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Monday, April 2, 2012

The Atomic Duo Talk About Dropping "Broadsides"

The Atomic Duo is a powerfully traditionalist-rooted string band, that unleashes politically and socially-charged tunes that are as combustible as their name suggests. The duo, which pairs Bad Livers co-founder and guitarist Mark Rubin, with mandolin player Silas Lowe, have set themselves on a relentless mission that carries them across the dusty roads and paved highways, telling their tales and singing their songs of the common people. And they deliver these tunes with a fiery, impulsive, infectious, and impassioned-urgency all their own!

The Atomic Duo released their new album, Broadsides, on March 28th (it is currently available in CD and digital formats via CD Baby here and will be offered on I-Tunes this week).

I recently had the opportunity to speak with the Atomic Duo regarding their own mutual musical histories, what brought them together, and their passion for delivering their unique style of songwriting and storytelling to the people, by any and all means necessary to spread their word! Here's how it all went down:

Before we dig into the formation of The Atomic Duo, I'd like to ask each of you if you could discuss your previous musical experiences.

Silas, can you talk about your trajectory before the Atomic Duo?

Silas Lowe: I started playing music when I was in college at UMASS Amherst. I just fell in with a bunch of guys who were all discovering early recorded American music at the same time I was. I lost about a year of my university experience to sitting in a dorm room drinking cheap whiskey and trying to play like John Hartford, Frank Wakefield, the Holy Modal Rounders, and Bill Monroe.

We had a little band called Northern Aggression. It was sort of a punk old-time band and what was funny was we didn’t even know about the Bad Livers. There was a lot of spitting, crowd surfing, and spontaneous nakedness on stage.

Mark, I am sure many readers are familiar with your work from The Bad Livers. I'd like to take this opportunity to ask you if you could discuss your most memorable and significant experiences since your work with the Bad Livers, before joining Silas for the Atomic Duo?

Mark Rubin: I would have to say that my life as a Jewish musician working and touring in Europe, and Eastern Europe especially, has given me the most in peak life experiences, and in variably, in ways that held deep personal satisfaction to me. That has really informed my perception of the world and my place in it. Corny maybe, but it’s true. With Frank London’s Klezmer Brass All Stars, I played my tuba in nearly every western European country, as well as Croatia, Slovenia, Slovakia, Hungary, Czech Republic, Poland, and Lativa.

With the Other Europeans Band, I am currently band mates with some of the finest Rroma and Eastern European musicians there have ever been, Kalman Balogh and Petar Ralchev (to name but only 2 of the 13 members of the ensemble who come from as far and as wide as Kishnev to Berlin to Philadelphia). My experience in that project has been documented in a feature length film called Der Zerbrochene Klang (The Broken Sound).

I’ve kept myself busy all these years playing in the Texas Czech and Polish communities, lead a Western Swing outfit, played a string of dates with Andy Statman, and even played with a reformed Bad Livers. But, I gotta admit, it’s been the Klezmer work that kept me going.

Can you both discuss how and when you connected, and what inspired you to form the Atomic Duo?

Silas: We met cause Mark was in what is still my favorite Austin band, the now defunct Alice Spencer and the Monkey Butlers. I’d got see them every Tuesday at the Hole in the Wall and we’d get to talking about really obscure stringband music. I think he was mostly just confused that a 25 year-old was into the same weird tunes as him, so we started picking for fun.

Mark: I had subsequently interviewed Silas for an Austin Chronicle cover story on the rise of the old-time music scene in Austin. I was shocked to find he shared many of my wackier notions about the purpose of music and the responsibilities of a folk musician to his community. We kept in touch after the Monkey Butlers folded, and he kept me appraised of what the “kids” were up to, which has been really wonderful for me as I’ve been introduced to a whole new, younger world of musical relationships.

What would you say you both had in common, musically and personally that made it seem like a perfect fit?

Basically, I think we’re the only people we know who could put up with us in a car for 8 to 10 hours a day. Plus, we’re both openly socialists. Mark is gonna say he’s an anarco-syndicalist with situationist leanings, but that’s just talk.

I think we both enjoy a good argument. And we’re both kind of tired of being the smartest guy in the room all day. Sometimes we need to each be knocked around intellectually by somebody smarter. I could be speaking for myself there. And whatever my politics, I’m a Jew which makes me a Commie, technically.

Please take us through your experiences together (before recording your first record, Fat Man and Little Boy)?

Silas: When we started, we were playing a lot of rags, blues, and Stanley brothers material. On our first tour we had a couple of old-time dorks go “That was so crazy." About halfway through every tune we’d say, “Hey, I know that tune!” I’m not sure if it’s cause we had original arrangements or because we sucked that badly, but I’ll take either one.

I tried to write for years. Love songs, man. The language of love’s already been all used up, but everyone wants love songs. I just couldn’t get it done. Then I had this idea for a song called "New New Deal" and Rubin suggested trying to write about the Texas City disaster. All of a sudden we realized “Ohhhh, we could do THAT!" I feel really lucky to have gotten out some of the material that’s popped out of my brain and to have a partner who’ll follow me there. 

Can you describe the making of Fat Man and Little Boy?

Mark: It was all other people’s music on that release. We made that recording simply because we wanted to document the sound were creating at the time, which we kind of felt was unique and interesting, at least to us. Also it was nice to have a CD to sell and it helped book us work, but there was no great pretensions involved with that recording.

