cluas.com - December 2005
Anna hooks up Ken McHugh of Autamata...
It's a commonly held and totally understandable misconception that Mayo is actually a continuation of the Burren in disguise. Musically, that's pretty close to the truth. Although deceptively flush with talent - a few varieties of teenage cover bands, acoustic guitar-touting pub singers, and a proliferation of trad musicians - the output of the musical wasteland that is Mayo to the wider world is shamefully small.
From this bleak background emerges Ken McHugh, who is not only a prolific songwriter, but producer, studio owner, label owner, multi-instrumentalist, general studio expert and the central figure of Dublin-based Autamata. Autamata's latest album, Short Stories, has been slowly gaining recognition for being a work of delicate electronic originality, taking the listener on a journey of musical discovery. Trad, albums, Jellyman, electronica, the future, Ken McHugh has a lot to say...
Coming out of a ridiculously musical background, Ken has been working both the foreground and the background of the Irish music scene. Like so many people, he got into playing traditional music from an early age, and was no stranger to playing live. By the time he reached his teens, he and his sisters had made their debut TV performance on RT's Screen Test, and were regularly booked out to play at various special occasions. So how did those traditional beginnings develop into the technical prowess we see today?
"When I was in secondary school, I got into rock and started playing the electric guitar. I'd play with my friends? I got a dance machine and I'd spend hours sitting in my room coming up with songs and ideas." True, the influence of teenage rock is still strongly felt in his newer music, though incredibly subtle. Ken's writing has obviously matured along a different path than most teenage rockers. "I wrote a few dance songs at first, you know, the basic beats, but then I realised hey, this is kinda boring, so I branched out? I realised then that that was what I wanted to do."
Ken's own studio, Area 51, is becoming the choice of Irish acts like the Corrs, Mundy and so many others, while he himself has produced albums of such renown as David Kitt's The Big Romance and is just finishing work on Roesy's latest. His label, Left Hand, has featured Cathy Davey, who also appeared on My Sanctuary. "It's all one to me. I don't really see myself as being any one thing above the other. My role is promoting music and Irish music in particular."
"There's great variety in what I do: one week I could be producing a hip-hop record, the next remixing a dance song, then working on a new guitarist's album. It's what keeps me going. Every penny we make gets put back into the studio. You learn from the industry, so that's how I'm learning where I can go with Autamata."
Three years after its initial release, Autamata's first offering My Sanctuary, is looking at being re-released to the public ear again, due to its slow but steady increase in popularity and demand. But whence was Autamata born, and how did it get to here? Where does Ken McHugh end and Autamata begin?
"I was always writing music. I wrote two albums just as Ken McHugh before My Sanctuary was even an idea. I sent them around to mates to get their opinions on the songs. I worked on a lot of film music as well, for example a Colin McPherson film called Saltwater, and a French film that unfortunately fell through. Autamata began as just me, then I began working with Sarah Verdon and (former CLUAS writer) Carol Keogh?they would come in and write songs over the instrumental tracks I was writing. We've had a fair bit of success over the last few years; the music seems to be getting more popular years after it came out first."
No doubt the increase in popularity of both Autamata and My Sanctuary is due at least in part to having tracks featured in Tara Road, Woody Allen's Match Point and a new deal for Mitsubishi ads in the US.
"That was great. I mean you write this music, and people associate a mood or feeling to it. The music I write is very cinematic anyway." You need only listen to My Sanctuary once to hear what he means: it's an intricate work of expansive yet tightly constructed soundscapes. "It was great exposure, especially as we're not the kind of band to play the "toilet tour" of the UK! But we do play live a bit: we get a live band together. There was Oxygen last year and we're set to travel to New York and Eastern Europe for more gigs."
"We've become more song-based since My Sanctuary. That album was really half and half: instrumental and songs. Short Stories has more songs."
The progression from My Sanctuary to Short Stories was not only a growth, but almost a period of increasing concentration. The former is airier and sounds much more like a complete work in its own right than the latter. The addictive Jellyman may still prove to be the song most remembered from the album, but then is almost the only song to stand on its own in the context of the album. However, Short Stories has been accused by critics as being too disparate a collection of songs to really engage with. Has becoming more song-based effected its appeal, either positively or negatively?
