Autopilot Off are four guys (Chris Johnson, Vocals and Guitar; Chris "Houston" Hughes, Guitar; Phil Robinson, Drums; Rob Kucharek, Bass) who play hard, fast, and melodically, without gimmicks or flavor-of-the-month additives. Since the mid 90's, the band has been writing and performing songs that can be shoehorned into the punk/pop genre. We sat down with Chris Johnson and Houston to chat about their gear and recording their newly released self-titled EP on Island Records.
GC: What guitars did you use to record your EP?
CJ: A'57 Les Paul Standard Reissue, Custom Shop. As far as guitars go, we only use Gibson. And we only use Mesa Boogie when we play live.
CH: Recording, we used an SG.
CJ: It was the Gibson SG with the P90 pickups. I don't know what year it was, but it was new. So we did two guitars. We did the '57 Les Paul Standard Reissue and a newer SG with P90s.
GC: What is it about Gibson and Mesa Boogie that you like so much?
CJ: They just sound good. It's the best stuff for what we do. The Marshall-Mesa Boogie argument always goes back and forth and there's good and bad about both.
CH: They're both great. They're both really good.
CJ: It's just more of a preference. I think for our style, the Mesa Boogies just work better for us and the Les Pauls are just the most comfortable guitars for me to play. I just think they sound the best.
CH: The man's guitar.
CJ: Yeah, it's just more comfortable. I think that I look pretty silly with a Fender Strat. It's just not comfortable for me to play--it's back heavy and it sticks up in the air.
CH: There's something about the symmetry of the Les Paul. It's just a solid guitar. I'm not dissing Fenders. You probably like Fenders better than I do.
CJ: Yeah I do.
CH: I still see people playing Fenders and I'm like, "Oh that sounds good," or "That's cool." But I just couldn't hold one and play. Les Paul just gives you that fat sound, and they have both. If you want that punchy high end, you play SG if you want that fat low-end sound you play a Les Paul. That's just the way it is. Mesa Boogie amps are so aggressive. Marshall stuff is a little bit more rock, a little bit more muddy sounding. The Mesa Boogies are just all attack, all aggressive.
GC: What about in the studio, did one guitar end up being your favorite above the other while recording?
CJ: I actually like playing the SG with the P90s in the studio. I don't think I'd like playing it live, but playing it in the studio, I think I liked playing that guitar a little better.
CH: Me too. I really do. It's surprising. The neck is comfortable. It was a good guitar.
CJ: Yeah. It was really good.
CH: We only used Gibson guitars to record. Amp wise we used about ten different amps.
CJ: We used pretty much anything.
CH: You name it. We used it. We used a Marshall JCM 2000. We used a Mesa Boogie Dual Rectifier.
CJ: We used a Marshall Valvestate. We used some effect things, not even a regular head, some plug-in stuff.
CH: Tons of stuff.
CJ: We used a Mesa cabinet and a Marshall cabinet to record with, too. We only use Mesa cabinets live because I think they're the best cabinets. They're the best cabinets for a sort of loud rock sound. But recording-wise...
CH: Some of the Marshall cabinets are a little more focused.
CJ: Yeah the producer had a Marshall cabinet that he wanted for certain tones. We used that and it sounded great.
GC: What about mics?
CH: Whatever they stick in front of you!
CJ: There were a few different ones, but I think I want to say I used a Shure. I forget the model of it though.
CH: The Shure SM57 or SM58?
CJ: Those are live mics.
GC: In your opinion, what do you think a good producer does? Can you give me specifics as to what Greig Nori brought to the table with your project?
CJ: I think a good producer takes your songs from an outside perspective, takes the songs that you've already worked out and then identifies parts that could be stronger or maybe some things that need to be explored more and can make the overall song better. But he does so without changing what the band is, and without changing the overall feeling or without changing the song itself. A good producer just basically makes the song the best it can possibly be without totally changing it.
CH: I think he made it really comfortable, too. That's one of the most important things. A guy can be a great producer, but it's all about getting you to do your best when you get in there. It's a one shot deal. It's not like a live show where you play a show and you have a bad show or a good show. It's got to be the best you can do when you're in there. We didn't really know him super well going into it, but the more we started working with him, the more we just really liked him. It became a thing where we wanted him to be stoked on what we were doing. When you do it, you want him to be like, "Alright we got it!"
CJ: It's almost like having a coach or something. He used the right techniques. He wasn't like, "You've got to do this right now." He made it comfortable, made it fun.
