In this month’s cover feature, Angel Olsen speaks to the creative vision behind her highly acclaimed 2016 album “My Woman.” The singer-songwriter discusses taking creative control over her music career and her distinct, self-starring music videos.
A little more than 15 years ago, Los Angeles played matchmaker in the way that only a city so big and buzzing can, fating Eugene Goreshter and Carla Azar to meet, working on a movie score. Around that same time Azar met Greg Edwards while he was touring with his band Failure. Together, the three began writing and playing as Autolux, a band that has, for no good reason, flown mostly under the radar all these years. Perhaps it was the span between releases — six years between each full-length — or a music scene so heavily influenced by fads that has kept Autolux out of the spotlight, but it seems that might be changing with their most recent release, Pussy’s Dead.
Listening to their three full-lengths side-by-side, the evolution between each album is tangible. Beyond their deftness as musicians, each successive release conveys a new level of depth, a better perception of audience, and an adeptness in layering sound that can only be achieved with time, curiosity and passion.
As far as debut albums go, Future Perfect was as solid as anyone could ever hope for, with songs like “Turnstile Blues” still cropping up in the experimental playlists of your friends who know more about music than you do. But even “Turnstile Blues” compared to any song on Pussy’s Dead is missing the refinement Autolux have cultivated in the last ten years. The new album is filled with the unexpected: dominating synth melodies grinding up against addictive, aggressive rhythms that show a confidence and adventurousness not present on their prior releases.
Maybe this attitude was born from their time spent apart; although Autolux stayed at the forefront of all their minds, between 2012 and 2015 most of the group worked extensively on other projects. Drummer Carla Azar toured with Jack White during his Blunderbuss tour and acted in the movie Frank alongside Michael Fassbender. Meanwhile, Greg Edwards announced a reunion tour with Failure and released a new album with the group, their first since 1997. In Autolux’s time apart, all three members had an opportunity to flex their creativity outside of what they had established with the band.
Additionally, Pussy’s Dead, unlike Transit, Transit, their sophomore album, benefited from the keen eye of a producer. Boots, who in the last year has almost become a household name, might have seemed an unlikely fit considering his track record of producing big-name radio stars like Beyoncé and FKA Twigs. But Boots’ hip-hop and R&B sensibility added a level of complexity to Pussy’s Dead that is ultimately unique and ingenious.
Autolux has never fit neatly within genre anyway, even though they are often presented that way, constantly compared to My Bloody Valentine and other shoegaze supergroups. But trying to characterize Autolux as any one genre is to cheapen their sound and deny their ability to subtly borrow from many different kinds of music. Boots seemed to truly understand this about Autolux and drew those influences out and highlighted them, blending hip-hop, dream-pop and psychedlia into a kind of rock music that doesn’t need to be categorized.
Since the release of Pussy’s Dead in early April, Autolux have been touring the United States playing a variety of venue shows and festivals. Fortunately, drummer Carla Azar had time in between weekends at Coachella to chat with ELEVEN about working with Boots, the future of the band, and what inspires her most as an artist.
ELEVEN: How was your first weekend at Coachella?
Carla Azar: It was pretty good. We actually had a good show.
11: You’ve been on tour for a month or so, what has been the most memorable moment so far?
CA: There have been a couple. The Third Man Records show was a great show. It was our first really great show where everything came together. It was within the first six shows of our tour and I think that was the first one where we really felt confident after we played and like we were pulling off the material. And then playing [The Late Show with Stephen Colbert] was another great show; we all really enjoyed that.
11: Your new album just came out, Pussy’s Dead, and some of the songs on that album you wrote a long time ago, how does it feel to be able to finally play those songs live?
CA: “Change My Head” and “Reappearing” are the two older songs on the album. The other songs were written after my tour with Jack White. I guess that was still a while ago. We started really writing for this record in 2013, a little bit in 2012.
