Cards on the table, Slim Cessna’s Auto Club have been about my favourite band – certainly my favourite live band – for a number of years, and getting to speak to frontman (and sole original member) Slim Cessna himself was a bit of a bucket list moment, especially since he proved to be as charming and funny as I’d expected. Born out of The Denver Gentlemen (who also led to 16 Horsepower) and at the forefront of ‘the Denver Sound’, the Auto Club have existed in some form for 25 years, but it was only in the early noughties that the band’s core of Slim, Munly Munly and Lord Dwight Pentacost came together.
The new Auto Club album, The Commandments According To SCAC, is out now on their own label, and is noticeably brighter and more spacious than the brilliantly dark predecessor, 2011’s Unentitled, something that was entirely intentional, as Slim explains. “The approach was very different. We recorded it on our own and for the most part Dwight and I did all of the mixing and the production. We had never done the before, and I can’t wait to do it again because I think that we learned from a lot of mistakes. I know you can just pick songs apart, you can listen to it and it just drives you crazy listening to it, because I would love to have another chance at a couple of the songs, but for the most part I think it turned out great.”
As is usual these days, Slim’s long-serving sidekick and genuine polymath Munly wrote all the songs and Slim agrees his writing allowed a more colourful palette. “I don’t even know how to explain it myself but it is brighter, I feel like there’s more joy in it. And a lot more freedom for each musician as well, and even me as the singer, I think we were just able to have more fun.”
The songs arrive largely finished for the band to work on. “It’s pretty organic and democratic but for the most part, the chord progressions and the words are intact as he intended.” As for the content, Slim is often as mystified about their meanings as the listener. “He gives me nothing. I’m not all book learned like he is, so I do my best. I’m smart enough but certainly not educated.”
The Auto Club family is a large and complex one, with Munly in particular releasing music in various incarnations. Perhaps the most notable in recent years are DBUK (formerly Denver Broncos UK – presumably the titular American football team had words), whose line-up almost entirely overlaps with the Auto Club and whose 2015 release Songs One Through Eight was one of the albums of the year, a dark, claustrophobic work of gothic charm that managed to be equal parts Gorey, Poe, Faulkner and Portis. It has gallows humour and warped sexuality, infanticide and crossdressing and acoustic instruments that sound like creaking doors. It’s disturbing and funny and genuinely unique. I wondered if the darkness of that album got something out of their collective system that meant the new Auto Club album could be a much more joyful project. “I’d never thought of it that way, and it’s a definitely a possibility. Our approach (in DBUK) is so different, it’s so refreshing. I don’t even know how to put it into words, it just feels like an amazing accomplishment that we were able to do something so drastically different from the Auto Club, with the same people. It’s satisfying…” As for choosing which songs end up as Auto Club or DBUK, “That’s a tough one, because with the exception of one of the songs, Munly wrote all of the Broncos album as well. And I think that just comes from him, he says ‘well, this is a Broncos song, it doesn’t seem to fit what we’re doing in the Auto Club’”
The relationship between Munly and Slim is a key part of the band’s appeal, both musically and onstage, where there may be laying on of hands, taunting or unwieldy line-dancing. Indeed, their dynamic has been described as having a ‘vaguely homoerotic’ narrative, something that Slim finds amusing. “Outside that, we never even touch! Heavens, no! I think it’s probably more fun just to leave that up to the imagination, we might freak people out. And honestly it’s not something that’s been pre-meditated, it’s just things evolve and over the years we’ve developed a certain combination of routine and spontaneity in our shows… I dunno how it all started. I don’t even know what the hell we’re doing. We’re just having fun! We’re just really having a good time and it’s just been a joy to get to do it with these guys for so long…”
Another member of both DBUK and the Auto Club is Rebecca Vera, Munly’s partner and long-time collaborator, and the first female member in a long time. I wondered how she fitted in to the Auto Club dynamic. “She fits in very well, and she and Munly have been together for I don’t even know how many years, certainly over ten, so she has been around and she knows what we’re like. And we’re so boring, a tour bus with us is all of us sitting around with earbuds and eyes closed. It’s really not a very exciting place to be. As a 50 year old man, I have to have a rest all day and not talk, just so I can play another show, that’s how I get through.”
The band have often been scattered across the US – Slim lived on the east coast for a number of years – but they’re all now back in Denver, something which has clearly had an invigorating effect both on their music and the way they operate (they recently set up their own SCAC Unincorporated label).
