To appreciate where Autogramm is coming from on its fantastically ’80s-flavoured debut, What R U Waiting 4?, one has to—quite appropriately—flash back to the past.
That’s something that Vancouver scene veterans Jiffy Marx, C.C. Voltage, and the Silo are happy to do when they convene with the Georgia Straight at Strathcona’s Luppolo Brewing Company on a rainy fall afternoon.
The musical roots of the three-piece run deep, both in Vancouver and beyond. Singer-guitarist Marx most recently fronted the thrashy Jiffy Marker and the sprawling country unit Hard Drugs, the latter of which coalesced while he was living in Brooklyn.
Bassist Voltage has killed downtime by living in Berlin with skate-rock agitators Dysnea Boys, preceded by a stint in London, England, where he played with pub-rawkers the Loyalties. Drummer the Silo spent a good chunk of his adult life behind the kit with the mighty Black Mountain (now based in Los Angeles), his alternate projects including Vancouver’s ever-enchanting Lightning Dust.
The laundry list of local bands that the members of Autogramm have been involved in ranges from the fabled (the Spitfires, Jerk With a Bomb, Black Rice, Black Halos, Blood Meridian, Radio Berlin) to the obscure (mid-’90s hardcore footnotes Pebble and Thumbscrew).
“You need a family tree to keep track of it all, and I actually have one,” Marx says with a laugh.
The Silo adds: “It gets pretty out of hand once you hit your 40s.”
Autogramm came together with certain goals, the biggest one perhaps being having fun; no one is expecting What R U Waiting 4? to lead to a platinum-record designation, sold-out soft-seater tours, and a down payment on a house on the West Side.
“The official m.o. of the band was to not be a full-time touring band,” Marx says. “It was more about going on holidays, and playing shows while we were there.”
Laughing, Voltage continues: “Preferably in sunny, warm places. And we’ve been pretty good with that so far.”
The seeds for the project were planted in Berlin, where Marx visited Voltage and talked about forming a band. The Silo was convinced to join poolside in Mexico, and his bandmates now joke that he was caught in a moment of weakness. When Autogramm began rehearsing, it was casual at first.
“There was no pressure—we just started jamming once or twice a week and arranging songs,” the Silo says. “Before we knew it, we had 10 that were ready. We were just planning to do demos of them, so I set up the studio and recorded the songs. Pretty quickly, it sort of became obvious that the vibe was right.”
Still, there were old habits to be broken, and new tricks to be learned.
“Part of the challenge for this band for me was that I don’t really play fast,” the Silo says. “I had to work hard to do that. I was used to playing slow all the time, and that was a really organic thing for me. To get a nervous-energy sound for Autogramm, I had to rethink things.”
Voltage adds: “And I had to really consciously think about bass lines. Most of what I’ve done in the past has been pretty straightforward. Now I really have to lock in with [the Silo], and think more about ‘What would a band from the ’80s do with the bass?’ ”
Songs left over from previous bands were brought in and then retooled for Autogramm. Binding the three musicians together was a sincere interest in paying tribute to a fabled late-’70s/early-’80s period in music that they love. The era-specific spectres of lipstick-smeared new wave, grey-hued postpunk, and freak-flag synth-pop hang joyfully over What R U Waiting 4?.
Sometimes the band’s affection for the giants of the time seems obvious; consider the Candy-O–flavoured synth bonbons in “Sea of Regret” or the post–Joy Division percussion in “Bummer Party”. There are references aimed at dedicated trainspotters—if you like the creep-tastic soundtrack work of John Carpenter, you’re going to thrill to “Wandering Eyes”.
And there’s strong evidence that the vinyl collections of Autogramm include everything from authentic Berlin krautrock (“The Modern World”) to Akron-brand new wave (“I Wanna Be Whipped”) to British power pop (“Peter Pan”).
“We listed the bands that we all like and talk about a lot,” Marx says. “And we made playlists of the shit that we were all really jazzed on, and probably always wanted to be in a band that sounded like those bands.”
The members of Autogramm never abandoned the acts they loved as kids, even during their punk-rock years, when a lot of everything that’s not fast, loud, and snotty gets thrown overboard.
“I always had that stuff on the back burner,” Voltage says. “I was into Men at Work and all sorts of random music like that. I never gave up on the stuff that I really liked, a lot of it being from the early ’80s.”
Marx jumps in: “No hardcore band was ever going to make me forget the Cure. Ever.”
Along with the group that keeps Robert Smith in lipstick, Tubeway Army, the Go-Go’s, the Nerves, and the Vapors are among the many acts cited by Autogramm as inspirations. But what’s telling is how the admiration for said acts doesn’t stop at the instantly recognizable hits. Consider the Vapors, a group that 99.9 percent of people on Earth know as a one-hit wonder, with the 1980 single “Turning Japanese”. For Autogramm, however, that’s only where the goodness starts.
“ ‘Turning Japanese’, which has been covered by at least three really good bands that I can think of, is sort of a terrible song when compared to all the other songs on that first album by the Vapors,” Marx argues. “That’s their most famous song by far, and the only reason that anyone knows who they are.
But that album is an amazing power-pop new-wave album that nobody really knows about. I mean, no one except for lots of people like us. To me, that’s more what forming Autogramm was about: let’s not do the cartoony, ‘Turning Japanese’ side of new wave, but instead let’s pay tribute to the rest of that album.”
“It’s important for it not to be super retro,” the Silo elaborates. “You can’t really force that angle. It was more like, ‘We’re into this stuff, but we’re just going to roll with how everything comes together in the jam space.’ It was all very natural, and I think that’s why it doesn’t come across as a tribute act.”
So while the men of Autogramm are deeply enamoured with a bygone era, they’re equally in love with being in a band with friends. They’ve also been at it long enough to know that the music business is hell when approached as a career.
“To me, this is like a punk-rock band, where we’re not out to be rich and famous,” Marx says. “We’ve already done way better than we ever thought we would. But there was never any intention that it would be more than a weekend-warrior kind of thing.”
Voltage concurs: “When we started, we were like, ‘What are our goals?’ The answer was simple. California. And then Spain. And we’ve already done one of them.”
Autogramm plays Fortune Sound Club next Thursday (November 8).