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Punk Rock Is Freedom

(Interview With Mike Davenport Taken From Black Velvet 37 - Aug 2003)

By David Jackson

For those not having journeyed to Knightsbridge in London it certainly opens your eyes to an entirely different world. Exiting the underground your proximity to Harrods is frequently reinforced and glancing at estate agents reveals local rent in excess of £2000 per week. With Versace and Tommy Hilfiger less than a stones throw of each other Knightsbridge is unquestionably for the lifestyle of the rich and famous. Among this area of excess it's somewhat surprising to find Santa Barbara's latest export The Ataris trapped several floors up in one of Knightsbridge's most luxurious hotels. With a busy day of live radio sessions, TV and press already underway bassist Mike Davenport looks somewhat relieved to simply sit down and chat to Black Velvet.





The Ataris' latest LP, 'So Long Astoria' takes inspiration from a concept expressed in Richard Hell's novel 'Go Now,' an account of a junkie punk travelling across America with a former girlfriend. "We were turned onto 'Go Now' by our friend Marko who is the band Sugarcult," begins Mike. "'Go Now' is basically based on a concept called futuring, which is like making the most of the moment you're in. Manipulation of fate. We could all sit around and have a good time all day or we could get off our asses and do something. We've always been those kind of people, they're the people that make their band successful. We've written a lot of our past records about relationships. We were always on tour and we always had these relationships where we had a hard time being gone ten, eleven months of the year and so we wrote a lot about that. When we went to Columbia (Records) they said, "Come back home, just chill out and write this record. Take time." We'd never had that before. I think in taking that time we actually got to relax and our relationships were ok for once in our lives. We started to think about what got us here and what in our lives led us up to here. I think reading 'Go Now' and looking back on our past has brought us to this idea of futuring and memories we make are the most important things in our lives. '…Astoria' is a concept record about that which just happened, we didn't go out of our way to make a concept record."

It's by no means the first time The Ataris have found influences from literature. Mike is quick to comment on other examples. "We read a lot actually. Douglas Coupland inspired a song of ours called 'My Hotel Year' on our 'Blue Skies' record. Film, photography, poets, even acting… we're inspired by art. Art which inspires us we want to reflect through our music and we want to express that to our fans so that if they like the art that we're creating we want our fans to check out the art which has inspired us."
Since learning about its inspirational connection with 'So Long Astoria' there is without doubt a desire to read the Richard Hell novel. "And isn't that fucking awesome!? That's just incredible," comments an ecstatically happy Mike. "The same thing happened with Douglas Coupland. He wrote 'A Girlfriend In A Coma' and 'Life After God.' I have this great friend in London that plays in a band called Minority. We inspired him to get into Douglas Coupland and Coupland did a signing in a bookstore in London. He took Coupland the Ataris CD and said, "This band is inspired by you." That was awesome for me. Now Coupland's aware of us. It's just like a trickle down effect and that's the way it should be."

The city of Astoria is located firmly in the North West of Oregon. A state itself located on the North West coast of the United States. It's also the city the 1985 film 'The Goonies' was set in. "Astoria is used as any town," explains Mike. "We're all from different places but Astoria is just a metaphor. It goes back to futuring. In the movie it's about these kids taking that one day they have left, making the most of that day and pushing their dreams. I think Astoria is sort of the same thing, saying goodbye to where you're from but embracing it at the same time. Kris's wife is from Southern Oregon and he was up there while we were writing the record visiting her family. Astoria is a place he always wanted to go to so he drove there and I think it all kinda clicked there."
The most striking imagery on the 'So Long Astoria' CD sleeve is unquestionably the collapse of the Astoria port tower. "Great story about that," begins Mike. "Kris (Roe, lead vocals/guitar) went to Astoria for the whole Goonies thing, to check it out and for the beauty of it all. He came over the hill into the town, this is what he saw. Kris has a great way of seeing all the record covers ahead of time. We were demoing in Santa Barbara and he's like "I've gotta go back up there to take the pictures for the cover of the record." Five days later he drove all the way back up there and the tower was gone! I guess the tower had been standing for over 100 years and during those five days they'd torn it down. A guy that lived in the town happened to get pictures of the whole thing falling so Kris just bought all the pictures off the guy."

