"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."
"We've pretty much had our fill of alcohol by now," Young notes. "But we still have our moments."
By 1988 the AUTONO was on its last legs because, Snow says, "Ivor and I were pretty much the only ones left who cared." The pair took several months off to reconsider whether they wanted to keep at it--and then they began auditioning drummers. Moore finally won a featured role in the band, which hit the circuit again as a more aggressive three-piece whose sets were now dominated by original material. Many former AUTONO fans disliked this new direction, and the band was further shaken by what Snow calls "a bad rep from people who used to be in the band and who thought they'd been forced out or whatever." Nevertheless, the AUTONO stayed the course and in 1991 released This Is the AUTONO, a well-recorded, extremely tuneful and focused musical manifesto that established the group as among the most impressive in the area. The CD wasn't a commercial breakthrough--"We didn't really know what to do with it," Snow asserts--but it confirmed that the decision to leave the Knack behind had been an excellent one.
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The AUTONO's next CD, last year's A Way From Here, was in some ways a compromise. The addition of guitarist Mike Amend, formerly of Five Live Engines, smoothed out some of the act's edginess, resulting in a more commercial, more conventional sound. As a result, it pleased listeners who had been put off by the fierceness of This Is the AUTONO. The platter also appealed to radio stations in Denver, Boulder and Colorado Springs, and made enough of an impact to catch the ears of several record-company types. But while Way has sold well for a Colorado release, the only national exposure it received came after the Album Network chose to feature one of its tracks ("This Town") on an unsigned-bands compilation CD sent to hundreds of A&R representatives.
Thus far, the music industry has not sent any armored trucks crammed with dough to Snow's front door. Still, the AUTONO seems more obstinate than ever. The musicians have been recording new material on four-track, with an eye toward a new CD release in early 1995. "I considered a lot of the songs on our first album to be better than the ones on the second," Snow says, "but I think the songwriting and the lyrics on the second one are better. So we're trying to get the best of both of them down this time."
In the meantime, the AUTONO will remain in Colorado Springs. "It's pretty much the cultural armpit of the world," Young says. "A lot of people here are open to original music, but the vast majority would rather go to cowboy discos and cheap-booze-get-drunk-and-fuck clubs than hear anything new. But at least we get a lot of airplay, and we're looked up to a lot, because we're really one of the only bands in town making an honest effort to get something nationally recognized."
"It's easier to stand out in a place where there isn't a myriad of bands out there," Snow concurs. "So I still believe that we made the right choice to stay here. I've seen so many bands come and go--bands that got signed, bands that didn't get signed, bands of friends of mine who gave it up. But this is something I've decided to do, and I'm going to stick it out.