As teenagers in Santa Clarita during the early '90s, the members of the Autumns found musical inspiration in arty British pop acts, particularly cult heroes the Cocteau Twins. So just imagine how much air showed between the ground and their feet earlier this year when Cocteaus bassist Simon Raymonde produced their forthcoming second album.
"In the studio [with him], there really was no comprehension of how profound and bizarre the situation was," says Autumns singer-guitarist Matthew Kelly. "You'd have two days off, and you'd think, 'Well, I'm gonna go see Simon tomorrow,' and then it would hit you: Simon! From the Cocteau Twins!"
The veteran Scottish trio has never had a Top 40 hit in the U.S., but its atmospheric music and poetic lyrics remain attractive to gloomy romantics and fans of lush pop soundscapes--even those who were scarcely out of kindergarten when the Cocteaus' song "Garlands" became an underground hit in the early '80s.
High-school Brit-pop fans Kelly, Frank Koroshec (guitar) and Eric Crissman (drums) obsessed over the Cocteaus as well as the Stone Roses and the Smiths. To them, the music was more innovative--and melodic--than the more popular hard rock and grunge of the time. "Morrissey's level of wit was unmatched over here," says Kelly, whose fingers and wrists are laden with rings and bracelets. "And the Cocteau Twins is so entrenched in high-end, poetic references. That's completely absent from what was going on here."
The group started making music in 1992 that reflected these fixations. In the beginning, the Autumns played at Hollywood clubs with such "hair bands" as Sister Scream, but eventually they found a more compatible setting at the weekly Cafe Bleu.
Held on Thursdays at the West Hollywood restaurant and bar Tempest, the 3-year-old indie and Brit-pop club is a favorite refuge for fans of mod sounds, from '60s stylists to more contemporary practitioners. Some of the clubgoers who crowd the narrow outdoor patio for a quick smoke between sets sport garb that was hip three decades ago yet somehow remains timeless, and that's not a bad metaphor for the Cafe Bleu scene.
If their focus is relatively narrow in the grand scheme of pop things, promoters Shalyce Benfell and Piper Ferguson embrace innovation more than some aficionados of vintage music, leaving room for modern acts that don't necessarily play museum-quality reproductions of classic sounds. The Autumns' dreamy, expansive music wasn't exactly "mod," but the band quickly won over Cafe Bleu's patrons and connected with the like-minded local and touring acts that performed there.
By 1997, with longtime pal Brian Stearns replacing its original bassist, the band had its first EP and album on the independent Risk Records. "We were huge Cocteau Twins fans, and that's very obviously where we were coming from," Kelly says of those early recordings. But the new album--due out in February and poetically titled "In the Russet Gold of This Vain Hour"--represents the players' breakaway from youthful fascinations. The change is all the more resonant because one of their heroes helped them make it.
Raymonde (pronounced like "Raymond") became interested in the Autumns after a friend at Risk played him early "Russet" demos.
After that, "Simon wrote me an e-mail, which was one of the most profound experiences of my life," says Kelly, who, like all his bandmates, is 24.
Shortly thereafter, the pair had dinner in London, and "we got on brilliantly," Raymonde recalls. Six weeks later, he met the rest of the Autumns in California, and they started working on the album. They finished it at the London studio September Sound, where the Cocteaus have recorded.
Raymonde says he encouraged the Autumns to take more chances on the record. "They hadn't previously explored any kind of musical improvisation inside the studio," he says, "and I wanted them to leave some room for this. All I did was help them see the possibilities." Koroshec concurs: "He really was pushing all of us to come up with the stuff ourselves."
Judging from the two originals on the band's current three-song EP, "Boy With the Aluminum Stilts" (which also includes a version of "Garlands"), the members appear to have succeeded in evolving musically. Sure, the sonics are lush and dreamy--and Kelly sounds a bit like Morrissey on the title track--but there is a sense of modernity amid the classic melodic melancholy. (For information about obtaining a copy, visit http://www.theAutumns.com.)
A TASTE OF THE BLEUS: The Autumns are on a national tour under the auspices of "Cafe Bleu Presents: Who What Where How & When," a recently released compilation album featuring bands that have performed at the club.
The brainchild of promoters Benfell and Ferguson, the CD features 20 acts, many from Southern California, offering a wide-ranging sample of this alt-pop microcosm, where clever wordplay, bright melodies, squiggly noises, French lyrics and a highbrow sense of fun never go out of style.
Among the SoCal groups, the Brandy Alexanders sport authentic old-school tendencies, while Crooner sounds almost modern, in a Barenaked Ladies sort of way, and Mak Twain explores the genre's more experimental aspects.
Charming and the Arrogants recall U.K. acts such as Echobelly and serve as reminders that this music isn't hopelessly uncommercial so much as simply too smart and genteel for an American audience that currently favors the depth-free twinkle of perky teens and the empty ranting of frat-boy punks. *
Cafe Bleu, Thursdays at Tempest, 7323 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood. 18 and over, $5 ($7 for under 21). (323) 951-7079.
* The Autumns play Nov. 30 at the Troubadour, 9081 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood, 8 p.m. $7. (310) 276-6168.