If Vancouver’s Autogramm has learned something over the years, it’s that little things will factor into a band’s longevity—a short list including a commitment to the beauty of democracy and the equitable distribution of duties when it’s time for the unglamorous behind-the-scenes work.
Over drinks at the Lido on Broadway, bassist C.C. Voltage and singer-guitarist-keyboardist Jiffy Marx note that their approach to business has gotten the group through the odd rough patch. Autogramm is getting ready to release its third full-length, Music That Humans Can Play, that feat being an accomplishment for no other reason than, not long ago, the group had seemingly run its course.
“It’s like being in a family where C.C. and I are always burnt out,” Marx says, that maybe having something to do with the fact both are now parents. “We had to kind of pep talk ourselves to keep going. And, yeah, we had some help with that.”
Everyone involved in Autogramm—including drummer The Silo and newly enlisted Emerald City-based guitarist Lars Von Seattle—has been at the music game for a while. Compile a list of bands they’ve played in and it includes, but is not limited to: Black Rice, Jerk With a Bomb, Black Halos, Black Mountain, Hard Drugs, Spitfires, Lightning Dust, Catheters, Dysnea Boys, Destroyer, Blood Meridian, Bread & Butter, and Loyalties.
If years in the trenches have taught Autogramm something, it’s that rock ’n’ roll doesn’t always pay—at least from a monetary standpoint.
“It’s a lot of work, especially because, as you know, playing music isn’t exactly a huge payday,” Marx says. “We’re not rich and famous doing music, and we’ve been doing it for more than 25 years.”
But there is a payoff: being able to hang with people who, more than bandmates, have become friends. If Autogramm works, it’s for a reason.
“The dynamics of this band are very simple—we’re very democratic, probably more so than any band that I’ve ever been in,” Marx offers. “We all not only contribute a lot, but also share the duties, and that’s really clear. That’s why this has been more successful than other bands that I’ve been in. Often it’s just one person doing everything.”
Maturity is part of that, Voltage offers. The odd therapy session, and learning that sometimes the best thing in the world is a swim in the ocean, has probably helped as well. But just as important is the way that different members have developed specific, and invaluable, skill sets over the years. Autogramm is truly the sum of its parts.
“Everything just weirdly came together for us,” Voltage says. “Jiffy does videos and art and album covers and posters. The Silo is the recording guy, and I’m the guy who knows how to do the PR stuff. We had all the necessary components that, in some ways, are the hard parts of starting a band.”
A LEGEND IN Vancouver thanks to his long-running involvement in Black Mountain, drummer Joshua Wells—AKA The Silo—relocated to Chicago a couple years back. He’s the main reason Autogramm is still a thing.
Marx notes that there was the stereotypical band squabble right before the group was supposed to go into the studio for Music That Humans Can Play.
“When it was over, we were like, ‘Maybe we should just be pals, say we had a good run, and then move on,’ ” Voltage says. “But Josh was the guy who stepped in to sort of cheerlead us on. He’s the guy who has real bands—professional bands—and he was like, ‘We’re going to make another record!’ ”
In addition to being a beacon of positivity, Wells—a Wizard of Oz-like master in the studio—gets much of the credit for the endless audio flourishes on Music That Humans Can Play. Think of the cascading synths that elevate “Born Losers” out of Epitaph Records territory, or the space-transmission guitars on the robo-disco delight “Why Do We Dance”.
“He does the real recording and production side of things, so everything has his stamp on things,” Marx says. “C.C. and I might do the skeleton sketches that we bring to the table, but Josh is the guy who brings them to life, sort of Frankensteining things together.”
As on past releases—No Rules and What R U Waiting 4?—Music That Humans Can Play is deeply rooted in a time when skinny ties and skinnier jeans were the height of fashion and Stiff Records was the coolest label in the world. That’s another way of saying that, improbably, Autogramm has little in common sonically with the myriad of bands its members have played in over the years.
So while there’s an argument that “Plastic Punks” pays homage to the Buzzcocks at the 100 Club circa-’78, the laser-like synths give it a vibe as futuristic as “Homosapien”-era Pete Shelley. “Always Gonna Be My Girl” is new romantic pop reimagined for ’50s sock hops, and “Dive Right In” works an organic-techno groove made for back-alley Berlin nightclubs.
THE MUSIC BUSINESS is a funny thing. If the men of Autogramm were in their teens, they’d be hailed a note-perfect revivalists of a time they never knew—a band that does the sound of 1979 every bit as perfectly as Blondie, Devo, the Buggles, the Flying Lizards, and the Raincoats, all whom helped invent new wave as punk was burning out in England.
Marx and Voltage were both inspired to start playing by the acts that made labels like Lookout, Epitaph, and SST iconic—Marx’s first time onstage was opening for Green Day in Calgary with two future members of 3 Inches of Blood.
Over the years, the bandmates have never forgotten their love of new wave’s golden era, where there was nothing weird about having XTC’s “Life Begins at the Hop” sandwiched on a mix tape between M’s “Pop Muzik” and David Bowie’s “Ashes to Ashes”.
“I think, before you got to choose what you like—say punk—you heard things on the radio,” Voltage says. “A lot of what we’re influenced by, for me, is nostalgia. I think my favourite song in the entire world is that ’Til Tuesday song ‘Voices Carry’. That’s the kind of stuff that was on the radio when we first started noticing music.”
Those old reference points were front and centre when Autogramm first started playing, but with the kind of twists that might be expected from music obsessives.
“One of the first records I ever played for C.C. was the 20/20 record that has ‘Yellow Pills’ on it,” Marx says. “I was like, ‘Other than the Cars, which everyone knows, this is what our band should sound like.’ Then when Josh came in he had something different to bring. C.C.’s taste is a bit more rock ’n’ roll, and Josh’s taste is a bit more pop, and to that you add my punk.”
By putting them together, he continues, “we kind of ended up with new wave, but with different nuances. We always consciously try to make music you can dance to that isn’t dance music. That’s kind of what new wave is—rock, or punk rock kind of, but more dancey.”
If there’s one label that might stick best to Music That Humans Can Play, it’s fun—reflecting the fact Autogramm is something of a rarity in today’s increasingly crazy world: a democracy that actually functions like one. On that front, the group’s goals moving forward are simple ones.
“When Josh got us back to being excited about the band again, he reminded us why we started,” Voltage says. “The thought was that we’d go on vacations together and play music, like we’ll be doing when we tour Europe next spring. So the expectations aren’t necessarily about how many records we sell or how good the shows are. They’re more about how much fun we can have while getting free drinks.”