ONE OF THE STRANGEST things about my neighborhood is that nobody bothers to rake the autumn leaves from their yards. Folks seem oblivious to the growing stratum of decaying foliage. Walkways are rendered anomalous and dissonant music-makers by perambulating bodies wrapped tightly in wool and quietude. When winter finally wanes, the layer of leaves on my neighbors' lawns will miraculously melt away; the din of crushed vegetation will then be just the hushed fade-out of my favorite record. In this way, the thick blankets of grass-rotting flora serve as markers of the seasons. Time arrives slow and loud, like a plane paralyzed by a holding pattern.
Graceland, Friday, December 8
These are my thoughts as I enter the cafe where I am to meet with lyricist and guitar player Pat Kearney and drummer James van Leuven of the local band Automaton. But I don't mention them. They're just considerations about epochs, born in my distrust of speed and bred in a lifelong, solitary need to catalog time—hardly something you bring up to a couple of guys you've never met before.
Yet time figures prominently in the lives and music of Pat, James, and bassist Chris Duryee. The three have been playing together for about seven years, first as a punk band, then as Automaton Adventure Series (the latter part of the name was eventually dropped). The band's first full-length, Futura Transmitta, was produced in part by Phil Ek (Built to Spill, 764-Hero, Modest Mouse) and released about a year ago. When I mention that six years is a long time to play together before putting out a full-length release, James smiles.
"Well, we certainly didn't spend all six years writing the record," he says.
So what has happened over the years?
Pat fields the question. "I think a lot. We played with cello players, trumpet players, noisemakers. We fucked around with everything. . . . And then we started writing songs."
Musically, Automaton marry juggernaut drumbeats to art rock guitar lines, blasting trumpets, and spoken samples of propaganda and fear. Transmitta is math rock the way grain alcohol is an intoxicant; Automaton steer their listeners through a fast and furious, straight-to-your-head succession of sounds and rhythm. The song "National Entertainment State" keeps time the way a pissed-off, floor-pacing robot would—both erratically and systematically—and suggests that that which is regulated must be questioned. Over lyrics such as "Recall who made history/who won the wars/who made the enemy/to test the new weapons on," Automaton songs subvert the idea of rock musician as political activist and emerge as platforms to catalyze one's own ideas. The cadence is routinely escalated and then bottomed out; the lyrics are social commentary in flux, not rigid reports of injustice.
And there's no chance the band will be called hypocrites. They recently decided to refuse a slot at a corporate-sponsored show at EMP. James is looking into booking some shows at Walla Walla State Prison and augments the band's radio-optik.com with information on local politics and social thought. Pat volunteers for the National Lawyer's Guild, a group which he calls "a bunch of leftist lawyers" who attempt to ensure that cops "don't beat the shit out of people," and has this to say about his band's sociopolitical involvement, "There are things we really care about: the monorail, the teen dance ordinance, the poster ban—things that we think are important to Seattle, that we try to support as a band and also individually."
So as I look out my window at the muddled leaf collages, I think about how we keep track of time. And I consider that James and Pat would've spoken at length about watching it slip through the fingers of humanity or, perhaps, through the fingers of robots and androids. And I determine that getting my neighbors to an Automaton show would likely prompt them to clean up their yards.