The last time Slim Cessna's Auto Club came through Seattle, they played Georgetown's Jules Maes Saloon, a venue that I love, but rarely frequent simply because of geography and the fact that it's almost impossible to get a cab down there. However, I had heard so many wild-eyed raves from fans about the band's heart-stopping shows that I decided the cumbersome trek south was worth my time. Indeed it was, and that live performance remains to this day one of the most riveting I've witnessed.
Slim Cessna's Auto Club is a Denver, Colorado–based collective of seasoned, versatile musicians who have been playing together in various Americana- and rock-flavored configurations for more than a decade. The leader and namesake of the band is Slim Cessna, the nearly seven-foot-tall son of a Baptist preacher who proselytizes from a punk-forged pulpit, topped in a 10-gallon hat, flashing a couple of gold teeth, and hypnotizing the audience with snake-oil charm and a ghostly, feverish demeanor. When someone so dexterously weaves Appalachian religious imagery with the swagger and electricity of punk rock, you have to ask where it came from. In Cessna's case, his background as the son of a preacher man is the logical place to start.
"It wasn't like my parents were really strict and harsh people—by the time I was in high school, I did own Dead Kennedys records and had interests in things outside of the church," recalls Cessna via phone, speaking in measured cadence with a voice far more soft-spoken than the wailing yodel and howl he deploys on stage. "However, I do have a deep appreciation for gospel music and the power of that, regardless of what you believe. I do believe that music can be a religious experience. In fact, for me, that's the only time I ever have a religious experience—through hearing it or playing it."
Denver's tight-knit music scene provided an ideal environment for fostering Cessna's transcendental ambitions. "Most of us have been playing together since we were teenagers. Dave [Eugene Edwards, AKA Woven Hand] and I from 16 Horsepower were in our first band together when we were 15 and 16 years old. So there's a history and a group of people who have been playing together a long time."
Much like their friends in 16 Horsepower, the rest of the Auto Club operate within the fluid, backwoods beauty of true Gothic Americana, augmenting their strong rock foundation with snaky, seductive pedal steel; turbulent, twanging banjos; and a healthy dose of fiddle and autoharp. Such instrumentation is made even more personalized by the fact that pedal-steel player Munly Munly is also a talented artisan who built his own instrument, along with others the band plays—including the guitars. This grassroots, DIY craftsmanship is one of many reasons why they landed naturally on Jello Biafra's punkcentric Alternative Tentacles label, which has been their home since 2000.
"Jello is from Colorado and we had mutual friends [specifically Bob Ferbrache, an occasional member of the band and producer of their records]," says Cessna. "Years before we were even on Alternative Tentacles, Jello would come to our shows and we developed a friendly relationship with him."
Touring is a sporadic affair for Slim Cessna's Auto Club, thanks to kids, mortgages, and other adult responsibilities, but that's a reality they've made peace with by strategically mapping their tours, focusing solely on the cities where their cult status is already well-established. "We've been playing together long enough that we don't need to sit around and rehearse every day," says Cessna. "We're responsible enough that we can work on our own and have things together. But we're actually able to make it work—we're making money now. We just have to tour smart and plan carefully."
Perhaps because of the concentrated, purposeful nature of their tour schedule or because of their world-weary punk maturity, the investment in the strength and richness of their live sets is paramount to Cessna. "No matter what happens, we really want to put on a good show, regardless of how many people are there. But that isn't a challenge for me, simply because I find so much joy in it."