11: Were you still working on anything for Autolux while you were touring with Jack White or while you were filming “Frank,” or did you let Autolux go in that time to focus on your other projects?
CA: Always thinking about it. Never really a break from Autolux, no matter what it feels like. It’s my main love.
11: After this tour do you have plans to work on other projects or are you going to keep your focus on Autolux?
CA: We’re gonna stay focused on Autolux. We want to keep writing right now. Get ahead of the game. We want new music to come out sooner than later.
11: Your previous album was self-produced and this new one you had produced by Boots. Comparatively, what were some of the benefits of having it produced by someone else?
CA: With our last album, if we had met him at that point, we would have had him produce that record. It’s nice to have another person who isn’t in the band, someone that we respect, have another viewpoint. Someone, when we are doubting ourselves, to reassure us or to push us. Having another opinion, especially if it’s someone you trust and respect, is really necessary, especially with a band like us. We’re really hard on ourselves and we can end up having a lot of self doubt at times. And it takes a lot of pressure off. Especially somebody that brings something to the table like he did. He had a lot of incredible ideas as well. He operated almost like an invisible fourth member and it’s incredible to have that. Especially when a lot of producers don’t even play an instrument. He was a huge fan of ours, he knew all of our material, it was so effortless to work with him.
11: Do you think you’ll work with him on your next album?
CA: I would have to say yes.
11: Yeah. I totally get why, I just thought maybe if your new writing was going to go in a different direction you might want to work with someone else.
CA: The thing that’s interesting about Boots is that he is all of the directions. I mean, he produces Beyoncé records, which is an incredible feat and something I wouldn’t normally gravitate toward to produce us. But he’s also worked with Run The Jewels who are hip-hop. He’s worked with FKA Twigs who is experimental but still in that sort of dancey realm.
And when we met him, we realized his upbringing was with a hardcore band and that he comes from all these experimental rock bands, so he has all of these different elements in him. He’s not just one kind of producer. I wish I had known that when I met him because I thought “Ok, it’s just gonna be an R&B guy, who is a fan of ours, let’s see what happens.” And when we started working with him, he brought out some of the best, most interesting, more futuristic rock elements. He also added another level—he has this whole dark hip-hop side of him, as well as electronic. He’s the best of all the worlds. There’s no label to put on him. It’s exactly what we are. We don’t set out to make a record and go, “This is the kind of record and genre of music.” We don’t have that. We’re just trying to do something that we think is different. I mean, the press loves to categorize us. They pick out one song on a record and go “They’re shoegaze.” It just baffles me. It’s ridiculous. That word at this point in time is a joke.
11: When you were putting this album together was there a narrative or a theme running through it, or was it just an amalgamation of songs you really liked?
CA: It was the latter. We picked the best songs we could put together on the record and they ended up on there. I know some people do this and I would like to do it someday, where we set out to make a certain kind of record. The one thing we did know was that we wanted to make a shorter album. We wanted to make a classic length album, no more than 40 minutes long, instead of something really drawn out. But that was the only limitation we put on ourselves. We wanted to do something short and sweet.
11: What was the writing and collaboration process like as a group? Especially if length was the only limitation, it seems like you’d all have a lot of freedom, so what does that look like for you?
CA: It’s always an interesting question because every record has been different. We don’t have any rules for writing. However things happen, there’s no one way that we write. Our first record, we did a lot of jamming musically, and then vocals were put to the music last. On this record there might have been a couple songs like that. But the star writer of this album is Greg. He wrote most of the song ideas that ended up on the album and is singing lead on most of it, except for “Soft Scene” and a few others–where I pretty much wrote the lyrics and melodies on the songs I’m singing on. We all had a lot to do with the music and song arranging on the album and that’s when Greg’s demos or ideas end up becoming 100% Autolux. On this album, Greg is definitely my hero. He is the hero of the album.
