Welsh band The Automatic were the sensation of 2006 – in the UK at least. The band, after several succesful tours including the prestigious NME New Music Tour, released their debut album ‘Not Accepted Anywhere’, only to find, thanks to two very succesful singles Raoul and Monster, that quite the opposite was true. Monster in particular took on a life of its own, migrating – in the best tradition of britpop – to the football terraces. The sound on their first album mixed pop and rock to great effect – they won best newcomers awards from both The Pop Factory and Kerrang, for example.
One element of the band’s sound was defining/an annoying distraction, depending upon your view point. It was the high-pitched hardcore-style screaming of keyboards player Alex Pennie (Drowned in Sound reviewer, Dom Gourlay,famously described it as “unnecessary [...] just a tad irritating – bordering on the side of wanting to commit homicide – at the best of times” .
It’s an element that is missing from The Automatic as they release their second album This is a fix. By mutual consent Pennie left the band – he had, it seems wanted to leave for some time – and yourcodenameismilo lead vocalist Paul Mullen joined the ranks as rythm guitarist and backing vocalist.
This particular monkey has had the lead single from the album, Steve McQueen blasting through his speakers happily for more than a month now, so the obvious thing to do seemed to be to have a chat with band vocalist/bass player Rob Hawkins:
TMO: How difficult was it writing the ‘difficult second album’ for you?
Writing the second album was relatively easy! It was hard to stop. It hadbeen over two years since we’d written Not Accepted Anywhere by the timewe started writing for This Is A Fix, so we had a massive build-up ofideas. We’d spent years on the road, growing as musicians and as people too(we were only eighteen and nineteen when we got signed), so we reallyenjoyed the opportunity to explore what we could do as musicians. Pauljoining the band gave us an extra singing voice and guitar to play with andeven allowed us to swap roles for some songs. This Is A Fix definitelyreflects the additional vocal and guitar that Paul brought – most of thesongs are very layered and dense, there aren’t many sparse moments.
How has Pennie’s leaving the band affected morale, and the way the bandsound?
Pennie leaving was a good thing for band morale. He’d wanted to leave for along time and that created a lot of tension within the band and crew; it’shard to be a happy band when three members want to be a part of it and onedoesn’t. He didn’t want to do what he did within the band and make the musicthat we made. When Pennie decided to leave, and we all agreed that he’d tourwith us until we’d fulfilled all our live commitments, there was a sense ofrelief – the worst thing is the sense of limbo you get from not knowing howthings are going to pan out. We’re happier now and so is Pennie, he’sworking on his own projects now. I think Pennie leaving had less of animpact than Paul joining. Obviously, his screaming went with him, but Penniewas not too involved in composing whereas Paul is much more active in that.
TMO: Whether it’s the Stone Roses, Oasis or more recently the Arctic Monkeys, itseems that when a band is huge in the UK it rarely translates on the samescale abroad – particularly in America. Why do you think that is? And giventhe choice, would you prefer success in the UK or America?
America is the size of a continent, you could fit five UKs into Texas alone.The scale is probably part of the reason: it’s hard to spend the time andeffort required to succeed across the pond if you’re in demand in the UK aswell! Also, a lot of the bands you’ve just mentioned are very Britishsounding. The Artic Monkeys had a song called Mardi Bum that doesn’t meanmuch to people from south of Birmingham, let alone in the States! I don’tcare where we have success if it means that we can keep making music andtouring. This is my dream job, as long as I can keep doing it then I’mhappy! Having said that, it’d be fun to be big in the US..
TMO: Monster was one of those songs that captured people’s imaginations, and in asense became bigger than just a song. What makes the difference between agood song and a great one?
I think it’s easy to confuse ‘good’ and ‘popular’. Obviously, Monster wasboth, haha! The key to popularity is often simplicity – something that canbe remembered instantly. On the other hand, most of my favourite songs takea few listens to get into. Monster‘s appeal was in its dancey edge, rockguitars, strong imagery and above all else, simple and infectious hook. Itappealed to kids, rock fans and pop fans because of those things. As for thedifference between a good song and a great song, opinion is probably thebiggest one!
Is it a curse or a blessing, to have a song that becomes an anthem, likeMonster?
It’s only a good thing. It’s very flattering that our song has been soassimilated into the public consciousness! I don’t understand why some bandsresent their own success, it seems kind of masochistic and hypocritical. Wewouldn’t have had the opportunity to record our second album in LA ifMonster hadn’t sold so many records! Despite that, it’s surprising how manypeople know Monster but don’t know who wrote it..
