Primer writer Kevin H. MacLean followed Brooklyn band Atomic Tom this summer to get a taste of the rock star lifestyle. What he got was one hell of a noisy wake up call (in a good way).
Thursday, August 12th, it’s 10pm at the Brooklyn Bowl and Atomic Tom is about to take the stage. This night is four years in making. In some ways this is just another show for the boys from Brooklyn, in another, it is the next step.
This is their first show in their hometown since the release of their debut album The Moment (Universal Republic), headlining, in a room more than double the size of their usual venues. As they get set to take the stage a peppering of spectators around the stage turns into a mass of fans 15 rows deep. There is a definite energy room and its all for AT.
Their set starts out seemingly harder and faster than in shows past. Much of the crowd sings along with the catchy hooks. A group of bubbly early twenty-some-things excitedly snap pictures of front man, Luke White, as he oozes style and confidence from center stage.
After the show, the band members can’t help but shine a little in the after glow. As they talk to friends and fans there is a definitely feeling in the air that AT has made it, and it’s only a matter of time before the world knows it.
“I’m a little tired,” drummer, Tobias Smith, explains after a slightly lackluster greeting at Great Scott in Boston. After playing a show in D.C. the night before, the band got back in to New York City at 3am and then had to leave for Boston at 8am for an interview on a local radio show. After their show tonight, they will drive back to NYC for another early morning interview with ABC.
“We are so fortunate.” Tobias says with more than a hint of sarcasm. People generally think of artists who are fortunate enough to have found some stability as the luckiest people on earth. They don’t really have any idea how much of a grind it is.
“It gets harder as it gets easier.” Bassist, Phil Galitzine, explains. “But it gets more rewarding too.” The more doors open the more you have to work to not just get to the next step but even stay where you are. “We aren’t really getting much sleep these days.”
But even if the road to rock stardom was impossible, no one in Atomic Tom could really imagine themselves doing anything else. None of them ever really considered other options. None of them ever wanted to do anything else. Not a matter of wanting to, but being able to.
That hardly means the boys of AT have been living exclusively as musicians their whole lives. For all their cups of coffee and lack of sleep they wouldn’t trade any of it for life before they became full time musicians. When all is said and done AT really does feel like one of the lucky ones.
Temp jobs, graphic design projects, part-time stints at the GAP that turn into a seven year full-time career, even working on construction crews, anything to get by while still having time for their music.
“Anything else we did, we did just so we could stay together.” Luke shares.
“A lot of session work for other musicians.” Phil said thinking about life before AT got signed. “Just living hand to mouth. You’ve got a make a living in the city. Playing with other people and being that hired gun.” Stability is so foreign a concept that it might as well be Latin.
Evictions, friend’s couches, rooms the size of glorified closets. AT’s members have had no shortage of volatility to deal with.
“I lived on a few couches for a while.” Guitarist, Eric Angelo, remembers. “I lived in about five different places in the last three years.”
Sometimes working a day job and then having rehearsals straight through from 4pm to 1am only to have to get into work at 8am that morning.
“I did that for about a year and ½.” Phil reminisces.
“I probably spent 90% of my workday promoting Atomic Tom when I should have been working.” Luke tells us. “Then go home and write and rehearse for a few hours. It’s still hard to find that balance between pursuing something you’ve always wanted and having time for the people you love.”
Undeniably, personal relationships and old friends are often the casualties of a life of constant touring and promoting.
“We are going to have so many enemies by the time we’re famous… It’s going to be awesome.” Luke jokes, still thinking of “fame” as some kind of far off imaginary place. AT has made it further than 98% of bands ever will, and even as close as they are to getting where they want to be (and they are close) they still don’t really feel it.
Atomic Tom doesn’t have to promote themselves in secret anymore, one of the benefits to being signed to a major record label. There are a lot of bands in New York City, let alone America. Getting signed to a label is no small step, but it is only a step all the same. They still can’t afford to buy houses or cars but they can at least pay the rent on time. Indeed getting signed is only the beginning.
“Getting signed is great, but the goal isn’t to get signed, it’s to be rocked stars.” Eric admits.
Anyone who knows will tell you, playing music and being a musician in the music industry are two very different things. AT broke down their daily lives as consisting of 40% meetings, 40% promotion, and 20% actually holding their instruments.
“You’re in meetings now where people are talking about selling millions of records instead of a few thousand out of the back of your car.” Says Luke. “You’re definitely playing at a higher level.”
AT won’t deny that there is a certain amount of chance involved to getting signed but they refuse to give Lady Luck too much credit. “We did everything we could to get ourselves here. Some of it was luck, but some of everything is luck.” Eric decides.
Luke believes that there is a little more chance involved than that but he meets him halfway by concluding, “You make your own luck.”
AT did indeed have to make much of their own luck. They didn’t have any connections within the industry. No great benefactor. No rich uncle. Just lots of rehearsals, shows in half empty rooms, and very short phone calls to radio stations. Until all the work starts to pay off and the radio stations start to play your record and the rooms start to look not so empty.
But even after a major label takes you under their wing you still have to do anything you can to get ahead.
Creating four or five accounts on a website so you can vote for your band more than once, calling in to radio stations and requesting your own song, whatever you can do to give yourself just that much more exposure. They’d feel bad about it, if they weren’t doing everything the right way.
One day they saw a pay off for their work was the day their album debuted on iTunes and climbed as high as #55 on the sales chart.
“That was a great hour.” Tobias joked. “We ended the day at 90, which was really sweet, until we saw that 89 was The Miseducation of Lauren Hill (1998).”
Joking aside, AT couldn’t help but feel a sense of accomplishment seeing their album climb up the charts, if only for a short time. “We let ourselves take it easy. That was a cool day.” Phil recalled.
AT found out quickly that life in the music industry is a game without many rules and sitting around waiting to be famous isn’t going to get you anywhere. You have to be willing to beg, steal, and say “borrow” but mean “have”. You have to be willing to be part of a constant hustle. You hear it every day ever since you first pick up that guitar, but until you actually live it, you have no idea.
Tobias knows from experience. “You know it is going to be tough, but you’re only thinking about it. When you’re actually sitting there, driving at 5am, that’s hard.”
But you do it anyway, because it’s the only thing that makes sense. And in spite of the challenges anything that gets you that much closer to the light at the end of the tunnel is worth it. And Atomic Tom is so close you can see that light reflecting off their eyes.
Atomic Tom is a Brooklyn based rock band signed to Universal Republic and they are currently on tour!