Last month, four days before Christmas, Automagik stalked onto the stage of Over-the-Rhine’s Woodward Theater with one clear directive — adrenalize the assembled multitude with songs from their new album, Goldmine, as well as selected nuggets from their potent catalog.
After an electrifying opening set from Hip Hop troupe Triiibe, the members of Automagik took their places one at a time. Drummer Andy Cluxton established the pulse, then bassist Jamie Rasmussen added some slippery Funk for the trunk. Lead guitarist Devin Williams sauntered out in his white denim jacket and pants (sullied later in the evening by a drunken face plant into a mud puddle), and ripped off a few searing riffs, hyping frontman Zachary Evans' appearance with this appropriate introduction: “And now, the Dad of Disco from San Francisco… Kentucky: The Dance Enforcer.”
Evans, resplendent in a silver jacket with gold epaulets over a spangled sleeveless T-shirt, counted in and Automagik launched its set like a Saturn V taking off from Cape Canaveral.
Streaking into the stratosphere to the blistering, ass-shaking strains of “Fashion Police” from the group’s 2013 sophomore full-length, Black Sundae, the band immediately established the baseline groove and rhythmic attitude for Goldmine's album release show. The quartet followed up with its first taste of new material, the Soul/Indie Pop booty/Bootsy swagger of “Sexual Tension.” The song and the glittery reminder of ’70s club life were a mere taste of the full throttle danceathon ahead.
The show and new album signify the Indie Rock group’s whole-hearted move into a more funky and dance-friendly direction.
“We've got a big ass golden disco ball,” Evans says. “Anytime that becomes part of the picture, you've done something right.”
A Great Escape
Only Automagik's most fervent fans would be aware of the evening's most potent surprise; every song from Goldmine performed that evening would represent the first time any of them had been played in front of an audience. Performances don't get much more kamikaze than that.
“They weren't road-tested yet, we were dealing with new instrumentation — two keyboards onstage — and we weren't sure how it was going to come together,” Evans says. “That added to the excitement and anticipation, especially with the keyboards. We like to rock. We like to plug our guitars into our amplifiers and turn them up and that's it.”
Goldmine was created quickly in the summer of 2016, written over the course of seven weeks, recorded in the basement of Evans' parents and, other than a couple of songs written the following year, completed in about two weeks.
Less a departure and more a fresh approach to the souful Indie Rock Automagik had successfully crafted over the previous six years, Goldmine was inspired by three distinct sources: the early stylistic influences of primary songwriters Evans and lead guitarist Williams, the 2016 presidential race and that year's significant musical deaths.
First and foremost, Evans and Williams utilized their time-tested writing process of holing up in a room together and banging out songs. But their childhood love of R&B and Soul came out in more direct ways than it had on the band's earlier releases.
“In the history of Automagik, a lot more Pop Rock and Pop Punk was prevalent,” Williams says. “The funkiness and those kind of Prince/Michael Jackson hooks were always kind of hanging out in the background, peeking through in synthesizer lines on stuff like 'Boogie Man' and 'Fashion Police.'
“Soul and R&B have been in our DNA since we were kids and they're just resurfacing now. I was into Boys II Men when I was a kid, then I got steered into Punk when I was an angry teenager, then came Rock & Roll and the classics, and now it's back to R&B, Soul and the positive groove but with everything else brought along, coming to a good place.”
Next, the band was in the midst of a fairly hectic touring schedule during the 2016 presidential campaign and the discord and division that still afflicts the country was beginning to become more apparent. The musicians weren't interested in soapboxing for its own sake.
“We were in a weird spot as a band, and the country was in a weird spot as well,” Evans says. “We're not super into politics but the social climate was pretty tense, and we wanted to escape all that.”
“When Prince died, that was a clear, definite low. We wanted to make an album that was high, that celebrated Prince and life and positivity,” Evans says. “Coming off that tour, we wanted to make music that we were having fun making. It needed to be sexy and it needed to make you dance.
