Music News

Tour de Force

Either it'll die down eventually, or, uhhh, I'm gonna die down!" Speaking over his cell phone from a beach just north of San Diego, Head Automatica frontman Daryl Palumbo chuckles at his gallows humor. He's musing over the fact that you usually can't get too far into any article about the New York-based quintet (including this one) without mention of Palumbo's ongoing battles with both Crohn's disease, a rare intestinal disorder that can lead to internal hemorrhaging, and hemophilia, which means his body can't stop the bleeding when it occurs. Because of that, he's had to cancel numerous shows over the years with both Head Automatica and Glassjaw, the influential post-hardcore/screamo outfit he led from 1994 until 2004; Palumbo's had at least one genuine near-death experience while on tour, and the making of Head Automatica's recently released sophomore album, Popaganda, was interrupted by no fewer than 15 trips to the hospital for surgeries or blood transfusions. So it's tough to dive very deep into a conversation with the 27-year-old singer/guitarist without asking, How are you feeling?

"I'm fine; I'm all right," he says. "People have way worse problems than I do. In the grand scheme of things, there are people who are really sick, and then there are people like me who are really lucky to be alive and able to live out their dreams. I mean, I understand why people ask me about it, and I'm flattered that people care about how I'm doing. But I don't want it to define me. I spend every waking second of my life working on my music, and it's kind of a bummer if my music rides shotgun to my health issues."

It would indeed be a shame to see the irresistible Popaganda not get its proper due. Filled with tight, bright, three- and four-minute bursts of spirited power pop and mod revivalism, its 14 tracks are packed with spiky guitar hooks, pumping Farfisa, and huge sing-along choruses that recall the Jam, the Rezillos, and Cheap Trick. You can almost hear the spittle flying from Palumbo's lips as he romps through the hopeless-romantic sentiments of "Graduation Day," "Lying Through Your Teeth," and "She's Not It" like an Armed Forces-era Elvis Costello; over the slower sock-hop crunch-pop of "Scandalous," Palumbo indulges in a syrupy, self-aware croon that's part Rat Pack, part Mike Patton.

That's perhaps not what you'd expect from a guy who was howling and caterwauling — "way overdramatically," as Palumbo heartily admits — with Glassjaw (which is currently on hiatus but planning to record a new album next year). Palumbo says he's been writing the kinds of songs found on Popaganda since Glassjaw's earliest years, but he always kept them to himself because "coming up in a hardcore band, I never once for a second thought I'd be taken seriously singing fuckin' crooner ballads. But right now, this part of me, the pop songwriter guy in me — which is a huge, huge part of me — is on a quest to write this fucking banging-ass song that you hear once and you never forget it for the rest of your life. Head Automatica is not me trying to get away from my past or anything, it's not a reaction to anything, it's not us being sonically oppositional to everything else happening now. It's just what we like to play and listen to, and that's as deep as it goes."

Popaganda's also not what one might've expected after hearing 2004's Decadence, a thicker, sleazier, more ominous disc that leaned heavily on electronic textures and arty dance-punk sensibilities, sporting a whole different array of influences. "That first record was like, 24 hours a day I was listening to the Jesus and Mary Chain, My Bloody Valentine, EMF, like 30 obscure garage-rock bands, Big Audio Dynamite, and Primal Scream," Palumbo says. "Put all those things together, and [have] Dan the Automator put like four beats on it and it's gonna sound like all that stuff."

Ah yes, Dan "the Automator" Nakamura, the producer/beatmaker known for helming such projects as Gorillaz, Handsome Boy Modeling School, and Dr. Octagon. Head Automatica came to life when Palumbo approached Automator four years ago to collaborate on material, and the basic tracks for Decadence were laid down in Automator's San Francisco studio, with Palumbo handling all the music and vocals and Automator providing all the beats. But the duo's partnership hastily soured.

"In the beginning, I wanted him to be a big part of it," Palumbo recalls. "I thought he'd done so much amazing shit, and I looked up to him musically, and I wanted him to be a fucking member of the band. My plan for Head Automatica was to put together this all-star mega-lineup that could do punk, that could do electronic music, that could do garage rock, that could do no-wave... it was gonna be like three guitar players, a hardcore kid bass player, Larry [Gorman, another Glassjaw vet] on drums, a studio guy keyboard player I knew, and then if there needed to be DJing, Automator, if there needed to be beats, Automator. That was it. That was the dream band that I wanted to make. But it didn't seem like Dan wanted that, and then I had a lot of differences with him business-wise, and we ended up only using like four of his beats on the fuckin' record.

"The whole thing didn't turn out the way I had thought it would, and I really felt wronged by him," he continues. "By the time Decadence got to store shelves, Automator and I had dissolved our relationship, although it kinda got promoted like, you know how every Automator project is Automator and some sort of D-list celebrity? Well, I guess I was the D-list celebrity! It left a real bitter taste in my mouth for a while."

In the wake of that fiasco, Palumbo quickly retooled Head Automatica's lineup and its sound, and now, when asked to describe the feeling of performing his exuberant power-pop with his bandmates — guitarist Craig Bonich, bassist Jarvis Holden, keyboardist Jessie Nelson, and aforementioned drummer Gorman — the singer's mood instantly changes from frustration over revisiting the Automator situation to total exhilaration.

"When I'm onstage, I have a smile on my face. I feel invincible. I feel like I can fly. We're just killing it, and we can do no wrong, the audience is losing their fuckin' mind, we're sweating and freaking out, nothing can compare to that, nothing. You have a great show and your dick is hard for fucking months! You can do Ecstasy and go to every rave you fucking want to and it will never be a sonic and spiritual experience anything close to what I feel every night when I go onstage with my best friends."

That's why, despite family, friends, and bandmates expressing their concerns about Palumbo risking his health by going on tour, he says staying at home is not an option. In refusing to give up what he loves, the singer may lean a bit toward the dramatic, but hey, he's definitely earned it.

"If I have to die on the road, I will," Palumbo says. "I'm not stopping touring. It's the greatest fucking thing in the world, and if I couldn't do it anymore... dude, that's a fate way worse than death for me."

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Michael Alan Goldberg