By Melissa Fossum
By Lauren Wise
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"If you put 'Space is the Place' on a jukebox, you'll find that the bartender will usually cut if off before the end," says Orin Portnoy, Automatic Erasers guitarist and co-vocalist, referring to the group's habit of playing the music of Sun Ra, the legendarily bizarre free-jazz pioneer who claimed to have learned his far-out musical concepts while visiting Saturn.
"We were at the Time Out Lounge, playing pool," confirms Jeff Cardello, who plays bass and sings in the band. "We got away with it once, but the second time through, everyone left the bar."
As drummer/vocalist Ward Reeder joins in the fray, listing obscure jazz, Tropicalia, and psychedelic rock the group collectively digs, I think back to my own experience with angry bar patrons and questionable jukebox selections. One night while hanging at the Bikini Lounge, my former bandmate Jeff and I dueled each other over who could pick the most room-clearing songs, filling the wonderful dive bar with the latter-day prog-rock excursions of Os Mutantes and, you guessed it, Sun Ra.
"The bartender learned that there would be trouble when we came in," Portnoy says, snapping me back into the moment. "We had the space, not the place."
It was my friend Jeff who first introduced me to the Erasers, booking them for a gig at the Yucca Tap Room. "You've got to hear these guys," he said. I asked him what their sound was like, and a grin took over his face. "Loud, man," he laughed. "Just some awesome older dudes who really rock."
The band was more than just loud, however. It was an enveloping experience (despite the fact that the band sounds, on paper, like a typical punk band, with three-minute songs, ear-blasting distortion, and snotty attitude to spare); their music took on an otherworldly quality, mining the best bits of psychedelic rock and experimental noise and breaking them down to bite-size nuggets of white noise and swagger.
The group formed in summer 2006 after Portnoy and Reeder found themselves in the desert, hailing from New York and Seattle, respectively. They formed The Automatic Erasers with former bassist Ryan O'Sullivan, known for his involvement with the mythic former Phoenician Greg Sage of post-punk legends The Wipers.
Cardello has been with the band for "a year and some months," joining the group after the original lineup released their debut seven-inch, "Make It Right"/"On The Road." The single received glowing reviews from punk rags like Now Wave magazine, which labeled the group "bar punk," describing the songs as the "type of tuneage [that] is best taken in live amongst the local rowdies, drunken skanks, and town degenerates."
From the beginning, the group set out with no particular sound in mind. "We didn't really set out and say, 'Let's start a punk band."'It was more just like, let's play music and, you know, a lot of the punk people like what we do because of the high energy," Portnoy says. After all, the group hardly dwelled on traditional punk sources. Though a latecomer to the party, Cardello speaks about the band's varied interests. "I listen to a lot of '60s music, a lot of weird jazz, prog rock from the '70s, stuff like Soft Machine, Goblin, Magma. It's definitely fun to just play straight-up rock, but I think those influences kind of come through anyway."
The group's record-nerd tastes extend to their new album, which they've almost completed. "There are 16 or 17 songs, with an experimental thing at the end that just goes on," Reeder says. The loose, raw sound of the new album stems from the group's songwriting approach. "We just free-form for a half-hour or 45 minutes or an hour, and out of that comes a couple of pieces. We let ourselves be ourselves."
It sounds pretty "jam band," but the results are hardly the granola-munching fare that comes from such a laid-back approach. Well, not yet, at least. The next record is going to be all aimless guitar meandering," Portnoy laughs. "Yeah," Reeder chimes in, "the acid kicks in by then."
The band isn't concerned about what label will put out the record. In fact, the band doesn't even seem concerned about what shows they play locally.
"When we play Yucca Tap Room, those are always awesome shows," Cardello says. "But generally, in this town, there isn't a lot of support for local music, unless you're involved in some sort of clique."
"Very small cliques," Reeder furthers.
"We're sorta in a clique of three," Portnoy says.
"Sometimes we go out and play shows and it's packed, and we have a great show. Sometimes we go and play to the bartender, and that's a great show."
The band has no plans to tour, either. "I'd like to play Casa Grande," Cardello laughs.
Ultimately, though, the band seems content simply creating solid music. "We do it for the sake of playing, and bringing together creative ideas to create something that is artistic and engaging," Cardello says.
"The big thrill is creating a song out of nothing. You're just playing, and before you know it, there's this song, with an entity all its own," Portnoy says.
Listening to my recordings of Reeder, Portnoy, and Cardello bantering back and forth, I'm taken aback by how stress-free their band sounds. I think again about Jeff, my former drummer and current friend. I know that we had fights — long, blown-out arguments — about how to "make it" as a band. But for the life of me, I can't recall why any of that stuff ever seemed so important. I can only seem to remember the goof-off days, huddled around the turntable with guitars, trying to figure out which licks to rip off from LPs by The Jam and The Isley Brothers, the night that we e-mailed Bob Corritore, drunk off our asses, and conned him into letting us open for the legendary proto-metal band Blue Cheer.
None of the "big stuff" seems to matter now, just those ridiculous joys. "I think what we have in common is that we love music, and we love the music that we play," Orin says from my laptop's tinny speakers. "Whether that's recording, or in the rehearsal studio, whether we play for a lot of people or no one, we just like to play."
I'm glad I've got The Automatic Erasers to remind me how simple it should be.