The Autumn Defense (aka Pat Sansone and John Stirratt) will be stopping by Rams Head On Stage for a matinee show this Saturday to support their recently released Fifth album, yet another sparkling collection of updated, 1960s-style folk rock and pop from the duo, who also play with Wilco in their spare time. I spoke with Sansone on the road as he made his way through the hills of Ohio. Check out what he had to say below, and get your tickets here.
You and John Stirratt have been playing together now for more than a decade – what initially caused you two to come together and form the Autumn Defense and how have you guys maintained this unique sound alongside other ongoing music projects like Wilco?
John and I got to know each other while living in New Orleans. I’m from Mississippi originally and moved to New Orleans in the late 90s, and John is from there. We just started hanging out and realized that we had extremely similar tastes in music and we were listening to a lot of the same records. We were both really getting into Odyssey and Oracle by The Zombies, and Forever Changes by Love, you know, we had mutual love for Big Star, etc. We started talking about music and eventually we decided to work on something together. John had started writing a body of work and wasn’t sure where he’d record them or who to record them with, and I was working in a recording studio in New Orleans at the time, and it worked out perfectly. He had the material and I was looking for stuff to work on, so that’s how we became involved with the Green Hour, our first album.
Can you describe the process behind writing and arranging these songs, and how that process has changed or stayed the same since you both first began playing together? Do you write everything together?
The first album was all John’s songs and my role on the first album was more arranger and producer. On the second record, Circles, by that time, we had sort of solidified the project more and I contributed songs to that album, but it wasn’t until the third, self-titled album that the songwriting became more of a 50-50 songwriting partnership. My role as songwriter stepped up over the first two records to where now, it is a joint effort.
Where did the name Autumn Defense come from and does it have any hidden meaning?
~Laughs~…It doesn’t really have specific meaning. The name was an early collaboration between us. John really liked the sound of the word “defense” and I stuck “autumn” at the beginning because I guess I thought some of what we were doing had an autumnal feel. My favorite theory that I’ve heard from others is that it’s the name of an advanced chess move. Unfortunately that’s not true. No hidden meaning, it really just kind of happened. It’s funny though, sometimes things like that can generate their own meaning, so I’m always interested to see what people associate it with.
How has the “Autumn Defense sound” been shaped by your previous bands and musical background and how do you try to differentiate it from everything else?
We don’t consciously try to differentiate, but with Autumn Defense we just try to make music that is as organic to our personal tastes as possible. We always say with Autumn Defense we want to make records that sound like the records we listen to, and we try to be as honest with our own inspiration as we can. We’re not trying to sound like any other bands or time period; just try to be as organic and natural as possible. And that’s the way we approach everything we do whether it be with Autumn Defense or acting as supporting players in Wilco or producing other artists.
Your latest album, Fifth, clearly echoes and refreshes the classic 60s folk rock sound. Songs like “The Light in Your Eyes,” and “What’s It Take,” sound like they could be lost tracks from Love’s Forever Changes, and you said you and John were both heavily influenced by The Zombies (Sansone even had the opportunity to play with them earlier this year) and other 60s staples like the Beach Boys and the Beatles. Why is that era of music so important to you and how has your perspective of those songs helped shape your image and sound over your career?
It’s hard to say. For whatever reason it resonates with us and it tickles our fancy, as they say, but that period of pop music was just so rich. To me, the thing I love about that era is that rock was still pretty young in the mid-60s. It had only been around for about 10 years, which is amazing to think about. It was such uncharted territory. When you have the Zombies and the Kinks making albums, you can hear the inspiration at work; it’s in the tracks, the songs, you can feel that the inspiration is still really pure. It’s a beautiful combination of music that’s both direct and impactful, but contains a lot of sophistication. That’s what I love about those records. That’s something we aspire to when making our records: combining simplicity and depth.
Where do you see this collaboration going from here? Are there set plans?
After we made our third record we took a break and Wilco was pretty busy then, and we didn’t necessarily plan on making a fourth record, but we didn’t plan on not making it either. It just naturally happened where we had songs that we want to share with each other and that’s how we started the album, Once Around. We sort of take it as it comes. Right now, we’re still in the midst of going out there and spreading the word about this new album and really enjoying playing these songs live.
You’ve published a book of photographs called 100 Polaroids and the album art for Fifth features a number of stunning Polaroid images. Were any of the album images taken from the book, or are they taken from additional photos you’ve taken? Where does your interest in photography stem from?
The album art from Fifth is not my photography. It’s actually a guy, G. Creed – a man of mystery. I don’t really know much about him but it’s all images he took – all Kodachrome slides found in a box with his name. He wasn’t a professional photographer, but this was just a box of thousands of slides by this guy who took beautiful photography. I have a lot of interest in photography and I did publish that book a few years ago, and the photography from our last album was all Polaroid photography. There’s a connection between [Creed’s] work and some of the imagery for the new album.
At some point when I have time I want to try to do more with his photography and maybe put it together in a collection. I feel really luck I was able to come across it.
What’s your tour schedule like for the rest of the year?
We’ve got shows this week, a couple festivals in July, and we’re talking about doing more shows in the fall. We’re not going to be doing heavy touring like earlier in the year, but we will be out for the rest of the year.
What can the Rams Head audience expect to see this weekend?
It’s going to be our four piece band, and we’re really looking forward to it. We had to cancel our show back in February because of snowstorms, so we’re just happy we get to come back and play for you all.
Here’s a live video of the Autumn Defense’s new song, “This Thing I’ve Found:”
– Matt Ellis