They thought a lot about their band name, and they live by its message. Autopilot Off aren't into cruising through life or letting other people direct their destiny. Since forming in New York's Orange County in 1998, the abrasive, melodic punks have followed only their own hearts and goals.
"We know a lot of people who let life take them wherever it does, and then they complain about it," guitarist Chris Hughes said. "We believe that if you really want something, you can get it, you just have to be willing to work for it. It just takes a lot of determination."
That, and a little luck. Not long after Autopilot Off formed, the band toured with the Get up Kids and MXPX and learned how to win over audiences and develop a grass-roots following. They got the gig because MXPX got hold of Autopilot Off's demo, liked it and wanted to pass on some good karma. "We exist because those guys gave us a big break," Hughes said. "They took us out when we were totally unknown and said good things about us, and from then on good things started to happen. We're in debt to those guys forever."
Autopilot Off's other big break came last year, when Rancid frontman Tim Armstrong heard demos for the band's major-label debut, Make a Sound, and invited Autopilot Off to travel with Rancid on the Warped Tour for four days and work on some songs. "We were just writing songs for the sake of writing them, not for inclusion on the record," singer Chris Johnson said. "It was a great opportunity and something that was flattering for us because Rancid was one of our big influences."
"It was really amazing," Hughes added, "because Tim requested for us to be there because he liked our band. That blew our minds. While we were doing it, we were like, 'Man, why are we even here? We don't have a record out, and this guy's a legend.' "
Both songs, "Blind Truth" and "What I Want," made the record, and "What I Want" wound up being the first single. Johnson and Armstrong based the verses on Armstrong's separation from ex-wife Brody Dalle, but the track ultimately rings with hope.
"There's all this regret and realization about this shake-up," Johnson said. "It's saying, 'I was with this person who I thought was everything, and it ended up not working out and now my life is in disarray. But then the chorus kicks in and goes, 'This is what I want/ This is what I need/ This is exactly what I've been waiting for.' So it's all about things continuing on, no matter what."
The rest of the record offers a similar balance of pessimism and optimism, and the band expresses the same sentiment musically by blending crashing rhythms and crunchy riffs with sugary vocals. Some have argued that Autopilot Off's upfront melodies dull down their edge. Other accuse the band of writing songs for radio, but for the band, it's those hum-along hooks that provide the essential framework for the songs.
"Melody is the most important thing in a song because that's what people remember," Johnson said. "You can have the coolest guitar parts in the world, but if you have no melody, people aren't going to latch onto what you're saying."
And Autopilot Off feel that what they're saying is pretty important. While lots of pop-punk groups sing about dysfunctional relationships, missed opportunities and thwarted goals, Johnson is more interested in digging through the dismay to find the light at the end of the long tunnel.
"For me, uncertainty in lyrics should always be accompanied with this element of hope," he said. "Otherwise you're just being negative, and what's the point of that? I think writing is a good way to purge all of your negative thoughts and get to the root of things so that you can find that positive outcome."