Atomga on its new EP and the power of Afrobeat
Atomga (due this Saturday, January 18, at Cervantes' Other Side) was founded by three friends who shared a mutual love of Afrobeat. Early on, Atomga expanded to its current size of eleven members, and although the outfit has released live recordings in the past, it is finally releasing its debut studio effort this weekend.
Filled with politically charged but never heavy-handed songs, the EP reveals a band that's making tuneful, fluid and surprisingly visceral music. There aren't a lot of groups in the scene right now like Atomga. We spoke with tenor saxophone player Frank Roddy, baritone sax player Leah Concialdi and percussionist Cody Schlueter about the formation of the band and the serious content of the songwriting.
Westword: Who founded the band?
Frank Roddy: The three founding members were Casey Hrdlicka, our guitarist; Alekzandr Palesh, our bass trombone player; and I.
What brought you together?
FR: I already knew Alex from when I was living in Fort Collins. Casey, I met through an organization called Friends of Red Rocks -- a volunteer organization that does cleanups once a month and they work the shows and promote recycling. Just over three years ago, Casey and I were talking, and he was asking what I was doing musically, and I said I wanted to do something with a foundation in Fela Kuti or Afrobeat generally. He said he was on board, and Alex was on board, and we started finding members after that. When Leah contacted me about interest in it -- I didn't know it at the time, but when I told Alex what was going on, he told me they went to high school together.
Leah Concialdi: I had just stopped playing with my old band in Fort Collins, Trichome.
What made you want to make Afrobeat, specifically, instead of some other form of music with roots in jazz or psychedelia?
FR: I came from Detroit, and I had played rock lead guitar for a lot of years before I started playing saxophone. I really wanted to start doing something different. The bottom line is I wanted to be part of a horn section. That's what kind of spurred the whole thing -- hey, let's put together a horn band and see where it goes from there and have some fun with it. I was in my tenth year of playing saxophone, and I was just coming out of another band in Fort Collins called Patchwork Blue, playing saxophone and guitar. So when I quit there, I thought, maybe I'll set down the guitar for a minute and be part of a horn section, because this is powerful.
For someone who hasn't played before, like myself, who had played music his whole life, being in a band with one horn and then being in a band with two or three horns with you and playing with harmony, it's mind-blowing to me as a musician. I look around town and there's a lot of really good bands and a lot of genres, but there's a million rock bands, and even though I'd put together rock bands for years, I felt like I had to do something different, and Atomga is that.
LC: I like the whole visual aspect of it, too, because you see the normal four- to six-piece group taking the stage, and that's not something out of the blue. But when you see eleven people take the stage, you're just waiting to see what's going to come out of that.
Cody, some people may know you from playing with the Inactivists. How did you hook up with Atomga?
Cody Schlueter: I was in a Grateful Dead cover band with Casey when I was fifteen. I had answered a Craigslist ad, and I played drums. That broke up when I was sixteen or seventeen, and he came to my senior recital in college, and he said he needed a sub, and I started subbing for him and never stopped.
Where did you record the new EP?
LC: Our friend Ryan Gambrell has been studying sound engineering and recording for years, and he was a resource for us, ready and available. He wanted to record us and projects like us. He tracked us, but we went to Scanhope Sound to do mixing and mastering.
With an active eleven-piece band, do you find some places challenging to play? Do you ask for technical capabilities ahead of time, or do you have gear to compensate when that's lacking?
LC: We try to make sure ahead of time. But sometimes they don't have enough channels, and that might mean one less conga mic, or I don't have a D.I. box, or Cody won't have an overhead mic. That sucks, but we can do it. We like lots of venues, but our favorite is Cervantes' Ballroom and Other Side. They run things so professionally, and they're very hospitable. If I had to choose to play one place for the rest of my life, that would be it.
They also have one of the best sound guys in Denver -- Dominic Esparza.
FR: Dom is awesome. At Cervantes', they're super-nice and pro, and you get a good monitor mix. We play there so much that we get spoiled. Recently we were at a club and they didn't have enough mic stands or mics, and the monitors kept cutting out during our set. I guess in that situation as a band, it forces us to really listen to each other and roll with it. But we do get spoiled by venues that are professional and treat us well.
LC: We would never blacklist a venue; all venues are awesome in their own ways, but we definitely have our favorites.
With a band with a sprawling lineup like this, when you're writing songs, is it from ideas someone specific will bring in? Is it more collaborative because of the nature of the style of music?
CS: It's always changing. When we started, the first two songs were already written and brought to us. The last song we just wrote, we've gutted and torn apart three or four times now.
FR: There have been times when someone walked in with a whole sheet of lyrics and a horn section charted out. But we still forge it from there.