"It depends on the stage you're at yourself really," Ken readily admits. "I'd sit for hours just making sounds. My Sanctuary and working with the girls influenced my writing. I wrote about 30 songs without instruments before we put Short Stories together. I didn't constrict Autamata to working within the frame of a vocal line or a certain structure. I wasn't used to leaving space for a lead instrument in the music I wrote before. So Sarah and Carol would come in and write songs over the instrumental tracks I'd written. We sent copies of the songs around to our mates to pick the best ones to go on an album, and then I had to sit down and listen to see how to make them fit together. It is fragmented; but it's a journey, you know."
"The response to it has been excellent, and from completely mixed groups of people. I'm at the tail-end of my generation. I remember when you were either a rocker or a raver, but society has opened up since then. People like the idea, of a new sound, not like what's gone before. The album is completely mixed, but a lot of care went into fitting it together."
In an increasingly technological world, the importance of computers and technology is paramount in music production, a fact which Ken, both as musician and producer is aware of. Yet one can't help but notice the steady encroachment of electronica into the niche we've reserved for "rock": think no further than The Flaming Lips, to a certain extent Linkin Park, and most especially the progression of Radiohead from OK Computer and the Bends to Kid A and Hail to the Thief. Electronica is no longer just the province of the DJ Shadows of the world, but is being used to create a whole new realm of new and almost indefinable styles. The contempt once felt for computer-generated music as "artificial" is as valid as deeming the electric guitar "artificial."
Autamata manage, especially in tracks such as Crazy, to produce everything we look for in rock through electronic means. Can electronic media be seen as a viable path for the development of "rock"?
"Yeah. It helps people push boundaries, you know? I just got back from London, and nearly every band over had those rock haircuts and spiky guitars. They're like cover bands, working their own versions of what people have played before from a blueprint. That's why bands like Radiohead are still as popular now with Hail to the Thief as their earlier stuff. People love a fresh sound." Ken is always enthusiastic, and dedicated to the idea of producing music that sounds new and different. He cites the Beach Boys and Bjork as influences, which goes far to explain a lot of what we can hear in Autamata.
"Electronic instruments are tools. My Sanctuary in particular was heavily programmed, but then I played bits of guitar and bass over it. For Short Stories, we got [Halite drummer] Graham [Hopkins] to put some live beats in. That's why I wanted to start my own label, Left Hand: so I could make my music the way I wanted it to be. Some labels and producers will try to tie you down and put you in a box? This way I wouldn't have to make any compromises."
Surely though, having your music pre-programmed on a computer removes a large element of what we treasure in rock and similar: improvisation, 6 minute long guitar solos?? Do electronic instruments leave scope for improvisation, or is improvisation just not as important a feature of this type of music?
"Well, that depends on you. It can restrict you or it can work. I often use some different miking techniques when recording to make things sound more interesting. And we've used real-life beats: we raided the kitchen and recorded Graham hitting the table with knives. We work with whatever is there.
"As I said it depends on you. It's not just hitting a few buttons. In particular, when you're producing an album, you have to think about how you can mix and match up to the artist you're working with."
Sometimes after two such different but equally explorative albums, it's hard to know where to go. How is the future looking for Autamata? "Good." A lukewarm statement maybe from anyone else, but so coming so clearing and self-assuredly it leaves no space for doubt that the future could be anything else.
"It's slow, but I'm happy with what we're doing. We're getting around the world. The albums seem to get bigger over time, which is why we might be looking at a re-release for My Sanctuary. The whole industry is like a big machine, and you learn from it as you go along. I can see myself still making music when I'm 90.
"When we get back from the US and Eastern Europe in January, I'll be going straight back to writing, but for the moment, Liberty Bell is up on iTunes and Napster, and things are looking good for it." To be honest that depends on what circle you move in. Liberty Bell was perhaps not the wisest choice of single release, and the response to it has been mixed. Being overplayed on the radio is certainly not helping the situation. Still despite this, Autamata's reputation is ever-increasing and deservedly so.
