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The Sound of Escape

Photo by Ben Clark

It’s well into a thoroughly friendly conversation with the members of Autolux that things begin to get a little weird. The discussion at Silver Lake’s El Conquistador restaurant — with drummer Carla Azar, guitarist Greg Edwards and bassist Eugene Goreshter — has strayed into rather esoteric topics, from the dialectical nature of art, to the competing values of form and content, to that undervalued Austrian painter Adolf Hitler. And rather than simply dropping his humorous aside on Der Führer’s strong sense of aesthetics, Edwards has followed my raised eyebrow into an intellectual justification for it that has ventured so far into left field, his bandmates have become concerned I might forget the sarcasm of his original point and translate his discourse into the written word without context. Goreshter remains cool when I make a flippant comment about rallying skinheads to their next show, but Azar is on the verge of an anxiety attack, and Edwards suffers an asthmatic reaction so acute that he eventually excuses himself from the table to honor another German, Mr. Heimlich, by hurling up the tortilla chips that have become stuck in his constricted throat.

For a minute or two, three of the most formidable musicians in Los Angeles are oddly tense about some green journalist’s take on their band. The reason: Each of the three has had prior experience in the media spotlight performing with auspicious bands that broke up just after liftoff — Azar in Ednaswap, Edwards in Failure and Goreshter in Maids of Gravity — but the three are involved in something far more precious to them today, something Edwards proudly calls “a fully realized vision.” Since they first began jamming in 2000, they have all treated Autolux like a hothouse flower, shielding it from overexposure and industrial contamination, not to mention gross misinterpretation. But very soon, on September 7 to be exact, the fruit of that careful cultivation, a record called Future Perfect, will be released by DMZ records and, thanks to a distribution deal with the Sony/ Columbia affiliate Red Ink, slingshotted around the globe. Azar, Edwards and Goreshter are anticipating its launch by kindly giving me their very first interview together, and for a moment they have no idea what I plan to say.

They needn’t have worried. Future Perfect is a work of unimpeachable brilliance, an album that takes its listener hostage and doesn’t release him until each of its 11 demands has been voiced and met. Its very first mandate, “Turnstile Blues,” is one of the finest opening salvos in recent memory, an ornery purple bruise of a song that knocks down even the most cynical doors of resistance with a drumbeat so powerful, every hit approximates a sonic depth charge. It’s monumental percussion work — “When the Levee Breaks” on amphetamines — and from the moment it reaches the speakers, before the serpentine vocals, molten guitar work and grinding bass distortions even kick in, it’s all over: Autolux’s seemingly harmless pixie in the homemade drop-cloth dress has you — by the balls, the throat, wherever your flesh is most pliant and vulnerable.

“As soon as it was written, I loved it,” says Azar. “It’s the first 100 percent unique song I’ve ever been a part of.” The song’s clean-burning, blue-flame vocals and lasciviously contracting and expanding instrumentation served as a lightning rod for Autolux’s future perfections. “The band was so collaborative, it took a lot of hours of us playing together, putting parts together analytically, to figure out how everything was going to work,” says Edwards. “There were other songs we’d written together that we liked a lot. But after ‘Turnstile Blues’ was finished and we could play it as a band, we knew, ‘Okay, we know what we’re doing. This is the starting place.’”

And what a journey follows. The music on Future Perfect cries out as if tortured and beaten into submission, bent unwillingly into the proper keys, then flung out of the register altogether on icy chains of echo. Built on raucous experimentation in the tradition of Sonic Youth, fine-tuned with the grunge-pop sensibility of bands like Smashing Pumpkins and channeled through racks of effects that would make My Bloody Valentine envious, Autolux’s sound is visual and hallucinatory: Tommy-gun guitars keep a suspicious lookout on “Robots in the Garden” or cut and run in bank-robbery fashion on the flight-themed chorus of “Angry Candy”; the bass skids out as if taking a sharp corner at unsafe speeds on “Blanket”; the drums are foot soldiers fanning out to balance the melodic carnage. Future Perfect is the sound of escape, unseen pursuers nipping at the heels of violent exodus. And even in moments of relative calm like “Great Days for the Passenger Element,” Edwards’ lone take at the microphone, Autolux’s rest is fitful, its world-weariness evident. Only on “Asleep at the Trigger,” Azar’s wistful vocal soliloquy, does the band ever seem to let down its guard.

But from what exactly is Autolux fleeing? Band members — who collaborate on lyrics as democratically as they do on music — don’t say. While their wordplay evidences a sense of irony (“You know lately I’ve been worrying that it might just be okay” on “Blanket”), alienation (“They all want the same thing that you . . . hate” on “Here Comes Everybody”) and a playful embrace of double entendre (“Get caught on the weak end” on “Turnstile Blues”), it never reveals the subject matter. The sense of ambiguity and ambivalence is reinforced by vocals that are uniformly pure and taciturn — in wild discord with the consistently dirty and frenzied instrumental tracks — and distinctly feminine though sung mostly by Goreshter, who credits his detached gyno-tenor to a teenage obsession with “otherworldly, androgynous Jamaican dub and reggae singers from the ’70s like Junior Murvin and Desmond Dekker.” When I ask what he and his bandmates are actually singing about, he politely stonewalls: “It’s open to emotional interpretation, both for the listener and for us.” Future Perfect’s words remain embryonic tissue — undifferentiated, capable of becoming anything.

 

Goethe, yet another German, could have been describing the course of Autolux’s career when he said, “Be bold, and mighty forces will come to your aid.” Disenchanted by earlier experiences in the music industry, the members — particularly Azar — decided early on to avoid hype and concentrate solely on being a great band. “If people like us, they can try to find us,” she says. With stunning speed, “they” did. Legendary producer T-Bone Burnett was so struck on seeing the band’s very first show at Spaceland, he jumped onto the stage to help the trio load out. Signing with Burnett after he founded the DMZ label with acclaimed filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen in 2002 was “obvious.” The trio knew he wouldn’t tamper with the magic Autolux had tapped into live. “He comes from this really intensely organic place,” says Goreshter. “He’s all about preserving the vibe, the energy, the essence of whatever is happening in the room, and trying to capture that on tape.”

Determined to keep the business end as real as the music, Autolux — without soliciting contacts, mailing out demos or performing a single showcase — was quickly picked up by the White Stripes’ red-hot manager, Ian Montone. The connection has proved advantageous. With a show slotted at Britain’s premier rock festival, Reading-Leeds, and with Future Perfect’s release just around the corner, the stars that seemed to be in alignment for the band from its inception appear ready to go supernova.

As we finish the last of our drinks, I indicate my goodwill toward Azar, Edwards and Goreshter by quoting an early blurb from the defunct New Times referring to Autolux as a “supergroup.” Edwards turns with a contagious grin and says, “Actually, we prefer the term über-group.”


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