When I first received the schedule of events to give me an idea of what I’d be doing while down in Daytona Beach for the Coke Zero 400, I noticed that the very first item on the agenda was a concert by Atomic Tom. As a music buff, my first reaction was always going to be excitement, but my second reaction was concern over why the name “Atomic Tom” didn’t mean anything to me. I thought, “Geez, I know I’m a full-time TV critic these days, but am I really that far out of touch with the current music scene?” I absolutely am, of course, but in this case, I felt slightly less out of the loop to learn that Atomic Tom are currently still sitting on the precipice of major success, as their debut album for Universal / Republic won’t be out ’til later this year. When that happens, however, I’d say the odds are pretty decent that they could find themselves as big as The Killers or The Bravery…and if that should come to pass, no one would be more thrilled about it than Dodge, who have teamed up with Atomic Tom as part of a new promotion aligning people’s passion for cars with their passion for music.
When I arrived at the Dodge dealership in Daytona for Atomic Tom’s performance, it was suggested that I might want to sit down with the guys in the band for a chat, and since even with my current TV vs. music handicap, I still know wayyyyyyy more about music than I do about cars, I didn’t hesitate for a moment to break out my recorder. The only problem…? I was just off my flight and hadn’t had much of a chance to do my usual pre-interview research. As such, I tried to break the ice by casually acknowledging my lack of knowledge on the group’s back story.
Bullz-Eye: So, first, if you don’t mind, you could really save me a bit of time if you’d just go ahead and run through the complete history of the band… (Laughs)
Tobias Smith: Well, wait, who are you? (Laughs)
BE: Oh, I’m just this guy, you know?
TS: (Laughs) You’re a live blogger, is that right?
BE: Oh, God, no. I’m not that fast. (Laughs) I’m a writer and editor for a web magazine called Bullz-Eye.com.
TS: Where are you based?
BE: Norfolk, VA. Virginia Beach, that whole area.
Luke White: I’m from Virginia. A little north of you, though. Manassas.
Eric Espiritus: I’m from Fairfax, actually.
BE: Nice. Well, I was born at Norfolk General, and I never really left.
TS: Well, you’re here now! (Laughs) So what’s the site like? Do you talk a lot about music?
BE: It’s pop culture, across the board. It’s a guy’s site, really. It started mostly as an excuse to put up bikini girls and sports scores, but it’s evolved quite a bit. Don’t worry, though: there’s still a lot of bikini girls. No nudity, though.
TS: Well, that’s good, because we’re a family… (Hesitates) We’re not really a family band, are we? But we don’t have any swearing in our music, though.
Philip Galitzine: No, we haven’t gotten there yet.
LW: Maybe on the second or third record we’ll get around the putting the parental advisory sticker on there.
BE: Maybe during your rebellious period.
TS: Exactly! We’ll also put out a Christian album to come back from that.
LW: Then the folk/acoustic record.
TS: Sure, but not until long after the greatest-hits album…which, by the way, will be our second album. (Laughs)
LW: You do know he’s recording all of this, right?
TS: (Spots the recorder on the table) Oh, God, you’re already recording? Well, then, look, let me just say this right now: we are a very serious band, and we do not joke around.
(Predictably, the entire band bursts into laughter at this comment.)
TS: So, I’m sorry, you said you wanted a history of the band?
BE: (Laughs) If you don’t mind. How did Atomic Tom first come together?
LW: I moved to New York in 2005 and started writing demos and putting them together with Philip here, who was born and raised in New York City.
BE: How did you two first cross paths?
PG: A mutual friend.
LW: Yeah, a mutual friend.
PG: This drummer that I was friends with and who went to school with, he was playing with Luke at the time and just doing demos, and he put me in touch with Luke to get started.
LW: And then this guy… (Motions to Eric) …came on board in 2007. He moved down from Boston, started playing some shows with us, got sold on the idea, and…as soon as he came on board, it was just, like, a big green light, ‘cause he’s a great songwriter and singer in his own right, and he really helped start develop the guitar side of things.
EE: Yeah, we knew each other from Boston, and we have a lot of mutual friends.