That said, I do feel it is worth noting that our dear friend and oft-time 3rd Atomic Duo member, Andrew Halbreich, did an outstanding job of getting a really great sounding performance out of us. If that was all we ever left behind, I’d be alright with that really. There’s some mighty gritty sounds on there.

How collaborative is your writing, playing, performing processes?

Silas: I wish I had a process. I’d probably get more songs out if I did. They just sorta happen. I’ll get an idea for a theme and then put it in the back of my head for a few weeks or months (or even years). Then once my brain is done doing the work, I put it down on paper. The subconscious is pretty rad.

Mark: True that. I myself don’t write as nearly as prodigiously as Silas, but I can report that the half dozen tunes I’ve contributed to the project all came to me in their basic forms: words and music, in quite a bit less than an hour. It's all been like a transmission from a far away planet where songs come from. I can’t say how or why.

Silas: Like the first tune on our new record, Broadsides, which is called “Trickle Down.” I wrote that in 30 minutes. I never had that happen before. But “New New Deal” and “Texas City” took weeks of thinking and reworking to get right from a lyrical standpoint. It may not seem like it, but I have a standard as far as avoiding cliche at least regarding rhymes. That does get in the way of some of my songs in their fetal stages, but I think it makes the full grown, big kid songs more interesting.

We write independently for the most part. Mark has helped with some chords, because he has a way deeper well for that stuff. But overall, we come to shows with fully formed songs and then co-arrange them on stage.

Mark: I think we’re both really open-minded about the sound of a composition weather or not it's ours. We’re both trying to get the optimal result. Silas has given me a very free hand with his material, so I try not to screw it up.

Can you talk about your experiences recording?

Mark: Working with Lloyd Maines is a genuine pleasure and I’ve always wanted to work with him again. When he produced the Bad Livers way back when, he had this amazing gift for taking what we had done and finding a way to present it in a manner that was simultaneously creative and interesting, yet very accessible to the average music consumer. He’s a magician actually.

We could have easily produced Broadsides ourselves. I have quite a few production credits under my belt personally, and I’m sure I’d make a great sounding record. But it would have sounded the way I like it, and a very small group of my music geek pals, and it probably would not have the sonic impact that, say, a radio programmer is used to.

I feel very strongly about the material on this release. I feel it’s important, beyond even my own participation in it frankly, so I want it to reach the biggest audience. And I mean not just to get my record sold, but to get these ideas of ours out there in the world. Lloyd is just the kind of guy who could enhance what it is we were doing right, and build on our sound to create something that could have a genuine impact. I couldn’t be happier with the results.

Silas: I didn’t have any preconceived notions, but mostly that’s cause I’m not very experienced in the studio. I did overhear a conversation between Lloyd and Rubin that went something like:

“So Lloyd, how many records have you worked on?”

“Oh, I stopped counting at about 5000.”

“Yeah I think I’ve been on around 2300.”

I figured I was in good hands.

Can you talk about your recording that Danny Barnes (Bad Livers) is producing for his cassette label, Minner Bucket?

Mark: A pleasure. Dan had us out to his place up in the Puget Sound and recorded us for 2 days straight using some brand new technology mics that the Shure company was letting him try out. He as also using a recording program that was new to him, all kinds of mad scientist like. Danny is formulating a new aesthetic for acoustic music that incorporates modern recording techniques and modernist approaches through the use of acoustic instruments. He has named this process “Folktronics",  and has been creating a little cadre of like-minded pickers who would agree to work with him in this creative workshop environment.

What we did was simply show up and play down our compositions just as we were at a live show, and then we’d let Dan have his way with the raw tracks, creating a Folktronics version of our material. He would then release the result on his new Minner Bucket cassette-only label. A thrilling prospect, frankly.

As it happens, we all agreed that the raw live tracks sounded good enough to share with folks, so Danny mixed it straight, hand drew the cover art and released a numbered limited to 200 cassette release called Initial Transmissions from the Lost Continent of MU. I just got word from Danny the other day that the Folktronics version, called MU!, should be out very soon as well.

Minner Bucket Records

We are very proud of both releases, but also honored to be on his roster, which is a list of some of the most accomplished and forward thinking acoustic artists working today. Do visit the site and check out all the Minner Bucket releases.

Silas: Danny Barnes is one of my living musical heroes so to get to sit in his living room and record was a highlight. I’m excited to hear the fruits of his labor on our music.

Can you talk about making your new record, Broadsides?

Silas: Well, what people say sets Broadsides apart from a lot of what’s out there, is the subject matter of the songs. Overall, it is unapologetically and even aggressively leftist in its politics. Unlike a lot of the political music out there right now, I think our aesthetic matches the ethic of the songs. Basically, we live in brutal times for working folks and I think that brutality should be referenced in the sound of the music. A lot of what is out there in folk adheres to western classical standards of aural beauty, but that’s not what life in the working class really sounds like. At least not to me.

What's on your itinerary for 2012?

Silas: Lots of exciting stuff is on tap for the Atomic Duo in 2012. We have been given the honor of participating a in a bunch of festivals. We are playing Winnipeg Folk Festival, Vancouver Folk Festival, Island Folk Festival on Vancouver Island, the Second Annual John Hartford Memorial Festival, Appalachian Uprising, Muddy Roots, Bristol Rhythm and Roots, and possibly the Spaghetti Western Festival in Calgary. Hopefully some new songs and better pickin' too, but we’ll see.


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