In 2002, Daryl Palumbo was on a roll. His flagship band Glassjaw were making heads swivel in the scene with their double helix of post-hardcore and ’90s alt-rock. When the Long Island, New York, band signed to Warner Records, they delivered the admirable Worship And Tribute. Some label execs approached Palumbo to see if he wanted to do something on the side to make music outside Glassjaw’s realm. And thus Head Automatica were born.
The first album, 2004’s Decadence, was a cool detour that found the singer teaming up with Dan “The Automator” Nakamura. The producer helped realize all of the sonic visions ricocheting in the vocalist’s skull. From classic Mo’ Wax sides to Dust Brothers worship to the insanity of Primal Scream’s XTRMNTR, the duo brought the hemisphere-rockin’ beats. To this day, fans still cite “Beating Heart Baby” as one of the century’s best tracks ever. (More on that albatross in a bit.)
Read more: Top 50 post-hardcore songs from the 2000s
Not long afterward, Palumbo had turned Head Automatica into a touring unit with friends guitarist Craig Bonich, bassist Josh Holden and keyboardist Jessie Nelson. A massive rethink was in order. Palumbo had switched into power-pop mode, taking cues from such new-wave footnotes as the Rubinoos and 20/20. His love of British new-wave acts such as Elvis Costello and Nick Lowe manifested itself on the second Head-A release, Popaganda. As a live entity, Head-A were unstoppable, with a fiery show and opportunities to show it off in front of fans of Angels & Airwaves and Taking Back Sunday.
When it came time for Head Automatica album No. 3, Palumbo had a vision. He was going to incorporate all of his loves. An ardent fan of the late Frank Zappa, the singer hired former FZ sidemen Bruce Fowler and Albert Wing to add horn parts to his arrangements. (“There is nothing that I could ever conceptualize that people like that couldn’t handle and really take it and go to the moon with it.”) Palumbo’s favorite part of the process was collaborating with Anthony Roman from early emo forebears Garden Variety and dance-punk outfit Radio 4. The intended album, Swan Damage, was sizing up to be massive, ambitious and a masterpiece.
And it never came out.
What killed the album? Some SOB at Warner Records. That’s an acronym for “standard operational bullshit.” Where Palumbo wanted to make an art-rock statement, label employees preferred some hits. Palumbo built a good set of psychic biceps from pushing back against the label often. When they finally gave him the option to leave the label—including Glassjaw—he was elated.
Palumbo talked to AltPress from his home in Miami where he lives with his wife and 3-year-old son. He keeps busy creating music for film trailers, avant-garde music for himself, producing new bands and doing design work. He’s stockpiling songs with Color Film, his collaboration with Richard Penzone. He’s not bitter and is perfectly OK with you not being able to hear his unreleased album. Because it was the best thing that never happened to him.
The last time we talked about Swan Damage (AP 288, July 2012), you told me you got your masters off Warner Records, and they were under your bed. But you can’t do a damn thing with them.
DARYL PALUMBO: I don’t think Warner [Records] is out there patrolling my actions. I don’t think they give a fuck about me or even Glassjaw for that matter. Really, I don’t think it’s a big deal. I’m sure at some point, somebody I know could maybe get a hold of them and leak them. But I guess they really haven’t ever been leaked. Pretty fucking wild. Usually everything anybody does manages to slip through the cracks of some fucking goon intern at whatever label I’m lucky enough to be signed to over a sushi lunch. Dude leaks the fucking thing out for a ticket into some bullshit show in L.A., betraying somebody’s record that hasn’t come out yet and fucking up their career. But it hasn’t been leaked yet.
I’ve never heard it. Give me the SparkNotes on it.
There’s a lot of cool stuff. It was an experience of doing it really piecemeal over the course of a year-and-a-half, two years. Flying out, meeting people, working with session players, working with different producers. The one thing I think it [needed] was having a band to play it with me today. You play it together so much that you’re just on fire. The material as a band is detailed from playing it. You build that crazy synergy with three, four dudes in a room, and then you lay it down, and then you fly around the bells and whistles on it and different studios with different producers and whatnot. They didn’t really have that. It sounds a lot of the time very studio. I love that, too. I’m a studio guy. But there was something it lacked in retrospect, but [there’s] a lot of great, great shit.
But we did play a bunch of the material at shows around when the album was done being made. There are live recordings on YouTube (see below) of fucking amazing performances of a lot of that material. Some of the more Ministry “Work For Love” type things.