LW: And then we bumped into this guy… (Motions to Tobias) …when we were on tour in Toronto. He was actually playing for the band opening for us, and a couple of nights later, we said we needed a drummer, and he came down, auditioned three times… (Laughs)
TS: Really? We’re gonna talk about that?
LW: (Laughs) …and pretty much the moment we said, “Yeah, this is the guy,” things started to just take shape. We went into the studio last summer with what we thought were the ten strongest songs that we had, spent three months recording, started mixing in December or January, and finished the record in March.
BE: Who produced it?
LW: Ben Romans, who’s a good mutual friend of ours. We went to school with him.
TS: He’s a really, really talented musician, a keyboard player, and just all-around really talented.
BE: How did you come up with the name of the band?
(There is a notable silence in the room, though it is accompanied by much smirking.)
PG: Atomic Tom is the world’s smallest superhero.
EE: And that’s all we’re going to say.
BE: I feel like there’s a back story there that’s just screaming to be told.
PG: Yes. And at some point, it will come out.
TS: Maybe on the greatest-hits album?
LW: That’s all we know about Atomic Tom: that he’s the world’s smallest superhero. We have to find out more about Atomic Tom himself at this point.
(The smirking continues, along with a bit of quiet laughter, but it’s clear by this point that there will be no further revelations about the life and times of the world’s smallest superhero, so I decide to let the matter drop.)
BE: Okay, here’s a predictable one: what are your musical influences? Or, to be more specific, in what direction did you guys decide to go when you first started writing songs together? Did you have a style in mind from the get-go?
LW: Yeah, I mean, I think we really like things that are…well, in 2004, I guess I was listening to bands like The Killers and The Bravery and a lot of those new wave styled bands, and I was really fascinated by that. I’m a huge lover of anything from the ‘80s: New Order, The Cure, and those type of bands that use keyboards and electronics and have melodies that intersect with each other and use their instruments in unique ways. That’s what I tried to do with some of the first demos, and having all four of us together kind of really made that happen a lot more. Everybody kind of brought their own musicality, and the four of us definitely…
PG: I think that, as we got closer and closer to the album process, we, along with the producer, kind of took that vision and expanded on it. I think all four of us started to develop a real friendly relationship with rock/pop music, stuff like Kings of Leon, Coldplay…
TS: (With mock horror) Coldplay?!?
PG: Yes! A lot of people would consider them to be guilty pleasures, maybe, but I love their songwriting. I think it’s…those guys, the way that they made those records, are genius. The newer Phoenix record is another example of that. It’s pop music, but it’s just, like, “Oh, my God, I just want to keep listening to this!” And I think that we came from that era of the ‘80s-influenced kind of rock and took it and made it a bigger and more accessible sound. We just made it poppier, to put it succinctly.
EE: Yeah, I think we definitely…I mean, initially, there was definitely a lot of that ‘80s influence, and I think all of us share that, but we also come from different musical backgrounds as well, all stemming from that desire for good pop melodies, stuff that people can sing along to. We like an edge and a sophistication in the music as well. We like rock ‘n’ roll. We just came from different places and shaped it into this nice mix, this combination of rock.
BE: Yeah, actually, I was going to ask what you guys each brought to the table, as far as your individual musical backgrounds.
EE: Well, like, for me, I grew up playing a lot of Van Halen and stuff like that. I love Van Halen from the guitar standpoint. The Beatles and the Beach Boys are two of my huge influences as far as melodies and songwriting. Great pop songs. And, I mean, I try to keep up with modern music. I don’t do it as much as I used to, but ,yeah, I love Coldplay and Kings of Leon. The Killers brought something really amazing when they came out. Weezer. I love Weezer.
PG: Weezer’s another good one. For me…I started out listening to a lot of grunge, then moved from grunge to jam bands. Typical kind of adolescent progression. But by the time I was in college, I was listening to a lot of stuff that not a lot of people were listening to. I was listening to, like, UK drum and bass music, and then I kind of went from that and got into some strange electronica music and came into pop music that way…and, gradually, as that become poppier and poppier, that influenced my style a lot. It’s funny: I think we all have these different areas that we came from, but they all intersect with each other nicely.
