Q&A with the Photo Atlas
The February 26 Westword profile on the Photo Atlas only scratched the surface of our interview with singer Alan Andrews Jr., guitarist Bill Threlkeld III, bassist Mark Hawkins and drummer Nick Miles. At the house where the band practices and where Hawkins and Miles live, they spoke at length about working with famed producer J. Robbins, their relationship with former drummer Devon Shirley, touring with bands like the Bravery and Portugal. the Man, their new video and their new EP, To Silently Provoke the Ghost. The EP doesn't hit the stores until April 21, but Colorado fans can get their hands on the CD at three local EP-release shows including the Marquis Theater on Friday, February 27, The Black Sheep in Colorado Springs on Saturday, February 28, and at Road 34 in Ft. Collins on Friday, March 6. Read more after the jump.
Westword (Jon Solomon): What's the story with the new EP?
Bill Threlkeld III: It's a long time coming.
WW: Has it been about four years?
Alan Andrews Jr.: Our first full-length we released locally in 2006. We re-released it nationally in 2007. It was time for new music.
Mark Hawkins: We were just on the road so much.
BT: We were pretty much ready to go record, and they fired everybody from label we were working with. Pretty much the whole Stolen Transmission staff was fired on Christmas Eve.
WW: When was that?
BT: That was 2007.
Nick Miles: It was right when I joined the band. Like two weeks after I flew in to join them on tour, the label dissolved.
BT: And we were ready to record. We had already talked to J. Robbins -- that's actually how we started talking to him. We were ready to do it then, and they were like, "We have no money to do that right now. So you guys gotta go your own way and do your own thing. Or you can wait and see what we're gonna do." And they were talking up all this great stuff they were gonna do. So we waited a little while, and it got to a point where we were like, "They're not doing anything. We gotta start doing shit on our own." We set it back up with J. and went back and recorded with him by end of the summer. We've pretty much been putting it together since then and deciding what we're going to do with it. We shopped it around a little, and we were like, "Ya know what, it's in our best interest. It's gonna take too long. We need new music. So we're like, "Let's just do it ourselves. Dan will help us. Morning After will help us.
AA: And we can't go on tour without a new record. We can't be home any longer.
WW: How long have you guys been off the road?
AA: Six months.
BT: We went out and did CMJ. We did a small tour around CMJ. Before that, we recorded in Baltimore for almost two weeks and did a little tour around that. But they were both pretty much short -- straight out to New York, straight back -- just a handful of shows in between. Not like a real tour, where you really get to get into the groove. Like, I got 25 days, every day in a row we're doing this, and that's when it gets fun.
WW: How did you guys hook up with J. Robbins?
BT: We're actually friends with Alex Newport. And he has the same manager as J. We were talking to Alex about it. His schedule was pretty busy, and he was just too booked up. He was like, "You know who would be great for you, J. Robbins." He's like, "Let me call my buddy here and see what's going on." He hit him up, gave him the record, and he's like, "I could totally do this. This is awesome."
WW: What did he bring to the table when you guys started laying down tracks?
AA: He was a great guy to work with. It was cool to work with a producer. We'd never done that before. More than anything, he jumped in, I think more than anything, like, vocal-wise he jumped into my world and worked on harmonies and vocal melodies and stuff. It was really challenging for me. He came in and was like, "Okay, you can't scream through the whole song." He was like, "Are you just going to scream through this whole song?" And I was like, "Well, that was my idea." And he was like, "Why don't you either scream through the chorus or scream during the verse, and we'll throw some harmonies in here?" I say definitely, vocally it opened me up, and it was cool to have a challenging experience.
WW: Did he offer a lot of suggestions musically as well?
AA: Yeah, he definitely came in and reorganized some parts for us on songs and would be like, "Okay, this kind of sounds like a chorus should be to me, but you guys are playing another verse or something. Let's do a revamped kind of chorus."
BT: He'd cut it up, and we'd be like, "Oh, you're right. That sounds awesome."
MH: And with harmonies, he sang a few of them. On the EP, he's on one of the songs.
WW: Did the songs change a lot when you brought them versus how they ended up?
AA: Definitely -- vocally, big time. Musically, he reorganized some stuff, but he liked all the riffs and stuff. He didn't too crazy about changing stuff.
