Interview: Automatic, on rebellion, relevancy and their new album, ‘Excess’

Automatic (Photo by Dana Trippe)

The current state of the world is enough to make anyone cynical or cold, especially artists, and even more so, women artists. Coming out of the pandemic, it’s surprising how little music actually dug deeply into the isolation — not to mention the dystopian implications of what we lived through and continue to live through, as governmental decisions and world economics slowly suck away at our souls.

L.A. trio Automatic (Izzy Glaudini on synths and vocals, Lola Dompé on drums and vocals and Halle Saxon on bass and vocals) are an exciting exception, making thoughtful, otherworldly synth-laden soundscapes that might look and feel retro, but could not be more modern in their lyrical and conceptual inspirations. Climate change, corporate greed and sexism are just a few of the central themes tackled by the trio on their new album, “Excess,” released on June 24 by Stone’s Throw Records.

If you have a listen to their 2019 debut, “Signal,” which Pitchfork called both mesmerizing and numbing, Automatic’s subtle evolution is evident. The band’s foreboding approach is sharper and their robotic rock feels even more relentless right now. They’ve established themselves as a fiercely focused yet fresh spin on some all-female bands who came before them, such as the Go-Go’s (their name comes from the uncharacteristically gloomy “Automatic” off “Beauty and the Beat”). But there’s an obvious effort to eschew a singular sonic classification as they win over new fans.

“I think we all really like having no genre, and really just not being pinpointed to a certain kind of music,” Saxon says during a Zoom meeting with all three musicians, done on a sunny morning after they’d just arrived back in L.A. from Amsterdam. They all admit they’re pretty jet-lagged, but as tired as they obviously are, their chemistry comes through the computer screen, just as it does on video. These are three women with something to say and their power lies not in raging riffs but in imposing synths, deceptively low-key delivery and satiric imagery.

It was almost like a rebellion against the very masculine punk scene.

“We were really direct in saying this is our starting place of references that we like,” Glaudini says of the group’s early formation in 2017. “We would pull up songs and be like, ‘OK, let’s do our own version of that.’”

“A lot of no wave and post-punk … It was almost like a rebellion against the very masculine punk scene. It was more open for people of color and for women. I don’t know, I just think it’s just more approachable. Like, if you don’t know how to shred guitar, be able to write songs on synths and stuff.”

Recalling ’80s acts such as Human League and Tubeway Army but sparser, there’s also some ’90s electro vibes, hinting at Ladytron and even Peaches’ approach to synthetic sounds. Automatic’s more minimalist, but they have nods to mod, new romantic and arty Warhol vibes, too. The monotone-y moments can be hit or miss on record, but the full breadth of what they’re doing feels cinematic on stage and video. The video for “Skyscraper,” directed by Alex Thurmond, portrays the band as Stepford Wife-like office gals, listlessly going through the motions at work, as they deal with the “shame” of “the game” in which “every dollar gets you off.”

The fembot appeal is real, but the band’s energy elevates in front of crowds, as they’ve proven on tours with Tame Impala, IDLES and Parquet Courts, as well as much-buzzed about performances at Primavera Sound and last month’s Cruel World festival. The latter was somewhat of a family affair as Dompé’s dad is none other than Kevin Haskins, founding member and drummer for Bauhaus.

“I went to a lot of shows as a kid and listened to great music,” Dompé says. “It was kind of weird to like, actually, like the music that my parents liked. But yeah, I really did enjoy being exposed to David Bowie and the Clash and cool bands at a young age. My parents are just very supportive, too. I think it was hard for my dad to get support in England, starting a band. And so he really wanted to support us in whatever we did. They come to every show that we do.”

Dompé followed in her dad’s footsteps starting at 13 years old; her sister Diva (who played bass and keyboards with her dad in Poptone, Haskins’ side project with Daniel Ash) picked up the guitar first and she tried the drums. She met Glaudini and Saxon in the L.A. club scene and after chatting about their like-minded interests one night at the Ace Hotel, they started jamming and writing music.

The band garnered attention pretty immediately, helped by its well-received debut, but 2020 was obviously a tough year for touring bands, and their momentum was stifled. As they worked on their follow-up, they manifested new music and ideas.

All we could think of was, ‘We’re in a band, let’s make this album be meaningful.

“It was important to funnel the feelings and experience, and we couldn’t really gloss over the topics that came up during the global shutdown,” says Saxon. “All we could think of was, ‘We’re in a band, let’s make this album be meaningful.’”

“We did a Venn diagram where we had this giant poster paper, and we did three circles. And we did the past and kind of like, what we want to move away from and then the present. And then, our future utopia, what we imagined,” Dompé explains. “I feel like that kind of gave us a lot of initial inspiration, and was a good way to visualize what we’ve all been through.

“Every song is about a different thing,” she continues. “There’s one about virtual reality and virtual worlds. And there’s one about a woman’s place in the world from our perspective. But overall, ‘Excess’ is about the divide of wealth, which is kind of a major thing we’re seeing, especially in L.A. right now. I think homelessness is just the big problem here right now. I think it’s interesting to present luxury and poverty in an interesting way. I think a lot of the futurism is showing a shiny future compared to the dirty, grimy realness of what’s really going on.”

In fact, Automatic’s often menacing, hypnotic post-punk is seeped in contradictions and contrasts. It’s minimalist and mechanical but passionate and propulsive. It’s created by three unique young women who mirror each other’s personas visually in videos to make important statements about the world and their place in it. Like the Go-Go’s before them, they’ve already dealt with presumptions and condescension, from disrespectful sound guys “looking for the man in the band” as Saxon points out, to media highlighting stuff other than their music. But they take it in stride and find support from each other.

“We have a gang mentality,” Glaudini assures.

“Yeah, there’s still a lot of things that people say to us that they probably wouldn’t say to a dude,” Dompé adds. “It’s crazy. But we have so many opportunities that a lot of women didn’t have before. So things are changing.”

||| Live: Automatic headlines the Regent Theater on Aug. 6 (tickets). They also play the Desert Daze festival, Sept. 30-Oct. 2.

||| Stream: “Excess” in its entirety

||| Previously: “Skyscraper,” “Venus Hour,” “A New Beginning,” Live at Viva! Pomona (2021), Notes from a Pandemic: NHM First Fridays Connected, Quarantunes (interview & playlist), “Strange Conversations,” Ears Wide Open: “Too Much Money” and “Calling It”