TS: I came from more of a singer/songwriter thing. I grew up listening to my parents’ music. I don’t listen to the music that I once did as a kid, but I listen to, like, Pete Yorn and Dashboard Confessional and stuff like that. Even John Mayer, although I think…you know, we should probably strike that from the record. I might lose my indie credibility for saying that.
BE: I will indicate that your fingers were crossed at the time. (Laughs)
LW: I grew up loving a lot of the ‘80s new wave. I’d say my favorite kind of music is just that anthemic rock/pop stuff. I grew up just loving U2, and, yeah, I like Coldplay. New Order I mentioned earlier, and those kinds of bands. Weezer is one of my favorite bands, definitely. I feel like my musical journey really happened over the past ten years, to be honest with you. Growing up, I was into a lot of jazz, because my father’s a jazz musician. Bebop, jazz from the ‘30s, ‘40s, ‘50s, and ‘60s. But in terms of simple, melodic pop songs, that journey has really been over the last 10 years. I had a lot of catching up to do.
BE: Given that you guys have kind of a retro sound, do you ever find it a struggle to maintain a contemporary sound while still paying tribute to those sonic influences?
TS: I think no. And I think no because I think we all bring…everybody has their own flavor. Everybody has their own style in this band. Like, I’m always going to hit the drums really hard, and everybody’s going to play balls-out rock, usually. I think that with all of our different influences, I think it brings something that’s sort of unique while being a rock band with pop sensibilities, so…I don’t think it’s ever been a struggle for us to create a sound that we felt was current, because I don’t think we sound exactly like anyone, that’s for sure. We definitely pay our respects to many, many different artists, though.
PG: Good music carries over, I think. Like, U2 playing “Sunday Bloody Sunday” now sounds just as amazing as it did when they were playing in 1983 or whenever, and I think that we’re all aware of the past but of the present. In fact, working with Ben on the record for as long as we did made us even more aware of the present state of music. Ben was playing stuff for us like Britney Spears’ record, and we’re, like, “Okay, we can see the merits in this.” I mean, yeah, ultimately, it’s fluff, but at the same time, we’re asking, “All right, well, why are people buying this? Why are people wanting to listen to this? Why is it addictive?” And we kind of became students of that when we were making the record.
EE: Yeah, I mean, we’re definitely aware of a lot of the stuff that’s going on now and in the top 40. We definitely keep our eye on what’s hot and everything.
LW: I guess it just kind of comes down to the four of us creating music that’s our own thing. Modern, retro, whatever you want to call it. We synthesize it all, and it feels fresh to us.
BE: What are you guys doing for touring? Is it club gigs, or are you going to be opening for someone?
TS: Yeah, we’re doing club gigs now. Hopefully, in the next couple of months…the single’s going to get a big push on radio in August, and at that point, we’re hoping to do some national touring and, later, international touring.
EE: We’d love to be able to get on a good supporting-act tour. That’d be great.
PG: It’s about just getting in front of as many people as possible. So if there’s a band that likes our music and has a huge fan base, then we’ll be happy to introduce ourselves to their fan base. (Laughs)
BE: What are your hopes for your Universal debut and for the future, given the state of the industry?
TS: Well, we want to sell at least 100 copies.
PG: 100 to 150 copies.
TS: Really? 150 might be pushing it. But I think that if we got to 100, we’d be pretty happy.
PG: Yeah, but my mom is gonna buy 2 copies, and so are all of my family, so I think we might even push 250.
TS: No way.
PG: Yeah. For reals.
TS: Holy shit.
EE: Yeah, I mean, if we each buy 50, we’ll be pretty close.
TS: I can’t afford 50 albums!
PG: Maybe when it goes on sale on Amazon for six bucks. Download of the Day! (Laughs) But, you know, we’re on Universal / Republic, they’re very excited about the record, and…we have high hopes. I mean, I don’t know how else to put it. They’ve had a lot of success with a lot of bands in the past.
LW: Owl City.
