Leeds post-punk outfit Autobahn have released one of this year's finest debuts in the shape of Dissemble. Released last month on Tough Love Records, the album has received widespread critical acclaim including a more than credible 8/10 here.
Having formed in the early part of 2013, the band - Craig Johnson (vocals), Gavin Cobb (guitar), Michael Pedel (guitar), Daniel Sleight (bass) and Liam Hilton (drums) - steadily honed their craft both in the studio and on the live circuit. Two limited edition EPs followed along with a relentless live schedule that's seen them support Eagulls on their last two tours as well as numerous headline shows in their own right.
Currently halfway through their latest sojourn in support of Dissemble, DiS caught up with vocalist and songwriter Craig Johnson prior to their show at Nottingham's Rescue Rooms.
DiS: How did the band start?
Craig Johnson: It started about two-and-a-half years ago. We wanted to start a band that we knew would be decent before we put any music out. So we never released anything for about three months until we got to a stage where we felt it was good enough for people to hear. Once we started gigging it all took off from there. Nathan at the Brudenell really helped us out to start with, and the reason Tough Love found us was because they saw us supporting Eagulls there. Since then, we've released two EPs and an album with them which we're really happy about because Tough Love have been there from the start.
DiS: The band's sound has evolved continually from the songs on the first two EPs to where you are now on Dissemble. Was it an organic progression or did you always have an idea of how you wanted the band to sound?
Craig Johnson: It's been more of a gradual progression. The songs on EP1 were the first ones we ever did, so that happened quite easily. The second EP was a bit more difficult. We tried too hard. So I thought about a lot of things for the album and how I wanted it to sound. Every day I was coming up with new ideas. We all worked really hard to try and make that happen and really evolved as a result. We knew how difficult it would be to put together an album. Particularly when it's a piece of work that's meant to last forever. EPs tend to get forgotten about but an album is a lasting document. So it was important we got everything right. Sonically everything is better, and I think it shows on the recordings. The EPs took just two days, whereas the album took six weeks.
DiS: None of the songs off the EPs made it onto the album. Was it a conscious decision to release ten brand new songs?
Craig Johnson: It was. We wanted the album to be completely fresh. Completely new. I don't think any of those songs would have fit. I like listening to the songs on the EP and we still play a couple of them in our live set but at the same time they also feel quite adolescent to me. Lyrically as well as sonically, the songs on the album have got meaning. Whereas the songs on the EPs were more about a time and place. I'm still proud of those songs - we all are - but I think we've come on so much as a band since then.
DiS: It's interesting you mention the lyrics as a lot of them are low in the mix and indecipherable as a result, almost to the point where your voice becomes an extra level of instrumentation. Was it deliberate on your part to keep some ambiguity around the lyrics? Do you see the lyrics being as important as the music?
Craig Johnson: On this record I do. I'm really happy and proud of the lyrics on Dissemble. There's not one song I'd look back on and change. I don't think there's a song on the record I don't enjoy playing live. I guess it does have that extra tendency to become an instrument as well, and we've purposely tried to highlight that in some of the songs. There's also some we reversed to add another dimension to the sound.
DiS: Like on the title track?
Craig Johnson: Yeah. Although that's a weird one, the title track. That was originally a normally structured song. But I didn't feel it was good enough for the record so I had an idea to make it better. So I spoke to Matt (Peel) who produced the record and came up with this minute long intro that was same musically as the outro, reverse it and put it at the start. So we did a couple of takes and it sounded incredible. I still had to convince the rest of the band but they were on board straightaway, so Matt spent two full days cutting and pasting it exactly how I wanted the piece to sound to the point where he probably ended up hating it in the end.
DiS: Musically, Dissemble seems quite dark and industrial. Was there a common lyrical theme throughout the album too?
Craig Johnson: Not so much a common lyrical theme but definitely quite dark. I don't know where it comes from really? We've all got a dark sense of humour even though we're quite happy people. If anything I think it portrays that we don't take life too seriously even if other people do. When I think about how some of the songs came together. For example 'Beautiful Place To Die', where I was literally driving along this road in the winter. It was covered with snow and I just thought to myself imagine if I was to die here now, it would be a beautiful place to die. And that gave me an idea for a song based on imagining where you'd want to die if you had a choice. There's a line that goes, "I wanna be rushed away on the shores". Stuff like that. So it became this ironic song about looking death in the face. None of it is negative towards life at all. If anything it's optimistic even if it doesn't sound it. A romanticised vision of death.
DiS: You've been compared to a lot of post-punk bands from the 1980s. People like The Chameleons, Bauhaus and Killing Joke. Were they a major on influence on the album?
Craig Johnson: On the production side, definitely. I consciously listened to a lot of Martin Hannett records last year and I think you can tell that. It seemed to make sense with the songs we were doing. We've used other stuff as well. Other techniques from other producers and come up with our own ideas as well. The wavy guitars on 'Society' were influenced by the Kevin Shields double tracking technique. Some of the more leftfield parts of the record were just tried on the spot. The influences do vary. We all listen to different things. I listen to anything I like the sound of. We all grew up listening to a lot of punk and post-punk music but I think if anything, this record is slightly moving away from that sound compared to the early EPs. I remember reading a quote that said, "Wherever you make your music, your music's formed from your surroundings" and I think it does. We practice in a dingy house and I think all the other bands who rehearse there have a similar kind of sound. Eagulls practice there and some of the more gothy bands do as well. There's also a lot of hardcore bands who play there too so I do think it rubs off on all of us. That dismal, dingy, dirty landscape. And I think it's going to be difficult to elevate our sound somewhere else for the next record because it does matter.
