Features I by I 18.06.16

Autolux are the anxious, electronic sound of our terrifying age of Trump

The world’s a mess, and don’t Autolux know it. The cult LA trio, admired by Radiohead and PJ Harvey, seem to soak up the current international air of dread on their exhilarating new album, Pussy’s Dead, but there’s more to them than nihilism and noise, Al Horner hears before a gripping performance at NOS Primavera Porto.

It’s 12 years since Autolux were signed to cult film auteurs the Coen Brothers’ ill-fated record label, but there’s still a Coen-ish humour beneath the black of the trio’s gloomy sound. “A great, dark, fatalistic sarcasm,” guitarist-vocalist Greg Edwards calls it. “There’s always been a strange tension in our music between anxiety and just laughing into the abyss. I worry sometimes that doesn’t come across.” It’s certainly there to be found if you delve deep enough into recent third album, Pussy’s Dead – a tense, 10-track chemical fizz of down-tuned guitars and creeping electronic influence that’s among the year’s best. “It’s so, so sad to be happy all the time,” they eye-roll on opener ‘Selectallcopy’. Even the record sleeve, a grinning skull shooting rainbow lasers from its hollow eyes, treads a high-wire between sinister and silly. Their former label bosses, whose films like Fargo famously pry comedy from catastrophe, would probably approve.

Autolux was born in 2001 when Edwards’ band mates, singing bassist Eugene Goreshter and drummer Carla Azar, met writing the score for Nobel Prize-winner Dario Fo’s play Accidental Death of an Anarchist. Since then, across 15 years and two albums – first Future Perfect, released on the Coens’ and T-Bone Barnett’s DMZ, before 2010’s bone-rattling Transit Transit – they’ve become cult alt-rock favourites. When they step out beneath an ashen grey sky at Primavera Porto in Portugal today, they’re still getting to grips with translating to stage songs from their recent third full-length, full of tricky sub-bass warbles and electronic scuttles.

Autolux’s Carla Azra at NOS Primavera Porto, June 12 2016

“We were a little nervous, approaching it. The main thing we didn’t wanna have to do is to play to a ProTools session. Because a lot of bands do that and it’s a slippery slope,” says Edwards before the show, during which, FYI, nerves are categorically no longer apparent. When new album standout ‘Brainwasher’ squeals into life in front of the festival crowd, it sounds like an arsenal of guitars and grotty synths brought to life by black magic, like a scene in Fantasia only with Gibson SGs instead of broomsticks. “No matter how electronic or inconsequential a sound is, having a human to trigger that is essential. The anxiety of doing that live is the soul of live performance. Once you start taking little things away that a human is in charge of, you can just feel this sense of death onstage.”

Anxiety is a word that’s hard to get away from when listening to Pussy’s Dead. From agitated tracks like ‘Hamster Suite’, in which life is just a day in a cage, to the pulsing, nervous sway of of ‘Junk For Code’, it’s an album that seeps unease, chiming with the bleak current political landscape without ever explicitly addressing it. “I’m big on anxiety. I think anxiety drives me and is a source of a lot of unpleasantness,” says Edwards. “We’re not a politically-driven band. But it’s true that right now, the introduction of Donald Trump onto the world stage is definitely a tense moment,” he admits, conceding that this and other similarly grim recent world events may have informed the album’s chronic claustrophobia. “That will be the end of any possibility of any respect from any person with a brain throughout the rest of the world. If he’s elected, I don’t know how any of us will ever be able to show our faces again.”

Autolux never mean to drag out the years between records. It just happens. After 2004’s Future Perfect, their label DMZ dissolved, resulting in a six-year wrangle to finally make Transit Transit. This time round, it was extracurricular commitments that got in the way. Azar ended up a touring member of Jack White’s blues crew, also appearing in Jon Ronson film Frank, while Edwards reformed his old band, the Steve Albini-approved Failure. “The hardest thing is having any kind of perspective” after working on-and-off on music for such a long period of time, says Edwards. “It’s easy to kick things to the curb and become attracted to something entirely different because you’re just bored.”