PG: Yeah, Owl City was this pop act that just blew up. Godsmack has been with them for a long time, and they do really well on Modern Rock. Yeah, the label’s been great, so, personally, I have a lot of faith in them to get the record heard by as many people as possible. That’s the ultimate goal. That’s what we hope for: to get it heard by everyone.
LW: Labels are a marketing machine, for sure, and we definitely look at this as a slow-build process for us. We’ve got to keep working our asses off, keep writing, keep touring, keep doing our thing, hope that we’re connecting with new fans and potential fans and people we’ve never met before who are just seeing and hearing what we’ve done, what we’ve written, what we’ve created. And we’ll see how they’re reacting to it and what it’s doing for them.
EE: Yeah, we got signed based on an album that we were doing completely independently. The label…when we recorded our album, we were, like, “Okay ,the next thing we have to do is record an album.” So we recorded our ten songs…
PG: …not expecting to get signed at all…
EE: Yeah, not at all. We were just doing what we wanted to do, and we did it pretty much in our friend’s apartment in Brooklyn, but we were really proud of it. It was great because there was no label involved. We did it 100% the way we wanted to do it, and it was great that the label wanted to work with us. They believed in what we were doing, basically.
LW: We don’t really have, other than our performance, anything else to bring to the table. We’re not one of those bands with 5 billion YouTube plays or MySpace fans or Facebook friends. We’ve definitely been getting a lot over the past couple of months, which is great, but they said that the reason that they signed us was based completely on the record, which is a really cool feeling.
PG: Yeah, to know that we made something ourselves with our friends that could compete on that level.
LW: Most bands that are signed have, like, a lot more going on than we did at the time. We were just kind of minding our own business, and it just sort of happened.
PG: We were expecting to just do our own thing and go our own way, but now we’ve got this legitimate shot with a great partner in Universal / Republic.
EE: And they’re all really, really cool.
PG: Yeah, it’s the coolest place.
LW: No, that’s Disneyworld, isn’t it?
PG: Yeah, it might be. But Universal / Republic is definitely a close second. (Laughs)
BE: How did you guys get hooked up with Dodge?
LW: They visited us. We were playing this TV show for Fearless Music in New York, and I guess they brought Dodge to the stage because they were hoping to connect with them. We kind of looked at that opportunity as, “Okay, we need a van.” (Laughs)
PG: But we met with the Dodge people, and they seemed really down to earth in a way that I certainly wasn’t expecting. I mean, they genuinely seemed excited about the music we were playing, and they were excited about how it could work for them. It was just much more relaxed than I thought it was going to be. It was actually very cool.
TS: They flew out the CEO, Ralph Gilles. He came, and he was a really cool guy. We got along because he’s Canadian and I’m Canadian… (Laughs) …but, yeah, they were good people, and we’ve been talking to them ever since.
LW: We’ve talked about sponsorship opportunities, maybe using a song here and there, maybe something like Phoenix did with the Cadillac commercial. Just seeing what kind of opportunities are there. We’ll see what happens.
After our chat, the guys from Atomic Tom headed out to the stage that had been set up for them in the parking lot of Daytona Dodge, and despite some decidedly uncooperative weather conditions which led to a smaller-than-hoped audience, the guys put on the same performance they would’ve offered to a sold-out crowd, interspersing two sets worth of original material with a trio of covers that confirmed their disparate influences: Van Halen’s “Running with the Devil,” Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants To Rule The World,” and Queen’s “Tie Your Mother Down.” There’s no question about it: Luke was born to be a frontman, Eric’s a full-fledged guitar hero, and Tobias and Philip are all about rocking the rhythm. See them now while they’re still up and coming, because if the stars align as they should, Atomic Tom’s stock is going to be rising in rapid-fire fashion.
Between sets, while the guys cooled down, I caught up with Fred DePerez, head of Dodge Product Marketing, and asked him to tell me a bit more about the initiative that brought Dodge to team up with Atomic Tom.
Bullz-Eye: So tell me a little bit of back story about this promotion you’ve got going with Atomic Tom, if you will.