CH: We had a really good time recording with him and I think he got more out of us than we normally would have gotten if we had just gone on our own. Sometimes I think there are people with big names that they want to throw at you. It's like, we're not a big name band. I think even if we ever became a big name band, we would still like to work with people we like. Luckily he's a really good producer and helped us make a great EP. But that's only after it was done. When you're laying tracks, you never know what it's going to sound like. It was more about getting the best tracks he could get out of us and pushing Chris to come up with new ideas and do all that. That is what he was great at.
GC: Can you take me through the process of the conception of a song from beginning to end?
CJ: Usually the way it all works is, I'll keep a running notebook of ideas. Usually there will be a musical idea that one of us will have and then we kind of pound that into a song musically first, whether it's at practice or whatever. Once we get the song and its parts worked out to some kind of form, the melody comes. Then I add whatever words I have that seem to fit how the song sounds, like the tone of the song or the feel of it. Then I start working on the lyrics from what I have written down. I just basically write the words into the melody. So basically it goes music, melody, words. But the words are also there beforehand as ideas jotted down.
GC: Are the words mainly yours?
CJ: Yeah, for the most part.
GC: And the music is a group effort?
CJ: Yeah, I'd say the music is pretty much a group effort.
CH: He makes it a song. People always ask me about it and I'm like, "We make music and he writes lyrics and stuff." He's the only one in the band who can make it a song. We do music as a band and we do ideas. It's like someone will throw in an idea here or there, but ultimately he kind of pulls it all together when it's all said and done.
GC: Are you writing or recording while you're on the road? What kind of equipment do you take on the road with you?
CJ: We run an Apple iBook that has Steinberg Cubase loaded up on it--the recording program. We use that with a Motu 828 Interface. I have a Boss DR-770 drum machine where you can program drumbeats. And then I also use a Line 6 POD. Those all plug directly to the Motu and the FireWire records directly to the computer so I can record ideas.
GC: Are you using any acoustics or is it just your electric guitar?
CH: I used an electric guitar to plug into the POD, but you could use an acoustic if you had a pickup or mic'd it. You can also plug a mic directly into the back of the Motu and sing and do vocals.
CH: All that stuff is pretty compact, too. It's not very extensive. It's more demo and idea keeping than it is full recording, but you can do full songs. It's pretty cool.
GC: When you guys signed with Island Records and recorded an EP, can you tell me how you guys narrowed it down to those few songs?
CJ: That's all we had! No, I'm just kidding! We had a bunch of songs, but those were the most done. They were the most ready. There are some songs that you can put on an album and they're more appropriate for the album. We felt an EP needed like five of the hardest hitting songs that we could make. Not that they should be singles, but each song could stand on its own. Not that we were throwing out an album to have some filler, but we have newer songs that breathe a little more and we felt like if we put that on the EP it would lose the focus of the EP. We wanted every song on the EP to be like boom, boom, boom, boom...
CH: Because you only have that small amount of time to get everything across. Where as on an album you can have that leeway to play a little bit more.
CJ: We wouldn't want an album that has 12 songs just like that. We think of the whole thing from beginning to end. We wanted it to be punchy the whole time.
CH: You can't get assaulted like that the whole time.
CJ: Yeah, you can't be assaulted. We want to have it punchy and then take a break and then come back. We want it to be an album as opposed to a record that has some songs and some filler. So we had some other stuff that we were just holding on for the full-length.
GC: How do you guys decide who plays what guitar part?
CJ: That's a great question. I don't know!
CH: Sometimes if I have to sing and can't do a certain thing then Chris will do it.
CJ: What has been happening a lot is, the parts he records and parts I record, we always somehow go into playing the opposite live. It's just weird.
CH: Sometimes I'll make up something and it'll end up that I play it live. Or I'll make up something and won't be able to play it because I have to sing, so then he'll play it. It's just kind of like that.
CJ: There's no ego. It's more like, "Alright you can play it tighter than I can." We both know we're good guitar players. So it's more like, "You can play that better" or "It's better that you play this here." Or one of us has a different tone or sounds better.
CJ: It just kind of happens. We never really discuss it except when he has to sing something. That's really it.
GC: Do you guys practice?
||CH: We play a lot. I think the one thing that I learned recently that I never knew was how important rhythm is, like rhythm guitar stuff like strumming patterns. I think what we try to do is we really accent our strumming. We're not kind of just going through it. Like if there's an up stroke, everybody is playing the up stroke.
CJ: We're not good scale guys. We're not guys who go crazy and do a bunch of scales or anything like that. We know enough basic notes to get by. We rely a lot on octaves and chords and all that stuff. So the rhythm of everything is really important; I think that's why maybe a lot of the songs sound like everybody's doing the same thing at the same time.
