Written By Chrissy Mauck
Winners of Fender’s Road Worn Competition and thus collectors of a $50,000 prize package, AutoVaughn is a Nashville based indie punk rock band consisting of four young men with Indiana and Ohio roots.
Meet lead vocalist and guitarist Darren Edwards, vocalist and lead guitarist Stephen Wilson, bassist Ben Graham and drummer Andy Grooms.
During a recent afternoon of rehearsals, all four took turns passing the phone around and fielding my questions. Naturally, Edwards took the mic first.
AutoVaughn’s lead singer hails from Goshen, the center of northern Indiana’s Amish country where yes, horse and buggies are still quite common.
“When I was in high school and Walmart finally came to town, they actually had horse stalls in the parking lot,” laughs Edwards. “There was poop everywhere, and it was pretty goofy.”
Goofy is a fitting description for Edwards and the rest of his band, but there’s time for figuring that out later.
Vocally blessed, Edwards is also engaging, entertaining and chameleon-like onstage, performance traits he likely inherited from his parents, Mark and Barbara Potuck. (Rumor has it that Edwards gave up Potuck as his last name since spell check kept changing it to Potluck.) As a health educator, Mark relied on music and theatrics and an assortment of characters to spice up his informative presentations. Barbara earned a degree in dance and theatre, performing for many years with Southold Dance Company and teaching dance in Goshen.
Barbara pushed piano lessons on her son, ones that he hated and quit as soon as she relented. On his own, he found a love for the drums, his instrument of choice throughout high school and into college when he joined a band as a percussionist.
It was at Anderson University, a Christian college near Indianapolis, where Edwards eventually crossed paths with Grooms; as juniors the two would team up in a lucrative band called AMDrive.
Grooms is ultra-nice, like in the proverbial “too nice for his own good.”
“I’m probably nice to a fault actually,” he stresses. Pressed for an example, Grooms shares that he still gets grief for once loaning money to his ex-girlfriend, only a week after she dumped him for another guy they both worked with.
But had you come across Grooms during his high school days in the small-town of Pendleton, Ind., you probably wouldn’t believe that the meanest thing he’s done in the last few years was to cut someone off on the road. (“I felt really bad about it though,” he says for the record.)
Back then Grooms was preoccupied with spitting out fake blood and banging away at the drums during his community center concerts with his popular goth band, The Mindline.
Following short stints at his grandmother’s organ and with his mom’s abandoned guitar, Grooms discovered the Beatles. Wanting to recreate the sounds he heard on their records, the 7-year old Grooms began using buckets and pencils to “play the drums.”
“Ringo taught me how to play basic beats and my parents caught on to it and eventually got me a drum set when I was about 10,” shares Grooms. “I fell in love with music more and more and I just couldn’t stop playing.”
Grooms (left) and Edwards decided to move to Nashville and start their own band.
He did eventually give up goth however, joining a peace-loving ska band at Anderson and also signing on for the jazz band, where he ran into Wilson.
In the majority of AutoVaughn photos, Wilson appears brooding, contemplative and a bit mysterious.
I’m warned by his band cohorts that he’s a closed book. Coming as no surprise, he’s the last to take the phone for the interview. Surprise comes when he actually speaks the longest, cut off only when the cell phone battery dies.
Turns out, Wilson is just “bashful, Bashful from Nashville,” he tells me.
“But you’re not actually from Nashville right?”
“No, it just sounded good since it rhymed.”
Wilson would probably say in retrospect that his corny line was simply an example of his inner nerd syndrome.
Brought up in the country, on a farm in Seymour, Ind. – the “small town” made famous by John Cougar Mellencamp – Wilson passed the time playing with animals, catching insects and capturing snakes.
“I was nerdy,” he recalls. “I don’t really remember ever not being a geek to be honest. I was really into biology and science, and was always asking my parents for a microscope.”
Instead, for his 16th birthday, his dad purchased him an electric guitar and an amp, a move Wilson believes was probably “out of serious concern for my geekiness.”
“Whatever his reason, I thought it was a cool thing to do, so I figured out how to read tablature, took a few lessons and taught myself how to play a bunch of Nirvana songs,” Wilson says. “I did spend a lot of time playing, but it was never more than a hobby throughout high school and in college.”
His college stint at Anderson was brief, lasting only two semesters before transferring to Middle Tennessee State University.
“It just wasn’t my vibe,” Wilson explains. “It was so small that everyone wanted to know your story all of the time, and everything was built on social popularity. I’m an introvert and I didn’t really get to know that many people there.”
Two that he did befriend –Edwards and Grooms – tracked him down shortly after devising their plan to move to the Music City and start their own band.
When Wilson met up with his former Anderson colleagues he was still jetlagged from a long flight back home from Australia, where he had spent a year studying abroad at the University of Queensland.
