You Sing, I Write: Q&A with Kris Roe of the Ataris: Part 1

Friday, February 22, 2008

Q&A with Kris Roe of the Ataris: Part 1

In a way, I feel like I grew up while listening to the Ataris. Everyone has that one album they remember listening to like it was yesterday. That album for me was So Long, Astoria. The entire album was the anthem to my senior year of high school you know, that tumultuous time of having no clue what you want to do with the rest of your life and the thought of becoming an adult causes more anguish than anything else. Okay, maybe that's being a little too dramatic. But come on, "Being grown up isn't half as fun as growing up/These are the best days of our lives/The only thing that matters is just following your heart/And eventually you'll finally get it right." Those lines from "In This Diary" were my motto just five years ago and I'd like to think they still are today.

Kris was nice enough to sit down with me last Friday before his show at Maxwell's in Hoboken and talk to me about the Ataris, the state of the music industry and his current acoustic tour, among many things. I'm going to break up the interview into two posts because it's way too long for just one and you guys really should read the entire thing. He's not only a good interview, but an amazing musician to see live so be sure to check out his MySpace and see when he'll be playing your city!

How is the tour going so far?
Well, hands down, this has probably been the most crazy, cursed tour I’ve ever been on, at least the beginning of this part of the tour. I did a small run on the West Coast and those dates went amazing. But the first four shows of this tour, two got canceled due to the fact that the shows were double booked and two got canceled due to winter storms. But, as of last night, that was the first show of the tour and it ended up going really well and tonight’s show is nearly sold out so I think the curse is coming to an end finally so that’s good.

I saw on your MySpace the massive bulletins, “Please repost tour dates.” Do your fans request certain places to play?
In the years I’ve been touring, you make a note of where you actually can play and draw people. This tour was pretty much all booked by me off of our MySpace. I made a kind of, rough routing and then I went over it and started filling in the gaps. Usually when you’re booking the tour you start with the weekends and get the good cities where you know you’ll draw good on the weekends. For instance, I know Hoboken has to be a weekend and Long Island and other parts of New Jersey are usually some of our stronger markets. I wanted to make sure that our strongest markets I put on a weekend. A Monday is a Monday no matter where it is. It’s usually your weakest night and you just try and fill up the dates. I try not to take any days off. It’s usually 50 some odd dates with no days off and then I go to South America and Japan on the same tour. It’s definitely a lot of fun and it’s the best thing I could be doing. There’s no overhead hardly on these shows. Just a hotel room and gas every night. Me out traveling in my car. It’s a good way to make a living I would say.

Have you always been a very DIY type of band?
I think this band was kind of founded on that belief that you just gotta do everything yourself. No one’s going to do it for you. There’s so many bands out there that the harder you work at it, the better the shows are going to be and I think that’s pretty much how this band started getting to people, our C.D.’s got into people’s hands. We just toured enough that finally we were probably halfway through our second tour ever, right when our Blue Skies album came out and at that point we started realizing it went from 50 people at the shows to 300 people at the shows and we didn’t do anything different other than keep going to the same areas and get in the van and people would come out and see us. Just continue that kind of mindset and it really works.

Do you think it’s been word of mouth?
Oh, yeah. When we started there wasn’t that mentality, there was no MySpace, there was no Facebook or any of those places where you could just get on and promote it like that. It was all word of mouth. It was you go out and play a show and they’re like, “Hey, we saw this good band play last night. Go out and check them out next time they’re through.” And you trade phone numbers with other bands and are like, “Hey, there’s a place that books bands in Albuquerque or in Phoenix.” Now it’s easy because you put up a bulletin and are like, “Hey, I need a show in St. Louis.” And somebody emails you and says, “Hey, I book shows here.”

Also, I keep a list of all the people who have booked good shows for me in the past and now I have good contacts and most of them stay current and you write them back and say, “Hey, can you book me on the next tour?” But we have a good booking agent; he books some of the biggest bands in rock music. But the thing is he’s got so many bands I didn’t want to trouble him and ask him, “Hey, will you book an acoustic tour for me?” He books the Ataris and I was like, I can do this myself and I just wanted to see if I could do it. First time I did it and it went well. He actually emailed me the other day and said, “Man, I gotta compliment you on your booking” and jokingly said, “if you ever need a job as an agent, you know where to call.” And I was like, “Sorry, I hate dealing and haggling with people, I’ll leave that to you.” I just want to go out and play. Anything to get a show, I’ll do it.

Do you take fans requests?
For the most part, if it’s something valid I will. I’ve done some weird things. I played this guy and girl’s wedding once and that was great. An endless bar and their mom paid me $1,000 to play a wedding and paid for all my travel. It was like, “Alright I’ll do that. Sure.” I’m probably more reasonable than any band. If you had a reasonable request and could meet the guarantee of the tour, pay the costs, I’ll play anywhere I don’t really care. I mean I’m not a whore or anything, but I’ll definitely do anything within reason as long as there will be people there and it fits into the current routing of the tour.

You guys have been together since, what, 1994?
I think our first real tour, when we really put ourselves on the map was more like 1997 or 1998. I’ve been recording songs myself since, the first Ataris album. All the demos were just me and a drum machine and I’d give that to bands we’d see. Through that we got a record deal and put out three independent records. Probably about halfway through our second record, Blue Skies is when people started actually taking notice. I think for our first record when it was out, nobody paid attention. Once we got out there and really started touring, at that point, ’97, ’98 that’s when people actually started coming out to see us.

