Published Jul 30, 2010Is there anything more disheartening for a music fan than to fall in love with a band via a terrific debut album and then see them vanish without a blog post, status update or tweet explaining what happened? That was how it felt for Autolux fans after the band finished touring their first album (which included a stint opening arenas for Nine Inch Nails), 2004's Future Perfect. At the time they were signed to Oscar-winning musician T-Bone Burnett's DMZ label, a Sony imprint that eventually dissolved. Although they were moved over to Epic, the L.A.-based trio of Carla Azar, Greg Edwards and Eugene Goreshter quickly found themselves becoming the ultimate cliché. However, it was freedom they were in search of, and soon after they were released by the major, they were able to get back into the studio. While they only made the odd appearance as a guest at an ATP festival or on records by UNKLE and PJ Harvey and John Parish, Autolux were always on somebody's lips, thanks to friends like Thom Yorke, the Flaming Lips, Portishead, Trent Reznor and even the Coen Brothers name-dropping them. Now they've resurfaced with a new album, a new label and a new perspective. With so many ups and downs over the last half-decade, you might expect Transit Transit to mark some kind of shake up in the band's sound, but their sophomore record isn't much of a departure from Future Perfect. The music is still noir and ominous, but they've tightened up their core strengths like Azar's rhythms, which are as complex as ever but not so disorienting, and the tandem vocals of Edwards and Goreshter remain beguiling but far more melodic. Obviously, this time away made them a stronger band. Exclaim! caught up with Carla Azar as she was driving through Los Angeles to get their side of what went on over the last few years, whether they contemplated breaking up and the importance of driving and talking with a hands-free set.
Are you driving right now?
Azar: I am driving.
I'd just hate for you to be in an accident on my account.
Well, it'd be a good end to your story.
Yeah, but hopefully it doesn't have to come to that. So tell me, why did it take so long to put out this new record, Transit Transit?
We had some obstacles along the way. It's so boring, but we finished our touring on the last record. We toured for a year and a half, since the end of 2004. At one point in 2006 we stopped touring and found ourselves stuck on a label. We were on T-Bone Burnett's DMZ but he parted ways with Sony and they moved us over to Epic. Nobody signed us to Epic, so no one knew what to do with us. People were getting fired, people were changing, so there was no talk about paying for us to go into the studio and make a new record. We were in limbo for a year and a half. But finally at the end of 2007, they finally dropped us after our manager begged them to let us go. Thankfully we managed to buy back our first record, Future Perfect, from them. We decided to reconvene and make the record ourselves. So we made that decision and bought some equipment and instead of making another record with T-Bone, which was easy, it was three of us making it together and it wasn't easy. No one else was involved. It was a very difficult record to make. But we were free to make whatever record we wanted to make. There was a lot of emotional stress at that point. After we finished the record we wanted to find the right label, but that took time. Eventually we found the labels we were comfortable with and now it's coming out. That's the long, boring answer.
How often were the people at Epic getting back to you with answers?
Well, it wasn't about getting answers. The A&R guy that was assigned to us just wasn't responding to anything. He would say, "I just want to make sure you guys make the right record." Which is a pretty strange thing to say to a band like us. A lot of majors, especially the one we were dealing with, were only concerned with writing singles and hits. We're not a band that writes singles and hits. If we happen to write them it'll happen, but we don't set out to write that kind of music. We make the music we love and hopefully people involved with love it too.
You said this was a difficult record to make. What was the most difficult part?
Recording. Engineering our own album. We had a little bit of experience, but everyone in this band would rather dealing with the creative aspect of recording instead of the technical. A lot of the time that got taken away just hitting the drum to get the right sounds for hours. By the time it actually gets to playing the music you're burnt out and tired. With someone else recording you can just walk in, record and think about playing the music, only.
Being out of the spotlight for so long gave the impression that you were on hiatus or something...
Probably. I'm sure we puzzled a lot of people because throughout this time we didn't have any press going out explaining anything. We had a lot of distance between what we were doing and the public, the people that wanted to know. We were figuring things out, but we're also a pretty isolated band. It wasn't as though people knew every step of what was going on. Now we're talking about it, but along the way we didn't mention, for instance, we were off the label. But the record's done and coming out. The only thing I'm concerned about if whether it's good or not.
Did you ever think, "Maybe we should just pack it in?"
No, at about mid-2008, that was a point where we were just excited about the writing. There was a weight lifted when we got off Epic. At that point we took about a year to make the new record. So we finished the record, mixed it and had some financial strain because we paid for everything. There was a lot of that stuff. The thing that kept us feeling okay was knowing that we had finished something that we were really proud of. If we rushed things and forced ourselves to finish this record I think it would have been half the record this one is. It wouldn't have been real growth, which we needed.
Normally albums that take so long to come out mark a significant change, but Transit Transit sounds pretty much how I've wanted the follow-up to Future Perfect to sound.
The way you say it took so long gives the impression that we were working on it for all these years, which we weren't. There were songs, one of them, was written right after we recorded Future Perfect. We didn't work on these songs over and over the last few years. The record was just done, sitting there waiting. It's not like a month ago or last year we wrote the record. A couple songs were recorded last year, but for the most part we recorded them right away. They were pretty organic. We believe that if you have to work on something too hard, maybe it's not worth it. We are who we are. We're always going to sound like Autolux. The new album isn't drastically different. We did speak about having this "machine feeling elements" on this album. I love electronic music and movement like that, we all do. I knew that was one thing we were going to move into, but we weren't going to make an electronic record right after the last one. We didn't force ourselves to do anything like that.
When you listen to both albums, what do you see as the biggest differences?
It's hard to look at your own music and describe what is different. I think the way I feel about the differences mostly are the places we were in as people. The first record feels sort of juvenile in trying to be grown up, whereas this record is grown up but we were more innocent in a way. There are a few songs on there where we just used one take and left it. We never did that on the first record.
You put out "Audience No. 2" two years ago. Was that just a way of saying, "Hey, we're still around?"
Yeah. We didn't want this gap to happen. The reason for it wasn't just because it was taking a long time to release the record. It was our manager's decision, it was his advice. He said, "Why don't we just put it out? Who cares if you're not signed. It's a great song and there's no rules." So, we did just to have some music out there. Our fans seemed happy to have something new.
You're putting the album out on ATP worldwide and TBD in North America. How did those deals happen?
When we were dropped, the whole time Barry and Deborah, who run All Tomorrow's Parties and run the ATP label, said they'd put our record out. We did some ATP shows, like Portishead asked us to do their Nightmare Before Christmas show and Vincent Gallo, we did the Flaming Lips. Over that period we became friends with Barry. He's always been very supportive of us. So that was always there. And then we met Phil Costello after a Thom Yorke show. He'd always been a fan of ours. He asked me at some party, "How come I didn't get a copy of your record?" So I made sure the next day that he got a copy. I talked to Thom Yorke about the label [which released Radiohead's In Rainbows] and he told me how much integrity Phil has. So that was a no-brainer. Phil loved the record and knew what we were about. It was very easy and felt like the right thing, especially after meeting with other labels that weren't on the same page.
Thanks for taking the time to do this interview. I'm glad you didn't crash the car.
Actually, I parked a while ago. And you're welcome.