Just over a year old as a band, Autonomix has taken the Denver music scene by storm, providing a sound that combines jazz, funk, psychedelic rock and modern electronica. The band consists of Jeff Pfannenstiel (Drums), Zack Smith (Guitar), Danny Littler (Bass), and Josh Nermon (Keyboard). Their debut album Counter Balance (released earlier this month) was a huge leap forward for the band, locking them into even more prestigious opportunities like being direct support for Papadosio at Summit Music Hall on October 18th. Autonomix will be performing at ARISE Music Festival this Saturday, August 3, during sunset, 8:00pm – 9:15pm at the Starwater Stage. With the festival fast approaching, the Autonomix extended an invite to their band practice where I got an exclusive look at their creative process, listened to some unreleased material, and sat down for an interview during their break.
Thanks so much for having me over! How did you guys get started as a band?
Josh: Well, these three started without me at first…
Zack: Danny and I had just come out of playing with Telemetry. Some friends connected us with Jeff and we ended up putting together a sort of casual jam. We had another keyboard player. We ended up “vibe”ing really well together. We got about three weeks into the band before the keyboard player quit. We all freaked out for about five minutes, I called Josh and had him in the band about 5 minutes after that.
Josh: And I had just quit my other band the week before. Me and Zack had been trying to play music together for over a year so it kind of worked out perfectly.
Was the vision for Autonomix always to be a psychedelic jam band?
Zack: I’ve always wanted to make music like this. I went to my first STS9 show as a metal-head and was like “wow, this kind of music can have this kind of effect on people?” So when the four of us started jamming—Jeff’s favorite band is Lotus, Danny’s into Disco Biscuits, Josh and I both love STS9—that was kind of the natural direction we went in.
Josh: It was all super natural. The first time we all played together it was like a 15-minute improv.
Jeff: We pretty much record each practice, which helps a lot in the writing process. Our song off the new album Harmonomix came out of an improv jam.
That’s actually my favorite song on the album.
Zach: That song came out of an improv at our second practice as a band. The improv we did isn’t far off at all from how the song ended up getting recorded.
Do you guys come up with a set list for all of your shows, or is it mostly improv?
Danny: We come up with set lists.
Josh: [laughing] Well, except for that one time…
Danny: As we’re getting better at this, we’re trying to learn to read the room a little bit; the crowd we’re playing to, the location, whether it’s a nighttime Cervantes set versus a daytime festival set and kind of fit those factors into a solid set that tells a story.
Alright, I’m curious… What’s the story of the show where you guys didn’t have a setlist?
Josh: We played this STS9 after party at this mansion and the whole night got pretty wild.
Zack: So we had wrote a setlist and we played our first set… then for some reason we decided to tear the setlist in half and just went for it in our second set… [laughing] things got crazy that night!
It was so cool watching you guys in rehearsal and I think I noticed it at Sonic Bloom too, but do guys sign to each other while you’re playing?
Zach: We have our own sign language. The saxophone player that sits up with us, Carl Cox, him and I used to play in a band together and we wrote our own signs for communicating key changes on stage. Then Danny here expanded on it an came up with even more signs for the rhythm parts of songs. So when you see me on stage making weird signs, I’m prepping the band for a key change, and if you see Danny making them, he’s prepping us for a rhythm change.
Danny: Each of our sets are about 40 to 50 percent improv so communicating is really important.
Autonomix has only been around for a little over a year but I still feel like I’ve seen your name everywhere. Can you tell me a little bit about how you’ve grown so quickly and successfully?
Josh: The great thing about this band is that we’ve all really played to our strengths and have taken the right opportunities to keep the momentum going. We all know that in this industry, losing momentum is detrimental to expanding as an artist. It’s always going through the front of our heads, “what can we be doing to take steps forward?”
Zack: A huge advantage that we have is the fact that we practice here at Jeff’s place for free. We’ve been lucky to be able to methodically pick and choose which shows we want to play and not have to worry about making $400 a month to cover rent space. We’ve only played about 13 big shows in the last year. We really don’t play for money. We all have jobs outside of this band, so any money we make with music gets invested right back into Autonomix.
What’s your favorite show or festival that you guys have played so far?
[all laughing]: Album release at Cervantes!
Josh: But ARISE this year is going to be really special because we actually won a contest to get to play there last year.
Can you tell me more about that?
Josh: So every year, ARISE holds a Rock the Fest contest where fans vote in a list of their top 10 artists and then a panel of judges choose their three favorites. Our fans really came through for us and got us a TON of votes. We had only been a band for about four months so ARISE ended up being like, our third-ever show. It was epic.
This is actually my first ARISE. What can I expect to see?
Zack: ARISE is definitely a lot more family-oriented. I’d say it’s half about the music and half about the workshops and the yoga and the art-installations. It’s all-encompassing.
Josh: It’s one of my favorite festivals… the grounds are absolutely beautiful, it’s right on a lake. The people who put it on put a ton of focus in keeping the event sustainable, not using single-use plastic, that type of vibe.
Zack: I’d say environmentalism, safety, and fun are the three pillars of ARISE Music Festival.
Jeff: The very first thing I did when I moved to Denver a few years ago was go to ARISE. It’s really cool to get to be on the bill.
Josh: Not quite ready to announce this yet, but we will have some very special guests on stage with us. People are going to lose their minds when they see what we have planned.
Can we have any hints?
Josh: The people or persons sitting on stage with us are also on the ARISE lineup… and it’s definitely someone big.
As a band, how do you like being based in Denver?
Josh: The music community is something like I’ve never seen before. We help other bands, they help us, it’s really a symbiotic relationship.
The music industry in Denver, to me, definitely highlights collaboration rather than competition.
Josh: Right! And it’s not like that anywhere else. I moved from California. Out there, it’s cutthroat… the fanbases are divided… I knew I wasn’t going to make it as a musician out there. Danny and Zack are actually the guys who convinced me to move out here…
Zack: To join a totally different band!
Josh: But they’re some of my best friends. They knew that being a musician is what I wanted to do and they helped pull me to where I needed to be to become successful.
Zack: The competition that does exist in Denver is healthy. There are a million different shows happening every night, so if you want to stand out, you constantly have to be working really hard to put on a good show. So while we aren’t necessarily competing with other people, we see our peers stepping up their performances and it pushes us to do the same.
Your fanbase is clearly really supportive of your music and your message, do you have anything you’d like to say to them?
Zack: We worked really hard over the past year on this album and learned a ton. The final product is something we’re really proud of. We have so many friends who have been with us since we started the band, and they have totally shown up for us. They’ve been patient with us during the last 6 months of trying to get this album out there and while we haven’t been able to personally thank each and every one of them, none of that goes unnoticed.
Josh: We have so much gratitude for every single person who’s ever shown up to a set, bought a tee shirt, or even just pressed play on a song. We’ve got some amazing friends in our corner.
What is it like being a part of this band?
Zack: [laughing] It’s like dating three other dudes except you don’t get any sex out of it and you spend a lot of money.
* Be sure to check out Autonomix at ARISE Music Festival; Saturday 8:00 – 9:15 at the StarWater Stage