Fred DePerez: Sure! As the Dodge brand re-launches itself into the marketplace, we’re looking to reinvent ourselves, and one of the things that we want to do that ties us to the past but will also tie us to the future is to really have a presence around those things that people are passionate about. When you look at our heritage cars of the past, these are things that people…I mean ,they love these cars with a passion, and they will always love these cars with a passion, and Dodge is about continuing to build cars that people are passionate about. But at the same time, it’s not just about the cars. It’s also about the lifestyle. The Dodge lifestyle is about living life to the fullest, it’s about when others say “no” to driving, we say, “Yes!” (Laughs) We’re about loving the actual act of driving your vehicles, and when we look at what some others are doing in different areas, like music, we see that same kind of passion. We see some of these bands, like Atomic Tom, that have been working at this for many, many years and have finally gotten to a point where they’re ready to show the world what they’ve put together. At the end of the day, it’s about taking the passion of cars, taking the passion in music, putting them together, and bringing them to our customers so they can enjoy it. So that’s kind of how this all started. It’s very, very grass-roots. Sometimes you get into these endeavors and it’s about how big an act you can get and how big a name you can get. That’s not really what we’re about. What we’re trying to do is something very organic, very grass-roots. We’re actually going out there and finding these bands, and we have some partners that are helping us do that. We think it’s a great fit for where the brand’s going.
BE: Do you yourself get out there to check out the bands?
FD: Yeah, actually, I was down at Crash Mansion earlier this year, in the Bowery, in New York City, and Fearless Music was doing a taping for their TV show, and Atomic Tom was one of the bands that was playing. And you know what? Obviously, from a music standpoint, they’re great, but they’re also…when you get to talk to them and get to know them as people a little bit, it’s just a great group of guys, very passionate about what they do. Right away, we thought, “What a great way to help them move along in their career, and for them to help us connect better with our customers through something that everybody’s really, really passionate about,” which is music.
BE: I presume Dodge is doing to have a bigger web presence, now that you’ll be working with musical artists.
FD: Yeah, we’re working on a couple of different things right now, and one of those is revamping our web presence to include not just the ability to find our cars, price and build our cars, see what’s going on in the automotive side of the business, but also from a lifestyle perspective. We want people to know what Dodge is about. Dodge is about peak performance, which is why we’re into the Rock ‘N’ Roll Marathon. We’re about passionate living and being full of life and this “forever young” attitude, and that’s why we’re into music. We’re also into motorsports and NASCAR, because we’re about automotive excellence as well. You take all of these things together, and you can find them in bits and pieces out on the blogosphere and on the websites, but there is no one place where you can go to find out where Dodge is all about, and we’re in the process of creating that.
BE: Are there any other bands on your radar at the moment who’ll be participating that you can talk about?
FD: (Grins) Can’t talk about any right now, but, yes, there are some more bands that’ll be a part of our whole lifestyle platform. I don’t want to say too much! (Laughs) Part of what we’re trying to do is…we’re trying to have this evolve. This is the first event we’ve done, we’ll learn from today, we’ll talk to some of the people out here, we’ll learn how to do these things better. We think we have a great opportunity with some of our partners to find great talent. Fearless Music is one of them, but there are some other partners that we’re looking at as well. I think this is one of those things where you don’t want to force it. You want it to be kind of driven organically from the grass-roots perspective. So that’s kind of where we’re at right now.
BE: So there’s no one behind the scenes rushing you guys to move faster?
FD: No. This is something internally that, when we sat down as the senior leadership of the Dodge brand to think about who we’re going to become, we… (Pauses) Dodge will be 100 years old in 2014, and as you know, over the years, it’s had a lot of great products, a lot of great successes. But so have our competitors. And now it’s time to reevaluate where the brand is and really freshen its identity to people. That’s what we’re in the process of doing right now. We hope people like the concert. We think it’s cool to be involved with music, and we want to keep bringing music to places like this, whether it’s Daytona or dealerships across the country or Rock ‘N’ Roll marathons. We want to keep bringing music to the people as a way to show the passion that we have for life and this whole “forever young” mindset. We’re trying to continue to make people understand that that’s what Dodge is all about.