Head Automatica started out as a collaboration with you and Dan “The Automator” Nakamura. Obviously, someone at the label believed in you outside of Glassjaw.
It was just me doing things. Right off the bat, I could have had anybody [work with me]. We’re talking 2001, 2002, early 2003. At that point, it was like, “Here are a few bucks of Warner [Records] money. If you could have anybody you maybe want to do some things with, who would it be?” It was hard to go really big with certain people, fantasy names. But then why go small with names that were too cool for the room that weren’t very relevant?
You did Popaganda with Howard Benson. It’s a great record, but I understand that’s where your discontent with “the system” started.
I regret a lot of the recording on there. The recording is just so modern and clean and pristine and glossy that it lost a lot of the references that are tucked into that, where it just ends up sounding droll, and that’s my worst enemy. Those clean, pristine recordings, big chords and big perfect drums and all those quantized perfect modern recordings. And that wasn’t what I wanted with the Popaganda stuff.
In retrospect, it’s easier to say all these things. I’m just in this with the Warner [Records] machine, and you got people from the label asking, “How does the snare drum sound?” Are you fucking kidding me? Get the fuck out of here. “How about that hook? Let’s talk about the hook.” Talking about this minutia that nobody at a record label has the fucking right to be talking about. You’re just a switch in this machine, and then those people are talking to the producer and talking to mixers and talking about how they want the mixes to sound and “Is it going to be competitive for radio?”
I’m 25. I’m just this tiny guy getting put in this big machine. So then at the end, the album comes out however it comes out. You try to retain all those controls of the sonics and all that shit. But things change. That’s changing day to day and things happen. There was no nuance to it. I’m feeling that at the time, but there’s only so much I can really do. And I’m just hoping that the song shines through, and I’m hoping the vocals deliver. I played a lot of the instruments on the record hoping that the way I’m tracking it is going to come across the right way. You live and learn. When you’re younger, it’s really hard to pull the reins and really wrangle dudes over 20 years older than you putting money into you. The older you get, you learn.
Was the success of “Beating Heart Baby” a fluke or an albatross? Did the label want you to recapture that?
Of course they would want 10 of that. Why wouldn’t you want to have that? I didn’t want that. The story behind that [is] I had finished Decadence. So I say to my friend Craig [Bonich], who just joined the band after that album was made, “We’re going to go across the country to mix the record. Do it in 48 to 72 hours.”
So on the drive, we’re just smoking fucking weed and thinking. And then one night at a truck stop, we were sitting, playing guitars, being young and stony in the back of the van. Just me and him playing chords. And he’s like, “I got these two chords.” I pulled out a tape recorder and a guitar, too. And then [we] pretty much just start to back. We literally played the song and the vocal freestyle off the cuff, almost front to back.
By the time we got to L.A., I remember [talking to] Craig Aaronson, our A&R guy at the time who has since passed away—very sweet guy—“Hey, we just wrote a song yesterday in the car.” He was like, “Let me hear it.” We played it to him, and I remember him being like, “We’re tracking that. That’s going on the record.” And we went in and, over the course of one day, tracked “Beating Heart Baby.” And it went on the record.
I think the people at Warner [Records] really wanted 10 of them for Popaganda. So I think some fucking genius over there was like, “Put it on the second record, too.” I let it be on the next record, too. It’s just the fucking dumbest idea. But I was like, “Hey, whatever. It’s a good fucking tune.” And I didn’t think it got maybe a fair shake the first time around. So fuck it. Put it on the next record. Who the fuck does that? It’s so stupid even telling the story right now. It’s embarrassing.
So you made Swan Damage. Did you get dropped before it could come out? What happened?
I don’t know. I feel like it was insinuated that things weren’t great at the label. “Do you want to make hits? Are we going to put a bunch of hits on it?” Shit like that. That was part of it. And I was like, “That’s not where I am. That’s not what I’m about. Look, I’m not trying to make 10 [versions of] ‘Beating Heart Baby.’”
And I think it was just [the label saying], “You know what? You can have your masters, and you can split from the label if you want.” I think that part of it was Glassjaw getting off the label, too. I think that was all one moment where we were parting ways in every capacity. And if I could get that record, then that was great. And if Glassjaw could get away, that was great, too. I just feel like all that at once, you know? And that was it.
I think it would’ve been worse than not coming out, had the Head Automatica record come out on Warner [Records]. It was getting to the point where I couldn’t even get tracks. It was not happening. So I don’t even have files. Glassjaw you can’t get any information about. We couldn’t get any information about our history at the label. There was nobody to talk to. It’s just like a fantasy. There’s no way to work with a label in that capacity.
