Automatic Iris’ strange but true world of songwriting, distortion and… science!

Automatic Iris
Automatic Iris

When indie folk collides with distortion pedals with just a hint of neuroscience added in, you might get something like Denver’s Automatic Iris.

The five-piece, which plays Tuft Theatre on Saturday, February 25 with Chella & The Charm, draws from a diverse set of folk and pop styles and sounds to concoct their fuzzed-out, harmonies and hooks laden musical confections.

We recently caught up with Automatic songwriter and guitarist Michael Saul, who filled us in on how the band came to be, their songwriting process and why you might want to bring your thinking cap to one of their shows.

See Automatic Iris w/ Chella & The Charm in Tuft Theatre on Saturday, February 25.

Your band bio says you “met in folk music school before going electric and subsequently getting expelled for distortion pedal abuse.” Was that folk music school Swallow Hill?

Yes! We met taking Core Guitar at Swallow Hill from the amazing musician and teacher Vicki Taylor. Swallow Hill – the music school, the concerts, the whole community – is such a great Denver institution. We’ve had the opportunity to study with great teachers – besides the aforementioned Vicki Taylor, there’s Chris McGarry, Aaron McCloskey, pedal steel wizard Jeff Rady, to name just a few. But at Swallow Hill we also found a wonderful community of music makers and music lovers, who’d gather after class every Wednesday night at a nearby bar to play acoustic covers of Neil Young, Fleetwood Mac, or Gram Parsons for hours.

I’d been taking the class for a few sessions when a new student showed up, everyone had been talking about what a gifted singer she was. They weren’t wrong! It was Amanda. And at the first or second class, she asked, “has anyone heard of this band Hem?” Hem is this great, wrongfully obscure, sort of folk/country/orchestral band. I’d been listening to their record Rabbit Songs like crazy, so we got together a week or so later and started trying to figure out how to play a fantastic song of theirs called “Betting on Trains.” I think we also worked up some Whiskeytown songs, the Decemberists’ “Red Right Ankle,” and a couple of Neil Young tunes. “Betting on Trains” was the first song we ever performed in public, at a Swallow Hill group recital.

And now here we are, a few years later and a little bit greyer, actually playing in a band and recording our songs! I can honestly say that there’s no way this would have happened without Swallow Hill and the support of our friends and teachers there.

To be totally factual here, we didn’t actually get kicked out of Swallow Hill for using distortion pedals. That was Bob Dylan at Newport. But over time we have geeked out quite a bit on the sounds a guitar can create with fuzz, tremolo, and a whole lot of reverb.

What’s your favorite pedal, distortion or otherwise, to abuse these days?

I still love the sounds of acoustic guitars, but I’ve got a bit of an obsession with the tones – and the harmonics – you can create with distorted electric guitars. I think Automatic Iris really found its sound when we started playing with Glenn Hermanson. Glenn plays a lot of bass for the band, but he can play pretty much any instrument. In particular, he’s got encyclopedic knowledge of, and a deep understanding of, the greatness of 80s post-punk and new wave – stuff like the Smiths, the Cure, Echo and the Bunnymen – bands that all used guitar effects like chorus and delay to create very well-defined and evocative sonic worlds. This is the stuff I grew up on as a teenager as well, and it’s been great learning how it was made. I think Glenn’s ear for melody, arrangement, and atmosphere has really helped us all explore the songs as landscapes of sound, not just collections of verses.

To name some specific pedals, for dirt, I’m really fond of a pedal from Hartman electronics – it’s a variation on a 1980s distortion pedal called the ProCo RAT, that’s been used weirdly enough both in hair metal and by my personal favorite band, Yo La Tengo. The Hartman version can switch between the sound of the traditional RAT and second voice that’s a subtler thickening of the guitar’s natural sound. Amanda gets her great distorted tones out of a Boss SD-1 Super Overdrive, that I think she bought at the same time as her trademark red Epiphone Casino.

I think one effect that’s really defined her sound in particular, though, is tremolo – a really deep tremolo, pronounced enough to be a rhythmic element of the song, has become an integral part of certain songs (like “End Has Just Begun”) for us. I use tremolo as well, but usually faster, shallower settings, so it’s more of a subtle wobble rather than a pronounced rhythmic element. Those two sounds seem to interact in a pleasing way. Maybe Courtney can figure out if there’s some psychoacoustic explanation for that.

With two primary songwriters in the band, how does your writing process work? Do you collaborate closely, or do you bring each other mostly finished pieces for others to refine?

There’s really no set process. We’ve essentially just been writing constantly since we met at Swallow Hill. Sometimes one of us will come in with a completed song that ends up just getting minor tweaks. Sometimes Amanda will bring a lyric and vocal melody and all of us will feel out an arrangement. Sometimes Glenn will have a chord progression and guitar lick that suggests a lyric. Sometimes I’ll bring in a riff and Amanda will just produce whole set of melodies and lyrics on the spot. Other times we’ll sit down at a bar with a notebook and work out lyrics together line by line. I feel like our greatest challenge is finding enough time to fully develop all the ideas we have!

You’ve played some interesting, perhaps atypical shows – libraries and art museums come to mind. What is the strangest setting to host an Automatic Iris show? What would be your dream concert setting, doesn’t matter how far out it is?

One of the most fun places we’ve played, thanks to the audience, is the Park Hill Branch of the Denver Public Library. They put on a great series of all-ages concerts ranging from string quartets to rock – I took my kids to see the Outfit there once! Playing the Museum of Contemporary Art’s rooftop series, looking out over Denver, is pretty unforgettable as well. As for a dream concert setting, I can’t imagine there’s a Denver musician who doesn’t dream of playing Red Rocks someday!

But it means a lot to us to play Swallow Hill. It’s where we got our start and it’s such a key part of what makes Denver such a great city for music lovers and learners of all ages. I love Swallow Hill’s combination of tradition and eclecticism – in addition to folksingers both well-known and unknown, they’ve hosted amazing acoustic shows by underground geniuses like Lloyd Cole and Robyn Hitchcock.

The members of Automatic Iris have chosen some fascinating career paths – environmental law, software design, finance and neuroscience among them. How do your professional lives influence your music?

That’s a tough question. I’m not sure they do! My own day job is in environmental law, and I’ve certainly tried to write a protest song about the plight of the Gunnison Sage-Grouse, but I’ve never succeeded in writing one that’s actually any good. But – perhaps due to Courtney’s neuroscience background – I think there’s a bit of scientific method in the band’s arrangement process. We take a song, and then tweak the variables one-by-one – a harmony vocal, the order of verses, the tempo, the reverb settings – and listen back to hear how it affects the overall feeling of the song.

And, of course, there’s everyone’s favorite part of the show – Science Minute with Courtney! That’s where Courtney educates the audience about some strange-but-true scientific fact. I can’t exactly remember why we started doing this, but no Automatic Iris show is complete with it.

Beyond your show in Tuft Theatre on February 25, what’s in store for Automatic Iris?

Just the week before the show, we’ll be returning to The Keep Recording studio in Denver for our second recording session with the amazing Nick Sullivan! We went into the studio with Nick just about a year ago to record our first EP, Escape Routes. It was an intense learning experience, and we’ve got a new crop of songs that we are eager to record in the studio. Shameless plug, follow us on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Bandsintown, or at, to hear the new recordings once they’re done and for news and upcoming show announcements.

This Q&A was conducted via email with Swallow Hill Music Marketing Manager Barry Osborne.