Artist Spotlight: The Automatic

AUSTIN, Texas — It was halfway through my third day at the festival, and I was standing in the comfortably air-conditioned confines of a tour bus, watching a hardcore band on a stage outside play to a literally empty lot. Alex Pennie (just call him Pennie) of The Automatic stood beside me, shaking his head. “They’re really not bad,” he said, disappointed on their behalf. That’s what happens when you play a festival with 1,500 bands, I guess.

The Automatic, however, has managed to rise above the drone. They scored gigs at Stubb’s and Emo’s, two of Austin’s most desirable venues during the festival; not bad for a band’s first shows in America. One would think that these young, bright-eyed musicians would be chomping at the bit to talk all about it. But that wasn’t really the case.

“No offense, but we really don’t like interviews,” said Pennie, The Automatic’s keyboard and vocalist, in a way that was candid but not pretentious. “I don’t think they represent what we’re like. I usually end an interview by telling the writer, ‘if you want to see how we really are, come to a show.’ We’re really not this boring.”

It was nearing 7 in the evening, and the thing these four guys from Wales seemed most excited about was the air conditioning in the tour bus where we sat. They had spent the day going from interview to interview, which by their account amounted to repeated strings of boring, uninspired questions. To be frank, I kind of felt bad to be inundating them with more queries. The battle-weary rockers were soft-spoken and calm, a startling contrast to the explosion of energy we had witnessed in concert the day before. For a moment, it seemed odd that this band won the award for “Rock ‘n’ Roll Excess” at 2006’s Pop Factory Awards.

Their show the previous night, however, told an entirely different story. The larger showcases at South by Southwest are notorious for the difficult crowds – unlike the smaller venues and rock clubs these bands are used to, the audience is decidedly older and more jaded. But from the moment they stepped out on stage, they ignited the crowd. From impressive microphone-on-cord spins a la Roger Daltrey to Pennie’s fearless acrobatics on top of the speaker stacks, even the stodgiest of industry veterans who turned out for the show were transfixed. By the end, it made perfect sense that they found themselves banned from an English TV station for destroying their drum set and stripping to their underwear on live television.

But despite their well-received shows, it is hardly surprising that this potential for fame in the United States hasn’t made them awestruck. Back home n the UK, they are anything but rookies. It all started around age twelve, when Pennie, guitarist James Frost, bassist and vocalist Robin Hawkins, and drummer Iwan Griffiths began to play together. “We were friends first,” said Hawkins, “so it was kind of what we did when we hung out together.”

At the ages of 20 and 21, they have been a band for nearly eight years, more than many musicians ten years their senior can say for themselves. It’s tough keeping a band together for that long by any account, but they shrugged it off. “We don’t have any other friends,” laughed Hawkins.

In 2005, they found themselves with a manager and a record deal. Other British artists we spoke with described The Automatic as one of England’s hottest stars at the moment, a comment backed up by their record sales and performances on the legendary BBC 1. One of their singles, “Monster,” recently peaked at No. 4 on the British radio charts. Now American success is in their sights as well; they will be heading out on the Vans Warped Tour for the month of July, a traveling festival that has jumpstarted the careers of many artists.

With any luck, they’ll enjoy the same success here that they have in the UK – and probably be banned from a TV station or two.

The Automatic’s debut release,”Not Accepted Anywhere,” is available now on Columbia Records. Visit www.gwhatchet.com for a video interview and live performance clips.

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