Music News

Asteroids and Power Chords

Don't tell anyone, but Mike Davenport, bassist and singer for the Ataris, once had a backroom fling with a seductive game system that was not his public devotion of choice.

"I was very heavily into Intellivision for a while. They had the better sports games by far," he says. "Plus, they had Dungeons and Dragons.'" Even though he strayed to this high-tech hussy, he remains true to his old-school love. "Pitfall' was the best game on the Atari 2600," he muses. "Just the best."

And if there's a television on the tour bus, Davenport has had plenty of opportunity to hone his vine-swinging technique. That's because the band -- guitarists and fellow singers Kris Roe and Johnny Collura and drummer Chris "Kid" Knapp round out the lineup --has spent most of the past five years gigging around the world and building a diehard fan base. The punks' new effort, So Long, Astoria, won't be out until late February, but already they're playing hosts to a traveling party with friends Sugarcult, Autopilot Off, and Rufio.

"We like to tour whether or not we've got a new record out. When we did take some time off, we got [complaints] from our fans," Davenport says over the phone from a sound check in Toronto. "Plus, we can warm up some of the new songs."

So Long, Astoria will be the group's fourth full-length album -- and the first on a major label.

"It's been very exciting, but the strangest thing has been having so much time to record," Davenport says, adding that previous efforts took weeks, not months. "Before, Kris was putting down lyrics up to just before we were supposed to record them."

While sampler tracks "In This Diary" and "Take-Offs and Landings" show no diversion from the band's trademark sound, there is a shift in subject matter. "There are really only one, maybe two, songs about a girl here," Davenport says. Much of last year's End Is Forever was about busted relationships and broken romantic dreams, reflecting all four members' difficulties with that textbook challenge while traveling in a rock band. Davenport notes that all four relationships "survived."

With those dramas in the past, So Long, Astoria has a wider theme: Life is only as good as the memories you make.

"We've learned that. It's all about dreams. Our dream was to play music, and it came true," Davenport says with no hint of irony. "It's easy to forget that what's important in life are friends and memories and good times."

The band found inspiration from an unorthodox source, namely the 1985 kiddie pirate treasure flick The Goonies. Now a cult favorite for nostalgic Gen Xers, the adventure yarn was both filmed in and set in Astoria, Oregon. (The Ataris -- all in their mid- to late 20s -- frequently sprinkle '80s pop culture into their lyrics.) The record and the film "have the same concept," Davenport explains. "These kids were going to have to leave the town they loved and went on this journey for one last hurrah," he says. "We can relate to that."

The Ataris' unlikely formation began in 1997, when small-town Indiana teenager Roe attended a Vandals show and passed a demo to bassist Joe Escalante, who owns the independent label Kung Fu Records. A short time later, Escalante offered Roe a contract.

The only problem was, Roe had no band. Davenport did. In fact, Roe met his future bandmate after moving to Santa Barbara, California, and dating the lead singer of Davenport's group at the time. Roe remembers the musical connection as "instantaneous." The two pulled together the initial Ataris lineup and released Anywhere but Here.

An EP, Look Forward to Failure, followed, as did Blue Skies, Broken Hearts . . . Next 12 Exits, Let It Burn, and End Is Forever. The current Ataris lineup has been together almost two years, sharing bills with Blink-182, the Hives, Jimmy Eat World, and Alkaline Trio, as well as taking the main stage at the Vans Warped Tour.

The exposure has given the band chances to mingle with virtually every branch of the punk family tree. It's a genre capable of astounding elitism despite proffered stances of nonconformity.

"Like, a lot of the [punk pop] bands, we've been written off by some as not punk enough' since the beginning. The hard-core kids thought we were gay since the start," Davenport laughs. Still, he's more amused than offended by the barbs. "I was talking the other day to these straight-edge kids, and they went on and on about how they don't drink or do drugs, but they'll bring weapons to a show and look for a fight. That's just a bizarre contradiction, but I don't think they saw it that way."

The band's lighter sound doesn't mean they eschew the DIY principle, however. The Ataris own their own merchandising company and a record store in Santa Barbara (Down on Haley), and they personally respond to every fan who writes. The last is a promise that, admittedly, is becoming harder to keep and may disintegrate if So Long, Astoria translates to so long, obscurity.' "We'll be writing people when we're 80!" Davenport says defiantly.

One tradition will continue, though: At every gig, the band invites someone from the crowd to play rhythm guitar on "San Dimas High School Football Rules." In the four years of making that gesture, the quality of the bandmates-for-the-moment has ranged from "all right" to "kick-ass." But it was only last month that the band had to halt the song because the evening's selection had no idea how to strum a guitar, much less the song's chord sequence. "And he passed all the tests we gave him," Davenport laughs. "He said he could do it!"

After this U.S. swing, the band won't be slowing down. The immediate future holds Australian festivals, tours of Europe and Japan, the CD release, a second U.S. swing and a probable slot on the 2003 Vans Warped Tour. Somewhere the suits at the Atari corporation must be amused, because the Ataris -- like Atari Teenage Riot -- have never been sued or even reprimanded by the video game giant.

"Nothing -- ever -- which is surprising," Davenport says. The band "almost" got the rights to use the famous Atari logo, but the deal fell through. "Very early on in our career, we did make some shirts, that, uh, were a little infringing," he adds sheepishly. Would Intellivision have been equally understanding?