BT: When we got in there, on the first day he's like, "Just play all the songs you're thinking about recording. And we basically did all ten that we did, right in a row. He's like, "You guys have been practicing. It's tight, but I've got some ideas." We were like, "Perfect."
WW: Why did you decide to go with an EP instead of doing a full-length?
NM: We recorded ten songs, which would work for a full-length, but it's only ten songs.
BT: It all comes down to money. It was a lot cheaper. And we were able to get it out a lot faster, too, even though it took us forever.
AA: I think we got to the point where we were like, "All right, we need to put this out. What do we have to do? And we're like, "Lets just pick the five songs we like the best and save the other tracks for a full-length coming up.
WW: Do you guys have plans for working on a full-length any time soon?
AA: We do. Actually, we're already doing it. Like the time being, before we leave on tour, we're like, "Ya know, lets take some days and write some new stuff." We're already two or three songs deep on a full-length, plus the five other ones. Our plan was to put out the EP and, not too far after, release a full-length.
WW: Does the new material differ from the stuff on your previous album?
AA: I think so. We've definitely progressed musically and in all aspects. And getting Nick on board really made a big difference and really tightened us up. Our last record, we didn't use a click track or anything. It was just, like, go in and record. This one, everything is very super-tight. I'm really proud of it. It's still dance-y. It's still aggressive.
MH: It's us, but grown.
NM: A little more evolved.
AA: Kind of like At the Drive-In, how they kind of just kept getting more aggressive but just tightened up their sound at the same time.
WW: Can you tell me about some of the tracks on the new EP?
AA: We have one song, "Class of 2012," and it's about the end-of-the-world thing. I wanted to write a theme song for that class because I figure come 2012, they'll be playing that at every high school.
BT: And we were the class of '99. That was party like it's '99.
Al: There's another song, "Paper Trail," where we had a cello player come in. That song is kind of about the scene here and friends and stuff. I kind of wrote it about friends that have moved to Denver that have been really into it and then not into so much and take off to Portland, I think, most commonly.
WW: You guys came from near San Jose, right?
AA: Me and Mark did.
MH: Bill's the link between Denver and San Jose. Bill's a Colorado native.
WW: When did you guys move out here?
AA: Five years ago.
WW: Why did you decide to move to Denver?
AA: Where we were at, we lived in a really small town an hour away from San Francisco. There really aren't a lot of clubs in that area. There aren't any now. Bill was like, "Denver has so many venues, like the Bluebird. There are so many places to play. There's a music scene there. People go out for art and for music." We were like, "At least there's places to play. Let's go check it out." And it's been awesome. It was definitely the best choice I've made.
WW: And it definitely seems like a lot of people have embraced you in this town. It seems like you've gotten a fair amount of national exposure as well.
BT: It's a good jumping-off place, for sure.
AA: We've done five or six national tours at this point. It just builds up, you know. You make fans the first time, the second time more fans. I think our band has always kind of been a building process.
WW: You've toured a fair amount with some big national acts like the Bravery and Portugal. The Man. What kind of experiences have you come away with after touring with bands like that?
AA: I think it made us grow up pretty quick. It was like living in a van traveling around is definitely like... it weathers you. It can definitely beat down on you. I think it's made us stronger at this point. We learned a lot of stuff from being out with those bands. They've been doing it for a while and know how to survive, I guess.
WW: That's gotta be tough, having to prove yourselves. It's got to be a little more of a challenge than headlining.
BT: You gotta win the fans over. No one's there for you.
WW: Have you had any negative experiences where people weren't into you?
AA: Actually not. We're pretty lucky, because I've heard stories from other bands where they've gone out with some huge band, and they were like, "Oh, man, we got people throwing shit at us."
BT: Or like softer bands going out with heavier bands. If they're there for the heavy metal, they're like, "You suck." We've never had an experience like that.
NM: It's almost like our music is universal. We could do a tour with Scary Kids, and for some reason the fans understand us and kind of enjoy us. Then we could also tour with Portugal. the Man, the Bravery. The same thing. The same response. It's weird: You'd think that when we play with Scary Kids, everyone would be like...
AA: These guys aren't heavy. These guys don't have gigantic Marshall stacks.
Nick: What are those combo amps doing up there?
BT: Same thing with Local H. All the '90s grunge fans like us, too. Never seen so many Nirvana shirts since the '90s.
