Atomga on its new EP and the power of Afrobeat

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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.

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Tom Murphy is a writer, visual artist and musician from Aurora, Colorado. He was a prolific music writer for Westword and a documenter of the Denver music scene.