DS Interview: Atlas At Last talks beginnings, songwriting, and punk rock

Atlas At Last captured my attention at first listen with their frenetic, yet tuneful take on post-hardcore and emo. I was lucky enough to sit down (via e-mail) with the entire band–Nathaniel Hartten (guitar/vocals), Mike Radack (bass/vocals), and Jesse Catron (drums)– and talk about the beginnings of Atlas At Last, the future, and of course, what punk is really about.

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Dying Scene (Carson Winter): Atlas At Last’s music immediately resonated with me, but I’m fairly unfamiliar with the band itself. Can you tell us a little about the band’s history and beginnings?

Nathaniel: If I were to get technical, I’d put the absolute beginning of the band around 2008. I was playing with two other people, and we never really left the basement, but here are parts of the music written around that time that ended up in the final versions of current songs. A lot of “In The Company Of…” dates back to around then, for example. I moved from Frederick to Rockville (both in Maryland), and met Mike in a music theory class. I was really in to At the Drive-In at the time, and Mike had a big afro, like the ones we’ve seen from Cedric and Omar, so I figured he might be into them as well… he was.

Mike: Actually, a lot of the songs from the album are from that time. My first show with Nathaniel was in 2009 at a Moose Lodge in Frederick. We played what would become Jagged Edges, Atlas, Raindrops, and Flora. I ended up quitting about a year later. We met back up and another year after that met Jesse on Craigslist and started getting serious about our sound. Since then, we’ve played a ton of shows.

Jesse: I’d been out of music for a while when I was in college and was dying to start playing again when I moved back home. I hopped on Craigslist and found one post, buried in all the garbage, titled “Uniquely Aggressive band seeking drummer.” They had some demos online that were very rough but I heard a lot of potential and immediately felt that I could really help turn it into something special. After emailing back and forth with Mike for about a month, I finally met the guys. We played Fish (Jagged Edges) and Raindrops at the beginning of the first practice and continued to work on a few other songs. I don’t think there was even an official invitation for me to join. It was kind of just known between the three of us that it was right.

What’s the story behind the name “Atlas At Last?”

Nathaniel: Mike is the brains behind that one. When he proposed it, I made the connection with the game BioShock, which is an Ayn Rand allegory. If you’ve played the game, the “At Last” part makes sense too!

Mike: Well, we had played a couple of shows under a different name, but were sure that we wanted to change it. I was doing a lot of research on NASA space missions, just reading a lot of articles about different missions. The name just came to me while I was at work, reading about the Atlas Rocket. It just seemed exactly right for the band; it was an almost instantaneous thing.

The most immediate comparison I made with your sound was that of DC’s rich history of punk rock. Do you feel like Atlas At Last is a continuance of this tradition? What other music did you guys grow up with that shaped your sound?

Mike: DC’s punk history is so weird, and in that sense, I think we’d fit in with some of those guys. I think what connects bands like Fugazi and Q And Not U and Black Eyes is the influence that crosses genres. We listen to a lot of weird stuff, from experimental hip hop to alt-black metal to free jazz. It all makes its way in, in different ways. While we might not have the dance or dub influence that defines the “DC sound,” I think we still fit in that group of just “weird punk” that is almost synonymous with DC punk.

Growing up… I know that Jesse was more involved in DC punk history than I was. I remember being chastised on the internet for not knowing about Q And Not U before they broke up. I think we all grew up with the pop-punk that was popular in the 90s. We all have Offspring albums. We played a show last Halloween as AFI. We all grew from that, and I think it comes through on our record, even though we don’t really listen to it anymore.

Jesse: I think lot of people tend to attach the DC Hardcore label to us because we’re from the area and we play non-traditional punk but it hasn’t really had much of a conscious musical influence on us. Everything that’s out there in culture is so reflexive from music, TV, poetry, movies, books… it’s just part of who we are. So really, everything we’ve ever heard or experienced influences our music. The DC sound has really spread its roots into all kinds of music across America and I think it’s kind of made its way back to us in that way.