CH: Yeah and I think when people hear us they're like, "Wow you guys are really tight." I think he and I will be both playing notes and we'll look at each other and it sounds like someone stepped on a cat. But, I think we're really tight rhythm-wise, like if it's on the up stroke, everybody's doing it. And it's all on time. Rob, our bass player, is really tight, too. That's something that took me a long time to realize, how important that was. Chris taught me getting on the up and playing on the down and how important that is. We play for fun, too. I play at home all the time. We have headphones and you can plug them in and play along to CDs. That's the best way to learn.
CJ: What's that thing you use? A Pandora's Box?
CH: Yeah, I use the Korg Pandora. Actually, Dave from Sum 41 turned me on to it. He always had one and I always saw him playing it. He showed me how to use it. I went and bought one and it's the best thing I've ever bought because you can hook a CD player up to it and your guitar and put the headphones on and it's all in the headphones! Then you can play along with the CDs. It's amazing. You can pull the CD volume up or down depending on how much you want to learn. It's the best thing ever. You can slow it down. It's awesome. It's important to play along and learn other people's music. Otherwise you kind of just get in a rut.
GC: Going back to the whole labeling of bands, how do you feel about it? Does it hurt or help you guys?
CJ: I think we're just kind of unaffected by it honestly. Maybe it helps sometimes because kids will be like, "Oh this is the kind of music I like." Maybe it hurts sometimes because people are like, "I'm over that" or whatever. But to us, I don't think it matters. It's just like we play what we play and people call it "pop"; people call it "pop/punk"; people call it "rock"; people call it whatever. We're just like, "This is our music."
CH: Yeah people say to us, "You sound like a pop band, you sound like a hardcore band, you sound like a punk band." It's semantics.
CJ: It depends on what your definition is and what my definition is. The only thing we do consider ourselves is-and it's ironic because we're on a major label-but we consider ourselves a DIY band, Do It Yourself band, because that is what we've had to be more than anything. We played with all different genres of music, but we've been at those shows because friends gave us shows. We drove there, called people up and asked, "Can we get on shows?" So we always did it. I would just assume if no one ever called us a punk band ever again, I'd have no problem with it because it's semantics. We have that ethic and we like that attitude of the Do It Yourself, and don't let anybody stop you from doing it. That punk attitude is cool. But the side of it that's like nobody respects authority and all that business, that's cool for some people. For us, it's more we're doing our thing and we rely on friends and that side of it. We try to help other people now that we have an opportunity, but we still don't really have a whole lot of things that we can offer. We can offer shows to some smaller bands. So we try to keep that community alive. I think the label helps just as much as it hurts.
CJ: That's the music we all liked. I was the same kid who was looking for punk music growing up and all that. And all those bands were so different.
GC: What did you guys grow up listening to?
CH: Everything! Name it. It depends, like anything from the early '80s to Rap.
GC: Did you guys have your rocker phase?
CJ: The only music we never liked as a band is Heavy Metal music. That's a big thing. People love metal. It doesn't bother me. I just never liked it. I can never hang with the whole lifestyle of the music. It was too trashy for me. I couldn't hang. We all listen to a lot of different stuff. We listen to anything. For me, a lot of the stuff like Public Enemy was one of my favorite bands. When I got to meet Russell Simmons [founder of Def Jam], I told him the reason I'm in a punk band is because I love Public Enemy. He was really psyched on that. It's more their attitude, like this is what we do and we're not trying to fit into what everyone else wants us to be. I just respected that.
GC: Were the songs that you put on the EP written before you guys signed to Island?
CJ: Yeah most of them. I think there was one written post signing and the rest of them were all pretty much done.
CH: I mean not in the form that they're on the EP, some songs changed here and there. But they were there.
GC: Did you guys have an unspoken pressure knowing that although it's an EP, it's a big label?
CJ: I think that's always there.
CH: I hear what you're saying about that part of it. I think there was some but only because it's normal. I don't think there was any added pressure. It's just like you have a project you want to complete and you want to make it the best it can be, so there's always that kind of nervousness. You feel a little bit of pressure to get it all done, but nothing like jumping out of a window or totally freaking out about it. It's just normal and natural, like with anything.
CJ: I think with the EP, the attitude was, I mean obviously we wanted to make the best record we could. But I think when you're going into make a full-length record and you're on a major label, you're obviously worried that you have a record that's going to sell. For us, with the EP, Island was like, "Go make an EP, just do as good as you can and go tour for a year." They don't care if we sell anything. The idea right now is to get out there and let people to see you. Obviously they want them to buy it, but it's not so much about selling a million records. It's about getting out to as many kids as we can so when the full-length does come out, we have more of a fan base. So they're like, "Just go out and tour and if you guys want to keep touring we're going to keep getting behind you." I think that alleviated some of the pressure.
CH: Yeah, I think so too.
