Rockabilly- the retroactive term for the earliest music that was called Rock & Roll, and those of us who do now or ever did think of our enthusiasm as a lifestyle choice tend to be people who inherently feel the world was better before most of us were born. I hear the term “Old Soul” pretty frequently. At it’s most extreme, there’s a perception that post 1960 everything went in the shitter and never came back. Let’s go back to mono.
Those of us in the “flyover states” away from big cities filled to the brim with different kinds of people feel alone with this feeling in the early going. Before the internet created ways for us to find each other, huddle together, and keep in touch. When I was a kid in High School going around with my hair duded up and wearing my cuffed jeans, engineer boots, and black leather jacket, chasing Gene Vincent compilations around town, I had no reason to believe I would ever meet anyone else doing what I did. I think people thought I was just doing those things so that I would stick out. That wasn’t the case; I had just found something that spoke to me and thoroughly embraced it.
It was sheer serendipitous luck that I came to find out about David Loher’s Annual Rockabilly Rebel Weekend, held in Indianapolis every summer. Three nights of bands from all over the country -the world, even- at the lovely vintage Fountain Square Theater, affectionately referred to by all in the know as “Indy.” I went to my first one in 1997, mere weeks after my High School Graduation. I never knew it, but I was a part of something. Here it was. Life changed considerably after that.
That weekend is a blur for me, it felt like I had gone down the rabbit hole. Sensory overload. There’s two particular things that stand out: 1) Ronnie Dawson, a story for another day 2) The Atomics. The Atomics blew my mind. I hadn’t given up on the latter third of the 20th Century and had imagined where the sound of the Big Beat could’ve gone. Band leader Thommy Burns had also. I wanted to have a band like The Atomics before I knew that they existed and had beat me to it, done it better than I ever could have. They had played “traditional” Rockabilly all through the 90’s, had helped to create and played at the first Indy Weekend, but they allowed their sound to develop into this new thing.
Their reward? Indifference at best, hostility at worst. It was Dylan going electric. Irony being that most Rockabilly people held contempt for any period of Dylan on general principle (full disclosure, I kind of do, too).
Their magnum opus was an album called Sterling Park Accent. It turned 15 a couple years back, and after a several year absence you can now download it or buy it outright from cdbaby. This is one of my favorite albums ever and I’m very excited and proud to get to promote it again. To celebrate, Thommy Burns was gracious enough to grant me an interview to commemorate that anniversary. I got to ask him some tough questions and got very candid answers in return. As follows:
R: Where would you be without Rock & Roll?
T: That’s impossible to imagine. I have no idea. From the second I told my parents that I didn’t want to be on the soccer team any more all I did was play my guitar and dream of having a band. I would never have met my wife or any of the friends I have now, all of them former band members or fellow musicians or people I met at gigs. Every memory I have is tied to what was going on musically at the time. I could answer that I’d be playing hot jazz instead or something but hot jazz isn’t what made me pick up an instrument and dream big.
R: The Atomics were one of the only bands playing Rockabilly in the 90’s, before the internet could help pull a scene together. You were instrumental in the first Rockabilly Rebel Weekend. What was it like then? When you played different towns for the first time it had to feel like you were leaping into a cold pond in the middle of the night.
T: It was really exciting then, but going from being the only Rockabilly band in the world to sharing the spotlight had disadvantages. When we started discovering other bands playing Rockabilly I went through an awkward period of trying to meet expectations, it took me a while to find my own groove. We had been playing up and down the east coast for several years before we reconnected with our extended family over in Chicago – the first Atomics bassist Chris Freeman had formed a band in PA with Dave Sisson and they played around Pittsburgh before moving on to Chicago. Chris stopped gigging but we all stayed in touch and met up in Fairmount in Feb. of 1993 and the idea of “let’s put on a show” started there. It was overwhelming. The world became much bigger. I was wide eyed and frenzied, there was almost too much to discover, Rockabilly was all around the world and we were part of it.
R: The first time I saw the Atomics was in 1997 at that summer’s Indy. I’ll never forget, when you guys came on half the crowd walked out to smoke or get a beer or whatever. The other half, myself included, huddled around the stage halfway through your first number and got very into it. I’d never seen anything like it, it felt like a movement inside of a movement. How did it feel to be the guy doing something so divisive? We think of RAB fans as “our people.” Did you ever feel betrayed? Who was the intended audience, or was it all just stuff inside you that needed to come out?