“Every song is the heartbeat tempo — 120 BPM — so it's human as hell. We were looking to our heroes and trying to find ourselves at the same time, and we're pretty pumped about where it landed.”
The roots of Automagik stretch back a decade, when Williams, drummer Teddy Aitkins and bassist Skylyn Ohlenkamp were looking for a vocalist to front their new Mars Volta/Fall of Troy-flavored project, The Javelin Dance. Williams found Evans through a Craigslist ad and, after hearing a couple of his songs, invited him to jam.
“I held up a sign so he didn't drive past that said, 'Don't Not Stop,' ” Williams says. “I also promised him a milkshake.”
“Ten years later, I still haven't gotten that damn milkshake,” Evans says. “All I got was this stupid band.”
The Javelin Dance made in-roads with some limited touring, even opening for one of their inspirations, Fall of Troy. But the “progressive noodlers,” as Williams describes the band at the time, began to unravel.
“Way too much shredding,” Evans says. “It was like, 'How difficult can we make a song to play? Everyone do that.' ”
When relations with Ohlenkamp became strained, Evans and Aitkins provided the solution that led to the formation of Automagik.
“Teddy and Zach said, 'The only way we can continue to play together and not kick him out of the band is to start a completely new band,' ” Williams says. “I was like, ‘OK, let's start a band where we write goofy Pop songs and I'll play keyboards.' That's when we did the first Automagik album and Javelin Dance fell off after that.”
Keyboardist Baron Walker and bassist Dylan Oseas (Injecting Strangers, Oids) did stints with Automagik, and, in 2013, Aitkins relocated to Maryland and started a family. Evans and Williams returned to Craigslist where they found Cluxton's ad.
“He had listed Red Hot Chili Peppers and Mars Volta (as stylistic touchstones), and we were like, 'Ooh, man, I think this is the one,' ” Evans says. “We'd talked to some stragglers that were not the one.”
By chance, Cluxton and Rasmussen had accepted an audition with a cover band and showed up for the try-out on the same night. Cluxton says he suggested warming up with some Chili Peppers and was met by blank stares; he didn't return. At the next practice, Rasmussen asked the band for Cluxton's number and texted him.
“I played with a few local bands, none worth mentioning, and I'd only played one or two paying gigs in my entire life,” Rasmussen says. “These guys had all this stuff lined up and I just wanted to play music and get paid. But I texted Andy and said, 'Hey, man, that was fun. Let me know if you're ever doing something else.' A month later, he was with these guys and hit me up. We came in right after Black Sundae.”
The current lineup of Automagik was solidified with the new rhythm section's willingness to get in the van and tour, surviving on what Evans describes as “cheese, $3 wine and sad dads,” the latter being band code for cold Chef Boyardee right from the can. Over the next three years, the reconstituted Automagik recorded 2015's Dark Daze and 2016's The Road EPs. The group played locally and toured relentlessly until the completion of Goldmine, after which they largely retreated from the road and recorded a wealth of material for various solo and side projects.
With the release of Goldmine, Automagik is looking at exploring a new band paradigm, with less roadwork and more releases on a regular basis.
“Since Zach and I have known each other, we've been writing music all the time,” Williams says. “And now that we've put out this thing we made at home — just us — I feel like a lot more stuff is going to see the light of day, a lot sooner.”
Goldmine may just be the tip of the goldmine for Automagik.
Shake It Up
Goldmine opens with the rousing slap of “Salt & Pepper” and its recurring, insistent and profane chorus: “Just want to shake my motherfucking ass to the beat of the drum and the bass.” Back in the day, Motown Records would release a hit single by an artist and then make that hit track side one on the eventual album. By that yardstick, Goldmine is Automagik's anti-Motown album; “Salt & Pepper” will never find its way onto radio playlists but it definitely sets the raucous tone for Goldmine.