Antoinette Curtin talks to Autamata fulcrum Ken McHugh about the early days with Jivin' Ivan, setting out on his own, the idea of gig as spectacle and playing the the Temple Bar Music Centre on November 4th...
A cursory glance at contemporary band culture reveals something of an over-abundance of retrophilia. And as much as I love them, as much as I find myself seduced by their long-locked glamour, listening to such music can at times feel suspiciously akin to a guilty pleasure.
A guitar teacher once told me that most new music is not new at all, merely more hip-ly packaged, and present evidence, whether it is gleaned from the indebted brilliance of The Killers and The Libertines, or from the novelty naffness of the Scissors Sisters, undoubtedly bears this out.
From such a scene Autamata clearly stands apart. It may seem absurd to even measure them against such a yardstick - they are patently not a 'guitar band' - and yet this acknowledgement helps define what Autamata may in fact be. To begin with, the moniker refers primarily to Ken McHugh, the founder and creative fulcrum of the project, and a man whose childhood was enviably steeped in music.
"The local national school used to have a class where everyone had to learn an instrument. My family in particular fell really heavily into it, so from an early age we started getting on stage. Then it just built up over the years until every break, Halloween, Christmas, we'd be booked out to play. It was great! I didn't start playing guitar until I was about fourteen. I had this teacher called Jivin' Ivan - he was a one man band guy. Ivan introduced me to the blues and all this guitar music. It was only then when I came to Dublin that I really discovered a lot of different types of music."
That move not only exposed Ken to more disparate musical forms, but saw his enrolment in a sound engineering course which lead to the conception of Autamata: "I did a year of electronic engineering at Kevin St, but I just wasn't into it, so I did a sound engineering course. From there it kind of took off. I was always writing music, but I wasn't going 'I want to release all these albums.' I suppose sound engineering was a way of learning the trade of how to make records."
Following the course Ken worked in studios in a variety of production roles, and there is a sense that as well as providing a day job this period served as an apprenticeship where he could continue to develop his creative impulses. "I worked with loads of different people helping them make records. Then I got a bit tired of producing for other people, and I said 'Right, let's just focus some time and not work with anyone else for a while', although I still had to, just to make a few quid."
This meant working hard. "In the evenings I was working on my own stuff. So that's kind of how Autamata started. It was always there, but it came to a point where I finished off ten tracks and what I used to do was press up about a hundred copies and give them out to my friends. With this one everyone was going, 'You have to do something with it' so I decided why not. That was two years ago now."
During this interval Autamata metamorphosed into a fully functioning live and recording outfit. Despite an initial lack of concern for the performance dimension, Ken now sees it as central to the development of Autamata.
"When I finished the album first I hadn't even planned to play it live. I never wrote it that way. But a few months after it came out people started saying they wanted to hear it live. So I thought I could do it two ways. I could either go with laptops - which is just boring - or I could do it right. So I set up a five-piece band around it and we re-worked a lot of the songs and then decided to bring in visuals. We did our first gig a year and a half ago. I've only done six or seven since, but we'll be touring a lot more than that in the future. I've just been taking baby steps with the live thing. It's really come on though. It's really starting to work now."
This visual element is vital to Autamata now, as will be clear when they take to the stage of the Temple Bar Music Centre on November 4th. "We've a company set up now as Autamata Visuals. The whole future goes very much hand in hand with that. With every new track that I'm writing I'll sit down with a couple of good friends of mine, Blackburst, and chat with them about how we want to visually interpret the track."
This idea of gig as spectacle also represents a 'value for money' facet Ken is keen to imbue their ventures with. Both ideals are evident in plans currently being devised for the springtime release of follow-up album, Short Stories.
"There's a whole album ready to go. I could literally release it in the morning, but I've decided not to. There are twenty songs already and most of them are more or less finished, so I've decided to move to the country for a while after the gigs [Galway, Roisin Dubh, November 6th; Cork, Cyprus Avenue, November 13th] and I'm going to write another twenty tracks and pick the best ten. It's a bit of a tall order, but I'm trying to write an album that's all killer, no filler, without sounding cheesy."