That’s been 10 years. Have you seen a huge change in the music industry since when you started?
Oh, for sure. There are two things you notice. Obviously, when we started, the Internet was beginning, but it wasn’t a prominent factor. Now, it’s over saturated. There are so many bands. Anyone and there brother can record music and put music out. B. Like I said, booking shows is so much easier. There’s pros and cons of it. I think that it was better for rock bands then on some levels because it was so much easier to make an impact. Now, if you put an album out there are 10 other bands that are just as good as you that have an album out too so it’s harder to make headway and really get your name out there. Whereas then, there weren’t as many bands doing it. But, at the same time, it’s easier to do it now. I don’t know. I try to change with the times. I’m just utilizing the tools I know I have compared to back then when I didn’t have them.

So, over the past 10 years, have you ever had to have a day job?
I’ve worked so many odd jobs. Literally, I can go down a list. I’ve worked restaurants, I’ve worked at a factory, I worked in an adult bookstore for six months, I worked at a K-Mart, Taco Bell. I’ve done it all. That was like from 15-20. I think about 22 or 23 was the last time I had a real job outside of this band. So I feel very blessed that I’ve been able to spend nearly seven, eight years of my life job free other than the music. There are definitely times now and in the last four years that have been a struggle. The one thing that I will say about the music industry is that it is very inconsistent. There might be six months where you make a lot of income and then the next six months it’s very slow. So that’s why, right now, if I’m out and I stay touring and stay busy I’m able to pay all my bills, but if I’m not, then I might as well work an odd job, because you’re sitting around at home and you’re not making any money when you’re sitting around at home.

I read on Wikipedia that you sold an old drum set to pay for rent.
First off, never believe anything you read on Wikipedia because that’s the most inaccurate account of anything. When I first started dating my girlfriend, her mom wikipedia’d me and there was stuff on there that I went on Wikipedia and changed myself. I was like, “Holy shit, your mom wikipedia’d me? And now she thinks I’m a drug addict or this or that because I wrote one thing in a song.” Wikipedia is so fucked. Some other Internet sources are fine, but Wikipedia is a joke. I’m sorry. And you notice that because you start doing a bunch of interviews and everyone gets their questions from Wikipedia. And you’re like, “This is so easy.” So me and John one night, we were like, “Let’s go on Wikipedia and change it because we’ve got like 20 interviews in one day coming up next week.” And we changed it and wrote shit that wasn’t true to see if they’d ask us based on that and it was totally, probably 5 out of 10 interviews were like, “So, I heard you were once a drug dealer in Columbia.” And we were like, “Yeah, I lived in Bogotá for five years of my life and I dealt smack and lived down there, and yeah, I lived in a hut.”

I am resourceful and within reason, when I’m sitting around at home, everything is expendable when it comes to material possessions. I’ve sold all kinds of shit on my eBay. For me, I’ve got a lot of things and I keep everything and I’d rather a fan to have it then for me to have it. But I don’t play drums regularly and so I never sold a drum set. I’ve sold like old lyrics I’ve had and art photography, and old guitar equipment. But, for me, if I don’t need it and I’m not using it and it’s sitting in my closet, I’d rather one of our fans to have it and be stoked on it. So, yeah, whatever. Mortgage. It’s a hard thing.

You guys broke away from Columbia and have your own label now, right?
Quite a while ago. We did our last album, Welcome the Night, on this label Sanctuary and then about five months after we put that album out the label folded and they basically decided that they weren’t going to put any future records out from anyone. There were a lot of good bands on the label like Morrissey, Tegan and Sara, the last one they released was the girl from the Cranberries, her solo album. After that they said they were just going to keep her back catalog and not put anything else out. Currently, we’re basically just waiting to record some songs and then we’ll start deciding where we’re going to put it out. We have label interests, but not until we have some songs to play for them can we really decide what we’re going to do.

We have our own label imprint on our last album. But in this market, it’s not something I would expect to pursue. I wouldn’t want to have a label per say. You can put your imprint or whatever you want to call it. That was pretty much the extent of it. It was strictly in case we wanted to exercise that option really.

A lot of bands are breaking away from the major labels. Do you think that’s the future?
I think on some levels it is. Unless you’re a band that can exist by selling records through the big conglomerates like Wal-Mart and places like that. Those are really the only places that people buy full records I feel. Independent record stores don’t make enough of a dent in it anymore. People buy the song on iTunes that’s a single or they’ll download the record for free. Unless you’re like a pop, R&B, hip-hop or country artist. If you’re a rock band, you probably sell a small fraction of what you would have sold six years ago. A band like the Foo Fighters who would win a Grammy, they would sell like, maybe 800,000 of a record now, where six years ago would probably be a double platinum album which would be a couple million. That’s just the changing market if you’re a rock band. I think you just have to change with it and realize that’s how it goes.

They’re actually talking about lowering the number it takes to have a gold record. Now, currently, it’s 500,000 for a gold record and a million for platinum. Within this coming year I think it’s going to lower in half, like 250 or something for gold and then platinum is going to be like 6, 7, 8 I don’t know. That’s pretty crazy because for the size of our country, I mean, based on other countries, a gold record in the UK, it’s a small country, but it’s less than 100,000. It’s changed a lot. It’s really put a dent in the music industry. On some levels, I think that’s good because it really shakes shit up and I’m all for that, but if you’re a real starving musician and you’re trying to support yourself on your art, it kinda fucks you really bad.

For part two of the interview, to read about the upcoming album and Kris' typical writing process as well as the change in the Ataris' fan base over the years, click here.

2 comments:

splintered said...

Hey Annie, I got to your blog through facebook. Glad to see your blog is doing well. I'm not really a die-hard music fan but I do like the Ataris and I enjoyed reading your recent posts about them. Keep up the good work!

dave said...

this is a great interview. thanks for posting all of it.

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