TMO: The new single, Steve McQueen, is a cracking song – what was the thinkingbehind the title?
I’m glad you like it! The lyrics to Steve McQueen are the last of a load oflyrics about growing up in (and wanting to get out of) a small town. TheSteve McQueen reference is about escape. And also, he’s really, really cool!The song, lyrically, is a look back after having left home and where I grewup and realising that I’m not a part of that place and it’s not a part of meanymore.
TMO: You’re one of those rare things, a band fronted by a bass player. How muchdoes that shape the band’s sound?
Not very much! We write the music first, then the vocals get put onafterwards, so for one part of the writing I’m a bassist (or whatever I’mplaying on the song), then I’m a singer. And then I have to learn to do thetwo things at once, which is sometimes tricky! I try not to let the factthat I have to do both interfere with either one.
TMO: The band are from Wales. What kind of influence has that had on the songsyou write? To put it another way, do you think you would have written songslike monster, raoul and steve mcqueen if you’d grown up in London?
That’s an impossible question to answer! Perhaps in a parallel universethere’s an Automatic that grew up in London that sound like theLibertines… Growing up in the small town we grew up in there wasn’t really amusic scene, so we did our own thing without being particularly influencedby anyone else. A lot of south Wales bands are heavily influenced by anAmerican emo sound and I think that we took a heavy element from that. Ithink that growing up in relative isolation from any particular scene, though, allowed us to develop our sound to become the band we are now.
TMO: The lyrics to the songs are, with few exceptions, dark. Would you agree withthe idea, as expressed by Irish songwriter Glen Hansard to Three Monkeys,that songwriting is basically a healing process – that you can’t write agreat song if you’re happy?
I do tend to write about things that piss me off, so probably yes..I don’tthink that contentedness inspires passionate lyrics. Part of the lyricwriting process is about putting a thought process on paper and I find thatpart very satisfying. It’s cathartic to write through something that youreally care about, especially something personal. I guess I agree with GlenHansard, although I don’t think you have to be personally unhappy to write agreat song.
TMO: Billy Bragg invited you recently to play on his anti-racism bill atGlastonbury. How did that come about?
We’ve done a few things with his charity, Jail Guitar Doors, and it came out ofthat. I’ve always been keen to help charities and good causes, as I’m veryaware of how lucky I’ve been in my own life and I want to use my situationto further good causes.
TMO: Bragg is an overtly political writer – as are a band you’ve mentioned invarious interviews, Future of the left. Where do the automatic stand onpolitics in songwriting? Thea Gilmore, in interview with Three Monkeys said“I think that anybody, not just musicians, who plays an active role insociety has a duty to be political” – do you agree?
No. At least, not necessarily in a professional capacity. My favourite bandis/was Million Dead, who were about as political as you can get. I love TheClash, Refused, and Rage Against The Machine too, and I’ve been inspired tolook up issues and read books on politics and philosophy by their lyrics.I’m very interested in what goes on in the world, but people have problemsenough in their own lives and The Automatic never set out to make peoplethink about extra ones. The world would be a much poorer place withoutpeople like Bragg writing to try to raise people’s consciousnesses, butequally, people need escapism. Our songs are not a-political but the mainfocus is on fun. The most political songs on This Is A Fix are also themost veiled in imagery. I’m ruling out nothing in the future, but if we’regoing to write more politically then it would have to be on topics that weall care about deeply and feel the same way on.
TMO: As you’ve probably guessed, we’re interested in the whole process ofsongwriting here at Three Monkeys. Can you point us to a song you wishedyou’d written, and explain why?
The medley from the South Park movie. It’s funny, bombastic and brilliant.The music nerd in me is in awe of the way the melodies from all theconstituent songs wind together with each of the chorus lines emerging inturn. The orchestration is amazing. I’d feel pretty pleased with myself ifI’d written that with a choir and orchestra to play with!
TMO: What band(s)/artist(s) has been the most important influence on the band?
There is no one band or artist that’s been an overriding influence on allfour members of The Automatic. The three of us that grew up together alllistened (and still listen) to Blur, The Manic Street Preachers, Radiohead,Muse, The Cooper Temple Clause and others. We covered (badly!) songs by allof the above as well, and learnt something as musicians or took somethingunique from all of them. We all listen to a huge variety of music and it allcontributes to what we write in some way. The two CDs I’ve had on repeatrecently are Alopecia by Why? and Roadkill Overcoat by Busdriver. Howthey will manifest themselves as an influence on our music, I don’t know!Sorry I couldn’t really answer this question, I’m just being honest!