Automatic Black Biography
When you’ve spent months busking for pennies on the streets of Paris and sleeping on park benches, you come to a sort of Zen acceptance that rock glory might pass you by. But Jeff Darr never stopped believing. “There were times when it was really difficult,” he says. “Especially on days when you don’t make any money and find yourself forced to eat food found on the ground. But no matter how bad it got, somehow I knew it would all turn out okay.”
It turned out better than that. Two years after eking out a living playing Robert Johnson covers outside the Louvre, Darr is now singing lead and playing guitar for Automatic Black. This past November, the band opened for Kiss and Aerosmith during a string of dates that included a stop at New York City’s Madison Square Garden. “Talk about a long, strange trip,” laughs Darr. “I’ll never forget going down the hallway toward the Garden stage and passing Steven Tyler. I said, ‘Hey, what’s going on?” He smiled and said, “You—you’re what’s going on.’ Then you keep walking and suddenly you’re onstage in front of 25,000 people. Everything about it was just so surreal. There we were, playing the Garden with rock legends. I was like, ‘Man, how did I get here?’” Automatic Black’s guitarist, Stevie D. agrees, “Completely. I’ve admired these guys since I first started playing, and this was a dream come true.”
In addition to opening a dozen shows for one of the highest-grossing concert packages of 2003, Automatic Black spent the year recording their Arista debut De-Evolution, and saw one of their songs (“Crash & Burn”) included in EA’s top-selling video game “Tiger Woods PGA 2004.” They capped it all off with a blistering performance on Fox’s New Year’s Eve special, sharing screen time with Metallica, Puddle of Mudd, Ice Cube and Ashanti. Stevie D. adds, “They billed us as the band to watch for in 2004.”
They’re hoping to top themselves in 2004, starting with the release of De-Evolution. Produced by Matt Wallace (Faith No More, the Replacements) and mixed by Dave Bianco (Mick Jagger, Black Crowes, Tom Petty), the album finds the Philly-based band breaking from the gate with a monster-sized sound best described as Godzillian: giant power-chord surges, clobbering melodies and meaty, stomping rhythms. At the heart of the beast is main songwriter Darr, who grapples with addictions (“Low”), loneliness (“Lovely Thing”) and societal expectations (“Dementia”).
In lead single “Go Your Way,” he sifts through the aftermath of a broken relationship. “It was inspired by a particular situation and one guy’s inability to commit,” he says. “Not to stereotype, but guys generally like to have the girl, but won’t devote themselves. You want her loyalty and 20 other girls, but when she leaves, you want her back. It happened to my girlfriend and her former boyfriend. His loss,” he smiles, “is my gain.” In “Crash & Burn,” Darr addresses a former lover of his own, re-visiting an old e-mail against a stunning backdrop filled with beautiful, jangly guitars and a chiming melody. “She cheated on me,” he says. “So I got mad and drunk and ruined a party of hers. I felt bad afterward and sent an e-mail apologizing for my actions. This song is that e-mail, word for word.”
Explaining the album title, Darr says, “Most of the songs are me trying to figure out why I do certain things. Together, they’re my de-evolution, my way of going back and doing a bit of self-examination. Sometimes I feel like I come from a long line of people who shouldn’t have reproduced (laughs).” Has his soul-searching led to any conclusions? “I realize that my flaws make me who I am,” he says. “I also realized that I like myself—warts and all. And if nothing else, they provide a lot of material.”
His songs are fleshed out by guitarist Stevie D. and the rhythm section of drummer Tom Chambers and bassist Steve Kitabjian, everything you’d expect from a band that cites influences ranging from early Bowie and the Pixies to Nirvana and Social Distortion: smart, volcanic guitar-rock soaked in honeyed melodies. Stevie D. observes, “Tom and Steve are a world-class foundation to build on. Aside from great musicianship and being great showmen, they are both great guys. It’s rare to find that nowadays.”
Automatic Black’s roots can be traced back to Philadelphia in 2001, when Darr returned home from Europe and met Chambers and Kitabjian through mutual friends. The lineup was solidified with the addition of Los Angeles native Stevie D. “I really didn’t have a choice, I felt like I had to be the guitar player. When I heard the demos I was floored. Having had my own battles with addiction and misfortune, I could really identify with the energy of this music, because I had already lived through something very similar.” Stevie smiles, “ But it wasn’t in front of the Louvre, It was more like Sunset and Western.” I originally left Philadelphia because I was fed up with the local scene,” says the vocalist. “My father was a military man, so I was accustomed to traveling. In addition, I read a lot of Bukowski, Jack London and Kerouac and that combination inspired me to see the world. Rather than just read about it, I wanted to experience it for myself, so I picked up and went. There really wasn’t a game plan to it. I supported myself as a street musician and spent time in Berlin, Paris, Amsterdam, Seattle, San Francisco and a few other places. It’s a lifestyle that has its ups and downs, but I eventually decided I needed a foundation and came home. That’s when I hooked up with Tom and Steve. We hit it off right away and when Stevie came in and I knew we had the potential to turn some heads.”
The group hunkered down in a rehearsal studio and worked on a gaggle of material, breaking only to play local shows. Within a few months, they recorded a demo, which garnered airplay on Philadelphia’s Y100 and also went into heavy rotation on the A&R circuit. A copy of the disc made its way to Antonio “L.A.” Reid, who signed the band after a sizzling showcase set in New York.
“We’re winning over new audiences all the time. For example, during a recent show, some wiseass in the crowd yelled, ‘You’ll never make it’ while we were setting up the stage. I didn’t say anything, ‘cause I knew he’d change his tune within the first three minutes of our set. Sure enough, by the time we were done, the guy was cheering and pumping his fist along with everyone else. All we ask is that you give us that chance to prove ourselves. We’ll take over from there.”