The Ataris are in it only for the fans
With three straight independently released CDs that have sold more than 100,000 copies — "Blue Skies, Broken Hearts ... Next 12 Exits," "Let It Burn" and "End Is Forever" — the Ataris established themselves as one of the most successful indy rock acts of recent years.
So it's logical enough to suspect that the Ataris think getting signed by major label Columbia Records could be their ticket to hit singles and a major commercial breakthrough. But Kris Roe, singer/guitarist of the Ataris, insists that those ambitions weren't the driving force behind the band's decision to leave Kung Fu Records and join the ranks of major-label acts.
"We wanted to go somewhere where we knew that even if our record didn't do well, that we would have a career still as a band," Roe said. "We've put too much into this band to just throw it on the line (on one album)."
In fact, Roe said the band, whose recent single, an energetic cover of Don Henley's "Boys of Summer," peaked at No. 2 on Billboard magazine's modern rock chart, chose Columbia because the label understood how important it was to preserve the grass-roots relationship the Ataris had developed with their fans.
"They (Columbia) totally understood how we operated our band, that we're a very personal band and that we operate for the sole purpose of our fans," Roe said. "We totally always keep their opinions and their interests in mind. We run our own Web site, we answer the majority of our mail personally and we always read all of our mail.''
Perhaps Roe believes such a connection with fans of the Ataris because of the passion he has felt for following his dreams of playing music. Growing up in the small town of Anderson, Indiana, Roe quit school at age 16 to concentrate on writing music. To see bands, Roe and his friends would travel to cities such as Cincinnati, Indianapolis and St. Louis.
One such trip was to Cincinnati in 1997 to see the punk band, the Vandals. Roe and his friends had heard that the group's bassist, Joe Escalante, was starting a label, Kung Fu Records, and Roe gave the bassist a demo tape of his songs. To his surprise, the label responded.
Soon Roe had moved to Santa Barbara, Calif., where he assembled the first lineup of the Ataris and released the band's debut CD, "Anywhere But Here." That initial lineup splintered within months, before Roe put together a new lineup featuring current band members Mike Davenport (bass/vocals) and Chris "Kid" Knapp (drums), along with guitarist Marco 72 — who since has been replaced by Johnny Collura.
That lineup went on to release "Blue Skies, Broken Hearts ... Next 12 Exits" in 1999, "Let It Burn" in 2000 and "End Is Forever" in 2001 before the band set its sights on a major-label deal and a new CD. Early on, Roe had hit on a basic theme for the "So Long, Astoria" CD.
"There was this book that kind of tied into it that I was reading at the time, this book called 'Go Now' by Richard Hell (of the punk band Richard Hell and the Voidoids)," Roe said. "There's this one chapter where he had a quote that said memories are better than life ... I just had this whole theme that I wanted this record to portray, that life is only as good as the memories we make."
What resulted are songs that present snapshots of people, places and experiences, as Roe recalls writing songs in his bedroom in Anderson — in the song "So Long, Astoria" — the joys of summer nights on the town, sing-alongs and harmless pranks — the songs "In This Diary" and "Summer '79" — and girlfriends left behind — "The Hero Dies in This One" and "Looking Back on Today.'' Musically Roe and his bandmates also had a clear concept for the CD.
"We wanted to just focus on writing good songs, straightforward rock songs," he said.
For the most part, that's a goal the Ataris achieve on "So Long, Astoria." Such songs as "Takeoffs and Landings," "Summer '79" and "In This Diary" offer the catchy, uncluttered melodies of classic power-pop juiced with a bit of the adrenaline of punk rock. The upbeat feel of both the music and the lyrics reflects the positive place Roe has reached with the Ataris.
He believes Collura, who had been a guitar tech for the band before joining the lineup, has helped improve the chemistry among the four band members.
"This band has never been stronger than it is today, and I think John joining the band helped that out," Roe said.
The Ataris play Saturday at Pop's, 1403 Mississippi Ave., Sauget. Tickets for the 8 p.m. show, which also features Hopesfall and Planes Mistaken for Stars, cost $15.