CS: And we road-test it.
FR: It's important to me personally to road-test because a couple, few times playing it live? The song will tweak itself. We've done it that way, and all eleven of us have gotten into a room and just jammed out. Someone starts a groove and we get ideas and cultivate the ideas. We record all of our rehearsals.
LC: Which is nice because we can go back and think of a horn line afterward. Our guitarist might come in with a riff or a chord progression, and a horn player or two might write a couple of different lines. I think we have a couple of songs that three horn players wrote different parts for -- like "Empire."
FR: It's all written by Atomga. It's an equal share in a song. I think it's fair, because if you're in the room when a song is being cultivated, you play a part and everyone plays a part. So it shouldn't be two or three people who are cited as writers of the song. These are conversations we had way in the beginning about being equals.
Is the name of the band a reference to anything in particular?
FR: The short story is that because the Afrobeat genre started in Nigeria, we kind of wanted to tie it to Nigeria and to Fela Kuti. He sang a lot of songs in Yoruban -- there are over a hundred languages in Nigeria, and Yoruban is one of them -- and Atomga, if you spelled it properly, would be A-T-A-M-G-A. That word means "the great oath," and it's an ancient warrior dance.
The other side of the story is that when that name was presented to the band, one guy that was in the band liked it because he was into unified field theory, and he said, "Oh, it says 'atom' in there." He thought it was A-T-O-M. So we ended up changing the spelling so we could marry those two ideas.
CS: We actually used to be called Atomga Groove Alliance.
LC: A friend suggested that we not have anything with "funk," "groove," "alliance" or "society" because there are lots of bands out there with that sort of thing in their name.
Do you feel as though you've cultivated a particular musical audience for yourself?
LC: It's so eclectic. People ask what Afrobeat music is because it's not as widely known a style right now. I tell them it's dance music because people dance. There are people who one might say are from the jam-band scene. There are people of all ages at our shows.
CS: There are people I invite to my hip-hop project shows and other projects I've been involved with, but this is the band you can invite anyone to -- Grandma, kids, everyone. It has a positive message. There's a total crazy party side to it, too.
LC: One publication cited us in our first year as "Denver's newest party band."
Have you played with Pink Hawks? That band is definitely on a similar wavelength and very much steeped in Afrobeat.
FR: Yeah, we have, at the Mercury Cafe.
LC: Koffi has a new band, Koffi Togo Vibe. There's not very many bands like us, but definitely Pink Hawks, Koffi Togo Vibe and Paa Kow's By All Means Band.
Your songs have suggestive titles. Does "Empire" address any issue in particular?
FR: The genre itself has a component to it that [isn't just socially conscious, but politically engaged and active]. So "Empire" is basically poking at corporations that are building their empires on our backs.
LC: The last line says, "It's time to take it back" -- standing up on your own and taking the power into your own hands and not being dictated to by anyone, whether it be a corporation or a politician.
How about "New Currency"?
FR: That's about love. Alex twisted it around the phrase that says love is the new currency. He said that actually the new currency that he called "love" is older than the old currency called "money." So we wanted to write a song about something that was tangible but wasn't something you can print off. Love has been around since the beginning of the universe, and money isn't. Money is kind of man-made.
How about "Boneyard"?
LC: I think that's actually based on exploring from the groove of it. It has a hypnotic guitar riff in the beginning. It may have been our old singer that was freestyling and thinking of ideas, and the word "Boneyard" came into place. FR: The lyrics explain how we're all marching to the boneyard. Nobody lives forever, but there's a ray of light in the lyrics. There's lines in there saying, "Hey look, because we all know we're marching to the boneyard, you'd better kiss your baby, you'd better hug your lady." I'm ad-libbing the words -- I'm not the singer. She did say, "Change all those maybes to yes or no." Basically, live your life to the fullest and treat people nice.
FR: The concept of the song went way back. We were working on a couple of songs in the beginning, and "Still Today" is one of those. The concept we had for it was considering that Fela Kuti, forty years ago, was writing songs about human rights, and his mom was an anti-colonial activist and a feminist activist, and that forty years later the people in Africa that Fela Kuti was writing for and trying to liberate and trying to stop the oppression and work for human rights are still fighting for the same thing. Then I realized that we're still fighting for the same stuff, too. The civil rights movement is still going on.
The cover art was created by Belinda Jackson?
LC: She's longtime friends with Casey. She designed our first batch of T-shirts, and she's a tattoo artist. She knows our style and vibe really well, and we knew she could produce something awesome for the album. I think it's really reflective of our music, too, because our music doesn't use computers and it's untouched and raw and live in the moment. [It's a drawing, and we did not alter it after she gave it to us].