The Ataris, one of the most successful independent rock bands of recent years, have a brand new album, so long, astoria, the group's eagerly-awaited major label debut on Columbia Records. so long, astoria is the first full-length Ataris album in nearly two years.
"Musically," says Ataris frontman Kris Roe, "we took a back-to-basics straight-forward rock approach. There's no novelty, no silly aspects to this record at all. It's a serious story-telling record. Everything is really personal, every song is about something different, each song is like a page in the scrapbook of memories, but it's not a dark record at all."
"In a lot of my lyrics," Kris reveals, "I like to encode a lot of hidden messages and whatnot. I like our fans to read into things. I feel that our fans are smart and I don't want to give them just a bunch of surface lyrics that you can take at face value."
Conceptually, so long, astoria takes its inspiration from an idea expressed in punk pioneer Richard Hell's novel, "Go Now" (which also exists as a spoken word album): that memory can transcend the experience that generated the memory. "That really hit home with me," Kris points out. "That's how I try and structure my life: to try to do what will produce the best memories for later. When we're traveling on tour, there are a lot of things that you let go of and leave behind, but, at the end of the day, even if you didn't accomplish anything, you'll have these great memories of all the people you've met and all the places you've been and all these things that you've done and all this time that you've shared with your friends."
The primacy of memory is a theme that runs through the songs on so long, astoria. When writing for the new album, Kris Roe got in his car and drove around to "places where I grew up, places where I used to live, my old school, all these places. At two in the morning, I'd sit in my car and I'd just write. I'd take all these Polaroids of where I grew up. I went back and stole back these memories that were once mine by taking all these Polaroids. At this point in my life and career, I can't very well go back to the house where I used to live and say to the people that live there now, 'Can I sit in my old bedroom?' But I could take photographs in the f***ing window. I tried to do anything I could to make this record more vivid and detailed, even going to stalker limits."
The album's title track encapsulates the idea of memory being a kind of buried treasure: "Life is only as good as the memories we make/and I'm taking back what belongs to me/Polaroids of classrooms unattended/These relics of remembrance are just like shipwrecks/only they're gone faster than the smell after it rains..../And when this hourglass has filtered out its final grain of sand/I'll raise my glass to the memories we had/This is my wish and I'm taking it back, I'm taking 'em all back."
"In This Diary," the album's first single, has been slated to be lensed as a video by cutting edge director Steven Murashige, whose resume includes clips for Incubus and Rage Against The Machine. The song itself finds Kris admitting that "Being grown up isn't half as fun as growing up" before offering up the hope that "...eventually you'll finally get it right."
For Kris, getting it right means connecting in a real way with the band's audience and the Ataris are ferociously dedicated to their fans. "We are a very personal band with our fans," Kris is eager to stress. "We definitely go out of our way. We take it an extra mile. We write all our fans back personally, we run our own website personally. We have a kid from the audience get on stage and play guitar on a song with us every night. We opened up a record store in Santa Barbara, where we live, so that when we're off tour, people can come visit us. We even rehearse and practice there so when kids come, we'll let them jam with us. We listen to the demos kids give us and we've helped a few bands get signed to indie labels. We want this to be known about our band: all we are is a bunch of music fans who got lucky and happen to be living our dream. We are a band that exists solely for the purpose of our fans."
But this kind of 24-7 attention to fans can create conflicts with other real-world responsibilities. In "The Saddest Song," Kris writes a heartfelt apologia to his daughter, hoping that she'll grow up to understand why her father's work took him away from home so often. "I'm trying to tell my daughter that I know what it's like to be without your father," he confesses, "because I was without my dad for about five years after my parents got divorced." "I pray I get the chance to make it up to you," he sings to her. "We've got a lot of catching up to do."
Kris extends both identification and empathy to the poet Emily Dickinson in "Unopened Letter," tracing a spiritual kinship between the Belle of Amherst and Kurt Cobain, two great poetic souls who live on in a "posthumous life." "It's about how a lot of artists never get the credit they deserve," Kris offers, "until they pass away." Visiting the Dickinson Homestead while collecting the stories and images for so long, astoria, Kris was inspired to ask "If I died tomorrow, would this song live on forever?"
When the Ataris received a fan letter written to the band by a young girl confined to a hospital bed with a life-threatening illness, Kris was moved to write "My Reply," one of the most emotionally powerful songs on so long, astoria. "I want to make sure that every thing I say is something that is really from my heart, something really personal, and something positive," Kris says about writing this song. "I want to know that if I'm reaching kids, I'm reaching them in a way that's really helping them. I know what it's like to be a kid that's totally down, that grew up in a small town and doesn't have many friends, that doesn't feel like he or she fits in or belongs. If I'm speaking to somebody in that way, I want to make sure that I let them know that 'Hey, man, there's hope out there. There's a lot more beyond this life and you need to look for it."
When it came time to find a producer for so long, astoria, the Ataris chose Lou Giordano (Goo Goo Dolls, Sunny Day Real Estate, Samiam, Paul Westerberg, Husker Du, Sugar). "I wanted this album to possess this kind of straight-forward powerpop rock vibe," Kris admits, "kind of what the Replacements always did. I wanted to make a record that spoke to a wide audience. Lou had worked with a lot of bands outside of just our scene."
The result is a dream come true for fans of this high-energy modern rock combo, with the new original songs showcasing the emotionally-charged Ataris sound while a revved-up rendition of Don Henley's "Boys Of Summer" gives a full-on jolt of the band's spirited fun.
The Ataris are: Kris Roe (lead vocals/guitar), Johnny Collura (guitar/vocals), Mike Davenport (bass/vocals), and Chris "Kid" Knapp (drums). The group was first discovered in 1997 when songwriter Kris Roe passed along his demo tape to Joe Escalante, bassist for the Vandals and owner of Kung Fu Records. Moving from Anderson, Indiana, to Santa Barbara, California, Roe assembled The Ataris' line-up and recorded the group's first full-length offering, Anywhere But Here, for Kung Fu. The Ataris subsequently recorded an EP, Look Forward To Failure (1998 - Fat Wreck Chords), as well as the additional Kung Fu albums: Blue Skies, Broken Hearts...Next 12 Exits (1999) and End Is Forever (2001), each of which has sold more than 100,000 copies in the U.S. and has achieved similar sales successes around the world.
A virtual touring machine since the band's inception, the Ataris have shared bills with Jimmy Eat World, Social Distortion, Blink 182, the Hives, 311, and others. The group has been a main stage attraction on the Van's Warped Tour and has sold out tours in Japan, Australia, New Zealand and Europe.
"After months of writing and recording our new album, we are very excited to be getting back on the road to see all of our loyal fans again," said the Ataris' Kris Roe. Following the release of so long, astoria, the band intends on touring for at least a year with shows including performances on the main stage of the 2003 Warped Tour.
With the release of so long, astoria, the promise of the Ataris' early indie roots is fulfilled with some of the most provocative and emotionally powerful rock sounds this continually-evolving group has ever made.