Where I think the whole thing really materializes for us is the feeling that drives us to play music. DC bands have always been known for their energy and raw, emotional content. It’s honest and it’s who they are. I definitely think we’re carrying on that tradition.

Writing music within the context of the post-hardcore and emo soundscape is no easy act. There’s an implication within the concept that pushes the artist towards expanding punk rock’s boundaries; whether it be by delving into introspection, or writing more complex and expressive music. Do you think that punk rock has hard borders, or should the musical language be open to expansion and re-interpretation?

 Mike: Punk rock, to me, is just about everything that stands against any establishment. I’ve always felt like something of an outsider and hearing people express a similar feeling was something of a godsend when I was younger. I used to be a snob about what was “punk” and what wasn’t, but when I hear free jazz performances by people like Peter Brotzmann or John Zorn, or hear MC Ride howl a verse on a Death Grips track, I get the same feeling that I do when I hear The Blood Brothers or Jawbreaker or Fugazi. Just musicians who know what people are doing and say, “I’m going to do the opposite.”

Jesse: Music is an art form plain and simple. There are no rules. Punk rock and all other genres are just phrases used to describe the sound or aesthetic of something. In that sense it does have hard borders but the actual music doesn’t. We’re about writing music that you believe in and naturally expressing what you want to say. Let people decide what they wanna call it after the fact. Just think about all the great music that would cease to exist if it was written to fit within the boundaries…Thursday, Sunny Day Real Estate, Q and not U… just scroll through your mp3 player and 90% of it would fit that category. Punk shouldn’t define the music, the music should define punk.

One of the things that struck me most about Atlas At Last was the deft combination of melody and aggression. A lot of this is due to the instrumentation, which can be wild and chaotic and at other times soft and melodic. It’s easy to imagine writing a four chord song on acoustic guitar and coupling it with lyrics and a melody, but here the music is so unique, the process is difficult to conceive. What goes into writing an Atlas At Last song?

Nathaniel: The process is largely mental. Almost every sound we make is an attempt to convey an emotion, a feeling. There are frequently sacrifices that have to be made in order to stick with this overarching desire. We may be initially excited over a new part, but realize that it’s robbing the song of its emotional sincerity. I don’t really aim for someone thinking, “that’s a great chord progression!” so much as I want them to think, “I can go to this song for this feeling.” It’s summertime, and I want to listen to Vampire Weekend because I want to feel a certain way, not because I like some guitar part.

At the same time, experiences, large or small, feature an array of emotions… some even contradictory. Losing someone for example, can’t be represented by one emotion, and the more context you provide for those different emotions, the stronger the others become. The quiet makes the loud more impactful, and vice versa.

Mechanically speaking, each of our songs has a different writing process. Like I said, “In The Company Of…,” has pieces from five years ago, but the key change we built in was probably the most recent bit on that album. We never want to put out a bad song, and I’m distrustful of the method of writing 30 songs, and narrowing the album down to 12. A song we didn’t love would never come together, its pieces would never even formulate. Every song is put under a microscope. Everything is checked for consistency in theme and emotion, from notes within a part, parts in a song, then songs in an album. With each song we write, the process is getting more and more rigorous.

Mike: We start off as simple as we can and then we just build out from there until the songs don’t even resemble themselves anymore. Soon it’s hard to even remember where they came from.

Jesse: It’s a very organic process that our songs come to life through playing and working through them on our own, together in practice sessions, and even live in front of a crowd. We’ve been playing songs live already that will be on future releases. It’s a great way to see how the music feels.

There’s a lot of imagery in the lyrics. The song “Atlas” is written almost as a detailed slice of life, but abstracted in a very poetic way. It’s incredibly effective and a welcome antidote to punk’s tendency to spell out its messages. Do you find yourself actively utilising a more poetic style?

