We recently had the opportunity to interview Naomi Smith, who plays keyboard, melodica, glockenspiel, and vocals in the Seattle-based folk band Autumn Electric. Autumn Electric is featured on SMCU’s Homegrown album with the song “Make Me a Tree.”
How did your band get started?
Michael and I met in the U-District in January 2005. He was a barista at Trabant during Monday night open mics, and everyone in the cafe would happily wait ten minutes to order drinks when it was his turn to play a few songs. (Crowd favorites included “Hippy Van”, “Smitten”, and “You’re My Dog”.) I was drawn to his songwriting and his beautifully folksy way of shambling through life, and due to some successful stalking on my part, we’ve been playing music together ever since. Dan moved to Seattle from Boston in 2008 just in time to answer Michael’s craigslist call for a drummer/multi-instrumentalist, and Barton answered a similar ad in 2010, bringing not only spacey electric guitar but accordion, saw, and harmonica into the mix. As of one month ago, Max became the Autumn Electric bassist, learning the whole set in two rehearsals (just in time to jump onstage for the AE Folklife performance).
On our first and longest tour (2009, six weeks, from Seattle to Boston to the South and then up the West Coast), Vandalf the Grey’s radio broke when we were less than a week out. We ended up listening to a lot of very cute “breeping” from our guinea pig companion, Thomas. We’d also take turns with the guitar and melodica, practicing harmonies or shouting out requests.
Were we to tour with a working sound system, our ideal playlist would include but not be limited to: Sufjan, Bowie, the Flaming Lips, Genesis (70’s AND 80’s), TMBG, MGMT, Beck, and Girl Talk.
What’s your favorite road trip story?
We were four weeks into our six-week tour. We’d just finished up our Denver adventure (multiple minor crashes, being snowed in and missing two shows, and then having a wheel melt off when we were at the top of the mountain during our twelve-hour drive from Denver to Vegas). We were hoping to at least be able to get to our California shows on time, and felt pretty good about our chances since we were less than a hundred miles from Barstow and had a show in Burbank the next day.
As Vandalf slowly filled up with smoke, we sighed. He’d had various mechanical issues during the past five weeks, but thanks to Michael Trew’s vast experience with cheap auto troubleshooting, we’d managed to get around most of the country without expensive repairs. Now it looked like we were going to have to pay someone a lot of money if we ever wanted to get home again, much less make it to our show on time.
Waiting at a gas station in No Man’s Land for a surly local to tell us he couldn’t fix it, we shot some hoops (another one of Michael Trew’s eclectic talents) and discussed our options. Sarah, who was also our Director of Guinea Pig Affairs, had signed up for AAA before we left on tour. Smart lady. We decided to get a tow to Barstow and see if anyone there could help us fix the van in time.
The only problem was, there were SIX of us. AAA had informed us that we could squeeze five people into the tow truck’s cab, but that left one of us hitching 70 miles to meet the others. Jeremiah volunteered, of course, but we didn’t want him to wander off and forget about us, so we came up with an alternate plan: Someone could hide IN Vandalf during the tow, and sneak back out at the final destination.
Just as the tow truck was pulling up, I (Naomi) climbed in the van, crawled to the very back, and pulled a bunch of blankets over myself so I just looked like the rest of the junk we were living with on that tour. I prepared myself for a long, tense ride.
Suddenly, the door opened. I could hear a couple mumbling voices, and then Dan and Jeremiah got in the van. It turned out that the driver of the tow truck had decided he’d rather let them ride in Vandalf (and not tell his boss) than squeeze the cab full to brimming with people who had obviously been on the road in a van for weeks.
After they got in and explained the situation to me, we had a grand old time playing instruments and calling our friends in the tow truck to ask if they would sing with us over the phone. (They wouldn’t.)
We made it to Barstow. I hopped out, hoping that the driver wouldn’t notice an extra person, and luckily, six people was enough of a crowd that no one questioned my presence.
Barstow provided us with: Very reasonable mechanics, trash bags full of pastries from friendly baristas, our LAST NIGHT of sleeping in Vandalf (we only had to about five times during those six weeks), and a miraculously cheap repair.
The show in Burbank was fantastic.
What is the Pacific Northwest music community like?
The Pacific Northwest music community is full of talented, super-busy and ridiculously supportive people. Many musicians we know play in multiple bands and hold down steady jobs on top of it. There’s a good number of DIY venues and house shows to bolster the regular bar scene, and the connections between cities (Seattle, Olympia, Portland, etc.) are quite strong. When you’re working hard to make your music and get it out to people, you develop a strong affinity with others in your position. The outpouring of support from the Seattle musicians after the Cafe Racer shooting has been tremendous and completely unsurprising. These people want to take care of each other and contribute to their community, even when they’re struggling to make rent themselves.
What sort of experience do you have with credit unions or co-ops?
I’m a WSECU member and I would never go back. The simple act of walking into a bank was always a stressful experience for me — walking into a credit union is more like stopping by a bakery I like and asking the barista about his family reunion.
Stay tuned for next week’s interview with Oh Osiris.
To listen to Autumn Electric and 15 other Washington bands, download Homegrown for free here.