The business of making music and all that it entails -- touring, finding a decent record label that you can trust, keeping your band together and somewhat sane -- can be backbreaking work. Just ask John Hulett, singer/guitarist for the East Bay punk act Automatic 7. When Hulett was only twenty, he and his bandmates rode high on a well-received debut record (1995's Automatic 7) and scored some critical national attention as well as a coveted spot opening for Face to Face in a 1996 tour. Two years later, Hulett was laid up in a hospital, medicated and in traction, suffering from a broken back. The state of Hulett's band mirrored his own injury: Two failed contracts and a drugged-up drummer had pushed the group's career into a coma from which few thought it would ever awaken. Needless to say, Hulett has little positive to say about 1998.
"It was probably one of the worst years of my life, period," he says. "Broken backs and all the work we put into the band, and it all fell apart. It was all stuff that was beyond our control."
If 1998 is to be considered Hulett's worst-ever year, though, 1996 and 1997 might garner similarly dubious titles, as each brought their own unique disappointments. With a two-record deal with Los Angeles-based BYO Records and a buzz surrounding the fledgling band, Automatic 7 promised to be one of the acts that mattered amid a crop of prefabricated punk. Hulett and company put in serious time on the road in the hope of finding an audience for its style, a mixture of heartfelt lyrics with aggressive pop-punk styling that was both intelligent and musically substantive -- i.e., far removed from more formulaic and commercially minded East Bay acts. Before too long, however, the realities of the record industry began to cast a pallor on the group's hopes. While on tour with Face to Face, Hulett says he and his bandmates could never find their album in stores, no matter what part of the country they visited. Automatic 7 quickly found itself disillusioned with BYO's efforts to get things rolling on the distribution front.
Punk Rock Matinee
Bluebird Theater, 3317 East Colfax Avenue
with Automatic 7, Osker and King Rat
2 p.m., Sunday, September 3
"We were real unhappy with them, being on that label," Hulett says. "With all the work we were doing, we felt like they weren't stepping up to the plate and matching the work that we were putting into the band."
Feeling somewhat betrayed by BYO, the group began to sever ties with the imprint upon returning home from the tour. While the legend of artist-friendly independents makes terminating a soured contract sound easier than scoring a free beer on a brewery tour -- especially when dealing with a label serving the punk scene -- the band soon discovered otherwise. Tied up in an embittered legal joust with BYO's attorneys, Automatic 7 wouldn't tour, let alone record, for the majority of 1996 while it took a quick-and-dirty course in entertainment law and negotiated a labyrinth of contracts and lawyers.
"The way they preach all their little punk-rock ethics, you would think they wouldn't be like that," Hulett says with dismay. "They ruined us for about a year with lawyers and all that."
By the time Hulett and company completely severed relations with BYO, they were experiencing some industry-induced fatigue. They also began to reconsider the punk-rock party line that dictated, unequivocally, that punk acts and major labels were mutually exclusive entities and that if you wanted to preserve your punk credibility, you must never, ever entertain thoughts of merging with a major-label devil. When A&M Records swooped in and started talking contract, the bandmembers -- itching to get back down to the business of rock -- signed with an impatient lack of careful consideration. It's a decision they still regret.
"It was just out of frustration of dealing with the record industry," Hulett says of the band's decision to throw in with A&M. "We really thought it would be a relief to just focus on the music and get away from contracts and things like that. That was a mistake," he says, laughing. "It just caused more problems, and we were stupid."
Hulett and company -- bassist Nic Nifoussi and drummer Ray Mehlbaum -- rang in 1997 with a fresh contract and began working on a follow-up record, though they soon discovered that the freedom they enjoyed on BYO wasn't the norm. Nagging A&R men and other label types quickly cramped the band's style; an album, one Hulett calls "a piece-of-shit, crappy-ass record," was recorded and mixed, much to the bandmembers' disdain. When the group caught wind of the Universal-Polygram merger, it sprung on the chance to release itself from yet another contract. By early 1998, with the closure of A&M pending, Automatic's second recording was shelved indefinitely while the band escaped from the label's dying grasp.