CJ: Although a lot of people heard it and said, "I wished this was on a full-length because this is a single or that's a single." But we know we can keep making those same kinds of songs. I think they're going to work the EP a little bit more than they would normally because I think there are some songs they really like and other people express interest. They're probably going to go to radio and do that after this tour just to see what happens because it costs a lot of money. But their feeling is, if people start hearing it now, by the time the full-length comes out it will be an instant kind of a thing.
CH: If nothing else, if no one knows the songs from the radio, at least the people that work in the radio would have seen us already.
CJ: Exactly, that's the idea. So we're not brand new on a brand new record. Because a lot of times if people have already seen you come across, like on the EP thing, even if they didn't play it then, you're not some new band. You're someone they've seen before. So I guess that's helpful too.
GC: Did you guys learn anything from other bands while you were on the Warped Tour?
CJ: We always do. I think it's more like getting inspired by other bands. Luckily on this tour there were a lot of bands that we already knew and that have always been cool to us. We're stoked to see friends like New Found Glory, Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Glassjaw, and MXPX.
GC: Chris, how do you keep your voice healthy?
CJ: I don't do anything. I took a couple of vocal lessons before we did the EP. Maybe like 5 or 6 and they had some techniques and I used those in the studio. Those helped, honestly. But I've never really had a stamina or strength problem before. It got a little sketchy at the end of the last tour we did because we were in the desert and it was really dry. We've done like 10 weeks straight touring with maybe 3 or 4 days off and it was the same every night. I don't know. I'm lucky. But the techniques I learned in the voice lessons helped. I think you can just psych yourself out sometimes too, like worry about your voice blowing. And then you will blow it. I just don't even worry about it. I just do it.
GC: Do any of you guys warm up before a show?
CH: I usually try to do a brisk jog on to the stage from back stage to get ready.
CJ: Rob does some stretching and Phil does some arm things, that's just a time killer that's all it is. We do all the wrong things.
GC: Any words of wisdom for these kids in their garages playing, who want to make it?
CH:. Yeah. Just play as much as you possibly can and meet as many people as you can. You know we use to come to Warped Tour and hand out tapes to people before the days of CDs--the ancient times. We use to come and see bands and be like, "We want to do that. We'd love to do it." And then now getting to play with bands and meet bands that we're fans of, now they know us. It still blows my mind. I still get so excited. Like the Bosstones, we were fans of those guys for so long. Now we know Joe and it still freaks us out. It's so weird. It's surreal. We try not to show it, but it's cool. But we've seen it happen to friends like New Found Glory. It's the same thing. We use to play with those guys down in Florida. We were friends with them and now it's like they're one of the biggest bands on the tour. So it happens. Everybody started the same way, all these bands. A lot of bands look out for younger bands. They pay attention. Everyone is really cool. That's why we try to have the same attitude because we were fans once, too. There are fans out there that are going to be in bands and come out and do it. It's just fun.
CJ: I'm sure people don't believe us because we're on a major label, but never ever do anything for money. There were plenty of times that we did s--t and we were broke, we still made a lot of money, but we were broke. We never turned a show down because there wasn't enough money. If we weren't getting paid, we'd go play anyway. It made a difference.
CH: That's the most important thing.
CJ: Just get your name out there and do anything and be ready to not make money. Do it because you love it and if you get to do it for a living, then you're psyched. Now we get to do it for a living and we're grateful.
CH: You won't even have to worry about money because you won't have it. So just go out and play. It would be worse if you had a little bit of money because you'd have to worry about that little bit of money. That's the big thing we never cared about and we got lucky that we get to do it for a living.
GC: What are your plans for the full-length record?
CJ: I think we're going to record in the wintertime and hopefully have it out about this time next year. Part of me is looking forward to doing it, but part of me wants more people to hear the EP. You know we're so proud of the songs and those songs are still like new to play because a lot of people still know some of our older stuff. So we still have to get all that in set. But I just want to keep touring on this EP and hopefully more and more people will hear the EP. I want to do a show where everyone is singing the songs off the EP.
CH: Hopefully one will help the other too.
CJ: Yeah that's true too. People always go back and get stuff too. A lot of times you'd be surprised that people are psyched after the show and then they're like, "Oh the CD." And they look and it's 5 bucks and go, "Oh it's only five songs, where's the full one?" And we're like, "We don't have it yet." And they're like, "Oh, ok I'll wait." That's how some people are. They want all the songs. They don't care about price. They care about getting all the songs. It'll be good. It's not going to be too far off of that EP. It's just going to be that plus seven more.
GC: Have you guys ever shopped at Guitar Center?
CH: That's where I got that Motu and the Line 6 POD. It's always a good deal!