AA: I'd say the Portugal. the Man tour was probably the most receptive, and that's probably where we gained most of our fans. Going on tour after that, everyone was coming out and like, "We saw you with Portugal. the Man." I thought that was awesome, because probably out of all the bands we toured with, I really respect that band and their sound. If their fans are going to relate to us the most, that's badass. That means we're doing something kind of right.
WW: You guys played SXSW last year. How did that go?
AA: Crazy, man. I think we've gone the last....
BT: This is gonna be our fourth year.
AA: We always book too many shows.
NM: We did seven shows in five days last year.
AA: And we never have too awesome of a place to stay. I think we camped one year.
BT: It's the most grueling endurance test.
AA: And when you're not playing, you're drinking.
BT: There's free beer everywhere.
WW: How many shows are playing down there this year?
AA: We've got three so far this year.
NM: So far. It may turn into ten in three days -- who knows?
AA: I think that's how it works. We're always like, "Cool, we've got three shows in five days. That'll be great. And then we get there, and it will be, oh, we're doing, like, seven shows. Two tonight? Okay, fuck it, let's do it." That's always been our fucking attitude as a band. It's like, "Let's play our hearts out, and let's play everything and not be lazy." I hate lazy bands. I don't wanna wait for something to happen to me.
WW: How did the video shoot go at the hi-dive?
AA: It was the first video that we've made that wasn't just us playing live. There's a storyline and everything. It's actually kind of like a romantic comedy.
BT: Yeah, you could call it that.
WW: What's the storyline?
BT: I've been watching it a lot lately and I got it summed up: It's boy sees girl, girl sees boy. They make eyes. Girl's boyfriend notices, takes the girl away. They go running off.
AA: The boyfriend's kind of like a douchebag.
BT: The boyfriend's a douchebag. Gotta mention he's a douchebag. Takes the girl away, you know, pulling her, and she's looking back. The dude is going after her. He's got the confidence because he's got the band backing him up. We all go after him. There's a car-chase scene. There's a little confrontation. The nerdy kid punches out the douchebag, takes his girlfriend and drives off in the car.
AA: Is the nerdy guy the bad guy, then? He's stealing the girlfriend.
BT: He beat this guy up and took his girlfriend.
MH: But the douchebag punched the other guy first.
WW: What song is it for?
AA: "Jealous Teeth."
WW: What's "Jealous Teeth" about?
AA: I guess it's just about relationships with either boyfriend-girlfriend or even friends. I guess it's just about people being jealous.
WW: Was it based on one particular person, or just sort of generalized?
AA: I think it's based on what I've seen happen between friends and then maybe my own life, too, and then other people. It just seemed like everywhere I went, there's always... it just felt like somebody's always -- I guess maybe girls, especially -- there always gotta be a reason to be jealous of somebody else. Everybody's gonna need to have something to be jealous about. It just seems like a personality trait you can't help in life. And you try to be the bigger person, and they're like, "No, no, that's cool. I'm glad they won the lottery. That's really good for them. That's awesome."
NM: Doesn't always work like that, though?
AA: You try to say that, but in your head you're like, "That motherfucker. He barely tried and he's rich. I've been trying forever." I guess that's what it's about, but it was probably about a past relationship I had -- but I guess I tried not to personalize it too much. It seems like it could happen to somebody else.
WW: What happened with [former drummer] Devon [Shirley]?
AA: We're friends now. He finally apologized. We were waiting. It was one of those things where we were on tour for pretty much a year straight, living in the van.
BT: It was the tour that broke our back.
WW: When was that?
BT: That was in November of 2007. We were on the East Coast, where we don't have a lot of places to stay, so we slept in the van a lot. It was eight weeks we were out without coming back or without even making it west of the Mississippi. It was forever. We went through New York, and the first time was CMJ -- not this last one, but the before. We had brought a friend with us from Portland who Devon really didn't get along with. There were a little bit of fisticuffs, but everything worked out. We were like, "Chill out." It was a tense moment. There were a lot of tense moments on tour with Devon. His nickname was "Edgy Devon." We called him that to his face. It's like any minute, he was gonna explode.
WW: I heard that story about him at Sputnik with the beer glass in the dude's eye.
MH: We were still on tour on that time.
