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Interview: Atlas Genius


Interview: Atlas Genius

Zoe Walker

We recently chatted with home-grown Victor Harbor kid, Keith Jeffrey. Although he’s not quite a kid anymore, and not exactly living in the picturesque Victor Harbor. He and his brother, Michael, make up the indie electro rock band, Atlas Genius. After the release of their first single ‘Trojans’ back in 2012, the duo experienced a speedy rise to fame.

Now based in the musical hub of the world, Los Angeles, Michael and Keith have made a solid mark on America’s indie rock scene. The recent release of their latest album ‘Inanimate Objects’, has proved that they’ve got a whole lot more to offer. 

In the middle of their current tour with Passion Pit, Keith took a quick break to speak with us about the new album and his perspective on the issues Australia faces within the music industry.

Album cover art by Kii Arens via Atlas Hands

Album cover art by Kii Arens via Atlas Hands

 Hey Keith. So you and Michael both grew up in Adelaide?

Yeah we actually grew up in Victor Harbor. We were born and raised there and then got sent up to school in Adelaide. It was funny because Adelaide was the big city and it was very intimidating going up there as kids.

Yeah definitely. So how did Atlas Genius come about?

It was a labour of love because it was one of those things where we had a spot down in Victor where, we built a studio, and we’d grown up loving music. Music is a hard industry to make it in, and it’s a very uncertain industry. Especially in this day and age with album sales being affected by streaming and piracy and all that stuff. We got to this point – where Atlas Genius was just about to take off – and we thought maybe we should change what we’re doing and think about a more realistic career path. Especially living in Adelaide (and I love Adelaide, it’s such a beautiful city), as far as opportunities go, I mean even to get to Sydney or Melbourne from Adelaide is a real hike. And there’s that cultural cringe, I feel, which Adelaide still suffers from unfairly. Melbourne, Sydney and even Perth now, are seen as the real capitals of culture with music especially. So I think that we’ve always been overlooked in Adelaide and we really felt like our music careers were just not a viable thing. Ironically, that was when the music started to take off for us, without us even expecting it to.

It’s true that Melbourne and Sydney are hubs of culture, but I feel like in Adelaide, when bands start to make it, the whole community becomes really supportive of them. Did you ever feel that support?

Well the first thing we put out was ‘Trojans’ and when we put that out it started to get a lot of blog love. There’s a New York blog called Neon Gold that picked up on the song, and once they blogged about it, because it was a very influential blog, that spread to a lot of other blogs and suddenly we had literally 30 record companies around the world approach us in the space of less than two months. We had 30 companies. All of the major ones, all of the big indie ones from around the world from London and Japan, from America and Australia. The labels that we were getting really serious with were the ones over here, in America. So we had four record deals on the table. Because we signed to Warner Brothers in America, it was a worldwide deal but they’re based here so we did a lot of touring in America. It felt like we almost didn’t have that much time to even play shows in Adelaide. It’s not a case of Adelaide not getting behind it, it was just that all of a sudden we basically moved to the states.

Yeah, it’s interesting how people in different countries will respond to your music in different ways. So obviously America was the best place for you guys to be. Why do you think that is?

Well you know what I think it is, the situation in America is very healthy with their alternative radio stations. In Australia we basically have one alternative station and it’s nation-wide and it’s such a limited amount of bandwidth. You know, there are only so many hours in a day and so many songs they can play. If Triple J don’t anoint you and start playing you – which they didn’t for us, for some f**king reason they didn’t, even though we had a number one song in America on alternative radio for months... it was in the charts for a year. It went gold in America [and] sold half a million copies. It’s been streamed about 30 million times on Spotify and yet, Triple J didn’t play us. So that’s the problem. 

Some of the commercial stations in Adelaide were good. We were getting played on Triple M and a couple of the other stations but as you’d probably know, the youth market in Australia listen to Triple J. So when you go to Big Day Out (I don’t even know if Big Day Out is still going) but you go to any of these festivals, typically they are artists that are [being] played on Triple J. So if you aren’t lucky enough to get chosen, then you’ve really got no career in Australia. I’ve kind of been biting my tongue for a bunch of years, but they didn’t choose to play us for whatever f**king reason, I mean, we were the most indie band you could imagine. We recorded the album, mastered the album [and] did everything ourselves. There was no label involved until well down the path, yet they still didn’t play us. That means it makes it very difficult, especially because Australia is such a small country. I mean, look at what we have now, like 23 million [people] or something and California alone have more people than that. So you’ve got to be having a lot of air-time in Australia to even have a viable career. 

It’s funny because you look at these bands that I loved as I was growing up, all these Australian bands that still had their day jobs. Like, you know Powderfinger (I don’t know where they got to) but a lot of those big bands they were still kind of struggling. So yeah, that’s the problem with such an isolated country with such a small population.

I guess it kind of sucks because it should really be all about the music and not so political…

Yeah, I mean, it’s funny because no matter how much success you have outside of your country, there is that part of you that’s still proud of your country, and it is what it is. Yet, we do festivals all year where the average crowd is around 15,000 to 20,000 people and we’d probably play to ten people in Australia... and it’s all because one f**king station doesn’t play you.

Yeah that’s really interesting. Well, I’m glad you guys are enjoying America, where are you based there?

We live in Los Angeles but I’m currently in Alabama on tour.

Right! Looks like you guys have been on the road for a while, how’s that been?

