Both Pat Sansone and John Stirratt cite Love’s seminal Forever Changes LP as the cement in The Autumn Defense’s foundation. “When we first started working together we bonded over records,” Stirratt recalls. “It was in New Orleans, which isn’t that poppish a town, so we quickly realized we had similar interests.” Sansone is the first to agree—“The band came as an extension of our friendship and music fandom. We’re really music fans first, then a band.” The Zombies’ Odyssey & Oracle and Big Star’s Third also inspired the duo to venture into the studio and cut their first album, The Green Hour in 2000. While a strong effort, it didn’t fully realize the sound they had in their heads. “We were just getting to know each other,” says Sansone, “Just discovering our connection, and I think that shows.”
Stirratt returned to his role as bassist with the ever-touring Wilco and Sansone gigged with and produced the likes of Josh Rouse and Joseph Arthur, so a follow-up wasn’t a simple task. “We’re both pretty busy,” says Sansone, “but this was a central point we could come back to.” Over the course of 2001 they stole time here are there to cut the remarkable, understated Circles (Arena Rock). Stirratt was determined to do it right. “This time we both brought songs to the project and recorded a larger batch of things. We really wanted to record most of the basics live to get a consistent sound.”
Both musicians agreed to maintain an open mind as the project developed. “Going into Circles we knew what our strengths were. There was a conscious effort to let the songs develop organically,” says Sansone. “Then the melancholy songs rose to the top because they seemed to have more strength and depth.” Set against a fragile acoustic strum, the line that introduces the album sets the tone—“Why am I sad? / The city lights tonight are beautiful / Without us.” Soon simple bass and piano lines join in, followed by a Hammond texture, blending into a sound that is lush in its simplicity, with Stirratt and Sansone uniting in easy pop harmonies. “We wanted a specific vibe from top to bottom.”
Aside from a few live dates last fall (including an unusual gig at the Apple Store in Chicago that required them to incorporate an Apple product in some way), the duo are holding off on a tour until later this year. “The thing I’m looking forward to the most is going out and playing,” says Sansone.