We’ve always sucked at interviews; we talked about that before you got here.”
Oh, Rick Smith, how I disagree! The “we” in question is Fun w/ Atoms, one of Green Bay’s most awesomely dedicated bands. A few weeks ago I got to chat with guitarist Smith, bassist Dan Collins, and drummer Curt Lefevre (all three members sing). Contrary to their collective opinion, the conversation was warm and lively, a result of the unique camaraderie of three guys who’ve been bandmates for over thirty years.
The Beginning: Live at Lefty’s
Fun w/ Atoms evolved from an early cover band called John Doe & The Doo Dads, whose repertoire was far different from the typical fare of the day.
“It was more the hair bands; this area was really hard rock-affiliated,” says Lefevre.
“Or super Top 40,” adds Collins. “At that time it was a battle against disco, which was fading everywhere else, but still going strong around here.”
Their unique brand of entertainment drew increasingly bigger crowds, but by about 1982, jamming on the likes Nick Lowe, Graham Parker, Elvis Costello, Rockpile, and The Police, began to give way to a preference for performing their own music.
The Doo Dads’ line-up had also been stripped down to the same trio that’s still performing together today, and was rechristened Fun w/ Atoms. Armed with a wealth of original demos, they quickly found an appreciative audience courtesy of a now-closed Green Bay music venue.
“Luckily we had a bar called Lefty’s,” recounts Smith. “It was kind of a band rule: every time we played there we had to have a couple new songs to play. We had a lot of time to write and play; it was a real productive period for us.”
In addition to their blossoming song craft, the band made a lot of connections, too.
“It was good timing; [Lefty’s manager Tom Parrot] featured a lot of good original music from Milwaukee and Madison,” adds Smith. And one particular connection would lead to the start of FWA’s recording career.
Into the Studio(s): The First Two Records
One of the Madison bands they’d met at Lefty’s was Spooner, whose drummer, Butch Vig, asked Fun w/ Atoms to come record with him at his then-new Smart Studios. The sessions yielded 1986’s “Main Street,” which Vig released on his label, Boat Records. As fate would have it, the next album Vig produced was Nirvana’s “Nevermind,” after which he produced records for The Smashing Pumpkins, Sonic Youth, Green Day, Foo Fighters, and his own band, Garbage.
The release of “Main Street” ramped up their performing schedule, and the band played “the college circuit” a couple times around. Fun w/ Atoms then began a second album with Vig at Smart, but Vig’s tremendous success saw him increasingly in-demand. FWA ultimately needed to choose someone new to make their sophomore record.
Their choice was an inspired one: Jeff Murphy, guitarist and singer of the Zion, IL band Shoes. Fun w/ Atoms found a musical kinship with Shoes’ style, which history has retroactively dubbed “power-pop.” “Northern Distortion” was released in 1996 on Murphy’s label, Black Vinyl Records.
The Industry Busts, The Band Plays On
Unfortunately, according to Smith, what began to happen to the music industry in 1996 was not pretty.
“Record companies would ship these records, and you’d think they were sold, but then they’d get shipped back,” Smith explains. (“Or they wouldn’t,” quips Collins.) “It was a tough time for indie labels. Then the big box stores came out, and they could sell CDs at cost or lower, intentionally selling at a lower price to get people into stores to buy other things. Then digital downloads…”
“Studios, too. People didn’t want to pay for studio time; they’d just buy their own recording gear,” mentions Lefevre.
“Even the live music scene was suffering then. There was no new music coming out, because there was no distribution network for it. So no one knows who these people are outside of their own town, and then they can’t get a gig,” explains Collins.
Recording studios, record stores, live shows – it was as if the entire support system for independent musicians took a turn for Doomsville. So why didn’t Fun w/ Atoms call it quits? Simple.
“Well, we still like playing. It’s a part of our lives; you can’t just drop it,” says Collins.
Smith adds, “We go through periods. We’ve had things that have come up, but for me there’s an ache, something about it that you can’t put your finger on. You have a practice, and suddenly you just feel like a different person. You can’t stop. You can try, but I don’t think we ever stopped.”
The Start of “SMART”
With the musical landscape unexpectedly unreliable, FWA had to adapt. After “Northern Distortion” the band embraced digital recording; twenty years in, and suddenly all three members found themselves learning this new software, both together and on their own. The result of this phase was 2011’s “SMART,” released on Blurb Records, and named somewhat in tribute to the studio that had played such a prominent role for so many.
“For ‘SMART’ we tried something new. We all have [digital audio workstation] Pro Tools at our houses. We hash everything out live and establish tempo, then we’ll work individually on it, uploading parts to each other [via internet], and get together Thursday nights to put it together and critique,” says Smith. They planned on bringing a hard drive of tracks to Smart Studios for mixing, only to find out the legendary music mill would be closing. Thankfully, they were able to book some time there in its last month open.
“It was symbolic,” says Smith. “We started at Smart in 1985. We were one of the first bands to record there, then we were one of the last to work in there.”
Fans will be happy to know that Fun w/ Atoms is in fact working on a fourth album! Additionally, the band was also interviewed as part of the upcoming documentary “The Smart Studios Story.” The film features Dave Grohl, Billy Corgan, and Shirley Manson among many others with ties the studio.
Some great live shows are coming up, too, namely two nights as part of a tribute to Lefty’s on April 4th and 5th. (Check Scene’s events page for details.)
The band realizes how special their experience has been, but they’re still looking forward. Their musicianship, after all, is tighter than ever.
“We instinctively do a lot of the same things; we’re so used to cueing off of one another. If somebody drops a verse or something, we all adjust,” says Collins.
“With a three-piece you can just make eye contact and get right back on it,” adds Smith.
And one can tell that the members of FWA have the type of quasi-familial relationship that can only be forged from years of collaboration, creation, and good ol’ reckless adventure.
“We’re brothers, and still really enjoy each other’s company. Through the years there are frustrations, but we’ve always been able to work through them for the good of the band,” explains Smith. “If you don’t have compromises, then you don’t play. We’ve had arguments, debates, and those things can kill a band. ‘I make a compromise here, so I still get to play in a band.’
“And we’re pretty honest with each other. We don’t offend each other with brutal honesty, and we have pretty thick skin – a ‘rhino hide’ about criticism.”
“We’re all on the same page,” says Lefevre, adding, “And our wives are very supportive.”
Send comments or complaints to LemmyThru@gmail.com, and for cheesy chatter and live-spun records, tune into “Vinyl Stew w/ Lemmy Thru” Thursdays at 7 p.m. on TCCampusConnection.com.