. “But now,” Singer added, “getting to the part where I’m actually playing moviehouses is just fantastic.”

Modern Robot Plays: Night of the Living Dead will run on Oct. 24 at A/perture Cinema in Winston-Salem, Oct. 25 at Kings in Raleigh, Oct. 26 at the Sunrise Theater in Southern Pines, and on Oct. 31 at Philadelphia Film Center in Pennsylvania.

Katei Cranford is a Triad music nerd who hosts the Tuesday Tour Report on WUAG 103.1fm, a radio show that runs like a mixtape of bands playing NC the following week.