If you so much as passed through Britain in 2006, you’ll be familiar with the infuriatingly catchy single ‘Monster’. For the country it was the song of the moment, leaping out of every radio with guitar chords snarling and the glorious shouted refrain (‘What’s that coming over the hill? Is it a monster? It is a monsteeeeer?’) chewing up the unwary. For its creators, Welsh punk-pop wunderkinds The Automatic, it was a mixed blessing. Sure, it got them heard by everyone in the country – but it also turned them into ‘those guys who did ‘Monster’’. Good news if you want to mine the same guitars/synths/screechy backing vocals sound for the rest of time. Bad news if, like The Automatic, you’re on a constant drive to develop your sound. Worse still, when the guy who provided the synths and screechy vocals – in this case, one Alex Pennie – decides to up sticks and leave after the first album.
Pennie’s departure in 2007 left the band with a big decision: either find themselves a clone to maintain the sound that made them a hit, or put two fingers up to public pressure and go their own way. Luckily for Paul Mullen, formerly of experimental rock band Yourcodenameis:milo, they chose the latter. And, luckily for the band, he was the right man for the job. ‘When I took the gig, I wanted to make it clear that I didn’t want to be a direct replacement for Pennie. He’s his own artist and his shoes wouldn’t really fit me. I had to be involved in the writing process too, I couldn’t just sit there being a session musician. But the guys wanted to move on with the band’s sound, so it worked out better for all of us.’
Doubters would always have raised their eyebrows at the idea of meshing the alt-rock, experimental sensitivities of Yourcodenameis:milo with the air-punching, giant chorus tunes of The Automatic and, indeed, those differences were there – just not in the way that some thought they would be. ‘When I joined they were doing heavier stuff with complex rhythms. Meanwhile, I’d spent the time between [putting Yourcodenameis:milo on hiatus and joining The Automatic] writing pop songs, so we were both the reverse of what we were expected to be.’
Mullen helped write the band’s second album, This Is A Fix, and since then the band have reworked their previous tracks, including ‘Monster’, to fit their new sound, with heavier guitars and more melodic vocals. And, despite being the token Englishman in a band of Welsh childhood friends, Mullen feels at home.
Still, we do have to wonder whether he wishes he’d got in there a little earlier on in the band’s career. While the band have continued to have critical and commercial success after Pennie’s departure, it does seem like a lot of the really fun stuff happened before Mullen arrived. Like the Hasselhoff shrines. ‘On the rider we used to ask the venues to provide a shrine to David Hasselhoff,’ Mullen explains. ‘We’ve seen some very feeble attempts at that. I wish I was there back in the heyday when the shrines were huge. I think it was somewhere in Holland where they went in and there was a roped off area with ghetto blasters playing Hasselhoff’s tunes, framed David Hasselhoff posters everywhere and all these pillows to lie on. The best I’ve seen is probably a photocopy of Hasselhoff’s face in [the Welsh town of] Wrexham. He’s off the rider now, but he still appears from time to time and it always gives us a good feeling.’
Then again, perhaps he was better off turning up a little later on. It does at least mean that he just missed out on the much-publicised 2007 spat between The Automatic and British garage rock band The Horrors, which kicked off when Automatic guitarist James Frost called them crap. In response, The Horrors claimed that The Automatic were ‘flogging a dead horse’. The back-and-forth continued like an abusive game of ping pong until it was supposedly put to rest off-stage. But when we bring up the spat (hoping, we’ll be honest, for a volley of fiery invective) Mullen is blasé. ‘Yeah, that was just before I joined. We’re totally fine, you know? We don’t really see that many other bands, we just get on with what we do. That’s just the media trying to make a story out of nothing – that kind of thing happens now and again.’
Still, it must be a bit flattering, we counter. After all, if people are jumping on any excuse to write about you, surely that’s a good sign, even if it means almost kicking off a fight with some guys with big hair. ‘Well, it’s great to be in the public and everything, and we never take it for granted that we’re in the press. If people want to write about us or come to see us live then that’s what being in a band is all about, you know? But I’d prefer it if they were nice stories.’ He pauses for a moment. ‘Mind you, around the time that This Is A Fix came out, we were saying we should go up to one of those trendy clubs in London and pretend to have a fight. You know, for a bit of publicity. We never got around to it, but we still might.’
Best not try that one in Dubai, though. Speaking of which, what can we expect from their gig at Alpha this week? ‘We’re going to rework our songs, so they’ll be brand new versions that nobody’s ever heard before. We want to make it special, because we’re really looking forward to playing somewhere we’ve never played before. There might be some covers, too, and some songs from the new album.’
New album, eh? ‘It’s still at the demo stage at the moment, but we’re going to look at getting a producer in a couple of months and then go away to America to record it. Or just do it in South Wales. That would be nice. Right now it’s still in the early stages, so it’s too early to identify concepts or themes. The songs are just about what we’re seeing around us every day. There might even be a song about Dubai in there, you never know.’
School of Wales
Other ace Welsh exports.
Super Furry Animals
This gang of quirky alt-rock/power pop goofballs are still going, nine albums on. Their latest, Dark Days/Light Years, is arguably their best.
Teenage angst wrapped up in a sweetly tasty pop shell, Los Campesinos! are ones to watch. Pick up debut Hold On Now, Youngster…
Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci
Moving from psychedelic experimentalism to chilled folk, time with the now defunct Gorky’s was never dull. To check them out, get Barafundle.
They’ve had some troubles of late, but 2001’s breakthrough album Echo Park is still great.
Manic Street Preachers
Well, of course.
The Automatic play Alpha, June 12. Tickets Dhs100 men, Dhs75 women