After blissfully merging music and machines on 2004’s Future Perfect, Los Angeles art-rock band Autolux returns with a new cyborg lovechild called Transit Transit. But the future is far from perfect when it comes to technology and the humanity it has entranced with each accelerated innovation, according to the group’s guitarist.
“I’m not sure whether to view it as a disease or an evolution,” Autolux‘s Greg Edwards told Wired.com by phone, describing technology’s escalating effect on our everyday lives. “I can’t imagine what the world is going to be like in 200 years.”
Regardless of the future’s true vector, Autolux’s technocultural sonics will slot right into our robot overlord’s iPod playlist. Transit Transit is a dizzying hybrid of experimental pop fed through beaten pedals, vintage synths, estranged samples and other technological trickery but resolutely anchored in confident, hypnotic songcraft. Somehow the record manages to feel equally alien and familiar.
Released last week by TBD Records, the indie label that put out Radiohead’s In Rainbows, Transit Transit is the inner soundtrack of an artificial intelligence that’s just steps away from sentience. It’s about as organic as inorganic gets.
That enigmatic sound, which Autolux takes on a national tour kicking off Wednesday in San Francisco, has much to do with the band members’ continuing evolution. Edwards, bassist Eugene Goreshter and titanium-elbowed drummer Carla Azar shared vocal, performance and recording duties on the record, all while learning on the job.
Autolux produced Transit Transit over several years in its own studio Space 23, with Edwards serving as an engineer. Then, the band waited years while angling for a forward-looking label that would respect its weighty takes on technology, music and culture.
It was worth it: Unlike the urgent Future Perfect, Transit Transit is an introspective spacewalk, filled with lyrics about “cut-up code” and “flatline days” during “the golden age of feeling nothing.” Which is to say our age, one more connected through technology than ever before, yet increasingly depersonalized.
“It does seem like a teleological movement towards one mind,” Edwards said. “You can easily get information, but you can just as easily get misinformation, and it’s all presented in nearly the same way. The authenticity of that information becomes difficult to parse.”
With Edwards’ help, we parsed the elusive meaning of that technological conundrum, plus Transit Transit, artificial intelligence, equal-opportunity information, The Beatles and much more.
Wired.com: Autolux is brilliant at creating soulful rock that nevertheless sounds as if it was made by machines.
Greg Edwards: All the equipment, machines and pedals don’t mean anything to us if you can hear it working. We’re just using it to get an unique organic sonic signature that doesn’t sound like it’s coming from equipment. Or doesn’t sound like what is conventionally produced by that kind of equipment, pedals and recording techniques. We’re definitely using the technology to get to a natural sound, in some way.
Wired.com: Why do that at all? What is it about working immersively through pedals, tech and samples of fridge doors closing that allows you to find a natural feel?
Edwards: Because that’s just what helps us get the results we want. Plus, it forces you to let go of the control. You have to. No matter how much control you have over the technology, when you start processing a sound through a certain number of devices, all this chaos that you couldn’t have planned for enters the music. And that chaotic element from that outside adds something that is really inspiring. You know, I hear a lot of music where I can tell every note is exactly played, controlled and sculpted. And that kind of music is almost always boring and dead to me.
Wired.com: That crops up in your lyrics as well, which transmit this sense of being oppressed by “cut-up code” and “flatline days.”
Edwards: Yeah, I like that take on it. That’s the way Autolux sings the blues. The lyrics are coming from the same psychological standpoint as the blues, but to say that we are oppressed by technology.
Wired.com: Do you extend that philosophy outside the band? Do you feel yourself overwhelmed by tech?
Edwards: Not to get too cosmic, but the whole point of the universe is for it to see and know itself. And I’m not saying I ultimately believe that, but I think it works as a theory for what we are talking about. That’s why human consciousness evolved, so the universe could have self-awareness. And technology seems to be that next level in the evolution, where the communication between brain to brain is almost becoming totally unified with the way everything is shared through technology.
You can find out anything about anything, within a moment. You can connect with people all over the planet. I don’t know you can stop that. I’m not sure whether to view it as a disease or an evolution. But I don’t have a pessimistic view of technology. It’s just happening.
Wired.com: That’s refreshing, in a way. Because then the concept of artificial intelligence becomes a misnomer. What you’re saying is that it’s all part of an evolution incorporating technology, rather than standing apart from it.
Edwards: Right, it’s the natural, logical extension of what our brains are capable of. Our brain is the organ that creates the mind, and can only do so much stuck as it is in our bodies. It has found natural expression in both the natural world and technology, and it’s incredible how quickly everything has escalated in the last 20 or 30 years. Obviously, technology has been evolving since the beginning of humankind. But it’s scary how quickly it is moving now. It would be interesting to see if it slows down, or if it just keeps going at this rate. I can’t imagine what the world is going to be like in 200 years.
Wired.com: Strange talk, from a band whose last album was called Future Perfect!
Edwards: That’s difficult, because my brain doesn’t have the capacity for an idyllic utopia. [Laughs] I just don’t think that’s the way the world works. Even the most positive things in the world — democracy and freedom — have a downside. There is no perfect future, although there is a Future Perfect. Technology is democratizing the world, at least psychologically, which I think is a good thing. But ultimately it unleashes a flow of information that is often overwhelming. And that could make the world dizzy at some point, if it hasn’t already.