Far from being a cliché, such aspirations are refreshing when compared to the somewhat shoddy attitude many acts betray towards an album as an entity. Even relatively admirable new releases, such as the latest Libertines offering, are flawed by their sporadic intensity; the worth of the whole is devalued by patches of forgettable flimsiness.
Ken appears to have found a method of reconciling his desire to produce an album of intrinsic, solid consistency, and the need to provide value for the fan, by the use of a multi-format release for Short Stories.
"I plan to have ten tracks on a normal CD, but there will be a version that includes an extra DVD. You put on the DVD and the ten tracks have the audio visuals, but also a list of another ten tracks you can listen to in your own time. When you present an album you can only ask a listener to sit down for a certain length of time. And everyone's complaining about the price of CDs and they're right. If you give more to people they will easily pay the extra fiver."
Such pragmatic generosity is already in evidence on autamatamusic.com where an abundance of material is on offer, without cost, and is epitomised in the free, internet only release of 'Out of Time' on November 4th. The graphic element of Autamata's material is not confined to supplementary trappings, but is embodied at the core of the tracks themselves. A soundtrack quality is one feature Autamata listeners have readily responded to, and is perhaps linked to the fact that the album began life as an instrumental endeavour.
As a result the music of My Sanctuary speaks for itself, and often, it speaks loudest. It's an album that revels in its wilful resistance to categorisation, a conscious decision on behalf of Ken.
"I was quite conscious that it was eclectic and I wanted it to be that way. A lot of artists bring out albums and they have to sound one way and then they can't change or move away from that sound. So I thought, let's bring out the album this way so then I can do anything I want as the audience is aware it will be eclectic."
Not only is the album diverse, it is elegant in its magpie tendencies. Songs such as Jive County, Fragments, Jellyman, Out of This, and Postscript all offer distinctly different pleasures, while achieving a similar standard of quality. Like a prism, the album turns, revealing disparate depths. 'Out of This' is one highpoint among many.
"In the new mix I've brought in real drums and violins and it is specifically a radio mix. I did it in a way to give the song a chance. I just thought there's a beautiful song there so let's change the production a bit because the song was written around the production at the time."
Whatever the reasons, it works, and the November 4th edition may be quite unlike anything you have heard before, the new simplicity lending it a greater resonance than most singles can hope to aspire to. But all that's just words. Go to the website and listen to the song for yourself; it is its own most eloquent spokesperson.
The Autamata show comes to the Temple Bar Music Centre on November 4th. And we have two pairs of tickets to give away in our latest oxygen gigs comp. Click here to enter. You can also catch them in Galway at the Róisín Dubh on November 6th, and in Cork at Cyprus Avenue, on November 13th.
Hot Press - November 1 2002
"Autamata For The People"
Producer and film-scorer Ken McHugh unveils his debut album
Tales From Inside A Bubble was to be the original title of Autamata’s debut album My Sanctuary. “I wanted to convey the fact that I wasn’t writing music for a scene, or music to be put in any one category,” says Dubliner Ken McHugh of his first solo project. “Eventually I felt that My Sanctuary conveyed the same message in fewer words.”
The message is an interesting and unusual one. In a musical climate where recapitulation is often favoured over originality, Autamata’s album is astonishingly eclectic. In the broadest sense it is an electronic record, but one listen to the five tracks from the Amnesiac-influenced opener ‘Fragments’ to the orchestral sweep of ‘Little Green Men’, is enough to give any pigeonholer a sleepless night.
“I was definitely conscious of the fact that it has lots of different styles,” concedes McHugh. “I love the freedom of being able to write whatever I want, but sometimes I have to control myself. It didn’t take long to record [the album], but in the mixing stage it took a while to get the whole thing to flow. From the outset I wanted My Sanctuary to be a varied collection so that in future people are aware of what I can do. So there is some method to the madness.”
Naturally, it takes technical expertise as well as creative nous for such a multidisciplinary project to succeed. This McHugh has in spades; over the many years of what he calls his ‘apprenticeship’ in music, he has honed his skills as a producer and film-scorer, working with Creative Control, The Plague Monkeys, Naimee Coleman and David Kitt.