Which is where in stepped one Jordan Asher, better known as Beyonce collaborator Boots. “It was crucial to have him come in and hear the body of songs we had that we thought were the foundations of a record, then for him to go, this is record is great, it’s done – you just need to finish it. That was really important to have. We needed to do that for ourselves. After so much time, you start to lose sight.” The Beyonce connection is one I get the impression they kinda balk at – Edwards has previously clumsily described “not having any interest” in her, “aside from thinking she’s a beautiful, sexy woman.” Which might make you brace yourself for his explanation of an album title like Pussy’s Dead.

There’s no great meaning to the title though, the guitarist insists. “It was just some words in a book I was reading. Charles Dicken’s last book, called The Mystery of Edwin Drood. It was the book he was writing in serial form, like all of his books, when he died. I saw those words on the page: ‘Pussy’s dead’. It’s not even contextual. The sentence was actually talking about a character, Pussy, and Pussy’s dead father. Nothing to do with anything. I just saw those words. When I have that gut reaction to things, it just kinda falls like a rock outta the sky. I can’t deny it. This one, it seemed like a good idea to deny it. But it kept coming back up.”

Picking such a loaded title in 2016 feels a bit like tossing a grenade into current discussions around feminism and violence towards women though, I tell him. “Of course. That’s the first thing that your mind goes to when you hear that title. Part of me just loved the way it looked,” he replies. “The provocation of it was the least interesting part of it to me. It has humour, it had mystery, it has darkness, it has the ability to piss of people in a politically correct context. And also, the meaning to me – which I don’t really need to have, as to me it’s just an aesthetic pairing of words – I’ve never thought of a vagina.”

At Primavera Porto’s sister festival in Barcelona the weekend previous, Autolux once more shared a bill with Radiohead, whose Thom Yorke is known fan and has invited the band to open for him on occasion. Does having famous fans like Yorke and PJ Harvey, another one-time tour mate, ever become an albatross?

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Autolux’s Greg Edwards at NOS Primavera Porto, June 12 2016

“That kinda thing gets written about and put in our bio, then it gets amplified out of proportion. It’s just name-dropping really. It’s not an albatross – a lot of these people are friends of ours, or people I have a massive amount of respect for. But there is a curse of becoming a band’s band. The best example I can think of is Can. At the time they were extreme experimental rock flying way under the radar, as they probably wanted to be. Everyone who takes musically seriously knows Can now. But back in the day they were only really appreciated by serious music aficionados,” he says. “That’s not what we’re trying to do. That’s not what I would want to be remembered for because ultimately, we love songwriting. We want to write great, unique catchy songs. Which might sound ridiculous to people.”

It doesn’t sound so ridiculous. ‘Change My Head’ – one of the album’s more plaintive moments, led by soul-searching piano – is almost Beatles-like in simplicity, I say. “Yeah, that’s much more an obvious, conventional way of writing a song. Even a song like [brooding Pussy’s Dead standout track] ‘Junk for Code’ – to us that’s a very poppy catchy song. That literally was the reaction we had when we listened to playback when it first came together. Anyway – it’s wonderful to have people you admire notice your work.”

By the time they’re finished onstage, there’s sweat pooled at the feet of bassist Goreshter and ba-ba-bas from ‘The Science Of Imaginary Solutions’ (pretty much their ‘New York I Love You, But You’re Bringing Me Down’) still being sung by the pocket of die-hard fans at the front. It took six years for the Autolux machine to start rumbling again after Transit Transit. Will they wait as long to write another record once the dust has settled on Pussy’s Dead? “You know, I would love to be held in a room for six months with men with guns pointed at our heads, forcing us to make a record in six months,” Edwards laughs. A band held hostage under violent duress till they write a new album. It could be a Coen Brothers film, couldn’t it?

Al Horner is on Twitter. 



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