I’m standing in a Tokyo convention center with several hundred other people to watch three robots called the Z-Machines try to sell us Zima. It's 40 minutes before they're even turned on, but they're surrounded by bright blue lights that are supposed to remind us of booze that only exists here in Japan. We gawk at the robo-guitarist’s dreadlocks, which are multicolored computer wires that sort of make the droid look like Jonathan Davis if his hair were actually Skittles. Several people scream“amazing!” after the six-armed drummer-bot executes a perfect drumstick spin.
The Z-Machines are a robot rock band developed by a university professor and a mechanical designer as “the future of live music.” I—as well as most likely everyone else watching them play their second show ever—do not know this. All we know is they are a band of robots funded by Molson Coors Japan to push Zima on us, which is too weird to pass up.
Do you remember Zima? It was an alcoholic drink introduced to America in the early ‘90s as a “malternative” (people actually used this word) to beer. It was clear and tasted like medicinal Sprite. It quickly became a joke, the implication being that if you were a guy who drank Zima you were really girly. (This was before Icing was a thing.) Unloved, unwanted, and unconsumed, Zima died a quiet death in America in 2008.
However, Zima is alive and kicking while we walk towards the Z-Machines' stage. Tonight, Zima offers both the classic flavor and “Zima Pink,” which tastes exactly like regular Zima but is pink. Japan is the only country where Zima is still actively marketed—go to almost any club in Tokyo, and you’ll see men and women clutching bottles of it. On top of that, every convenience store carries it, and Zima sponsors parties and even runs a “Zima Party Shuttle” between popular Tokyo clubbing districts Roppongi and Shibuya.
And now they have a robot rock band, featuring a frontman (frontmachine?) whose face is a little screen that frequently features just the Zima logo. When it turns on for the first time, crowd suddenly doubles in size, people literally running over after the guitar-bot croaks out, “WE….ARE…Z-MACHINES.” They rip into their first song. Turns out they don’t really sound like a rock band, more like Deadmau5. It, like nearly all of the songs they play, is actually provided by a well-known Japanese DJ. The crowd bobs along.
Well after this show, I’ll learn how impressive Z-Machines' technical capabilities are. The guitar-bot (whose named Mach, they all have names) has 78 “fingers” and uses 12 picks to play. The drum machine (Ashura) holds 21 drumsticks. The third member, keyboardist Cosmo, can shoot lasers out of its body, though that’s about it (Cosmo seems a bit rushed compared to the other two).
None of these details, though, can be seen in person. I’m standing in the very front for Z-Machines, and it quickly becomes clear they aren’t cool visually. “We just watched the fucking Chuck-E-Cheese band,” one friend shouts later, and he wasn’t wrong. Z-Machines move in a herky-jerky way that becomes more hilarious with each song. The guitar-bot headbangs, but it ultimately looks like he’s shaking his head in disappointment at himself. If we're being honest with ourselves, Cosmo's arms look like dildos and are about as useful as an actual dildo might be to a robot. The drummer, the neatest looking one, overuses his drumstick twirling ability. It was like this video, except without Young Jeezy’s voice.
But the whole crowd goes quiet when, after a few songs, the Z-Machines stop glowing and Japanese DJ ONO comes out to spin a few songs. People dance, but nobody seems enthralled. We came for Z-Machines, and fear they are finished. Nope, thank goodness. They light back up, and we roar. The biggest screams, not just of the set, but of the whole night, come when the guitar-bot chirps out “NOW WE HAVE A SPECIAL NEW SONG FROM ENGLAND… FROM SQUAREPUSHER.” People freak out, and continue to freak even though the actual music sounds like it was quickly composed, visions of Zima-flavored Yen in Squarepusher’s eyes. Doesn’t matter—it’s a new Squarepusher song being played by robots, and that is, in its own way, totally amazing.
Then comes the big finale, Z-Machines' only original song “Post People, Post Party.” Mach’s face once again lights up with the Zima logo, and now he digi-barks at us to “PUT YOUR ZIMA UP.” A few hesitantly comply, as the guitar-bot repeats the sentence. Then, he plunges into a guitar solo, soon joined by the drum droid pounding out a beat. Then the once-frantic music slows, and Mach once again commands, “PUT YOUR ZIMA UP.” From the sides come four dancers wearing skin-tight spandex, each holding a bottle of Zima. As they lift their Zimas to the sky, more join. It seems unlikely that Z-Machines are the future of music, and I have no idea if they'll even be a cost-effective way to make people buy more Zima. Our Zimas are raised skyward. We will laugh at the absurdity of Z-Machines later, but in this moment, these robots are giving everything we wanted.
Patrick St. Michel plans on riding the Zima Bus very, very soon. He's on Twitter - @mbmelodies