Atlas shrugs

Even great bands have to start somewhere: Slogging crate amps and drum kits from one skeezy venue to another, logging hours in a smelly van, day after day; nights spent in front of a still-empty house, shortly after the doors open or in someone’s basement playing before their five friends. Every once in a while as an audience member — if you’re lucky and don’t blow off the openers — you’ll see these burgeoning stars on their way to combusting. Here’s betting The Photo Atlas make a conflagration.

The Denver quartet specializes in twitchy dance-punk reminiscent of recent spiky British invaders such as Bloc Party and the Futureheads. Nervy blasts like “Broadcasting Feedback,” off their debut No, Not Me Never, feature skittering rhythms over jagged, call & response shards of guitar and cymbal-riding breakdowns. Frontman Alan Andrews punctuates his wavering croon with plaintive cries, sounding a lot like Guy Picciotto (Rites of Spring, Fugazi) while the guitars writhe over a percolating beat.

It’s not surprising then, when Andrews confesses one of his great musical awakenings occurred when his sister introduced him to Fugazi when he was 12. It’s around this time that Andrews discovered a kindred spirit, guitarist Bill Threlkeld III.

“We were both like the kids with long hair in seventh grade,” Andrews chuckles. “We hit it off right off the bat, like good friends, and just kind of learned how to play guitar together.”

Eventually Threlkeld moved to Denver, while Andrews remained in little Morgan Hill, California, about an hour south of San Francisco. But the pair remained in contact. While each had cultivated their own bands, one day Threlkeld called suggesting Andrews join him in Denver.

“We both had this style of music we wanted to play,” Andrews explains. They talked about it for a month, but the decision wasn’t that hard, and Andrews convinced bassist Mark Hawkins to join him. “Where we were living was not too much of a happening music scene and we were that age where we wanted to get up and go and start a life.”

They certainly wasted no time, and have come a long way in just two years, showing the kind of initiative and verve that enables a good regional act to graduate into a national touring band. After building a following during their first six months in Denver, they expanded outward, hitting Salt Lake City, Omaha, and Kansas City, as well as making a trek to SXSW. There they made more friends, met more bands to trade shows with, and laid the groundwork for a return to Austin a year later.

By the time SXSW rolled around again last year, The Photo Atlas had put the finishing touches on their full-length debut. They arrived disc in hand, and by the end of the week had a deal to release it on Stolen Transmission, an upstart Island/Def Jam subsidiary run by A&R exec Rob Stevenson (who signed The Killers, Fall Out Boy, and The Bravery).

“We had this crazy show, this Pure Volume showcase, and we played until like three in the morning. Everybody was still up drinking — it was an open bar at the show, and it just got out of control. People were throwing beer bottles, and jumping on stage. We just met `the Stolen Transmission people` after that show,” Andrews says. “It was totally lucky and by chance that they were there, and that THAT show happened.”

A few weeks later, they were flown to New York where they played a showcase with other Stolen Transmission acts (Bright Lights Fever, Permanent Me), in front of Island execs, including L.A. Reid and Jay-Z. They actually met the Jizza after their set. “He was ‘Yo, that shit was hot right there,’” Andrews recalls with obvious pride.

But they’re not the type to rest on their laurels. Hell, they’re not the types to rest at all. Andrews is only back home for a few days, just having finished a tour with The Bravery and a week-long stint on Warped. Then it’s out for another couple months. Yet the band still found time between tours to lay down a few tracks with a friend in Montana. Andrews promises the new stuff will not lose its edge like recent follow-ups by British post-punk acts such as the Editors and Bloc Party.

“Don’t worry about our next album being softer. If anything we’re talking about putting out a crazier record,” Andrews confirms. “We want to make the perfect mix between The Refused and The Faint. We’re trying to be aggressive and still dancey.”

Meanwhile they’ll keep making fans the old-fashioned way — with non-stop touring, like their heroes Fugazi and At the Drive In.

“We’re all over the place in the live show. We leave the stage looking like we’ve been swimming,” Andrews explains. “That whole Bravery tour we did, we got a lot of good response from people who were like, ‘You’re the best opening band I’ve seen.’ And I’m like, ‘Cool, maybe we’ll be the middle band next time we come through.’”


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