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I Like Robots has perfected the ’80s cover band act 

  • Author: Chris Bieri
  • Updated: January 24, 2018
  • Published January 24, 2018

I Like Robots band members Robb Rood and Greger Wright, in back, and Lisa Ballard, J. J. Tranquilla and Christian “Rick James” Woods, in front, pose for photos at Williwaw in downtown Anchorage. (Bob Hallinen / ADN)

The objective for I Like Robots is simple — get butts on the dance floor and keep them moving.

And the Anchorage 1980s cover band has nearly perfected the task, just like it has mastered the synthesizer line on Toto's "Africa" or Billy Idol's signature growl on "Rebel Yell."

In the 3½ years since forming, the act has become among the city's most popular, playing to increasingly large and passionate crowds.

"If you hit the stage and go all night, it's almost like the band is a DJ, song to song with no lulls," said singer/guitarist Justin Somaduroff. "People are going to dance all night, and it keeps people having fun and buying drinks and (we) hopefully keep them going all night."

J.J. Tranquilla founded I Like Robots after spending time spinning '80s tunes as a DJ and in another '80s cover band.

"All I know is that I love '80s music," Tranquilla said. "This is the music I'm most familiar with. I'm not really a DJ, but 99 percent of being a club DJ is just trying to play something that people like. I'd just play songs from the beginning to end and it was just the song choice, not about scratching or elaborate transitions from song to song. These parties were huge; tons of people would come out. It has mass appeal. The music is safe and happy and it's very familiar and for a wide range of people. It's easy to dance to."

Tranquilla knew lead guitarist Lisa Ballard, who ran the jam at Humpy's. Ballard started recruiting players for the band, including drummer Robb Rood, keyboardist Greger Wright and Somaduroff, who initially played bass.

The band quickly started working on songs in Tranquilla's '80s wheelhouse, which included new wave and punk. Slowly the band added in other genres of '80s music.

"That's been an evolution," Ballard said. "When you're playing cover music, you say this is a great song and live it either isn't a good fit for the band or the audience isn't as excited as you. Most cover bands go through that. Original bands too. Some songs just aren't as well-received. The most fun for us is to find songs that the audience just goes nuts over."

Somaduroff, who also plays in local band Nervis Rex, found himself with too many obligations, and the band added Christian Woods to play bass. Woods added another element to the group, whose members all take turns singing lead on various songs.

Eventually Tranquilla started feeling swamped in the same way Somaduroff did. Instead of part-time bass player, Somaduroff split fronting duties with Tranquilla as Woods took on the bass role full time.

"Christian can sing Journey note for note, and he does a lot of the metal stuff and can get up high in the register," Tranquilla said. "We're kind of like a Swiss Army Knife."

The band has grown its audience while '80s music has gained steam with younger people as millennials have been exposed to it by their parents.

"The '80s thing is really popular," said Somaduroff, who teaches at South High. "Teaching high school, there's always an '80s-themed day for homecoming week. The kids say, 'Have you heard this new song?' and I say, 'That's not new, it's Journey. It's older than you and almost older than me.' It's good timing for a band like this."

Part of the band's appeal is that throwback vibe. They often play for specific themed nights that fit their music. Even when they don't, audience members come dressed in vintage '80s garb and the band has incorporated a more elaborate, splashy stage show.

"People love dressing up and having a reason to go out," Tranquilla said. "When we started (the band) it was in the midst of everything on the shelf at Hot Topic being '80s retro. I think it's just timely. It wasn't a deliberate move. Mostly it's about having fun. You could do a '50s band with 'Splish Splash' and people would probably love it. They want something that's familiar and fun and easy to dance to."

Tranquilla said any stigmas that exist about being in a cover band vanish as soon as the dance floor fills.

"In the craziness of your youth, you're anti-covers," he said. "I was that guy too. As you get older you're happy to be playing music and have people dancing. This is just as hard and you have to rehearse just as much and it's just as challenging."

Somaduroff, who is classically trained, had a more practical response.

"I don't have any problem doing covers because I like to eat," he joked. "I like to play music and I like to eat, and if I have to play covers, I don't have a problem with that."

The band members also all have separate projects that keep them busy. Three members of the group are in Jared Woods' project Woodrow. And some members of I Like Robots also play in Yachtly Crew, a band devoted to yacht rock, the breezy genre of the late '70s.

While the band's fans might take a cue from its name with the occasional robot dance, Tranquilla said it is completely random.

"It means nothing," he said. "I actually hate robots."

With its current lineup, Tranquilla said his idea for the band has finally reached a creative and popular pinnacle.

"I'd pitched this idea many times in the past," Tranquilla said. "We are still doing this just for fun. We're just going to ride this ride and have fun as long as we can."

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