Nathaniel: Thank you! As far as the lyrics go, I don’t ever want somebody to feel excluded from relating. One thing that had a big impact on me was discovering that Jeff Rosenstock had written explanations for every Bomb The Music Industry! song. There were some tracks that I felt a connection to, but found out that they’re about something I don’t relate to at all, and I liked them much less. I don’t want to rob anybody of the potential to connect with me and us, or become emotionally invested in a song. So it is an active decision not to be specific, but every line does have a very specific meaning to me. Using more obscure phrasing also allows me to consciously put in a more “human” element by using more direct and simple phrasing when I want something to hit hard. I like to let my love of words and language devices lead the way sometimes. I’m trying not to get carried away with alliteration on the newest stuff.

Jesse: I know what a lot of the lyrics mean to Nathaniel and every line means something to me that may be different than what it means to him or Mike. He describes moments from my life better than I ever could without even knowing and it allows me to make a deeply emotional investment in what we’re doing as a band. There are words that Nathaniel uses in place of names, actions, and places and even lines that are direct quotes from real life, married with symbolism and imagery so you can fill them in with experiences from your own life. It’s unbelievably rewarding to hear music that engages you on a personal level and you can think what it means to you versus what it means to the author, and other people experiencing it.

Are there any themes or ideas you find yourself revisiting? The quote goes, “A writer is somebody for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” What drives you to write? What inspires you?

Nathaniel: I think I’d be selling myself out after that last question if I talked too in depth about themes! I will say that everything we do will be conceptual, so each song on a release will have similarities to the others. There are definitely ideas, themes, and concepts that stick with us, and there are those that we get out of our system by the time the process has concluded.

Jesse: What inspires anyone to write? Feelings: anger, sadness, heartache, bliss. Something you saw, an event you experienced, or a story you heard. These fill us with a strong enough desire to relate the experience. We write to share our experiences, to affect others, or to come to some kind of resolution within ourselves.

What music are you guys into these days? What’s the last band you heard that sounded like a revelation?

Mike: Lately, I’ve been revisiting my old Neil Young records, but I wouldn’t say that he’s new to anyone. I think if I had to pick one new record from the past year that truly knocked me out, it would be Hop Along’s Get Disowned. The Weakerthans are my all-time favorite band, and hearing someone take that emotionally charged sound and mix it with such strange and powerful songwriting… the music is so affecting. There’s one line in the last song of the album where she says, “Elvis never gave an encore,” and I don’t know if it’s true or not, but that line rocks me to my core.

Nathaniel: I’m currently big into hip hop. Having listened to mostly punk and hardcore stuff in the past, Death Grips bridged the gap. I’m making up for some lost time now… Shabazz Palace’s album Black Up is absolutely incredible. I’ve never heard the linear writing style applied to hip hop. The songs aren’t very traditional in structure; most of the songs lack well defined choruses, but the group has figured out a way to place hooks wherever the hell they want to great effect. “Up or don’t toss it at all!” They are a musician’s band, and I think I finally understand what that means. Nearly every measure is different, even within a four measure “verse”… subtle differences in the placement of a bass drum hit, or the second sounding of some effected echo. Those are the kinds of things that people who really listen to it are rewarded with. An understanding that these people really know what they are doing… they’re at the top of their craft.

Jesse: I’m with Mike, Philadelphia’s Hop Along. The first time I heard them I was blown away. For about a month Get Disowned was the only thing I could listen to. Frances Quinlan’s lyrics and vocals are unbelievable. Her guitar tones and chord shapes match her vocals in that they’re all rich and full of texture and she pushes her voice beyond its limits in just the right moments. They provide a great alternative to the trend of many other female musicians doing the indie shtick. It’s all very refreshing. The best way I can describe it is that it sounds the way life feels.

Do you have any future releases we can look forward to coming down the pipeline?

Mike: We’re trying to finish polishing up the songs for the next release which will be a four song EP that has been written over the course of the past three years or so. We’ve played all four songs live since we became a band, but have been waiting to record the Atlas EP before moving on to focus on them. The songs were all written during a really exhausting period in our lives, and the writing is a lot more mature simply because they were written later.

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