WW: Was that right after he left the band?
AA: We thought we were disassociated from him at that point. I think he was going through that period in his life. Now he seems more chilled. We just saw him when he was in town last time.
WW: He lives in Portland now, right?
AA: Yeah. But he's really chill now. I think I talked to him last time we were in New York, and he was like, "Man, fuck it, you know? We were all going through shit, living in a van, drinking ourselves to the point of destruction every night. It just happened."
BT: Stress. Home problems.
AA: His personality and mine clashed pretty good. He kind of liked to be in control of everything. I guess I always wanted to have a say in stuff. Always clashing. Everything was an argument with him.
BT: You can just guarantee if there was a decision to make...
AA: We can all agree on something, and he's gonna be like, "Fuck that."
BT: I really relate it to Israel and Palestine. It really doesn't matter what it is. You can be talking about anything, and someone's gonna have to launch a missile.
AA: It got to the point where we were touring and we got a trailer so that he could sit all the way in back and I could sit all the way in front because we couldn't be that close to each other. We couldn't not argue.
MH: It would be us three in the front.
AA: It would be us three in the front laughing, and he'd be in the back with his headphones on.
BT: Talking on his phone to his girlfriend: "I hate this. This sucks. I hate playing drums. Why didn't I play something easier than drums?"
WW: How did you guys hook up with Nick?
AA: We have a really good friend in Montana, Sean Lynch. He plays in a band called 1090 Club. The king of Billings or whatever. We went through all this stuff with Devon, and he was right there through most of the whole thing, and he was like, "Dude, I've got this guy Nick." We had met Nick. He had done sound for us a couple of times in Montana and once in Phoenix. He was like, "This is the perfect guy. He's going to fit perfectly." And we're like, "All right, we've never seen him play drums, but Sean says he's good. We're on tour and we need a drummer right now." I was like, "Nick you available? Cool, let me send you the CD." And two days later, Nick flew out and we just played a show. We didn't even practice. We just went on stage.
BT: Devon quit on us after a show at the Knitting Factory, and he pretty much left after the show. We didn't see him anymore after that. And then we missed one show in Baltimore. We canceled it. The next day we were in upstate New York, and the drummer from Paulson sat in. We called him up and said, "We can't make it home without getting these guarantees." He's like, "I've already seen you guys 20 nights in a row already. I think I can just so do something." We played about four or five shows with him just off the cuff. We had a day off and we picked Nick up at the Cleveland airport.
NM: We played a 50,000-person capacity venue with about 50 people. It was the weirdest show ever.
WW: So that was your first gig playing with these guys?
AA: It really turned out to be the best thing for us. It took a bad attitude out of the band and brought it back to the music and having fun. We started having fun again.
MH: At the end of every show, Devon would be like, "That sucked." Or "I hate you guys." It would bring us down. "We just had a great show. What do you mean?"
BT: He would think every single show was horrible.
AA: I'd be like, "We sold out, man. What was wrong?"
BT: Mark stepped on his tuning pedal. Your cord came unplugged. I dropped a stick. Like, "Who cares?"
AA: All the little malfunctions with equipment is part of our playing. If we hit it that hard, stuff is gonna break.
BT: It was definitely nice. It was kind of mutual thing, like we knew it was coming. We knew it was going to happen sooner or later, because it was at a point where everybody was miserable. It was like having a girlfriend you couldn't break up with.
WW: What's the story behind the name of the EP?
AA: I came up with it when I randomly woke up in the middle of the night at like 5 in the morning. This line was in my head, like, cool, you know? I don't really know what it means.
WW: Is it a line in one of the songs?
AA: No, not at all. To me, I liked how it was worded. I think at that time, I was thinking about a friend who had passed away a while ago. He was a dude who was really into the scene and friends with everybody, and he committed suicide, and it was around his passing. It was just on my mind and it was like something that me and my friends were thinking about, but no one was going to say anything about it for some reason. So, I think everyone was silently in their own heads thinking about this guy. I think that's where it came from. I think. I don't remember the dream I was having, but I just woke up, and I was half drunk from whiskey. I penciled out, and I woke up in the morning and was like, "Did I write this? I was like, all right, cool. I liked the way it was worded. That's what we were working on -- should we take a line from a song? -- and I was like, "Let's just name it something completely different.