The ascent of Adelaide, Australia’s Atlas Genius (APRA/ASCAP) is one of those success stories peculiar to the digital age: band releases debut single, blogs pick it up, influential digital curator champions it, industry takes note, band gets major label record deal, all in a bit more than a year. It’d be easy to feel cynical about the workings of the hype machine, except in this case, everyone was right. Atlas Genius’s debut album When It Was Now is a sophisticated, sexy collection of indie pop nuggets, carefully crafted by a band that’s ready for primetime. We talked to Atlas Genius’s vocalist/guitarist Keith Jeffery about making it.
How long have the songs on When It Was Now been part of Atlas Genius’s history?
Some of the songs we were playing on the last tour, which we did from August through December last year, and there were a few songs we were still finishing off. But I’d say that it’s at least six months or so that most of the songs have been there. We actually hadn’t finished the album — we were doing all the finishing touches in December. It’s only been a couple months.
I know “Trojans” had been around a long time before that though…were the large majority written after you had already signed with Warner Bros. and committed to putting out an album?
No, I’d say half of the songs on the album existed in some form before we signed. I think we only signed in March or April [of 2012], but we actually decided around February that we were going to sign with them. For the first half of the year we were working on the album, and then we started touring the second half of the year.
There’s so much in your sound on When It Was Now - modern indie rock, ‘80s synth-pop, post-punk guitars, ‘60s handclaps. Did Atlas Genius have that mix of sounds down from the beginning?
Some of the songs are in my mind quite different from each other on this album. I honestly think each song is its own little thing, depending on the mood of a song. If I’m writing a song it might be about a relationship, or whatever it happens to be about, that dictates what is the mood you want to create, and therefore what sounds, what elements you end up putting into the production. So there’s one side actually getting the song right, and then there’s how do you deliver that song.
We put sounds on the album that we like, so there might be a sound from an INXS song, or some kind of vibe they had back in the ‘80s, or it might become something that Death Cab for Cutie developed. There are all these different bands that we love. It really just depends on the song.
There are a bunch of sounds I think we’ll put on the next album – who knows what they’re going to be? But they’re sounds that we like and we still want to get out. One thing we try not to do is revisit things too much. Once you’ve captured a mood, a certain sound, we’re done with that one. We move on to another sound. Not always! But we certainly didn’t want to create an album of 11 “Trojans,” you know?
What’s the general songwriting process like? Does one of you usually bring in an idea and the rest help develop it?
If there is [a general process], it would be me sitting down in our studio at 1:00 at night when I’m completely exhausted, banging out a tune on acoustic guitar, or using some loops I’ve created on my laptop in the studio. So sometimes I’ll bring an idea to the table that’s a bit further down the road, and it’s all of us getting together and jamming. And then other times it’ll be a reactionary process, where someone has a really great part, a great bass part or a great drum part, or whatever, and we bounce off each other. Either one of those ways can be a way that we start a song.
There’s two parts, like I was talking about before. There’s getting the song, the basic structure of the song right, and then there’s how do you deliver that? There’s a million ways you can deliver the same song. That’s the beauty of music. Sometimes we’ll know the song is there, but the delivery is something we’re not happy with – we feel it’s too raw, or conversely too slick, and we want to mess it up a little bit. That’s the really fun part – you can throw stuff at a song and see what feels right. And then something might feel okay while you’re doing it, and you come back the next day and say “That’s completely losing the mood there. Let’s get rid of that part.”
Can you give an example of one of the songs that went through a lot of that woodshedding process from creation to final form?
There’s a version of “If So,” the second track on the album. Those are the original vocals and the original drums, but the guitar was getting a little bit too “nice,” you know? We ended up throwing away the majority of that. A bunch of the synth parts, as well, was feeling like it was okay, but a bit too sweet. We [thought] “Let’s give this a pair of bollocks.” A little bit more aggressive. So we did that. It didn’t even take too long, that particular process. It was just a case of identifying that the song was a little too sweet, and fixing it with the more aggressive guitars.
You could have easily found an existing studio and producer to record. Why’d you decide to put in the time and expense of building your own? What was important to you about doing that way?
The way we work, some songs don’t reach the finishing line until the very end. We might work on a song for a couple of months, and its production is inspired by the final lyric, or the final vocal take. So I don’t think you can really work that way when you’re in the studio, when you’re an independent band, forking out $1000, $2000 a day. If you work the way that we do, there’s a lot of experimentation. There’s a whole bunch of songs that didn’t make the album, that we didn’t finish in time or weren’t feeling quite right yet. If you have 10 songs, you want to go in and record an album, that can work fine. But it doesn’t work for us. We had to bite the bullet and build a studio.
We actually didn’t realize how long it was going to take us to build a studio. It took us two years. But even though it was a long process, and there were points along that road when were thinking “What the hell are we doing here?” I’m so glad that we did that, because we have that freedom now to experiment, to spend a day creating ridiculous noises. And if nothing comes of that, that’s okay, because we didn’t fork out a whole pot of money to do it.
It also means that if you want to accurately capture your sound most comfortably, you’ve gotta be in Adelaide. Do you feel that limits you at all?
There’s a million different ways to come up with a song to record. It’s not to say that at some point we wouldn’t end up working at another studio, but I definitely think there’s nothing wrong with having a comfort zone when you’re creating stuff. Painters have studios they feel comfortable in, they go to certain spots to paint – we have a space that’s really like a sanctuary. And the fact that it’s in Adelaide, away from the rest of the world, it feels like we can just lose ourselves in the music. I think it’s a healthy thing. And you’re right, we run the risk of not being able to create in another studio, but the simple answer to that is just to fly to Australia to record the album!
Things ramped up so quickly for Atlas Genius once Neon Gold discovered “Trojans.” What’s been the most helpful thing you’ve learned or done while trying to navigate all that craziness?
Just focus on the music. The moments when we focus on the music, we end up being the most productive. I think as a musician, that should be your main priority at all times – focusing on what drives your music. The situation we’re in now, there’s obviously a whole lot of other aspects to the “business” of music that take plenty of time. But you really need to carve out that time for the writing, the recording and the performance part of it. That’s the main thing. Make sure you protect that. In the end, that’s the only thing that matters. In this day and age, especially in pop music, there’s a lot of emphasis on the marketing, the video clips, the way it’s presented, but in the end if the song sucks, it’s not going to go too far, regardless how good the video clip is, or how good you look in tight jeans, you know?
Your video clip for “Trojans” is great, though.
Oh thank you. That was actually a friend of ours named Claire [Marie Vogel]. She works at Warner Bros. She’s great.
I’m an only child and proud of it. Can you sell me on the benefits of being in a band with your two brothers?
There’s an honesty you can have with the creative process. There’s that bond that, no matter what you say — within reason — to a family member, they’ll get over it. So you can cut to the chase. There might be a drum part where you’re like, “It’s okay, but I think you can do [better].” You don’t have to be quite as diplomatic. And being diplomatic is not always my strength, so I’m lucky that I don’t always have to be.
Atlas Genius’s When It Was Now was released on February 19th, 2013. Pick it up on iTunes.
Visit Atlas Genius on the web: www.atlasgenius.com