Bruce Nazarian of Automatix
By Alun Thomas
Considering the vast array of quality AOR bands that never made the top tier of the scene in the 80's, remembering The Automatix would be a sizable task. With a lone MCA release in 1983, 'Night Rider', the Detroit band disappeared before they had a chance to shine, victims of record industry politics. Seemingly forgotten by fans and historians alike, I had no idea of their existence when I came across a second hand copy of their album in 2001. Stunned by the all round quality it I sought to seek band members, in an attempt to do the group some long overdue justice. Over the ensuing months various e-mails filtered through regarding The Automatix and their history, specifically their leader, guitarist and lead vocalist Bruce Nazarian, who had gone on to form Gnome Digital, a frontrunner in DVD technology. Sometime later Bruce e-mailed me, gracious at the attention afforded his former band and agreed to an interview. Bruce now sheds some light on the details behind The Automatix, how and why things went wrong, and how he has gone on to such a successful career in the DVD industry.
Firmly esconced with his multimedia company, Bruce's musical background is something he probably isn't asked about much anymore. But to create AOR of the magnitude The Automatix achieved, how significant was Bruce's history with the music business prior to the band? " I had an interesting musical history" complies Bruce with the question " I started with music in grade school (primary school), and for many years in high school I drifted from instrument to instrument, until finally in college I got a guitar, and that was the one that stuck." As Bruce explains his output of early bands was limited. " I didn't really play in too many bands per se" he reasons " but early on I was 'drafted' into being a studio musician by a friend who owned a recording studio in Detroit. Sessions were more fun than playing in clubs, paid better, and you didn't have to bring the lights and PA system."
At this point Bruce hesitates as if he has forgotten something. " My earliest introduction to the music business actually was the USO ( United Service Organistaion)" he recalls. " I began performing when I was quite young, and also appeared on television in Detroit during the 1950's, on a particular variety show that was broadcast from WXYZ- this was the same station that introduced Soupy Sales (and White Fang and Blacktooth) to the world. If you don't know about him, do a google search on 'Soupy Sales'. He was a true TV star LONG before other stars were created. I still have some 78 RPM record transcriptions of my TV performances, but I think the kinescopes are long gone....
From the mid to late seventies Nazarian spent time in Brownsville Station, the band responsible for the hit 'Smokin In The Boys Room'. "I had been with Brownsville Station from 1975-79. Brownsville were a magnificient band- it broke my heart when Cub Koda (lead vocalist) died a few years ago. He was a very good friend, and a superb musicologist in his own right" relates Bruce. This was the stepping stone for The Automatix obviously. So what exactly led to the formation of the band? "The session musicians I worked with were an intensely creative group of musicians and we were all chafing to find an outlet to make original music. Whether this was due to dissatisfaction with what we were recording each day, or if we just wanted in on the fun, I am not certain to this day- but nontheless we formed a casual band ( to play in clubs at night) called the 'A' band (a nickname for the 'first call' musicians in the studio world). We loved playing together, so we made it a thing. The Automatix were born from the A band." As Bruce shares surprisingly, he was not The Automatix's original vocalist, that honour going to a female. " Interestingly our first singer was Shaun Murphy, a legendary Girl session singer from Detroit. Shaun sang backup for Mitch Ryder, Bob Seger, Alice Cooper, you name it- she also sang for Eric Clapton. Sadly Shaun left the band before we were signed, but later surfaced as the lead singer of Little Feat."
I then ask Bruce about the other members who played in The Automatix. "Well there was always a core nucleus of myself and drummer extraordinare, Jerry Q Jones. Jerry had the biggest 'pocket' (sense of groove) of any drummer I worked with. On any given day he was the equal of and every major drummer you may have heard of- Yogi Horton, David Garibaldi, even Jeff Pocaro! I loved working with Jerry and vice versa. WE decided to surround ourselves with equally talented musicians and singers." Bruce then goes on to give a lengthy history of the earliest incarnations of The Automatix. "Our original lineup included: Shaun Murphy, lead singer, as I mentioned, along with Luis Resto, who along with myself as a charter member of Was (Not Was). Luis is the BADDEST keyboard player ever in life, but our musical direction wasn't jazzy wnough for him, so he left and we replaced him with a good rock keyboardist that Shaun recommended, Jim King. Jim did not work out and when Shaun decided to leave, Jim King left as well. We replaced Jim King with Jim Noel, a SOLID keyboardist that we all really grooved with."
