The Weekly interview: The Ataris’ frontman Kris Roe

Michael Charlston
Chris Bitonti

You’re coming to Vegas, celebrating the 10th anniversary of breakout album So Long, Astoria. What does that record mean to you? It’s the album I would give to someone who didn’t know our band, because it’s where my songwriting finally started to get refined and take some shape. I feel like I started to learn how to hone in on my talent and make songs the strongest they can be, with the most vivid storytelling and as much depth and meaning in the narrative as possible.

I think it’s a straightforward rock record that got a lot of people outside the world of alternative or power-pop or punk rock into our band. We had been a band since 1996, touring since 1999, and we had built up a strong following with three independent albums on The Vandals’ label Kung Fu Records out of Orange County. When we signed to Columbia, I really wanted to make sure they just took what we had done and built a grassroots following and built upon it. They took our band and helped get our message and music out to the next level—that’s what So Long, Astoria did.

You also put the So Long, Astoria lineup back together for this. How did that come together? I was out doing a tour in Europe with my old bass player—his band Versus the World was opening. I hadn’t seen him in, like, 10 years, and we hung out like it was old times. We were like brothers when I first moved to Santa Barbara when I was 19—he gave me a place to stay when I was homeless living in my van and really helped me get my feet on the ground.

We let him play bass on one song one night in London, and it was a blast but it was nothing more than that, because I am perfectly happy with the lineup we have now. After this tour I plan to go back to what I was doing—this is a one-off thing, and I made that clear. But when I got home, our old booking agent called me up and was like, “How do you feel about doing a 10th anniversary tour for So Long, Astoria?” I told him we had already talked about doing it with the lineup we had now and I really wasn’t interested in that. And he said, “How ’bout I take it one step further? Why don’t you go out and play the album with the lineup that people recognize with that album?” And I was basically like, “Yeah, I’d be keen to do that—it’d be like The Blues Brothers—but at at first I didn’t think everyone would be on board. I was like, “Man, you’ll never get our old drummer,” because there was some bitter blood. He kinda ended things on a weird note—we grew up and we didn’t think there was any need to baby-sit people. I think my parting words were, “Look if you wanna join Mötley Crüe or Aerosmith, go ahead and do it.” Leave the party for after the show.

But long story short, I basically said, “Yeah, I’m keen to the idea.” Then we met together in October—it was the first time we’d met up in, like, 10 years, We filmed it as a mini-documentary to promote the tour and did some cool sh*t where we brought up the reels from the album and played it like those VH1 Classic Albums. We talked about the songs and what they meant to us and interviewed a bunch of other people. In the end I think it was a really graceful reuniting of four friends, and I look forward to going out one last time and playing that album with them.

You mentioned The Blues Brothers, and I can’t help imagining you guys reuniting with a “We’re getting the band back together” scene. (Laughs) Yeah, I hope there’s a least one 100-car police chase during the tour. And we are playing the House of Blues in Chicago, where the old Blues Mobile is parked.

I remember being a kid in the 1980s and watching that movie and just being blown away. I had cool parents—they were hippies with good music taste, so we always watched the original SNL; they’d let me stay up every Saturday. If it wasn’t for my mother and father I never would have discovered The Beatles or The Beach Boys and later the ’60s stuff and moving on to Zeppelin and Sabbath and all the good classic rock. They were definitely a big part of that album in many ways, and lyrically So Long, Astoria was about going back to the sound in small town Anderson, Indiana, and how memories are so vivid when you’re back in a place and you get reinspired.

One time, I was living in Santa Barbara and I had writer’s block, so I got this idea from a book by Richard Hell from the band Television called Go Now. There’s a line in the book, “Memories are better than life,” and he tried to cater each day to what would make the best memory possible. So I thought, what if I go back to this town I grew up in and didn’t tell anyone I was there and just hung out in front of the house I grew up in at 2 in the morning and sat in my car and wrote what came to mind? I spent 19 years of my life in this place, and it definitely molded me into what I am, so that album was definitely a product of all those things.

Will the tour raise money to finish [delayed album] The Graveyard of the Atlantic? No … that is, any money I personally make from this tour, I am going to put most of it into finishing the album, but it’s not like raising money for the album. Because I feel cost-wise with the touring package, sure the guarantees are really strong, but I make more money going out and touring by myself with my normal band. So to me it’s definitely not about money to do this tour.

I know there are some people along the way that haven’t listened to our band in a while or maybe they’ve grown up and grown out of certain bands, so my thought was if we do this tour, if I can get them to come back and see a show, as long as I have some new music there or a flier that gives a link to where they can download three new songs, then maybe I can get those people to keep coming back. That’s the No. 1 reason I’m doing this tour.

So from the outside The Ataris seems like a classic story of punk band hits mainstream and implodes under the weight of success. Is that accurate? I feel like no one is ever ready or prepared for it. I want to play music, just go out and have fun and bring my music to more people, and that’s why I chose to sign to a big label. We didn’t want to preach to the converted; we wanted to reach new people.

But I think a couple things that happened. We put out our first single, “In This Diary,” and that did great. It got rotation on MTV when they were actually playing f*cking videos. And then for the second single we were going to make a video for our song “My Reply,” and then KROQ in LA started playing “Boys of Summer” instead. Part of me was kind of naive to think that if I put that on the record, it wouldn’t become the single.

I put it on the record as an afterthought, because when my grandmother had passed it reminded me of being down in Florida. My parents were divorced and she took me to pick out a record. It was a hurricane-rainy summer, and I couldn’t go out of the house or do anything, so she was like, “Okay, we’ll take you out to Kmart,” and I bought Building the Perfect Beast by Don Henley because that song was huge on the radio and I liked it.

I think that started a lot of change, because suddenly there were a lot of things that started happening out of my control. As an only child and very OCD, I liked to make sure the vision was what I had in mind—artwork, the photography, the songwriting—and after that you just started having to be like, “Okay.”

But I feel like I was my own worst enemy. There would be stuff like TRL that would come to me, and I’d f*cking turn it down, because to me, that’s not what I had in mind. You think you have it all figured out, but you never do. Then with all that continuing success and shall I say excess … those guys got into too much of the party lifestyle, and it started to wear on the friendship. So yeah, that part started to implode. Then by the time of our third single the label started imploding. Luckily, we got along with our label, and the president let us know that if we wanted to be let go he could get us out of our contract before everyone would come in and not know who the f*ck we were. And we got to take our album and walk.

The Ataris With Versus the World. March 1, 8 p.m., $16-$20. Backstage Bar & Billiards, 382-2227.

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