Corners of the rock ‘n’ roll landscape are populated by the corpses of bands that pride themselves on being literary, enough that comparisons to Wallace Stegner, Cormac McCarthy and Flannery O’ Connor have become standard issue for any band that can whip out polysyllabic lyrics and cook up a reasonably strong metaphor. There are exceptions. Slim Cessna’s Auto Club, a cornerstone of the Denver, Colorado music scene is one. The band’s 2008 effort, Cipher, reissued earlier this year, provides listeners with all they’d want to know about smart, multi-layered gothic Americana. You could make the argument that the LP is a textbook for those eager to explore the form.
Symbols and coded language abound over the course of the record’s 15 songs. First issued by Alternative Tentacles, the album now carries an eerie prescience about it. Questions about morality, good and evil, self-loathing and self-loving hover over the affair. This is a different take not just on the old, weird America but the new, weirder one as well. At least you can’t help but see it that way in light of events sprawled across television screens, newspapers and radio accounts throughout 2016 and 2017.
Cessna, speaking early morning from his Denver home, is quick to point out the special place that Cipher holds in the Auto Club’s distinguished oeuvre. He also acknowledges that aforementioned foresight. “I think it’s more relevant now,” he says, adding that the group isn’t averse to casting its eye toward world events for inspiration.
“Although we don’t want to make any political statements, we feel the events of the world,” he says. “Munly [Munly, vocals] wrote all the songs on the album. It takes me a while to process it. You can interpret it on so many different levels in terms of what the songs are about. The way I interpret is as being more relevant now than it was then.”
In many ways, it is part of a tradition that Cessna and his band cemented within the Denver musical community. He formed the group in 1992, at a time when Denver was a sleepier place. He’d just left The Denver Gentlemen, a group featuring Jeffrey-Paul and David Eugene Edwards. They’d go on to form the impeccable 16 Horsepower with Edwards eventually shoving a stake in the dirt with Wovenhand. More than a few Denver acts owe their aesthetic to Cessna and his cohorts’ gothic approach, including the hyperkinetic Reverend Glasseye.
Cessna sees his band’s theatricality as an evolving element, albeit an important one. “We enjoy putting on a show,” he says, “that’s as important as making an album, maybe more so for me because I only ever wanted to entertain people.”
He adds, “When we started, we were just sitting in my basement, having beers, wanting to make country songs. We didn’t even have any goals and barely any ambition.”
Within a few years of those first brew and B.S. sessions, Munley and Lord Dwight Pentecost joined. “It became a different thing,” the group’s founder recalls. “We started thinking about things in a different way. A lot of that came down to how the three of us interact with each other and how we create music. We didn’t think about genres anymore. I think the foundation of what we do is still American folk music but from there anything goes. Cipher was the first real representation of that. It’s hard to pin down. It’s hard to classify what it’s even about. It’s challenging, even for us, and I think that that’s good.”
The record served as a new opening for the band, including in the European market. “Somehow that album made it there before the other records did. I don’t know why. Although our relationship with 16 Horsepower and Wovenhand didn’t hurt. It captured something, though it took us some time to break even by trying. It was a good investment.”
He adds that Cipher has become the album that the Auto Club measures its other releases against. “When we were making The Commandments According To SCAC (2016), we just wanted to make something that was as good as Cipher and I think The Commandments is really good,” he says.
Cessna offers that there’s no parachute plan beyond for the band. “I’m fortunate that this is what we do and what we do together,” he says. “There’s no looking back. You can say, ‘Well, gosh, I should have gotten a real job.’ But it’s too late for that to happen. I’m 51-years-old.”