“My mom put that track on and she was like, 'What did you say on that?' You've got to censor that. Make it ‘mamafunkin',' ” Evans says with a laugh; he noted at the Woodward show that his mother had taught him how to swear. “I was like, 'Mom, you cuss more than me. And you know damn well I'm not going to (change the word).' That's something we try to do to break the ice, especially at shows. That's what got us to put that as the first track on the album. Shake people up a little bit.”
Goldmine stands as the perfect hybrid of the band's collective influences. The album's 11 tracks skillfully weave their love of the Pop/R&B/Funk brilliance of Prince, Zapp and Parliament/Funkadelic into their Punk/Indie Rock/Glam/Prog roots. Without being aware of their existence, Automagik has tapped into the Rock/Funk zeitgeist that Central Ohio’s Royal Crescent Mob captured magnificently in the ’80s and ’90s.
“It was partly because we didn't want anyone to know until it was ready to be known,” Evans says. “We also took a lot of liberties making (Goldmine) and the instrumentation was pretty ambitious for a quartet to perform. We were like, 'Can we even play these songs as four people?' ”
While pondering the puzzle of how to perform the funkier new material live, Automagik continued to tour sporadically, but never learned the new songs and as a result never folded them into their set lists.
“It was a concern,” Williams says. “Are we going to do this or are we going to chuck it? (The title track) 'Goldmine' itself was such a big thing. We were never going to be able to play it.”
“We didn't know what to do with the album for a good two years,” Evans says. “We were into it tremendously for a very short amount of time. It was so good and we were so excited about it, but I guess we were waiting for the right time.”
“Then Melvin Dillon from Soul Step Records came along,” he says.
Get To Steppin’
Dillon moved to Cincinnati nearly a decade ago and wound up founding Soul Step as a vinyl-only label, working cooperatively with bands to release their albums in the resurgent format. By pure chance, he found out about Cincinnati’s MidPoint Music Festival through a co-worker and, as a part of his first MPMF experience, was drawn into the Over-the-Rhine club Below Zero Lounge by an appealing racket.
“I poked my head in the door and there was this tall, slender figure with giant red hair just going to town,” Dillon says of his first Automagik encounter. “They were one of the first Cincy acts that I'd ever seen play here and I followed them throughout their development and their various CDs and EPs.”
Later, Dillon became friendly with Rob Mason of Old Flame Records, an indie label Mason re-headquartered in Cincinnati a few years ago when he moved to town. Mason and Dillon had worked with some of the same acts; Old Flame released Automagik’s last two EPs.
When the band members met Dillon, he told them he'd seen them at Below Zero, which was Automagik's MidPoint debut. They were floored.
“We thought no one was at that show,” Evans says. “Apparently he was the only person there. He told us he'd been following us since then. He's such a great guy; he's so excited about every artist he works with.”
The Soul Step vinyl version of Goldmine will be the only physical release for the album, which was made available on all the typical digital platforms by the end of 2018. There was, in fact, an interesting iteration of Goldmine that was available over a year ago that got the ball rolling for the album's official late 2018 debut.
“We had a poster with a download code at 2017's MidPoint, so some people have been listening to the album for over a year,” Rasmussen says. “I was chatting with people at the show and they couldn't believe how long we sat on this.”
“We always want to bring art and design into the equation whenever we can, so we did the screen print as a roundabout way of getting the album out,” Evans says. “We talked about some sort of 24k gold, diamond encrusted USB drive but, you know, money.”
“When I joined, the Automagik engine had been running for three years,” Cluxton says. “A lot of the songs had been written and so, in a lot of ways, it's what we've been doing the whole time anyway.”
“The only real difference was the style of music,” Rasmussen says. “It was more rhythm-focused. With Rock, there's a fair amount of leeway; it's loud, you can do whatever. With this, everything had to be on point. We've always prided ourselves on being tight, but it's a different animal when it's tight in relation to binary code.”