DiS: Reviews of the album have generally been quite positive. To you pay much attention to what people are saying or writing about the band?
Craig Johnson: The first review I read was a really positive one on Louder Than War, so I guess we do look at what people are saying to an extent. And also, that first review when someone likes the record gives you a bit of optimism that other people might like it too. It is nice to get a good review because it does make you feel like you've achieved something. We've always said we don't want to push our music down people's throats. Some people will like it, some people won't, and I get that. It's when I read reviews that say every song sounds the same I get a bit irritated. I don't know how anyone can listen to the record and say all the songs sound the same? I'm sure The Jesus & Mary Chain had the same thing said about them by some reviewers when they released their first record so it doesn't really bother me. As long as we're fulfilled artistically and content with the finished product, it really doesn't matter.
DiS: You recorded the album in an old disused church with Matt Peel. Was Matt always at the top of your list to produce the album?
Craig Johnson: He did the first two EPs with us so was always going to be our first choice, and it's been great. He's been really instrumental in evolving our sound. Right from the first EP onwards, he's always suggested different ideas such as changing the way we structure songs. He moved into his new studio, which is basically an old church, so we just recorded it there with him. It just happened to be an old church even if parts of the album do sound like they're from an old church!
DiS: Do you see yourselves working with Matt again in the future?
Craig Johnson: It was Eagulls that first suggested we work with Matt because he'd just recorded their record, and we're happy with everything he's done for us so I'm sure we'll work with him again.
DiS: The Leeds music scene has always had a reputation for being one of the most vibrant and inclusive of its kind. Has that kind of camaraderie been instrumental in attaining recognition for the band at such an early stage in your development?
Craig Johnson: There's a really supportive community in Leeds, so everyone pulls together to help and support one another. A lot of people put on gigs and they'll try and put on local support bands where possible. Nathan at the Brudenell will always try and help bands out as he did with us, and Eagulls took us on two tours with them. We're friends with them as well as being fans of their music, and a lot of that is down to being from the same Leeds community. There's a really thriving hardcore punk scene there as well which is quite separate but still very inclusive in the way everyone looks after each other, and it's great really to be a part of it. We're the same in that we'll try and help as many new bands as we can.
DiS: Are there any new bands you'd recommend we should be listening to?
Craig Johnson: We had a few bands on our album launch. Sievehead from Sheffield are great. They're friends with us and their debut album Into The Blue is well worth checking out. Also, another band called Chaika are great too. They mix Britpop with psych rock without sounding too much like either. Also, this band called GG Glitter are another I'd recommend. They play garage punk. There's also some great bands who practice in the same place as us. Perspex Flesh for instance. They're a hardcore band and always great live. Also Happa who's this teenage electro whizzkid.
DiS: If you could change anything over the past two and a half years since the band's formation, would you and why?
Craig Johnson: Yeah, not play some of the shows we've played. Shows we've played because it seemed like the best thing to do at the time, but in hindsight, perhaps weren't. When you start a band all you want to do is play shows. So when you're offered a show in London for £50 you'll agree to play it. But then turn up, realise we're on a bill with bands we have nothing in common with musically, be expected to bring people to the show, and end up losing money and getting very little out of the experience at all. Looking back, it was great to be invited to play some of those shows outside of Leeds but I think there should have been more quality control in where we played at times. But I'm happy with how everything's turned out. We didn't rush into making an album, we took our time. Whereas a lot of bands get pushed into making an album straight away, so we can't really complain.
DiS: What are your plans for the rest of the year?
Craig Johnson: This tour will be finished by the end of next week. We might have something else booked towards the end of this month, which we're waiting to confirm. And then hopefully a one-off show in Belgium and some more UK dates around that. We're planning something special in December, then into next year touring all around Europe before heading back to the UK and playing a few festivals.
DiS: Are there any plans for a follow-up to Dissemble?
Craig Johnson: I've got lots of ideas. I have a notebook that just keeps getting bigger and bigger. I know exactly the direction I want to go with it. It's going to be completely different to what we're doing now. We couldn't do another album of the same thing. I can't get my head around bands who are happy to carry on doing that. Once we've got back from this tour we'll probably put some of those ideas into practice and hopefully get a large chunk of it demoed before we head back out on the road. We want to do as much of it ourselves as we possibly can this time. Do a lot of production stuff our end before we even think about going into a studio.
DiS: So I guess with the heavy tour schedule already in place for next year, the earliest it's likely to be released would be 2017?
Craig Johnson: I can't see anything being ready before then to be honest. There will be other projects coming out of the band in the next year. We just need to put a few things in place first.
DiS: One of my favourite covers in recent years would be your version of Blitz's 'New Age'. How did that come about? Are you fans of the 1980s Oi!/street punk scene?
Craig Johnson: We just wanted to something to bridge the gap between the first two EPs and we decided to do a cover. That second EP was quite grotty and we were just about to go on tour with Eagulls, so it felt right to release something. I was listening to a lot of Oi! at the time and that was a track I'd always end up going back to. It's one of those songs that literally kicks you in the balls although the worst thing ever was to cover it because I can't listen to it any more. Which is so annoying because I love that song.
DiS: What advice would you give to new bands that are just starting out?
Craig Johnson: Perfect your art before you even think about playing for the first time. Have quality control and be happy with it. Make sure you're great before you start. It pisses me off when I hear a band go on stage and say they just finished writing this song today before playing it. That would never happen in our band. We would be practicing that song for a month before we went live. We've got such high quality control of what we do that we'd never even think of playing a song if we didn't believe it was ready to put on an album.
For more information on Autobahn visit their official website.
Photo by Stephanie Webb.