In a life of late nights, long tours, brown liquor, and empty pockets, it’s difficult to hang onto any conventional sense of normality. The transience of this feeble balance is intensified when combined with the trials of quarter life restlessness, encounters of new competition in a relentlessly developing industry, and a constant struggle to maintain wholesome relationships with friends and family amid the chaos of it all. This, however, is just a slice in the life of The Autonomics‘ Dan Pantenburg. It’s not all turbulence though, as I found out while sitting down with the front man last week to discuss these and a slew of other subjects, not excluding The Beach Boys, dinosaurs, and of course, The Autonomics’ new album, Debt Sounds.
*Note: Some quotes have been edited for length and clarity.
I was initially introduced to the Autonomics when I saw them open up for Cold War Kids in December at the Crystal Ballroom. Dan and I actually first met by way of convenient circumstance – I ran into him literally the next day seeing Jay Z play at the Moda Center. About a month later we met over beers at The Nest in Southeast Portland.
We immediately delved into complexities of the current state of the music industry and how the channels of income have shifted over the years. With Jay Z fresh on the brain, we inevitably cited Tidal and its model of charging a higher premium in an effort to pay artists more.
“The streaming thing is really interesting, I mean obviously people aren’t buying records like they used to. Speaking of Jay Z, he was all about launching his own streaming service, Tidal. But also, I haven’t heard a single track off the new Jay Z record because of that, like I’m not gonna’ get Tidal…
“As a musician, but also as a consumer of tons of music too, I feel conflicted because I have an Apple Music account… I pay for this account, so I’m like, cool. I don’t have to go to the record store and buy new music, you know, I can just listen to a couple tracks and then download the music on my phone and listen to it as much as I want… So, as a musician I’m conflicted because I want people to buy my music and make money off that, but I was also stoked on the idea of having all this music at my fingertips that I could listen to and gain influence from… It’d be cool to get paid for it, but I feel like it’s always been more important for me to just get the music out and have people listen to it.”
Originally hailing from Bend, OR, The Autonomics have called Portland home for the better part of the last 8 years. They’ve consistently operated both locally and internationally for much of that time, having toured through most of the US as well as Europe on a few occasions – not a feat to be taken lightly as an unsigned band. Since making a name for themselves from a sort of ‘blue-collar’ position, The Autonomics aren’t strangers to getting their hands dirty.
“The label mentality is definitely a lot different these days. Records just aren’t selling, there isn’t any money for artist development anymore… So labels have to be really picky about who they bring into the fold, and a lot of record labels won’t even look at a band unless they’ve done a certain amount of work for themselves.
“It’s not that I wouldn’t be excited to work for a major label, because of the resources they provide. But that’s kind of like what they are, a resource. They’ll bank roll producers and engineers for your record, someone to run PR, somebody to book your tour, somebody to manage you, all that stuff. What I’ve noticed about what a lot of bands do these days is that they’ll go out and make those connections themselves. There are a lot of really great bands out there that are just good at self management. These days being a successful musician is different in the way that you have to be a lot more aware of who you’re trying to get to represent you and how you want to handle these dealings… I mean, I’m not somebody who knows exactly the right path to do it. But I like what we’re doing, and I feel confident about it.”
That hard work has undoubtedly been paying off, as evident by the success of their recent album. But long hours in the studio and months at a time living out of a van don’t come without a price. After completing their most recent tour last Fall through the Southwestern US, bassist Vaughn Leikam made the decision to announce his departure, citing fatigue of financial challenges and a growing exasperation with life on the road away from family; well, other family, anyway. As if it isn’t burdensome enough to lose a long-time brother in arms, Vaughn also happens to be the actual twin brother of drummer Evan Leikam. Having started with The Autonomics at their humble beginnings, Vaughn’s exit was an especially challenging and personal one.
“Vaughn decided that he wanted to take some time and do his thing and get stable, really separate himself as an individual. He wanted to get himself in a good space financially, and just on a personal level. I totally got that. I mean, of course I was bummed that he was leaving, but I wouldn’t fault him for any of that. He’s also family to me after all this time, just like Evan is. We’ve been through all this stuff together, and I totally understand everything he felt. He was like, ‘this is crazy for me, I don’t know if I can keep doing this.’ I love the dude and I want nothing but good things to happen for him.
“We had to talk about it, Evan and I were like, ‘Do we just break up the band?’ But we just put this new record out that we spent so much time on, and it was gaining some real traction. We had the conversation to talk about us keeping going, still doing this thing. Vaughn was totally cool with it, he said go for it. And having that blessing was really big for me.”
Despite some lingering post-breakup-esque feelings, (telling new members “‘Listen, I just really want to take things slow. I really like you but I’m not ready to get into a commitment yet.’“) The Autonomics were determined to move forward with the help of that traction. Most of that involved promoting their new album, Debt Sounds. At first glance, the album appears a bit, well, unconventional. But it says a lot more than it’s title-less cover reveals in just a single look. It’s very much representative of their fuzzy, pop-punk stylings, perfect for rolling out of bed at noon, cracking a Rainier, and cruising down Division to go meet up with the crew.
“The album cover was really the only picture we agreed on. That’s our buddy David, he’s a killer musician (who plays in another band called Kulululu). He used to be one of Vaughn’s old roommates and we’ve known him forever, and he’s also from Bend. The cover came up around the same time we came up with the name. We’re all really huge dorks when it comes to humor, and I thought it was funny because it was the most we’d ever paid to be in the studio and record. We hired on an amazing engineer and put a ton into recording this record… Vaughn also has really discerning music taste and really loves the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds (but have you really LISTENED to it??). So we spent all this money and we thought Debt Sounds would be a funny name for the record. And the cover of Pet Sounds is kind of funny too, it’s got like three goats on it. We did tours in Europe and they hated the cover of the record, but they liked the music. (laughs)“
Even through the thick of recording expenses, industry challenges, and lineup changes along the way, The Autonomics’ music reflects that same buoyant and carefree outlook. They’re a perfect example of the perspective that you can’t control the hard times, and you just have to laugh and revel in the easy ones when they’re here. That casual, matter-of-fact optimism is an embodiment of their overall persona, and it makes Debt Sounds‘ cover and title all the more fitting.
As our second round of beers drew to an empty, I asked Dan about one last thing. Normally reserved as a whimsical closer, the question actually inspired a rather poignant and thoughtful take on this delicate balance between hardship and happiness.
If you woke up one day and you were a dinosaur, what kind of dinosaur would you be?
“There’s a savage dichotomy that happens when it comes to the terrible lizards that we think about. You can be one or another, you know, whether you’re the t-rex trying to eat on the triceratops, or the triceratops that gores the t-rex as he’s being eaten… I feel like both of them are responsible for each other’s existence in a sense. Ultimately, I think the whole predator/prey thing is an illusion; sometimes I feel like the t-rex, and sometimes I feel like the triceratops. And I think that happens on a moment to moment basis, and it’s on an interpersonal relationship-type of level. I try to think about that with a lot of my relationships and in my life, like, it’s a savage dichotomy.”
Listen to Debt Sounds below, and keep an eye out for new music from The Autonomics coming out this Spring.