“We love it, and all of us being together just affords us the time and opportunity just to do all of that. We can take things on. It is more work, but not much really, really the only thing we’re doing different is having to pay for our own PR and all of those things, which is great because everything comes right back to us. It’s incredibly refreshing – we felt like we were treading water and we needed to look at the business end of things closer, to figure out just how to continue doing this. The reality was we just had to keep going, and this was one way we could do that.”
I wondered if, decades down the line, it ever feels like work. “I love the shows, absolutely, but in anything you do that you love there are moments where it feels like work, and we have taken on a lot more of that, at least on the business end, and also we’re travelling more, playing more shows, so there’s a lot more work we’re doing. But I don’t want to do anything else, and I don’t even know what else I could do anyway. What am I gonna do? I’m 50..”
In all the years of the band’s existence, they’ve only ever played two UK shows, both in London and both quite close together, often playing lengthy tours of Europe but bypassing us. I wondered why they were now embarking on a comparatively lengthy tour. “It was finally finding people who allowed us to do it for the most part. It was an agent change, we found people who actually wanted us to come and play more shows. Honestly, every time we played London we wanted to do more but we never really had an opportunity, and there’s six of us so it’s expensive for us to do if we’re not getting paid a certain amount or some sort of guarantee. So there’s a combination of a lot of things, and I think it always takes us longer to get anywhere. We’ve never been promoted well or whatever, most of what we do is on our own, doing the best we can. We’re certainly trying to advance, we wanna go everywhere!”
The Auto Club’s sound is fiendishly difficult to describe (I generally mumble something about gothic Americana, the Violent Femmes and gospel revival) and Slim seems painfully aware that this is as much a handicap as an advantage. “Everybody wants to know what the label is, what category to put us into, and quite honestly I think this is part of why it’s more difficult for us to continue to grow. We don’t fall into a category, we don’t have a family of bands that we belong to or a built in audience for what we’re doing. It’s just us. And on one hand that’s an amazing accomplishment, and we’re proud of that, but on the other hand it certainly does make it more difficult. But we just say it’s American music, and I think that might cover it. That might sound pretentious but I think it’s a celebration of all of the things that we’ve all grown up with, and I think our influences aren’t just music, it can be relationships, or the landscape of Colorado, or places that we’ve lived, that is all part of it.”
Talk of influences and the role of the environment in the Auto Club’s music reminds me of an interview I did a couple of years back with Colonel JD Wilkes from Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers, who expressed disdain for a strand of Americana musicians who donned dungarees and banjos and claimed some sort of authenticity. He felt that the Auto Club were one of a small handful of bands he thought were fellow travellers, the ‘real thing’. Indeed, I first encountered the Auto Club in the Colonel’s excellent movie about Americana and authenticity, Seven Signs. Slim certainly recognises a kinship. “On a certain level, absolutely. And I agree with him, and put the Shack Shakers into the same category, the respect that we have for everything that he’s done – it’s incredible. But at the same time, while foundationally we have something in common, while foundationally it’s all American folk music, I don’t think that musically we have much in common. We come at it from different angles, he’s quite southern and we consider ourselves western. And so I think that there’s an actual line, there’s more spaciousness and storms and hails out west.” You’re mountains and they’re swamps, I suggest. “Exactly, and I think there’s something to be said about that, we use those influences, as he does. And it’s quite different. It’s a great show when we play together but musically it’s not the same thing at all.”
The Auto Club use a lot of religious imagery in their music and performance, and in the past Slim – who comes from a baptist background and considers himself a Christian – has been upset that this has been perceived by their audiences as a pastiche or satire of some kind, in a way that isn’t unlike the misapprehension of Flannery O’Connor’s Wiseblood, to the sadness and confusion of the author.
“People are gonna think what they think and read into it what they have in their own head as well, but there’s more to it for me. I think we pose questions, and also we like to tell stories. Like, ‘what if it was this way?’ or ‘what if this person was feeling this way about it?’, so it’s honestly more complex than one particular thing. But one thing for certain, is this isn’t a tongue in cheek, goofy, good ole boy irreverent thing. It’s not that. We’re very serious about what we do, and Munly is very serious about the songs that he writes, and I come from a background where those things aren’t to be taken lightly, and so it’s not being taken lightly. The hard part is that people see us having such a good time and think that means it we’re just being silly.”