“They told me they were looking for someone to play in their outfit – that’s what my dad calls it. ‘What kind of outfit are you playing in boy?’” mimics Wilson in his best fatherly voice. Then, returning to the story, “Anyhow, I pretty much had stopped playing music at that point, and didn’t even have a guitar.”
But the idea of spending time outside of the lab appealed to Wilson, who borrowed a guitar – a pacific green ’93 Jeff Beck Stratocaster that he still loves and plays today despite the duct tape that holds it together – and decided he’d give the outfit a shot.
The band had plenty to figure out during the spring and summer of 2005.
Wilson (left), followed by Graham, were the next to join the band.
“Probably for about six months, we didn’t even play any shows. We just worked to get good so that we didn’t go out and suck,” says Edwards. “And, we had a lot to learn. None of us had sung before in our other bands, I was learning to play the guitar, Stephen was writing songs for the first time, we didn’t have a sound, we didn’t really know where we wanted to go, and we were trying to find a name.”
After many laborious days, nights and months, AutoVaughn was hatched.
“There was a reference to this electro-nihilist band called Autobahn in the movie The Big Lebowski, and since we also listen to a lot of European stuff and they’ve got the autobahn over there, we started playing with that,” explains Edwards of the thought process behind the band’s name. “We all liked the name Vaughn, and when we put it together with auto it looked good on paper. Then it was, ‘Ooh, capitalize the A and the V, and that’s money!’”
All the while, Wilson continued taking classes, earning his degree in 2006 in microbiology and chemistry. Rather than taking a 9 to 5 and enjoying a lucrative living as a scientist, Wilson agreed to go on tour with AutoVaughn as long as it “kept going.”
“We started making fans and the buzz in Nashville grew pretty quick,” Wilson says. “Then once we started touring, things took off for us and we felt we were really moving in the right direction.”
AutoVaughn’s progress was soon jeopardized when the band’s then-bass player bowed out. Fortunately, a smoke break at the Hard Rock Café helped to quickly remedy the situation.
Here’s when the fun-loving Graham (who by the way, doesn’t smoke cigarettes) enters the picture.
Fed up with all of his co-workers enjoying lengthy smoke breaks while he took on extra tables, Graham took action.
“I decided I was just going to hang out in the smoke room and not smoke,” he explains.
So one day while not smoking in the smoke room, Graham noticed a dejected Grooms and asked what was up.
“He told me their bass player had quit their band,” Graham recalls. “Since at the time, he knew me only as a guy writing songs on acoustic guitar and playing them out in Nashville, I said to him, ‘You know I play bass right?’”
Grooms invited Graham to audition, but admits there was some skepticism given Graham’s bass background was rooted in jazz.
Born in Boston, Graham and his family relocated to Westchester, Ohio, just north of Cincinnati when he was about 7-years old. His passion for music was already in full swing as Graham’s been playing music “ever since I could walk.”
His father, a bass player, spent some time touring with a Kentucky-based group called The River Band, and often played the hotel scene with various jazz quartets and show bands. As well as a love for jazz, the family listened to the likes of Led Zeppelin, the Beatles, James Taylor and Joni Mitchell.
“I think we had really eclectic tastes in music in our family, and I’m still that way. As long as it’s good, I’m into it,” he shares.
Graham took turns at the drums and on the trumpet, but around fifth grade, he began devoting most of his time to playing bass, eventually joining the jazz band in high school.
Post-graduation, he passed on college, instead heading to Nashville to live out his dream of becoming a professional musician.
“I thought it was a waste of money to go to college when I knew what I was capable of as a musician,” he points out.
It didn’t take AutoVaughn long to recognize Graham’s talents either.
“He came in there and pretty much killed it,” remembers Grooms. “We still told him he had to audition live at our show that weekend up in Indiana, but that was because we needed to see how his personality fit with ours and how he handled on the road.”
The affable Graham, who has a habit of a triple and a half beat laugh after practically everything he says, crushed that test too, one that shouldn’t be understated given how much time AutoVaughn spends on the road.
Since 2006, AutoVaughn has played at least a 100 shows a year with a tour schedule that has whipped them across nearly every state in the continental U.S. In 2008, the band headed overseas to the U.K. for a successful sold-out winter tour opening for Cage the Elephant. Back on U.S. soil, AutoVaughn continued to build on their reputation as a sensational ‘80s new wave live band with more than a whopping 200 performances by year’s end.
“I think honestly, without being arrogant, we are a really good live band,” Graham states. “I think it is coming full circle where live music is coming back and being liked by the masses, but for a while, you couldn’t hear a band that had a single on the radio and expect them to be really good live. Some shows are better than others, but every time we play, we put on a good show and give it everything we’ve got.”
That includes a lot of running around and running into each other in what Grooms believes creates a “punk-esque vibe.”