It might seem that Hulett should have been prepared for some record-label runaround after his experience with the BYO fiasco. But he's even more embittered over his struggle with A&M. "We kind of got sucked into it by being stupid," he says. "It's a classic story. It's 'Sign these papers and everything will be fine. You guys will be stoked and be able to make music and do anything you want.' That's just not how it is. You really do sell your soul to the devil when you sign those deals."
If karma were at work, Automatic 7 should have been poised for a tremendous year in 1998. Obviously, though, Eastern metaphysics don't apply to American punk bands. Automatic 7 really hit the skids while working its way out of the A&M deal. While on vacation in Mexico, Hulett broke his back cliff diving; his bedridden convalescence kept the band off the road, and a bout of chicken pox further hampered his recovery. Not to mention the drug problems and jail time of drummer Mehlbaum. Automatic 7 nearly imploded under the pressure of the previous two years.
"Me and Nic, the bass player, who have really been the heart of the band since he was fifteen and I was eighteen, we couldn't even muster up the energy to go and play and be inspired to play music after everything that happened," Hulett says. "We were just disgusted with the whole thing."
Yet rather than give up and go away from music the way many young bands do when they find themselves disillusioned with the business, the players in Automatic 7 refocused their energy on making music. They finally settled on a new label, Vagrant Records, in 1998 and slowly returned to a creative regimen of songwriting and moderate touring.
"We were in the rehearsal studio way too long," Hulett says, explaining the depression covering the act during its most troubled period. "I think you lose your edge when you're in there just writing songs. You need the road and the interaction with people to keep things fresh. It just got stagnant."
If there's any sort of bright side to Automatic 7's misfortune, it's the amount of time it allowed Hulett to sharpen his songwriting. The band's long-awaited followup, Beggar's Life, features brutally honest and engaging tunes reminiscent of more accomplished contemporaries like Face to Face and No Use for a Name. Self-reflective, reactive, the album is full of Hulett's observations of the music industry and his own life. "Had it All" chronicles Automatic 7's trouble with A&M while placing the blame squarely on the band's naivete about the corporate world; "Syringe" takes a brutal third-person look at Hulett's problems as a high school junkie. Beggar's Life establishes Hulett as one of this generation's most stark punk songwriters. There's no pop frivolity, no excessive East Coast nihilism -- just straightforward punk rock feeding off everything from the Clash to Jawbreaker. It also marks a major step forward in the band's songwriting skills from its previous album.
"It just has that kid element to it," Hulett says, reflecting on that first recording. "There's songs on there about girlfriends and hating the radio stations and things like that. I think as you get a little bit older, your lyrics and your music change. You get more mature."
For Hulett, maturity means breaking away from the lighthearted element that's crept into the punk scene over the last decade. While Automatic 7 dials in a grittier sound than today's typical punkster and shuns the "forbidden" double-time beat dominant in California punk rock, the players aim to wipe away all the excesses spawned by acts such as NOFX or Lagwagon. Such a vivid change from the norm isn't too surprising after hearing Hulett declare his disdain for modern punk trends.
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"When I first heard NOFX years ago, when they first came out, that stuff was not punk rock to me; that stuff was heavy metal," he complains. "They're miserable. I don't even understand that music. I'm definitely a traditionalist when it comes to punk rock."
After a stretch of bad luck long enough to make even Job feel lucky, Automatic 7's latest obstacle -- overcoming the trends and fashions of today's punk crowd -- shouldn't be too difficult to traverse. In fact, Hulett seems more anxious to get back on track than fearful of how his band will fare. It's with more than a trace of relief in his voice that he reflects upon his group's position.
"It was a serious struggle putting this thing together. It seemed like everything fell apart," he says. "We just could not get anything together. Finally, when this record came together, we were really stoked. It was definitely a battle.
"We want to get back to the rock and try to leave the contracts and lawyers behind."