When Denver psychedelic-funk band Autonomix played a gig last September 5, keyboardist Josh Nermon and bassist Danny Littler had no clue it would be the last time they’d share the stage with guitarist Zack Smith.
But five days later, Smith, 31, was fatally shot following a traffic collision in Denver. Nermon says the case is still being investigated. Smith’s death was a shocking event in an already difficult year, and to say Nermon and Littler were at a loss is an understatement.
Nermon met the guitarist in 2011, when Smith was a member of the electro-funk group Vine Street Vibes, and the two immediately hit it off. They'd grown close over the years through their shared love of music, and losing his friend was devastating for Nermon.
“It’s been the hardest thing in my life,” he says. “I locked myself in my room for at least a month. I had support from friends and people reaching out, but nothing really made it better. That type of heartbreak and losing your best friend was horrible. And it’s still horrible. I think about him every day.”
“It was tragic and shocking,” Littler adds. “He was a best friend of mine for about ten years. We played in two other projects. Beyond the music thing, he was my closest friend.”
Littler says he’s used music to cope with his grief, noting that without the band, he likely would have lost his mind. He works in the live-music business and, like most others in the industry, found himself without gigs during the pandemic. Letting the band fade away after Smith's death would have been too much.
Instead, he and Nermon decided to keep Autonomix alive, and reconstituted it with new members Carl Cox on saxophone, Alex Ginzburg on guitar and AJ Gillman on drums. All three are friends of the band and were already established musicians. Cox, for one, appears on the group's debut album, Counter-Balance.
“Zack was just such a prolific musician and such a virtuoso,” Littler says. “It would have been disappointing if we'd let the band completely dissolve and his energy and spirituality and musicianship just died there with him.”
The band currently has a catalogue of about thirty songs, according to Littler, and has spent the past few months learning them and making them fit with the new lineup. Smith and the unique style he brought to Autonomix can’t be replaced, of course, but the group is looking toward the future while keeping his spirit alive.
“I’m very optimistic about how the sound is going to evolve,” Littler says. “A rule with this band is that at least a third of all the music we play is improvisationally based...The music is evolving every time we play it, as well as writing new songs and expanding on the catalogue.”
Before Smith's death, the band was making a name for itself gigging around Denver and playing the music-festival circuit: Gem & Jam, Sonic Bloom, ARISE and STS9’s WaveSpell. Autonomix had only been around for two years, so the success felt exponential. COVID slowed things down, but the future seemed bright and wide open.
“We’ve been very fortunate and lucky to play the shows we’ve played,” Nermon says. “That always kind of made us scratch our heads — like, what are people connecting with? How is this so good? How are we getting these things?”
The musicians are working on new material and expanding their repertoire, but they wanted to pay homage to Smith with an album of songs remixed by Denver producers and friends of the band. That felt more appropriate than just moving on without recognizing their first incarnation, however brief it might have been.
“It was always our intention to do a remix album, but we were working on a new EP for a while, and our focus swayed in different directions,” Nermon says. “Before we moved on with the new group, we really wanted to honor the music we made with Zack.”
Denver producer FunkStatik handled the first track, a bassy, EDM reimagining of “Emerald,” off of Counter-Balance. It’s the first of five tracks, and the sound is a far cry from the original. Nermon is happy to let the producers work their magic — turn an apple into an orange, so to speak. The as-yet-unreleased second remix, “Harmononomix,” by Project Aspect, has a definite jungle/drum-and-bass bent and is more reminiscent of its original, he says.
“If the producer who is working on the track is resonating with it and transforming it in a way that’s completely unrecognizable, there’s an art form to that,” Nermon says. “It’s great having that EDM vibe, because we totally don’t have that vibe as a band.”
“All the people doing the remixes are good friends with us and knew Zack,” Littler adds. “I’m very stoked about how everyone is using their own interpretation with it. … We couldn’t think of a better tribute than having all of Zack’s friends and fellow producers pay tribute to him.”
On its own, Autonomix rocks a sort of ’70s-sci-fi-movie-score-with-modern-sounds aesthetic. “That has definitely been in the ethos of our creative vision — science fiction, space,” Nermon says. “We are really big on space and intuition. A lot of our early artwork is very space-related. We try to encapsulate that vibe and that energy in the music, or it just happens subconsciously.”
The band will donate any proceeds from the remixes to the Gun Violence Survivors Foundation. Littler says the charity helps people who’ve lost loved ones to gun violence with things like rent and groceries.
“It’s an ongoing thing in America,” he says. “We figured if we could do some good with Zack’s music, it would make him proud, and we wanted to be able to help out other people in the same situation.”
Nermon says the band is getting ready to start gigging again. The members are practicing and have a couple of socially distant shows coming up on May 1 at Globe Hall. That will mark the group's first official outing with the new lineup and will include a “stellar light show.”
“We're coming back, and we're coming back strong,” he says. “It’s not just going to be a show every now and then. We want people to be able to see what we’ve been working on.”
Littler compares the past year to a hard, isolating winter. The band coming back together with shows feels like spring is finally arriving.
“The days get longer,” he says. “The days get brighter. The weather gets better. That’s what it feels like we're doing with the music. It feels like that’s where the world is. I’m just really excited for this renaissance of beauty and happiness and creativity coming into the world.”
The “Emerald” remix is available now on Bandcamp. The “Harmononomix” remix premieres on April 17, Zack Smith's birthday. Autonomix will play two shows at Globe Hall on May 1; for more information, visit autonomix.org.
Correction: Project Aspect was misidentified as Project Aspen in an earlier version of this story. We regret the error.
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