“We all have our various ways of expressing ourselves out there, but I’d say we are all very high energy for sure,” describes Grooms.
Edwards is the most likely to take a dive into the crowd, but even Wilson lets loose onstage.
“I think there’s too much thought in everything else I do, so the stage is the one place I don’t think so much,” he explains. “It would have been comical to me as a kid to imagine myself performing onstage, but it is actually one of my more liberating moments.”
But the adrenaline rush of performing live comes with a cost. In less than three years, their beloved Carla – a Ford Econoline E-150 – racked up more than 123,000 miles on the odometer, miles that took their toll on the books.
“We love touring, but in retrospect we probably shouldn’t have been going so hard, especially when gas was over four dollars,” says Edwards. “We were barely breaking even. We were sleeping in the van a lot or camping out, and after a while, it’s like man, it would be nice to pocket some money and go home and take a break. But we’ve got a lot of passion for what we do and we stick with it.”
The extensive time together on the road in close quarters has created a tight-knit foursome that knows everything about one another, except interestingly, not each other’s ages. Graham is 23 going on 24 and didn’t even venture a guess as to anyone else’s years spent on earth. Wilson, who is 29, thinks Edwards and Grooms are probably 30-something.
“Honestly, I really don’t know how old any of the guys are and that’s really weird,” reflects Wilson after a few guesses. “You bring up a really interesting point because we’re always together it seems like, and that should be something we would know.”
They do however acknowledge the cycle of life with The Cycles, their latest album featuring six songs including “The Cycles,” which won them the Road Worn competition. Although the majority of the tunes on the album contain infectious and upbeat melodies, their lyrics address serious subject matter ranging from politics to religion.
It’s the latter that particularly interests Edwards, who originally chose Christian Ministries as his major at Anderson.
“Every conversation at college included someone asking you how your relationship was with the Lord. To me, that’s a pretty personal thing and once I took some philosophy courses there, I really started to change my religious views,” he says. “I think there are some unbelievable and beautiful mysteries we don’t understand out there, but I don’t really believe in the going to hell type of stuff that I used to believe in.”
Edwards still receives well-meaning emails from friends at Anderson who are “concerned about his eternal salvation.”
And while Edwards – who has a habit of hugging everyone he meets upon instant introduction – certainly doesn’t want to hurt their feelings, it’s that single-minded point of view that eventually led to his religious rebellion.
“People who are dogmatic thinkers and refuse to see that there may be a different or better way of looking at something really frustrate me. I think they really frustrate all of us in the band. There are a lot of powers at work that are afraid of change and afraid of adapting and evolving. We are big fans of evolving.”
|Here’s a shot of one of the band’s UFO sightings.|
Thus the choice of “Future Rock” as their listed genre on Facebook.
“We’re trying to create our own sound, our own genre of music,” explains Edwards.
Adds Wilson, “I think we have an ambient, experimental sound, and we take creative leeway with what we do.”
The band currently has 40 new songs they are still tinkering with as they rev up to record their next album in the fall; some of the material has already been tested out during recent shows.
“One of the songs that we’ve been playing is called ‘Everybody Wants to be Loved,’ and it’s become one of my favorites,” shares Graham. “It’s a little bit of a departure from the pop rock 80’s label that people say we are. I’d say the newer stuff in general is more thought out. It just feels bigger.”
But similar to The Cycles and their debut album Space, this future body of work will continue to thematically reflect one of the band’s shared passions. All four are deeply intrigued by science and technology.
Wilson’s love of science should be obvious by now, but FYI he earns money on the side working as a microbiologist; Grooms attended space camp in fifth grade with dreams of being an astronaut; Edwards dutifully follows any shuttle launches or space probes; Graham claims the band has spotted UFO’s several times and believes they’ve even been abducted during their late night road journeys.
I did say they were goofy right?
Speaking of road journeys, Grooms, whose father is a truck driver, naturally handles 75 percent of the driving, including all of the driving at night. He boasts of his ability to parallel park Carla, and trailer Carlos, anywhere – even in New York City. But Carlos is on his last legs, Carla is pushing 185,000 miles, and their driver is flat broke.
“Usually I’d get a part-time job for when we are in Nashville, but with the economy the way it is now there really aren’t any options for me,” laments Grooms. “There are times when I wonder if I’ll be able to eat next week, but eventually we come across some money. I’d like to think it’s karma for being such a nice guy because whenever I get down to nothing, it’s like something falls out of sky and we’re okay.”
Some might say winning the Road Worn Competition – which includes a customized 2008 Toyota Tundra and customized trailer – was a godsend. AutoVaughn would prefer they stuck with cosmic.
Regardless of how it’s spun, AutoVaughn looks forward to the long summer out on the road, particularly the music that lies ahead.
Stay tuned for more updates from the band in their very own Fender.com blog, The Adventures of AutoVaughn.