The lines between work and play can get fuzzy when playing in a family band. Songwriting is brought up at dinner, or an old fight gets rehashed during practice. For married couple Karen and RJ Dietrich, the drummer and guitarist, respectively, in the local indie rock band Essential Machine, their family-band boundaries are even more delicate — the third member of Essential Machine is their son, Robert Dietrich.
“He just turned 18, so it’s a little bit different now because he’s a legal adult,” says Karen. “But before, when he was younger, it was like, 'I’m his mom but also his colleague in a band,' so sometimes that would be a little hard to manage.”
Karen and RJ started Essential Machine in the late 2000s — Karen playing concert bells and singing alongside RJ’s vocals and guitar. She soon switched to drums and they played together for years as a duo. Then one day when he was 12, Robert started showing an interest in music.
“The way he started in the band wasn’t like, 'now you’re this age or you’re doing this and that in the band,'” says RJ. “It was more like he started playing music on his own and we were like, ‘Oh, do you want to play this song with us?’ and he was like, ‘Yeah.’ So it kind of happened organically. It always was Robert’s doing this because he wants to. We always made sure he knew that it was voluntary for him, and only if he really wanted to do it.”
Robert began by playing the flute in elementary school, and eventually filled out Essential Machine’s sound on the keyboard.
“This is my first band,” says Robert. “It’s kind of weird, my first band being with my family. But I think there’s something to be said about how the songwriting process changes when you’re with your family. We’re always near each other all the time so we’re super in tune with how each other is feeling all the time. That changes the creative process a lot.”
Recently, Robert’s involvement in the band has become more extensive. Essential Machine’s April 5 release Wildfires — the group's first full-length album — marks Robert’s biggest contribution to the band to date.
“He really took the initiative this time when the songwriting was happening,” says RJ. “For instance, ‘Catacombs,’ he and Karen wrote that, and that’s how the song started. He really started getting much more interested in songwriting and what he added made it so much more unique.”
Songwriting was always something Robert was interested in, but he only just started becoming comfortable with the process.
“I just had to come to my own,” says Robert. “I had to get my own grasp of my own style. Now I’m at the level where I’m making more meaningful contributions to the band.”
Essential Machine at Deutschtown Music Festival. 10 p.m. Sat., July 13. Pittsburgh Winery Satellite, 709 East St., North Side. www.essentialmachine.com
This may be because of the open line of communication RJ and Karen strive for in their family dynamic.
“We know each other so well it’s easier to kind of be vulnerable or it’s easier to take some risks as you know that you feel safe around your family,” says Karen. “Also, because he’s an only child, [they] become a little bit closer to their parents. And Robert’s always been in the adult world, spending time with mostly adults, so in that way, it’s been easier to work with him as a bandmate because I think we’ve always treated him as an adult, even when he wasn’t so much.”
Robert credits his musical outlook to being treated as sort of an honorary adult. For years, he’s been in the Pittsburgh music scene around mature, established, professional musicians.
“That sort of made me reflect that [mentality],” says Robert, “and I take the band really seriously in a way a lot of people my age may struggle with because they may not have the experience in the scene like I have.”
Both RJ and Karen feel grateful that they can give their son this unique experience, one RJ, who started playing in a band at 13, wishes he could have had.
“Essential Machine is by far the most successful music project I’ve ever been in,” says RJ. “[Robert will] always have the time where we played these really cool shows in neat spaces and meet really cool people. So I feel like that’s a gift that is really awesome to be able to give to your child. Regardless of what he ends up doing when he becomes my age.”