I like it," says Alan Andrews, "because it's not about punching."
No, it's about dancing. And Andrews, singer/guitarist with the Photo Atlas, and his bandmates -- guitarist Bill Threlkeld, bassist Mark Hawkins and drummer Devon Shirley -- are at the vanguard of the Mile High City's recent dance renaissance. They've watched while crowds that once displayed both hands-in-pockets apathy and fist-in-face violence have been transformed to free-spirited, body-moving mayhem.
"I think kids just finally decided, 'I'm not gonna pretend I'm too cool for this,'" Shirley hypothesizes.
Judging by the freaks-and-geeks frenzy of its music, the Photo Atlas (previously known as Atlas) is not too cool for anything. All herky-jerky rhythms, twitchy guitar lines and nervous starts and stops, its songs are full of paranoia and desperation -- the kind well known to speed freaks and permanently prepubescent boys.
"I'm a pretty paranoid guy," Andrews notes.
"And you're a pretty desperate guy," adds Shirley.
"I totally have a fear of getting cancer or a tumor," says Andrews, before stepping out for a smoke. "I always feel like I gotta get checked out."
"He takes vitamins by the handful," Threlkeld says.
"And he's totally addicted to cough drops," offers Hawkins.
The musicians' continual verbal jousting reflects years of shared history. Andrews, Threlkeld and Hawkins started out playing together in Morgan Hill, California, a small community south of San Jose.
"In California, we never fit into any genre," Threlkeld recalls. "Plus, there are no clubs in San Jose. There's just nowhere to play."
He picked up and moved to Colorado, where he'd lived before, encouraging Andrews and Hawkins to follow. The day after Threlkeld arrived in Denver, he saw a flier posted by a drummer looking for a band. He noticed that the influential bands the drummer had listed were all his favorites, too, so he ripped off one of the phone-number tabs and walked on. But a few seconds later, he turned around and tore down the whole flier, intent on securing this drummer for himself.
That drummer was Shirley. When he and Threlkeld met, the two immediately connected, and Threlkeld explained that he had friends -- a ready-made band, really -- back in California who would be moving to town soon. As so rarely happens, those friends actually materialized, and the four began to craft the sound that would become the Photo Atlas. "When we started playing together, Mark, Bill and I were into Cursive and At the Drive-In," Andrews says, "but Devon wanted to do dance beats."
The music came together, but finding gigs was more difficult. The hi-dive had just opened, and the new act had high hopes of playing the Broadway club at some point. "We used to beg [owners] Matt and Alison [LaBarge] for a show at the hi-dive," Andrews recalls. "Then one night we went down there to see a show, and the opening band had canceled. We ran home, got our equipment and played."
Since that impromptu gig, the Photo Atlas has established itself as one of Denver's most promising new rock acts, one that's reliably intoxicating live. The group's raw energy is deftly captured on No, Not Me, Never, its debut full-length and a followup to the barely available Ways You Once Thought Were Shortcuts EP. Recorded by Andrew Vastola at Colorado Sound and released by Denver-based Morning After Records, No, Not Me is bursting with nine tracks of impossibly catchy, irresistible hip-shaking action, with a hard-hitting rock edge.
On the first minute of the disc, mathematical hardcore, punk and new-wave boogie collide. Shirley's characteristically manic disco drumming dominates the rough-and-tumble opening track, "Merit," sounding every bit like the beginning of Devo's "Whip It." When the three other players kick in with aggressive abandon and precision, the resulting surge recalls Fugazi, Mission of Burma and Gang of Four -- a sound that lies somewhere at the intersection of D.C. hardcore and neo-wave dance rock. Like New Order's Stephen Morris, who once claimed that he always wanted to be a drum machine, Shirley plays with a mechanical yet menacing precision that's particularly remarkable at the breakneck speeds the band prefers.
The focal point of any Photo Atlas song, however, is Andrews's plaintive, anxious voice, which evokes a black-eyeliner-wearing Guy Picciotto. It's the pinched, slightly hysterical plea of a man standing on a ledge, while Threlkeld's clucking guitar, Hawkins's insistent bass and Shirley's timekeeping taunt and goad him to jump, jump, jump. But where the proceedings have a generally dark, tense tone, the lyrics are not without their moments of wry humor. For example, "Light and Noise" contains the memorable line "When they sell you short, make sure it doesn't hurt." And "Handshake Heart Attack" boasts what could be the Photo Atlas mantra: "Careful what you say -- you're turning me on."
When the four musicians aren't heating up a club as the Photo Atlas, they keep their dance card full working suite-level food service at a local sports arena. Andrews recently had to sit a few numbers out, though, after he was suspended for a week for flagrantly violating policies by gulping a root-beer float on duty. While the other three surreptitiously sipped their forbidden beverages without detection, Andrews defiantly chugged his drink after his supervisor asked him to discard it. "I wasn't gonna waste it," he says with a shrug.
Going a week without pay is serious business for any of these young musicians; despite merchandise sales and continual gigging, no one is making a dime from the music. "All the money we make as a band goes back into a band fund," Shirley explains, "to pay for our goddamned van, recording and merch."
They'd better buy a map, too, since the Photo Atlas plans to tour the country fairly extensively this winter and on into next year. For Andrews, that's far above and beyond what he'd originally hoped to accomplish. "The only goal I ever had was to play a packed club," the frontman confesses. "And that's already happened."
"So now he puts out no effort," Threlkeld quips.
Andrews gives Threlkeld a knowing smile.
"Yeah. Now I'm coasting."
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