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Ghost Canyon

Autopilot Off Autopilot Off
'Ladies and Gentlemen: Please Fasten Your Headphones!'

Nothing good comes easy. Many of the best artistic works are forged in hardship, and Make A Sound, the searing major label debut from Autopilot Off, is no exception. Fierce and finely made, Make A Sound is an indelible mixture of anthemic, classic alternative stylings and tight, uncompromising punk rock. Not only is it one of the year's most promising debuts, it's an album that almost wasn't.

Beset by the usual major label debut jitters, still grappling with the after-effects of September 11, Make A Sound, produced by Greig Nori (Sum 41), was made during a time of great personal and political upheaval.

Autopilot Off (Chris Johnson - Vocals, Guitar, Chris Hughes - Guitar, Rob Kucharek - Bass, Phil Robinson - Drums) formed in Orange County, New York in the late 1990s and got their first real break courtesy of MxPx, who took the band on the road with them in 1998. The group released the Island EP Autopilot Off and the all-covers Regenerator before retreating to the studio to record Make A Sound. Chatting just recently with Chris Johnson, I first wondered how the after-effects of 9/11 had nearly stopped this release from seeing the light of day. And what, if any, industry lessons had been learnt for the future? "I know that our bio puts a lot (probably too much) emphasis on the after effects of 9/11 as keeping this release from 'seeing the light of day'. But, I think it was more general anxiety that was locking us up. I mean we recorded and released our EP after 9/11. However, the new way of the world and the threat of terrorism in the US is something I feel concerned and unsure about daily. That insecure feeling, was definitely a facet of the overall anxiety I was feeling at the time of the writing and recording of our record."

How did Rancid's Tim Armstrong get involved in co-writing two of the songs on the new album? "We were in the midst of recording the record. Actually, we were nearly done. Tim is friendly with some of the people at Island. He heard some of our board mixes and liked them. He had been doing a lot of collaborating at the time, trying to stay as busy as possible, and he asked if we'd be interested in working together sometime. We were floored, and only a month or so later, we met him out on Warped for four days. There was no real direction or clear cut goal, but we clicked and ended up with two great songs. We were able to record them and get them on the record. Working with Tim was an honor for us."

You have been labeled as a "melodic rock band" (by yourself!) but surely there's more to you than just that statement?! "You always have to be called something, whether it's pop-punk, emo, rock-n-roll, or melodic rock, and all of those are labels we've been given. I think we are a rock band in the sense that, Non-punk fans could be interested in our music. That appeal comes from employing melody. However, our music does come out of Punk Rock, as do our ideals and work ethic. So that makes us a different animal than the sterotypical 'Rock Band'. Maybe we should have said we were a 'Punk-based, Melodic, Rock Band', but does that give anyone any more insight? I don't know. I think our record reflects best who and what we really are."

OK, generic question time: Where does the album title originate and what other working titles did it have? "We had no other working titles. Make A Sound had meaning for us in that, we were looking to incorporate a lot of our influences that were non-punk into our music. Meanwhile, we wanted to keep our base in punk, (which has gotten to be so saturated) and at the same time keep it fresh sounding. We were trying to make our own sound. Plus, it just sounded like a record title. To us anyway."

Tell me what was going through your head when you were writing these four songs:

'Clockwork' - "This was an older song that we revisited. It's a song about determining your own future, but at the same time being afraid of it. Basically, I was trying to improve the older version and maybe hit some points I missed the first time around. I wanted it to have an air of uncertainty but at the same time an air of hope. Plus, the old arrangement doesn't pack half the punch of the new one."

'The 12th Day' - "9/11 was something I couldn't stop thinking about. We only live 40 minutes from New York City. We lost people we knew, as did so many others in hundreds of towns like ours. It's something that has changed everything. The song is about life going on. It's also about the disaster of that day. As frightening and horrorfying as 9/11 was, the deeds and actions of the people who were there, either as rescuers or ordinary people trying to help or rescue, those people and their stories are equally, if not more, inspiring. They are really the only positive you can take away from such a dismal event. They give you a sense that nothing is insurmountable."

'Blessed By A Nightmare' - "This was just a methaphoric story about anxiety. I never felt more lucky and afraid at once, then I did while writing the record. That's where that song came from."

'Byron Black' - "We played in Houston at this club that's next to a homeless center. I was outside and this guy, Byron, just struck up a conversation. I talked to him for like an hour. The song is just based on what he told me. I think I could have done better with this one. He had a lot of really interesting things to say, and stories to tell. I missed some of that in the song."

Having gotten your first real break on the road with MxPx, how has the band changed since those days - and what musically has been the most forward advancement within your core? "Well, we are way more experienced now. I think when we wrote the demos that got Island's attention that's when we started to make strides musically. There was this feeling of 'Now or Never'. We've always been at our best when we've been under pressure."

What is your biggest phobia and what happens when you accidently encounter it?! "I don't know if I have specific phobias. I do hate to go over bridges and I hate takeoffs on a plane. I usually just count or something until it's over. That usually works."

Describe yourself in just three words "Figuring it out".

What makes Autopilot Off stand out from the musical crowd? "I think lyrically we are different than most bands in our genre. We don't have girl problems so we have to write about other things."

Finally, if you were locked into a studio and asked to create a song with a three other musicians (and none of them could be your current band mates!), who would they be, which instruments would they play and what would the name of the song be?! "I would have: Les Claypool on Bass, Sib from Boston on drums, Dave Mustaine on Guitar, and we would play a song called 'Kirk Hamlet' ... Can you hear it???? I can."

Interviewed by Russell A. Trunk

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