Meet Brent Amaker, the Country Singer Using Artificial Intelligence to Prepare for Immortality

(Photo by Frank Correa)
(Photo by Frank Correa)

Four days after performing onstage for the first and only time as Android Amaker, Seattle musician and Oklahoma native Brent Amaker checked into a plastic surgery clinic for a neck lift and a procedure on his eyelids. In a sense, it was just part of the show for Amaker. In another sense, there’s not a lot of distance between the show and his life.

Amaker has fronted highly stylized country and western band Brent Amaker and the Rodeo since 2005, but last year he teamed with a handful of other Seattle musicians on an electronic music project, Android Amaker. Encompassing elements of music, visual art and fashion, Android Amaker imagines a future when the singer has uploaded his consciousness to a mechanical humanoid that roams mining operations and frequents dive bars in the far reaches of the galaxy. But for the singer himself, it’s more than just a sci-fi fantasy.

It started a few years ago when Amaker, 50, read about the futurist inventor, author, and Google head of engineering Ray Kurzweil, who has written about slowing — and possibly stopping — the aging process. Influenced by Kurzweil’s writings, Amaker has become increasingly obsessed with the idea of achievable immortality. Plastic surgery was just the beginning. “Since I’m not yet able to interface with age-reversing nanobots, I decided the first step should be to do what I can now to maintain my physical appearance,” Amaker says. “It’s a vanity move in the present, but ultimately this sort of thing will not be necessary at all.”

By that, Amaker means that he aims through surgery, diet, exercise and “a good sex life” to buy himself time until the technological advances that Kurzweil predicts become reality. Citing factors such as Moore’s law, which holds that the number of transistors that fit on a microchip — and therefore computing power — doubles every two years, Kurzweil theorizes that microscopic machines, nanobots, will be used for medical purposes starting in the mid-2020s. From there, Kurzweil’s theories expand rapidly: mind uploading will become possible by the 2030s and artificial intelligence will surpass human capabilities by 2045, an event known in futurism circles as the Singularity.

“This is real shit,” Amaker says. “I’m gonna be part of it.”

Android Amaker could serve as his manifesto for futurism, though it’s really more of a promotional brochure. With the Rodeo on a break in 2014, Amaker spent most of the year collaborating with the Seattle electronic musician Vox Mod and the rapper and producer P Smoov on a self-titled Android Amaker album and some truly weird music videos (one of which Flavorwire premieres below).

Intended, the singer says, as “an art project with a beginning and an end,” Android Amaker culminated in November with what was by all accounts a riotous one-off live performance that included dancers in Tyvek biohazard suits at Neumo’s, a club in Seattle. Fittingly, that’s also where it began.

Amaker and Vox Mod (né Scot Porter) had become friendly through the Seattle music scene. One night they were hanging out at a show and, after talking about their shared interest in Kurzweil, decided they should make an album together.

“I was writing country songs about the future, or attempting to do that, and this collaboration seemed like the best way to express what was on my mind,” says Amaker, whose closest previous encounter with electronic music was a remix of a Rodeo song and a deadpan cover of Kraftwerk’s “Pocket Calculator.”

Amaker sent Porter demos of some of those songs, and Porter responded with a few of his own tracks. Soon they were meeting regularly to hash out ideas for the project, which expanded to include P Smoov, a.k.a. Peter Robinson, who did the Rodeo remix. Together, they finished an 11-track concept album of electro-cowboy songs that contrast with the arid, vintage-style western sound that defines the Rodeo.

Instead of taut boom-chicka-boom shuffles and trebly gleams of guitar, the songs on Android Amaker frame the singer’s rumbling baritone with pinging beats and swirling synthesizers. Electronic pulses and a skittering rhythm propel lead single “I’m the One,” while “Flesh Roboutique” pairs a guttural programmed beat with Amaker’s effects-treated voice. There’s plenty of Amaker’s swagger, too, on songs including the percussive, swashbuckling “Outpost” — think Han Solo raised on John Wayne movies. The singer describes Android Amaker as an album “for fans of robots and westerns.”

“This was quite the departure for [Amaker],” Porter says. “He was a bit nervous, because he had never done anything like this before. It was a really big step.”

Amaker and Porter agreed at the outset that they would simply walk away with no hard feelings if they weren’t able to find a musical middle ground. Instead, Android Amaker grew to include photography by Frank Correa and fashion by Seattle designer Christopher Jones.

“I think Brent does a pretty good job of not just putting out a record, but creating a culture around it,” says Robinson, who directed the video for Android Amaker’s song “Transported” under his visual-art moniker, Ten Hundred.

Indeed, Amaker has long displayed a penchant for bravura bits of showmanship, influenced by acts including Devo and The Ramones. It’s common for Rodeo performances to include an applause sign and a burlesque dancer, and it’s a rule when the band is on tour that the musicians wear matching cowboy suits all the time, onstage and off.

“It started out as this social experiment, and it’s become reality,” Amaker told me in 2010, around the time he and Rodeo released Please Stand By. “It’s become this really beautiful thing, and it’s a lot of fun. You learn things about other people based on how they react.”

Subverting expectations — and relishing the reaction — is all part of how Amaker blurs the line between life and art. He’s not the first performer to play that role, of course: David Bowie sang futuristic space-travel songs, too, in the guise of Ziggy Stardust, while Lady Gaga has swept away public trace of Stefani Germanotta as she’s submerged herself in a world of outlandish costumes and outré stage shows. The difference is that Amaker isn’t creating a distinct persona to obscure his real self, or amplifying some hidden aspect of his personality that he would otherwise find difficult to reveal. His real self is the starting point for conveying his worldview to an audience. The Rodeo, he says, is partly “western mythology based on my personal life,” while Android Amaker is a theatrical way of presenting his real vision of a possible future.

“The [Neumo’s] show absolutely was a performance-art sort of thing, but we also wanted to get people talking about this, and get people talking about this in a popular culture sort of way,” says Amaker, who plans to use the Android Amaker website as a forum where people can discuss futurism concepts.

Because Amaker turned 50 last year, it seems fair to wonder how that milestone has affected his musings on immortality. Not a lot, he says. “It’s really no big deal. It wasn’t a big deal to me anyway,” says the singer, who celebrated his birthday by playing a show with the Rodeo where he made his entrance by descending from the ceiling. “I’m not an aging musician seeking out a way to stay young. I think my age is an asset, especially in country music. The older you are, the more authenticity you have.”

The entertainment world is populated with people clutching tightly to youth through surgery, nonsensical diets and embarrassing reunion tours. Of course, Amaker has opted for surgery, in addition to adjusting what he eats based on recommendations in Kurzweil’s book Transcend. Yet the singer says he doesn’t fear getting older or dying. For him, the allure of immortality, or at least longevity, is the prospect of having more time to indulge his curiosity and interests.

“I’ve always felt there’s this rush to put out the next record, or do the next project, because everything is so perishable, especially with music,” he says. “Music historically — especially pop music — is a young person’s game. I passed the point a while ago where I cared about that, obviously, because I’m 50 and I’m still making music. But the idea of living longer means being more relaxed.”

Humans are already living longer than they did even a century ago: life expectancy in the U.S. increased by 30 years in the 20th century alone, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which estimates that 25 of those years are attributable to advances in public health. It makes sense to Amaker that additional advances are likely, if not inevitable, as technology improves.

“A lifetime is more than what it used to be,” he says. “Maybe it just gives me some peace of mind to think I can do a lot of things over time. I like being able to think about a music career where I’ve got many, many more years in front of me.”