11: You mentioned that you write your own lyrics for the songs you sing, but I was struck by the song “Soft Scene,” because it sounds pretty different sonically. What was some of the inspiration behind that song? It’s such a departure from many of the other songs on the album.
CA: There were a couple inspiring things. When that music idea happened, there was this weird drum pattern thing that we looped to demo it. And I was really into—and I still am—there was a bass sound, I don’t know what record it was, but the song is this bass thing that just pumps and throbs, it’s incredible. And I remember calling Greg and saying, “I want to have a bass thing that just pulsates. I love the way this sounds.” And then we started learning about side-chaining, which means you take the bass sound and you link it to the bass drum so that every time the bass drum hits, it makes the accents happen on the bass.
11: Oh, cool.
CA: Yeah! So that was the next thing that happened on that song. And then when we went to figure out actually making the album I didn’t want the live drum synced to that. I wanted to make it way more rhythmically modern. The one thing that inspired me, which was insane, was that Greg brought in a Beyoncé record and he said, “You’re never gonna believe this, but just listen to this record.” And I listened to it, and I remember the first track, there was this percussive thing on there that sounded like live-players that they looped.
Those percussive sounds changed my whole vibe. I wanted “Soft Scene” to at least have some rhythmic, percussive elements that are at least on par with that. That was my goal. That really inspired me. And that was way before I met Boots. He contacted us nine or ten months later, I didn’t even know who he was at that point. Total coincidence. Incredible story. So, I re-thought all that. The bass drum of that song is actually a mallet on a bass drum stool and then a brush on a backwards upside down snare. And then we just mic’ed it and we tweaked it until it sounded like a machine. And when Boots came in he added all these crazy samples underneath the bass drum and made it really, really sound amazing.
And you know, lyrically, honestly, that song was really about the level of disappointment I’m feeling with music. The chorus was “soft scene”—people are always talking about scenes, and we just really thought that the music industry, where music was at in the whole scene or whatever that they’re in was just really fucking weak as hell. There’s nothing that is really mind-blowing on any front. Especially at the time. I was like, “I don’t know where music is.” I’m just talking about what was selling and what people are really into and what certain blogs and websites will promote and then a year later they’re gone. No one cares because it really wasn’t that good in the first place. It was a quick fix of trend-based stuff. That’s been the case for a while, hence “Soft Scene.”
11: That’s awesome.
CA: And you know, hip infection … hipsters. I don’t know.
11: Who are some artists right now that you’re super into who defy the norm that we’ve gotten into? Bands who don’t just release a few songs that do well and disappear?
CA: The one person that is breaking the mold, and millions of people agree because he’s huge, is Kendrick Lamar. He’s someone I have so much respect for, especially after his last release, the untitled unmastered, which is completely, unbelievably bold. Especially when there are people, a lot of hip-hop artists, spending months overdoing their album and they talk about it and kind of release it and take it back. And he just released his. It was a bold move. I love him because he has a lot to say and he makes me want to listen to everything he says, and want to understand what he’s saying and where he’s coming from. There aren’t a lot of people doing that. And sonically, the style varies, you never know what he’s going to do next and I love that.
11: Deviating a little bit, we were talking about breaking the mold and as you guys start writing new music for Autolux, is there a way that you want to do that for yourself personally? How do you keep yourself engaged?
CA: I was talking with someone about this today! And I can’t tell you the answer to that. I have a plan in my head, what my next move is and what I think we should do next, but it’s not as specific of a thing as what we need to sound like. But there’s a direction I feel, and at least in my head, there are things I’ve never heard that I think we should do. As a drummer, after I’ve put something on a record, I always ask myself what I’m going to do. I always want to at least have the next record top that. I never want to be boring or do something that’s not innovative. I have a plan that came to me on this tour, at least the direction that I want that I haven’t done yet, so I’m really excited about that. »
– Sarah Eaton
*Autolux plays May 27 at Doug Fir Lounge. Tickets here.