T: I hated the Rockabilly crowd after a time and hate isn’t too strong a word. I felt acute performance punishment, I felt as if we had stuck our necks out and that our brothers and sisters had gone cowardly, it was like it wasn’t ALLOWED to like the Atomics in the Rockabilly scene. I remember the crowd huddled in front of the stage, I distinctly remember saying “thank you for being so loyal” and I remember it hitting me like a tank that if the Rockabilly scene was made up of outsiders, then these (and we) were the misfits among outsiders. I thought half of the flames and dice bands that it seemed “OK” to like were such shit and I got so resentful. People would whisper in private that they liked us and I thought “thanks for that but quit being so afraid to be different”. We all got into Rockabilly and we were different from everyone else, and then I saw us all afraid to be different from each other. We packed up and took the show to Europe, and later NYC.
R: I’ve always called The Atomics “progressive rockabilly.” Does that sound about right? there’s “rules” that you broke all over the place gleefully. Lyrics about complex things, songs longer than 3 minutes.
T: We called ourselves “Modern Rockabilly” after the Rockats, and then Original Cool fanzine coined the term “Alterna-billy” for us. “Progressive, modern, or alternative” all fit. I got to a point where Rockabilly was a pristine china shop and I was the biggest bull on the planet, smashing everything in sight. I grew to revel in the fact that we couldn’t be easily defined as “psychobilly” or “neo rockabilly”. I loved being difficult to categorize. And I knew there had to be someone somewhere who would get it.
R: Where did Sterling Park Accent come from? My theory is that if you live with Rockabilly for a very long time it becomes such a part of you that you can do anything you want and it will still have that Rock (so to speak) inside of it. How did these ideas develop for you?
T: I was a Rockabilly kid. I loved slapping bass. I loved Eddie Cochran. I cut my teeth on that, but when we recorded SPA I was obsessively listening to Suede, The Beatles and The Smiths. So it almost seems just that simple – here is what happens when a Rockabilly band plays music inspired by Suede. I started writing SONGS not “Rockabilly Songs”, and so lyrically a lot of personal stuff came out on SPA. Then there’s Boz Boorer. Any thing on SPA that really pushed boundaries was the Boz angel and the Boz devil on our shoulders blessing and damning the Atomics, pushing us to burn the rule book, really encouraging us to take the extra step further into new territory. He had mixed Fallen Like Her Angel and had a lot to do with the sound of it, but with SPA he was in the studio with us every second and deserves a lot of credit for the sound and feel of it. But as far as songwriting for that it was really the first time I WASN’T thinking “OK this has to have slap bass on it” or “this has to be like what Eddie Cochran would do in the 90’s”.
R: “Nobody listens when I do my thing, but everybody listens when I shout and scream” was a line in a tune from Atomic Age, the album after Sterling Park Accent. After The Atomics, you developed a kind of Ranch Party Hollywood Cowboy personae, like a pose turned up to 11 where the stuff you did before was very real and immediate… Was that intentionally ironic?
T: That line in Skyways was consciously written about the Indy crowd. After several years of a big happy Rockabilly family out for kicks, the Atomics were strictly verboten. SPA was “my thing” but I knew if I played Eddie Cochran covers all night we could fill the dance floor. It was almost soul destroying, and in retrospect Atomic Age comes off kind of like a last gasp. Immediately after the Atomics I did the full on traditional Rockabilly trio with the Steubenville Knights and I did it as a tribute to my Dad. I wasn’t consciously trying to please the purists, but I did need to get that out of my system. Then came the Hollywood cowboy phase and looking back I don’t know what I was thinking – it’s not that I don’t enjoy and appreciate that stuff it’s just that it seems ridiculous now to think that the Atomics front man could be reinvented as a Singin’ Cowboy. It wasn’t intentionally ironic at the time, but looking back I called the band the Sterling Cowboys which was a deliberate SPA reference. I was casting about, I went from that to doing Jimmie Rodgers style yodels and stuff. 12 years after the Atomics split I’m finally writing and demoing new original stuff.
R: What are you like now vs. then? Any new music you like? Any new music you’re making?
T: I am now a huge Eddie Cochran fan who listens obsessively to The Smiths and The Beatles…and now I can thank (or blame) Kirsty MacColl for getting me writing again. I was always aware of her and her connection to Morrissey and Marr, but I only recently started listening to her and she got me off my ass and made me remember what it meant to have something meaningful to say and to express yourself and maybe even rock out once in a while doing it. It’s been a long time since I felt music really moving me and changing the way I looked at things, and God bless Kirsty for that.
With Atomics drummer Deron and guitarists Jason Hicks and Mark Lawrence I’m now playing slap bass in a band called Speedway Operator. We were going to Portugal to record with Boz this month but made the difficult decision to postpone until we were really happy with a good batch of new material. We’re writing and playing what you could possibly call “progressive Rockabilly” if that even means anything in 2011! Hopefully we’ll have something to show for it soon.
R: Thanks for doing this. It’ll be good.
This interview originally ran on Atomic Wanderers.