My Sanctuary benefits greatly from the excellent vocal talents of Carol Keogh and Cathy Davey, Autamata’s two chief collaborators. McHugh met both musicians through his production work, and feels that “they ‘re quite simply two of the best singers in the country.” Remarkably, every track on the album was written as an instrumental, even those which Keogh and Davey have made their own with distinctive vocal performances.
An affable pragmatist, McHugh is aware that the public will need plenty of time to digest a musical meal as complex as My Sanctuary. He has delayed the release of a single until January next year, and, his next task is to get a live act together. “It’s always a challenge to make a good live show out of electronically-originated music,” he says. “But I really think we can do it.” He has already enlisted a drummer, and will start gigging as soon as a full band has been formed.
Outside of Autamata, McHugh continues his ‘behind-the-scenes’ work, having recently worked on the soundtrack to Conor McPherson’s new film The Actors, which stars Michael Caine and Dylan Moran. He is also in negotiations with The Beta Band about producing their next album.
Hot Press - November 19 2002
This fortnight: a hot seat, a spot light, a tape recorder and Autamata
What's your guitar/drum kit/bass/piano/whatever
(make & model)?
Just bought a new Fender Mustang guitar today. Mmmmm... nice...and it looks cool too. I might start wearing it to the pub.
Where did you buy it?
What was your first instrument (make & model)?
A concert flute - handmade by Santa Claus (actually some fella in Clare, apparently).
If you had an unlimited budget, what would you
Microphone Neuman U47 vintage
Amp Vox AC30 Vintage
Guitar A handmade Martin
Piano Steinway grand piano
Studio device I have all the toys I need.
Who and what song did you play air guitar to as a
Too many to mention. I was caught playing air guitar to Mundy's 'Mayday' the other day though.
What instruments can you knock a tune out of
(however bad it may be)?
Guitar, bass, keyboards, low whistle, bodhran.
What's your favourite studio effect and why?
Currently, tape delay (instant dreamyness).
Did you ever get piano/any-other-instrument
lessons when you were a kid and do you have any fond memories of them?
Piano from an old hag. If I played a wrong note, she'd push my fingers in to the keys and hold them down until I screamed with pain. Unfortunately, this turned me off finishing my grades.
What's the most rock n roll thing you've ever done
to an instrument?
Break a guitar in half at one of my old school band gigs in the gym. It was a bad idea though as I had to work loads of terrible jobs to buy a new one. The chicks loved it all the same.
What's your favourite Irish musical instrument
shop and why?
Charlie Byrnes. They know their shit and have lots of weird things.
What's your favourite place to record and why?
In my own studio Area 51 in Dublin. Its 'my sanctuary', y'know?
Autamata's debut album, MY SANCTUARY, is out now on Left Hand Records.
Austin Daze - December 16 2008
Ireland’s Autamata is sometimes electronica, sometimes rock, sometimes acoustic, and always worth checking out. Fortunately you’ll have a chance to when they come back for SXSW.
AUSTIN DAZE: How did you get started in music?
KEN MCHUGH: I was born into a musical family. I started playing traditional Irish music with 4 of my sisters around the west of Ireland from a very early age.
I then sold my soul to the devil and started playing rock music.
Later I learned how to work a studio and this introduced me to electronic and abstract sounds. I now combine all these things into the Autamata sound.
AD: You wear several hats: Composer, musician, and producer. Do they require different personalities? Which is the most challenging? Which is the easiest?
KM: I guess so. I don’t really think about it too much. I just like making music, sometimes my own as Autamata and sometimes for other people. I just like the whole process of making records. Playing live is the most exciting though as I normally rock it out a lot more and jump around “and stuff”. Making a happy album from scratch locked away in a house in the wilds of Ireland during a bleak winter is probably the most challenging.
AD: Did you have a back up plan or alternative to the “When I grow up” question?
KH: It weird I just knew I was going to be doing this. Maybe I’m just lucky, but I do believe you make your own luck in life.
AD: Tell me about the Autamata sound.
