By Bree Davies
By Emerald O'Brien
By Gina Tron
By Jon Solomon
By Drew Ailes
By Courtney Harrell
By Kyra Scrimgeour
They fired everybody over Christmas break," recalls Photo Atlas guitarist Bill Threlkeld III, talking about when he first found out that his band's label, Stolen Transmission, had gone belly up a few years back. "We were on tour, and our manager called and said, 'Uh, bad news. It looks like the label went out of business.'"
"We thought we were totally screwed," confesses frontman Alan Andrews. "Oh, crap, is this the end of the band? No!"
In decades past, this sort of thing would indeed have spelled the end of most bands, but the Photo Atlas clearly isn't most bands. Instead of calling it quits, the outfit soldiered on and kept playing shows. The group is one of the few now active in the local scene that has experienced the total breadth of playing music both in Denver and on the road, performing a seemingly endless succession of shows everywhere from basements and warehouses to bars and theaters. By the time Stolen Transmission called it quits, the members were used to funding their own tours and had plenty of experience lining up shows on their own.
"We've played over a thousand shows," Andrews points out. "That's probably why we've only put out a few records. We've been addicted to touring. Looking back, I wonder how I survived. In 2008 alone, we did like two hundred shows."
Threlkeld and Andrews have been at it for quite a while. Long before they were making music in the Photo Atlas, the two started playing in a band called PUN, which stood for "Pure Unadulterated Noise." Although Threlkeld grew up in Littleton, his parents moved to the South Bay near San Jose when he was in his early teens, and that's when he met Andrews. "I had long hair and Alan had long hair and we were 'indie rock,' recalls Threlkeld. "I had an Offspring shirt on, he had a Nirvana shirt on — and there weren't a lot of other kids like that."
Threlkeld had recently been given a guitar and Andrews already had a drum set, so naturally, forming a band seemed in order. PUN began as a Nirvana cover band — "That's how we got our chops," says Andrews — and later took on material by the Toadies and the Pixies. From eighth through eleventh grade, Threlkeld and Andrews practiced and played shows; when Threlkeld moved back to Colorado for a spell, Mark Hawkins, a friend of both musicians, stepped in as bassist for PUN. When Threlkeld returned to California, he formed a new band with Andrews and Hawkins called Easy Way Out. Patterned after horn-less ska bands like Rancid, it was more punk than reggae. But that outfit split up when Threlkeld again returned to Colorado.
Back here, he came across an ad at the now-defunct Mars Music posted by a drummer named Devon Shirley. "The sign at the store read, 'I want to start a band. I'm a drummer. Here's the bands I like,'" Threlkeld remembers, "and then he listed those bands. 'Here's the bands I don't like,' and there were a bunch more bands. He had his number at the bottom, and I took one and then decided to take the whole flier."
Threlkeld had already been talking to both Andrews and Hawkins about moving to Denver, a place where there were actual music venues and where people would actually come to see you. Their only stipulation: they needed a drummer. But after Threlkeld responded to Shirley's ad, that was no longer an issue. "We practiced the first day we got to town, if I remember," Andrews tells Threlkeld. "We just drove to your parents' garage to play."
It was shortly after this that Andrews discovered a Denver band that proved to be both inspirational and, later, influential. "I remember walking into Twist & Shout right when I moved into town, and I asked someone working there about local music and he introduced me to Black Black Ocean," Andrews recalls. "I think the show was a couple of nights later at The Construct. That just flipped a switch in me instantly. It was the vibe of being in a small space with a bunch of people having fun. The spazziness of it, too. I remember going and getting our band together a couple of days later and saying, 'This is the kind of stuff we've got to go for.'"
And go for it they did. Soon the new band, dubbed Atlas (later revised to the Photo Atlas) after all the maps that Threlkeld's geologist father had in the garage, began playing shows. The first was at a place called the Kilt and the Candle, after another group canceled. In a similar quirk of fate, the guys happened to be at the hi-dive one night to see their friends Bear Vs Larger Bear when another act canceled. The door guy was getting the bad news right as the members of Atlas were walking in the door, and the quick-thinking Threlkeld offered up the services of his band. The people at the club that night were impressed and Atlas was asked back — much to its members' delight. For weeks, they had been asking to play a show at the hi-dive, but the fact that they didn't have any recordings had been an obstacle.