You couldn’t get masters. Maybe I have wav files of all these Head Automatica tunes, but they’re not… I feel like it’s mixed, but they’re like there’s still things that I feel like we’re gonna be changed. Everything was very up in the air when we parted ways. And that was it.
So even if somebody handed you a briefcase of unmarked $50s and $100s and says, “I’m starting a record label. I want my first release to be Swan Damage,” you couldn’t even give them any deliverables.
You could put out a fucking record of MP3s that you had into the world. A lot of people maybe would never know that. Maybe, I guess I could. I don’t think I’m on their radar enough for anybody to be like “Those are those magical songs we thought we could have made 1 billion.” If they thought they were gonna make a billion dollars, they would have begged me to put out with them over a decade ago.
It might come out at some point. I don’t know. But it feels old at this point. Maybe that’s just because I’m familiar with it. Feels like it’s from a couple of lifetimes ago.
So what happened to the band?
I haven’t really talked to those guys in a minute. I’m just the type of guy that always wants to wash the slate clean. It’s not necessarily that I outgrow anything. I’m not pompous. I just think sometimes you get that taste in your mouth. Like, it’s time. And toward the end of the Head Automatica zone, I think it was right as Swan Damage got finished and [we] were playing some more shows. I really started playing a lot with my buddy Rick Penzone. We started playing together full time. And then we were writing so much together that we were like, “Well, it’s not Head Automatica.” This is the next thing, Color Film.
When I’m over something, I guess I’m just over it. You just get that hair up your ass that does something else. I’m not saying that in any weird pointed ways. And then that was the end of Head Automatica.
A while back, I had a chat with Matt Good, the guitarist of From First To Last. He produces records now. He told me how he had the record deal with Epitaph and how his band were still scrounging through dumpsters behind fast-food restaurants, looking for a bun to eat or something. And now as a producer, there’s a cycle of young men and women who say, “I’m going to be a rock star, and I’m putting all the chips on this.” And it occurred to me that the tears of these participants are the thing that lubricates this great machine. It’s like Soylent Green.
No matter who you are, no matter how pretentious or how art school you are, no matter what band you are, you’re drinking the Kool-Aid a little bit when you’re signing. You’re somewhat believing because you wouldn’t be signing if you didn’t think it was going to elevate you and your visibility. You’re aiming for something. I’m not saying you’re thinking you’re going to become Bruce Springsteen, but you’re aiming for extending the reach, touching more people or being benign or fucking evil, whatever it is. You are drinking the Kool-Aid a little bit. And you’re hopeful. You’re always hopeful. And hope is dangerous, man.
Anybody ever ask you about a reunion?
It gets brought up. There’s been a Head Automatica anniversary, but I don’t even know what the anniversary was. I feel like that sort of thing in my life is maybe more trouble than it’s worth. I think there is a lot of work, a lot of talking. I’m maybe better off without it. But Swan Damage, maybe at some point. Maybe at some point it’ll happen or somehow it’ll conveniently get leaked. I don’t know.
There were some really good moments from it. I think a lot of the writing was really cool, too. And it was made with love.
What is the title Swan Damage a reference to?
Coming out of that whole time was like the beginning. Imagine being a swan and then coming out of it damaged during a very damaging time, going through a lot of the things that happen being on a big label.
I’m a stubborn motherfucker and I wanted that record to get made at that point. I was not going to stop flying around the world and meeting like-minded people and having it sound right. And I was going to stop until it was done. then when it was done, I was also stubborn, and I was not going to just put it out the wrong way, or I was not going to just write a bunch of “Beating Heart Baby” tunes to satiate people at a label. I felt at the time it deserved more. I’m stepping it up to make sure it got done, and I’m stubborn enough to make sure it never came out. I can talk myself out of anything.
Looking back at that entire time in Head Automatica, I got so much out of it. The knowledge, the studio prowess, writing chops. Everything was pushed to the next level for me in every department making that record. Everything is always more about the knowledge. It went to such a different place and such a next level. I came out of that feeling like I never needed anybody or another fucking $2,000-a-day studio.
I felt really scared and alone during a lot of that process. And I came out of it with a lot of the skills that I had. I was born in a lot of ways creatively during that process. So the record didn’t come out. But I got something so big. I think I value it the most in my whole life, creatively.