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"At this point, there's a time concern," says Chuck Snow, leader of the AUTONO, Colorado Springs' best, and best-known, rock band. "I have to ask myself, `Am I going to wind up washing dishes at Wendy's when I'm forty?'"
Snow, 32, finds himself trapped in a classic musician's dilemma. He loves writing, playing and singing songs, and he's good at it--damn good. Likewise, the AUTONO, which includes bassist Ivor Young, drummer Kirk Moore and guitarist Mike Amend, is a powerful live act whose sound has been captured on two fine CDs. The group draws enthusiastic audiences in Colorado Springs and has a solid reputation among listeners in Denver, Boulder and Fort Collins. And yet somehow these four performers haven't been able to leap to the next career level. Representatives from minor and major labels have flirted with them, but the relationships have led to nothing more than ego-crushing letdowns. The members of the AUTONO currently find themselves in a position not all that far removed from the one they were in a decade ago, when the band got its start. And yet, according to Moore (who joined in 1988), "I can't think of a time we've ever talked about cashing it in."
This determination has a great deal to do with Snow's kinship with Young, the only other group member to have been with the AUTONO since the beginning. Young's friendship with Snow goes back considerably farther than 1984, when the AUTONO was born. "I've grown up with Chuck," he says. "I've known him since I was four years old. In fact, I've been around Chuck longer than I've been around my own family. We're as tight as anybody."
The musical component of their relationship can be traced back to Snow and Young's junior high years, when they began getting together to play guitar. Somehow, though, they didn't wind up as sonic clones. "Probably our biggest differences are musical," Young claims. "Chuck's more into happy Beatles stuff, and I'm more into the Butthole Surfers. His stuff's more laid-back, whereas I have material that's nitro methane. It's harder-edged, for sure." Fortunately, these differing styles have proven to be complementary; when Snow's songs threaten to become too pop-oriented, Young adds a welcome dose of noise and grit.
In spite of their closeness, Snow and Young didn't start out as bandmates. Snow's first combo was called S.I.D.S., tastefully named for the malady known as Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. "King Soopers used to print stuff about S.I.D.S. on their bags," he remembers, "so we'd go down there and get a bunch of them and bring them to shows." Seven months later the S.I.D.S. lineup fluctuated, and Young was brought aboard. Although primarily a guitarist, Young wound up on bass. "He probably regrets it to this day," Snow volunteers.
When S.I.D.S. bought the farm after eighteen months of middling success, Snow, Young and two other members of the band--vocalist Chris Schutz and drummer Mark Larez--became the AUTONO. The year was 1984, and the focus, at first, was entirely on covers. "We used to do a couple of songs by the Knack--but not `My Sharona,'" Young says. "We did `Love Will Tear Us Apart,' by Joy Division, and a whole lot of R.E.M. We were practically an R.E.M. tribute band."
"We also did a lot of Echo and the Bunnymen," Snow continues. "But quite frankly, our versions were so terrible that we mostly did obscure covers. They were things that got left by the wayside four or five years before, but the people in Colorado Springs didn't know it. To this day, I'll have people come up to me and say, `Remember that great song you used to do back in '85? You ought to record that.' And I'll say, `Somebody else already did.'"
Early on, Snow recognized the limitations and creative frustrations that are part of the cover-band life. His reaction was to write his own material and sprinkle these originals into cover-heavy sets. The response from the group's growing fan base was not always good for the players' self-esteem. "Nobody ever said that we sucked for playing original music," recalls Young, who also contributed a few compositions. "They were supportive of it, but they were not that wild about it, either. It was like, `That's real nice. Now play some Violent Femmes.'"
Criticism didn't deter Snow and company, who during the mid-Eighties recorded and assembled a collection of their tunes with an eye toward issuing an LP. Before that could happen, however, personnel changes doomed the project. The songs have yet to be released, and Snow is glad. "It wasn't working out too well, quite honestly," he says. "I think for the first three or four years, our songs were pretty terrible."
A few of these early works eventually made it to vinyl; for example, Dark Horse Dreams, a compilation album featuring various Colorado Springs acts, sported two AUTONO ditties. At the same time, the band saw its live drawing power increase dramatically. "But we were popular for all the wrong reasons," Snow claims. "Everybody in the band was extremely frustrated because the music was stale. We were putting all of our energy into making other people's songs sound good, and I was having a nervous breakdown because I was drinking so much."