KH: Myself just using various instruments at my studio writing instrumental tracks first made the last three albums. For some of these I write lyrics myself and sing and otherwise I get Carol Keogh or Cathy Davey to come hang out and they write the lyrics and sing. So there are some songs and some instrumentals. I don’t get too caught up in what box Autamata is in and just let each track build naturally into whatever it wants to be. I get some mates in then to replace certain parts on instruments I cant play very well and I mix the tracks.
AD: Tell me about the “revolving door” band. How does it work? What’s it like to team up with different musicians? Is this by choice or circumstance?
KH: Well it all just started with me giving albums I made around to friends and then they started to convince me to release them. I put the first album out and it was well received so people started to ask me to play it live. I then got some of my mates together and we set up an Autamata live band to tour the albums.
I really like the current live band though and reckon I will keep this crew together now for a while. There was no plan really. It has all just grown naturally.
AD: I read about your success with advertising and Hollywood. Were you afraid of that at all? Does it mean anything as a musician to go that route? Is there a fear of losing authenticity?
KH: Well I run my own label and publishing company. It’s a little cottage industry. So if someone rings me up offering me some money to use my tunes in a film or an advert that I am not morally against I say yes. I take it as a compliment that people want to use my music to soundtrack their visuals. It enables me to tour and make more albums. Some bands are against this but they are usually on major record companies and have kind of sold themselves to big corporations anyway.
It gets my music to a wider audience without having some An n’ R guy telling me what socks I should be wearing.
AD: How does the music culture differ in Ireland and the UK in comparison to here?
KH: It pretty similar. There is pop, there is indie and then there is shit!
UK is very haircut driven at the moment. It seems to matter more about what shoes you are wearing than the music with most bands just completely ripping off older bands. Ireland has a really big independent scene where a lot of artists just set up their own labels and release their own albums. The scene is seriously fresh at the moment. After being in Austin though I have to agree that it is the “music capital of the world.” You don’t have bands playing as much in restaurants and Whole Foods stores in Ireland. We don’t have many original Hip hop/RNB acts though.
AD: How was your response been in the states?
KH: Our first gig at the ACL festival was amazing. People seemed to really like our set. Lots of love! We rock it out a lot more live which surprises a lot of people.
We would like to come back lots more and play around the states.
AD: America is…
KH: Hot, friendly, big on breakfast, confident.
AD: Ireland is…
KH: Cold, not as friendly as we think, big on drinking, greener, more clannish and a little easier going.
AD: Tell me about your musical influences.
KH: The Beach boys, Bork, Massive attack, Daft Punk, The Cure, The future sound of London, My bloody Valentine, Kate Bush.
AD: The world seems to be coming to an end these days. Are you creatively affected by that? Is there a sense of responsibility to provide relief; a voice; anything?
KH: Well there is a song we wrote for our first album called “out of this” that is a good soundtrack to the times we are living in and giving hope. It’s up on our myspace page www.myspace.com/autamata.
Otherwise I am writing an album under a different name “spectator” at the moment. It’s all instrumental and a lot darker than most of the autamata stuff so I guess the world-ending syndrome is affecting me a little.
AD: Have you ever experienced a time of “no inspiration”?
KH: Yes. When this happens I just work on other people’s records, make s a video or just do a lot of cooking. If all this fails I just go to the pub.
AD: Do you think it’s possible to run out of material?
KH: Nah, never. There is always new music to root up that will influence me into getting back into the studio and making more of my own tracks. I do believe I will be doing this until I am 90 or something. I doubt I will be promoting albums then but ill be making music just for my kids and hopefully, myself.
AD: Do you consider yourself an optimistic person?
KH: It’s my middle name.
AD: What’s next?
We just recorded a live radio session for 2fm here in Ireland. It’s actually being played on air now as I type. Ill post the tracks on my space for people to hear more what we sound like live. I’m going to finish off this spectator album I spoke about.
Then I plan to get the current Autamata live band into the studio and write a killer album together in the studio rather than just by myself as we have a really good energy as a “band”. So maybe Autamata is turning into a band! Always evolving!
We are booking in more gigs and plan to head back to Austin for SXSW.
AD: Anything else?
KH: New album is now available in Waterloo records y’all.