Oh it’s great. We’ve been on tour for about three months. We’re on a tour at the moment with Passion Pit for another few weeks. So we’re kind of all over the country at the moment. We were in Vegas a couple of days ago and New Orleans yesterday. New Orleans is great, I didn’t get to see a lot of it but it’s interesting because its been through a lot of shit, I mean like ten years ago it was nearly wiped out by the hurricane. They’re definitely still struggling, I mean there’s parts of it that are still in ruins but it’s an intriguing place.

Can you tell me more about your genre of music? ‘Inanimate Objects’ in particular is quite eclectic so it seems like labelling you as an indie rock band doesn’t really do you justice...

Yeah it’s a hard one to put a label on. Even before, but now especially, I don’t know whether indie rock or indie-electro rock does it justice. We pulled inspiration from so many influences growing up, and it’s funny because a lot of these Australian bands that we love, people in America aren’t that familiar with. I loved You Am I, and ACDC was a big one for everyone around the world. Even Crowded House. Funnily enough, a lot of Americans aren’t familiar with Crowded House and I kind of thought that they were truly global, but apparently Americans aren’t that familiar. Stuff like that and INXS as well, there’s a lot of stuff that we pulled into our sound. When we were at high school, we would listen to Rage Against The Machine and Nirvana and bands like that. 

This album is a lot darker than the first one. It’s really just the mood that I was in. It was a strange time for me, coming off tour after 18 months because it was such a whirlwind. Go, go go, you know? Every day, different city and sometimes different country. Then to be back in a small town, Victor Harbor, where we grew up. You can imagine just how much of a shock it is to go back there. It’s a very real feeling of post-tour depression where all of a sudden your time is your own but it’s also an uneasy feeling. Normally on tour, you’ve got your tour manager telling you what time to get up, what time you have to go to the radio-station etc, etc. Then you go back to being your own person again and it’s actually a little unsettling.

You said that the album is a little darker than the last one, so I was wondering what you were hoping to achieve with it in comparison to your other work?

Well, a few things. As we were doing this album, Michael and I really wanted it to translate live because we tour so much. The first album was done in isolation, just in a studio and we were doing it for fun really. Then when we toured with that, we would change those songs as we were playing them live. We would rock them up just a little, or tweak it in sections. So we thought rather than do that live, let’s deal with these aspects within the songs. We really focussed on the rhythms and big fat synth bass-lines and how they would sound live. As for the lyrical content, when I looked back on it I was kind of shocked at how many of the songs were about transition and change or movement. I guess partly it was because we had changed so much in the past few years, plus we were just physically moving a lot and dealing with a couple of breakups that I went through in the space of the last couple of years. That all made it into the album.


Were you in Australia when you wrote it?

Well, for a couple of months; some of the songs started in Australia. I began working on it and I had about 40 embryonic song ideas in the first couple of months last year. Then in the beginning of April we moved over to Los Angeles. The bulk of it was written in LA and it took us a while to sort of settle into a working rhythm as well, because we had our own studio in Australia. So we needed to find the right space to work in when we came over to the states. We also had to figure out who we wanted to work with. We produced the first album by ourselves and then I thought, this time round I want to have a co-producer, so we have someone to bounce ideas off [and] you’re not so emotionally invested. I mean, you’re still invested but when it’s your band there’s that extra level that is almost debilitating because you’re so close to it. So it’s really good to have someone else to work with.

We also collaborated with a bunch of people, some of that stuff made it on the album, some of it didn’t. We wrote a song with Luke Pritchard from The Kooks, which turned out great and it’s actually going to be a b-side, but it’s not actually on the album. 

So I think throughout the process I was a little bit less reluctant, I loosened the reigns a little bit. Sometimes I can be a bit of a control freak. It’s nice to get a bunch of people that you can jam with and get a different perspective on things because everyone has different ways of doing things and they bring their own strengths.

I’m just looking at your album cover and I’m guessing there’s a bit of symbolism going on there. Can you tell me more about it?

Yeah well there’s this really amazing artist based in Los Angeles called Kii Arens and he does so much amazing art, typically for bands. He’s done stuff for Queens of the Stone Age, Tame Impala, Empire of the Sun, you name it, he’s done so much stuff. I wasn’t actually aware of the stuff he’d done with these bands but I was in our manager’s office one day in LA and she had a couple of pieces of his artwork on the wall. It’s kind of pop art and surrealism with hints of Andy Warhol, you know? I asked who the artist was because we had been thinking about who we would get to do the album cover, we instantly knew that this was a dude we need to get. We approached him and he was keen to do it. We played him the album and discussed what it was about, and the fact that it was going to be called ‘Inanimate Objects.’ So he had this idea where it was kind of like a flash bulb from an old camera, sort of thing, and thought it would be an interesting idea. Eventually he came up with the art that we’ve got now. So yeah, I have to give him credit for that.

That’s awesome. It looks amazing. Any idea when you’ll be back in Adelaide again?

We’re coming back for Christmas for a couple of weeks but as far as playing, we’ve got a lot of stuff over here in the states and we’re heading to Europe for a little bit. After that, I know an Australian tour is being worked out at the moment, but as far as dates go, I don’t have anything right now. We’re working on it!

Cool, well that’s all we’ve got time for. Thanks for speaking with us, we hope to see more of you guys in the near future!

Yeah likewise, have a good one. 


Head to iTunes to get yourself a copy of 'Inanimate Objects'.

Header image via Atlas Genius