Wired.com: I was talking with Alan Moore about this. Technology, especially the internet, has allowed us to communicate with anyone anywhere, but it has also depersonalized us.
Edwards: That’s right. That’s the funny thing: The more we all become connected, the less intimate we become. It becomes more like one giant mind, as opposed to a bunch of individual minds meeting in a specific time and space. And all of the science-fiction writers and theorists going back a hundred years have been talking about this. I think they would be happy to find out that they were fortune-tellers.
Wired.com: Does the song “Census” tackle this issue, especially with that lyric, “The golden age of feeling nothing?”
Edwards: Those were actually the last lyrics written for the record, and that was the last song written for it as well. I really was consciously, as opposed to any other song on the record, trying to encapsulate the whole feeling of the record. But it’s not utterly specific, because even if our lyrics comes from a specific place, we try to make them as general as possible, so they can be approached from different angles and perspectives. So whatever that applies to for the person listening, that’s what I want.
Wired.com: Equal-opportunity information, if you will.
Edwards: Yeah, it’s there to be experienced. We don’t just throw lyrics out there; they’re meticulously crafted. But not for a specific response.
Wired.com: How about communicating through your instruments? You and Eugene create serious mayhem.
Edwards: The funny thing is I started out as a bass player. That’s the instrument I feel comfortable on; I’ve never felt comfortable as a guitarist. I know I can get things out of the guitar necessary for the music I make, but it’s always a necessary evil. Because it’s a complete unknown when I pick up the instrument, which is actually what I love about it. That’s why I think I get unique sounds out of it. I got to a certain point on bass where I was almost too comfortable. My fingers knew where to go too easily, which is also why I switched instruments when we began the band.
And Eugene did the same. He was primarily a guitar player at that point, and was a classically trained violinist. So we both liked the idea that the instruments would not have their conventional roles, and talked about how they would interpenetrate each other to the point that listeners had a hard time telling which is which. We liked the idea of turning their conventional roles on their heads. We bought a lot of pedals and experimented, but now it’s second nature to us. Now, I feel there are times when the next move away from convention would involve us stripping away all the pedals and tech for a sound that is less adorned, away from the processing that we naturally gravitate toward.
Wired.com: Right, the Autolux country album. The ultimate unknown.
Edwards: [Laughs] You say that as a joke, but that sounds really appealing.
Wired.com: Transit Transit insinuates itself into your brain more than the first one. I’d call it introspective, but I guess I would prefer if you did.
Edwards: Well, that has a lot to do with the way it was created, where each member of the band probably listened to each song thousands of times. [Laughs] But I love music that sneaks up on you. Obviously, the ultimate thing is when an album hits you over the head, and continues to grow on you every time you listen to it. That makes me think of The Beatles; they’re a prime example of that. And that’s not so easy to do. I’ve always loved records that you don’t necessarily fall in love with right away, but still stick with you and make you go back and to listen to them again and again. And around the third or fourth listen, you realize you’re probably going to be listening to it for another year at the least. We’re always listening for that evolution, which is exciting to us. With this record, you haven’t really listened to it unless you’ve listened to it 10 times.
It’s unfathomable to me that [The Beatles] existed.
Wired.com: Funny that you mention The Beatles, because we’ve been geeking the hell out of them recently.
Edwards: It’s unfathomable to me that the band existed. It’s unfathomable that Lennon and McCartney were in the same band on the same planet, in the same geographical district at the same time in history. And then to also have George and Ringo? It was the perfect storm. Every kind of musical innovation, even movements that aren’t associated much with The Beatles, like punk, that you can trace back? The Beatles did it first, if only in some seedling form. That’s what’s so incredible to me. You can get into every single aspect of The Beatles. It’s all deep and all so animated. The drumming, the bass playing, the singing, the lyrics. It’s a knockout punch. I could go on forever about The Beatles.
Wired.com: That’s what we’ve been doing.
Edwards: I go through periods when I’m really into them. And then I don’t listen to them for a while, because I know in my mind that The Beatles are the best. And then I go back and listen to a song, and I just think, “Fuck!”
Wired.com: Which Beatles tunes make you do that most often?
Edwards: “Tomorrow Never Knows.” That’s the ultimate future moment for them. That song basically transcends time. It still lands years ahead of us, no matter when we hear it. They didn’t exclude anything from the sonic palette: feedback, studio accidents. They incorporated everything. Think of “It’s All Too Much,” the George Harrison song. The feedback on that song is amazing. They used feedback before that, but that is the first time where it was an orchestral instrument through the whole verse. That’s willfully and consciously using it as an instrument. It’s not a mistake anymore. There are so many instances like that.
Wired.com: One thing that sticks out for me is the way The Beatles were also a sociocultural phenomenon that engendered mass hysteria wherever the band went. Which doesn’t really happen anymore.
Edwards: That’s the other amazing thing. All these ridiculous pop sensations like Britney Spears and New Kids on the Block? The Beatles were that times 10, and they were the also most serious pop artists on the planet. That’s what’s so crazy about it. I don’t think culture has the capacity anymore to contain those two things at once.
Wired.com: What did you think of Radiohead’s In Rainbows initiative, allowing fans to pay what they want to download music?
Edwards: I actually think it’s great. I love that concept. I think it allows for the democratization of the arts. Everyone can become a patron of the arts to the degree they want. If you think a band is incredible, you can give them $10,000 for a song or album. I love that idea! [Laughs] Or you could just take it for free.