The single 'In This Diary' is an excellent sub-four minute piece of pop-punk recalling experiences of growing up. A repeating hook line of "Being grown up isn't half as fun as growing up… eventually you'll finally get it right," is surrounded by experiences and aspects of the band's past. 'In This Diary' is very much a retrospective look at their adolescence and words of wisdom to fans. "It goes with the same thing I was saying earlier of having this time to say 'wow, how did I get here?'" explains Mike. "We had this year to write and 'cause we'd always been this tour-tour-play-play unit we were afraid to stop. Columbia were right. We've made the best music of our life but we were afraid to stop. That song is the epitome of our touring lives. I'd been playing the music for a long time but hadn't heard the lyrics. I got a fresh burnt CD in my Jeep and I had tears in my eyes. It's part of my life, but at the same time it's such a brilliant song because people can adapt those things to their lives. Kris hits the nail right on the head."
Although predominantly seen as a track to Kris's daughter, 'The Saddest Song' also marks the time Mike spends away from his daughter Falan. "It's hard," he admits. "It's really Kris's song to both of us. My daughter's eight and a half and I've been in this band six and a half years. Both Kris's daughter and Falan know that their dads do something different. They accept it because it's how they've grown up but I know there are lots of times when it's hard on them and they feel really different to the other kids. It's a blessing and a curse, just like our lives are. We get to see the world but we're never home. I was just home for four days and it felt magical. This was the hand we were dealt. Since October (2002) I've been home about three different times."
Having spent such little time at their respective homes, Columbia's advice on taking a year away from touring to write the album also allowed the band members to retake control of their personal lives. "A lot of our early records were about how fucked up our early relationships were," admits Mike.

"A couple of us had been in bad relationships and it was good 'cause that time off gave us the opportunity to go home and say 'I'm really not happy with this person'. Myself and my drummer both ended these really long relationships we'd been in and fell in love with girls I think are right for us now. Whereas Kris, I think his wife has always been the one for him, and I think all the tough times they went through in the early days of the band strengthened in that year. That year we looked at ourselves completely and at each other as friends. It was probably the best thing that ever happened to us."

With 'So Long Astoria' marking The Ataris jump to a major record label their exposure to a larger mainstream audience is underway. The track 'Unopened Letter To The World', however, deals with artists never achieving the attention they deserve. "The song's about Emily Dickinson but Richard Hell's a perfect example," explains Mike. "He was so cutting edge in that early New York CBGB's scene with Television and The Voidoids. Still they're unrecognised as the contributions they made to music, to art, to poetry. My favourite band right now is the band Cursive. I hope that they're gonna get this huge recognition. Right now barely anyone knows about them so my job out here is to tell everybody that listens to what I have to say that this is great art that is happening right now."
At the time of The Ataris interview it was approximately a month until Cursive, on tour in the UK, were due to play at the Northampton Soundhaus. "You gotta go! Gotta go," urges Mike, adamant I go to see the band. "'The Ugly Organ' - it's the greatest album if you ask me since Nirvana's 'Nevermind'. Go buy it right away."

With varying aspects of popular culture influencing The Ataris, it's unsurprising to learn of other established names coming through as influences. "Douglas Coupland is amazing to me. Irvine Welsh is what I'm reading at the moment. I'm a writer myself and I read a lot," reveals Mike. "Emily Dickinson is a poet who has gratefully influenced us. That's why we wrote a song about her on the new record. We've always put Kevin Smith blurb into some of our songs. We're all about words. I think that's one of the biggest things in art, in film, in novels, in poetry, in music. Words can be used to such beauty, to such good and be so thought provoking. Kevin Smith is not so much what you see but what you hear. You could see a Kevin Smith movie without seeing anything, just listening and I think you would enjoy it just as much. Dialogue is the key."
Director Kevin Smith is better know for his on screen character Silent Bob, making up one half of the stoner duo with Jay (Jason Mewes). "My favourite (Kevin Smith film) is definitely Mallrats," suggests Mike. "I have theories about all that. Clerks was awesome but rough, it was him coming out and perfecting the craft. Mallrats had the best of all elements. Chasing Amy is a little too angry. Dogma at first was a little too religious but has grown on me over the years. Jay And Silent Bob had a monkey in and I can't stand monkeys so I'd have to go for Mallrats."