"In the first days, the Automatix lineup included Hugh Hitchcock, from Ann Arbor, Michigan, on bass. Hughie was a friend of Luis', and was incredibly funky. He could pop with the best of the funky black bassists, and groove to boot. Sadly Hugh did not last the course, again because of musical differences. We replaced Hugh with Nolan Mendenhall, a member of a very cool local Detriot band at the time, and also hired the guitar player in that band, Kenny Meriedith to be co-guitar player with me. Kenny was way too good of a guitar player to EVER be called a 'second guitar'. Kenny kicked ass, and had managed to find the elusive perfect guitar tone, using a combination of custom guitars. and Howard Dumble amps. Funny the things you remember." This version ended up recording 'Night Rider' in "1979/80 or so" according to Bruce. "We changed lineups again around 1980, losing Kenny and Jim Noel, but adding Mark Nilan on keyboards and variously, Ray Goodman (Mitch Ryder Band) on guitar and Randy Jacobs of Was (Not Was) on guitar also."
The Automatix was signed by MCA, the talent on offer too good to pass on. Did you think this would guarantee you a future or were they rushing to sign every and any AOR band? "EVERY band is probably thinking that a major label deal is the be- all end -all of their careers- we learned the hard way that there is more to a major label deal than getting it. Keeping it is equally important" Bruce points out realistically. "In the end we were hosed because of politics- we were signed by Bob Siner, the former president of MCA records, whose acts became 'persona non grata' once Irving Azoff replaced Bob Siner as MCA president. Our A&R guy at MCA, by the way, was Joe Wissert, the famous producer of Boz Scaggs."
'Night Rider' is a varied album. There's easy listening tracks such as 'When The Feeling Is Gone' mixed with bruising hard rock like 'Two Can Play', but there's always the inherent sense of melody running through, with excellent all round performances. Was this stylistic approach what you were looking for? "Well, yes and no- the album was really a product of our diverse writing styles, and the hardest thing to do was get a consensus of which tunes to drop or leave on the album. In the eye of history, the album may be a bit TOO diverse for many peoples taste, but fuck 'em- it was our album and we loved it! So apparently did many of the AOR stations- 'When The Feeling Is Gone' was I think an excellent piece of rock and should have been a hit- but every artist says that when they get screwed out of their hit record!" roars Bruce.
The ten tracks of 'Night Rider' are all memorable in their own right, some more than others. One way up there, with any track I've ever heard actually, is the rousing AOR anthem 'Take It To The Top'. Heavy, positive and mightily addictive I ask Bruce where the inspiration came for the song. "Hard to remember" he states " it was the magic of the moment, and in many cases, truth be told, Nolan Mendenhall wasa spontaneous fountain of lyrics and titles.....hard to recall the exact derivation of this specific song" he adds unfortunately. " 'Night Rider' (the title track) was very much me, experimenting with guitar voicings. Iloved to find sustain- y- chord structures that could be phased and chorused to provide something very different than the 'Marshall stack on 10' I had been doing with Brownsville Station. In some ways The Automatix may well have been my rebellion against the dinosuar rock we did with Brownsville."
As Detroit natives did you record in the great city? Any fond memories of the sessions? "There's an interesting story in this album" Bruce relates with sincerity " we may well have been one of the first 'Project Studio' bands around. Instead of blowing the budget on studio time at somebody elses studio, I made the band a deal. We would take a fixed amount of the budget, and use it to secure some equipment, which I would then assume payments on. We would also reserve some budget money for mixing at a professional studio. Don't forget we were recording musicians and knew very well how easy it was to get a good sound on records, but how hard to make inspiration to arrive when you are paying for it by the hour. Our deal gave us the flexibility to spen MONTHS making the record, with unlimited recording and overdubbing time, while knowing all the time who we would mix with and how it would sound."