Like any band of their size, The Ataris have received a sizable amount of press since the release of 'So Long Astoria'. In March 2003, The Ataris appeared in Kerrang! magazine. On a front cover dominated by Marilyn Manson appeared a quote from The Ataris. Upon further investigation a quote apparently from Mike himself. The words "We owe nothing to punk" sit below the band's name. "First of all let's get that one straight. That was a misquote. A complete misquote," instantly replies Mike. Having clearly struck a nerve bringing up the subject he appears determined to set the record straight. "Kerrang! is a magazine as a kid I would drive an hour to go to a store which sold it. I love it a lot. I'm gonna word this carefully here," he says, pausing, considering with extreme thought his coming words. "The last couple of interviews Kerrang! did with us were very tabloid journalism, very British and I think they were out because of the shift to Columbia. I think the writers of the last two articles were out to dig up some dirt that really wasn't there. To show you how badly they misquoted us. We owe everything to punk rock. EVERYTHING. The girl that was interviewing us was completely attacking us. Every question was about selling out and a different variation of it. It started to get surreal 'cause Kerrang! had always been so cool. It started to get that weird! Jonny (Collura, guitar vocals) went back to talking about Billy Joe. Green Day had that whole problem with 'Dookie' being huge and everybody called them a sell-out so the next record he did so punk rock, and then the next record he came out and he did the 'Good Riddance (Time Of Our Life)' acoustic song and everything. During that is when Billy Joe started saying "I realised I don't owe anything to punk rock, I owe it to myself." THIS is what we tried to tell this girl but somehow the cover of Kerrang! comes out and it's "The Ataris don't owe anything to punk rock." We were SO pissed. I'm not talking shit about Kerrang!. That's fine, but I really believe this was more personal, this one journalist trying to…"
Again pausing for thought and to grab a breath of air following a bitter rant with barely a pause in between sentences, Mike continues. "She should go write for the Daily Sport is all I'm gonna say. Not for Kerrang!. Kerrang!'s fucking cool. Now people think that's how we feel but the honest truth is we owe everything to punk rock. I run a punk rock record store. Running an indie record store is not a profitable business and we do that for punk rock."

Taking its name from a song by fellow Santa Barbara punks Nerf Herder, 'Down On Haley' was never originally set on becoming a record store. "We were looking for a place to practice, not open a record store," explains Mike. "We got this place and it had a store front. It was really hard to do. We put bands up, any band that want to come through and play in our store can. We'll let anyone play. Kris and I both come from different punk rock scenes. Him in Indiana, me in California. Punk rock is the reason I'm here now. I have 'Punk Rock Is Freedom' tattooed across my back, long before that girl misquoted me. I mean punk rock is freedom because I get to be free. My life is like it is because of punk rock. It's one of the most horrible things I've ever read in my life. It definitely made me more careful about what I say. You learn lessons."

With lyrics packed full of influences, everything Mike has spoken about reinforces how much more there is to The Ataris than just simply the strength of their music. Being only partly familiar with Cursive I now own 'The Ugly Organ' simply on the strength of Mike's words. There is also the desire to investigate the works of Richard Hell. The trickle down effect works. If you're unfamiliar with Emily Dickinson read something by her. Watch a film by Kevin Smith. Read The Ataris' lyrics and find something else to take from the album besides enjoying the music. It's unsurprising to learn what Mike would like listeners to be able to take from 'So Long Astoria.' "Definitely the whole concept of futuring, making the most of your life right now," he begins. "If I can get that across to people... People obviously get unhappy, but if you get unhappy you need to do something to change it. I really hope that people get that from the record; to make the most of their life every day.

Visit www.ataris.com for more info




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