Eagerly I question Bruce as to who The Automatix played with. Amazingly they barely played at all. "Sadly, we never toured- we played locally in Detroit for a while, but once the record was out we could never get it together to tour because the record had not reached critical mass." Were you ever aquainted with fellow Detroit rockers Adrenalin? "Of course" comes the expected answer "EVERYBODY from Detroit knows Adrenalin. They were HUGE in the rock club circuit, but that wasn't our area. They were unabashed rockers, and we were more like eclectic voyagers."
Typically The Automatix were lost in the shuffle, as Bruce has pointed out. But how did the album actually fare? Did MCA do anything to support it? "The album started to do very well, but when they bought in Azoff he hacked Bob Siner's roster from 42 artists to 7- guess which group we were in? After MCA dropped the band we all lost heart and dispersed into our different directions. This was the time that I drifted into dance music production and mixing. MCA killed us" he concludes starkly. Did you record any videos or release any singles from the album? "No videos- once we lost Shaun we lost our video worthiness. No formal singles, as it was a very AOR time, and MCA was letting the album find its legs before Irving kicked ours out from underneath us. What a dope he was- our album could have been huge- ultimately we were Bob Siner's act not Irv Azoff's, and if we had succeeded it would have been hard for him to give Bob Siner the props for signing us. This is what happens in the rock biz when your political allies get fired or leave the label. It sucks, and I have very little respect for the record biz because of this. And yes as you can tell I DID take it VERY personally. All of us did. We loved the band and our music, and it looked like it was going to happen for us."
Given the large space in time since The Automatix split, do you know what became of the members of the band and still keep in touch with any of them? "Jerry Jones continued doing sessons, and is living in Maryland. I stay in close touch with Ray Goodman, but haven't heard from Jim Noel or Nolan Mendenhall in a long time. Mark Nilan is to this day one of my closest friends, and musical buddies. I ran into Shaun Murphy in LA once or twice, but nothing regularly. Jim King I never see, but occasionally I run across Luis Resto. Kenny Meiedith is living in LA and was doing well as a guitar player, when I last heard from him a few years back. They were a great aggregation of musicians and those were happy times."
These days Bruce is the founder of Gnome Digital, a pioneer in DVD technology, for which Bruce's services are greatly sought. How did you develop an interest in this form of media? "It was a pretty natural leap for a computer geek who is fascinated with media. After The Automatix I built an all digital music studio using the Synclavier and Direct to Disk recording system and recorded the very first completely tapeless multitrack recordin in 1988. This was Millie Scott's 'Love Me Right' album on Island Records. That led to film scoring using the Synclavier, and the Synclavie led to audio post for televsion and film; the leap to DVD was a no brainer from there."
Obviously it would be nice to see 'Night Rider' get a CD release. With the abundance of great material still to make it to disc, what would be the chances of lobbying MCA to release it? I'd be happy to help! "Well ironically Brownsville Station was originally signed to Big Tree records by none other than Doug Morris, the head of BMG himself. Wanna ask him?" asks Bruce enthusiastically "hell he might just say why not! If you have his e-mail address, I'll ask him- we always got on well while I was in Brownsville- after all it's who you know right?" That's true Bruce! So if anyone reading this knows Doug Morris' address, you know what to do. I'm not sure how long my cassette of 'Night Rider' can hold out!
Finally I quiz Bruce as to his involvement in music these days, if any at all. "Not really" he answers expectedly " it has been a dormant passion for many years while I concentrated on the DVD technology that I also love very much, But I feel music calling to me again in recent years and I would not be surprised if this is the year I reactivate my studio for the purpose of making music instead of manipulating noises for other peoples DVD projects."
Thanks for your time Bruce and I can honestly say that 'Night Rider' has become one of my favourite AOR albums, with it's unmatched melody in music and vocals. "No problem- I always wondered who besides my mother bought the other copy of the album" he grins.