WASHINGTON, Apr. 3, 2011 – The scope of a heavy metal band’s compositional reach can mean the difference between acts that are spectacular or merely subpar. San Francisco’s The Atomic Bomb Audition is one of the former, a group whose sprawling songs seem perfectly suited for backing a feature film. Poignant and vast, their latest effort, 2010’s “Roots into the See,” provides an epic journey through introspection. I emailed Alee Karim – one of the band’s vocalists, as well as its sole guitarist – and got the scoop on all things Atomic Bomb Audition.
Thanks for taking the time to respond to my e-mail. I’d like to compliment your band on having an excellent name. How did it come about?
Alee: That was all Brian, our drummer. He was in another band about ten years ago and they were trying to come up with a name by arranging words on cards, like a Burroughs cut-up. The Atomic Bomb Audition was one that came up, didn’t work out, but it stuck in his head. We’d been tossing around names prior to our first gig, and it wasn’t until we were done playing said gig, and were asked what our name was, that he dropped that and I thought, “yeah, I like it.”
Take readers back to the beginning. How did the band listeners hear today come about?
Karim: It started as a duo of Brian and I, improvising, or rather, free-associating strings of related doom metal riffs. It quickly became clear that we wanted to do some stark and dynamic things that required more people and composition.
So, Phil joined on bass, then Norman joined on electronics. Then we parted ways with Phil and Jason replaced him on bass. The general tide has moved us from expansive, experimental tendencies toward an ever-more laser-focused, no-detail, unanalyzed way of making music.
It’s actually kind of important to note that everyone in the band’s done a lot of improvising, and we all immerse ourselves in a pretty diverse range of music. Jason composes modern classical for dance companies, Brian’s obsessed with dub, Norman records tape music and engineers everything under the sun, and I have a band that plays orchestral pop music.
Metal is just one thing for us, but it’s a big thing, and an effective common denominator that focuses us compositionally. Our first record is psychotically eclectic, and we all agreed that we wanted to shave that kind of diversity as much as possible with time. It creates more emotional and compositional depth in the long run if there are restrictions in terms of genre.
Your band hails from California’s Bay Area, a place renowned in heavy metal history as the birthplace of thrash bands like Metallica, Megadeth, Slayer, and more. Has having the Bay Area as your band’s base of operations had an effect on how you approach writing music?
Karim: It’s funny, because we all love those bands and grew up idolizing them, but as you get older, speaking for ourselves anyway, I think you model yourself less after the big league bands and more after the underground bands, because it seems attainable.
To us, the Bay Area isn’t necessarily those guys you mentioned (who were world-famous before any of us were of age to go to metal shows), but more like the weird rock and progressive metal underground. That includes Mr. Bungle, Secret Chiefs 3, Sleep, OM, and Ludicra and also our friends in bands like Grayceon and Kowloon Walled City. I think when you decide like we did, to write 15-minute-long songs, your role models shift.
The Atomic Bomb Audition’s style relies on long but consistently interesting songs. What does your band do in terms of songwriting that will hopefully hold a listener’s attention for large amounts of time?
Karim: We focus on theme and variation. That’s the classical and film music approach of using a small handful of musical ideas, and changing the mood, dynamic or instrumentation of those ideas over the course of a long piece of music, or a two-hour film.
It’s like in “Return of the Jedi,” when you hear the famous Imperial March theme as Darth Vader dies, but this time it’s played on a harp—it’s very gentle, and that intimidating piece of music suddenly becomes vulnerable. The film’s composer, John Williams, knew that that scene could only work if he transformed that iconic melody and its meaning.
Just like it would’ve been less effective if he hadn’t “recycled” that motif, we can’t write long songs by stringing together 10 completely unrelated riffs. We try to use no more than two or three riffs/ideas, and come up with “riff cousins” for all those. Then we weave those into something that will work like a narrative.
Let’s talk about The Atomic Bomb Audition’s most recent album, “Roots into the See.” I can’t help but think the unusual spelling of that title is intentional – what message do you hope listeners will take from it?
Karim: Brian came up with that title and there’s a lot going on with it. We’ve discussed it amongst ourselves, and barely scratched the surface, but it refers to a lot of things.
For one thing, “see” is simultaneously a reference to vision and to the seat of the Vatican (The Holy See). It also purposely confounds the expectation of using the word “sea,” which the album cover both sets up and compensates for. At long last, you’re meant to dork out on the cover image while listening to the music. There’s too much to get into without the listener bringing their own consciousness into it.
“Roots into the See” has a quality of narrative introspection about it, i.e. it seems like the songs follow a path towards the same conclusion, namely self-reflection on the part of the listener. What is the story the album is trying to tell?
Karim: It’s the hero’s journey. Again, a simple answer that is deceptively very elaborate. “Limit” is sensing the breadth of possibility and functions like the argument in an epic poem. “Horizons” is setting out boldly into that possibility, acknowledging the inherent difficulties. “Bas” is getting slammed against the rocks of those difficulties, watching it break you, and at last rebuilding yourself.
Do you have a favorite song on “Roots into the See,” and if so, which one? Why or why not?
Karim: I really do love the whole thing but “Bas,” is kind of my baby. It’s the one that I did lead vocals on, and it was a lot of work to get it to the state it ended up in. I couldn’t be happier with how it turned out.
“Roots into the See” – much like your band’s earlier albums – is most readily available in mp3 format. With this in mind, what would you say a resource like the Internet offers a band like yours?
Karim: The internet offers us exposure and access. Record labels will not touch us, and we’re growing increasingly comfortable with that reality. It’s a blessing that we can do it ourselves in this day and age, and that is 100 percent because of the Internet.
Outside of the Atomic Bomb Audition, you perform in some non-metal projects. What can you say about those? Have they changed the way you approach heavy metal at all?
Karim: Sure. Like I said, we all do other stuff – Jason is in a band called Jack O’ The Clock, Norman is composing music for a tape piece that features 10,000(!) tracks of unique audio, and I have a band called Alee Karim & The Science Fiction. That’s just a handful of things, from each of our artistic rosters, and none of them have anything to do with metal. Actually, that’s not true—Jason does very metal-influenced stuff with an amazing drummer friend of ours named Peijman Kouretchian (of Secret Chiefs 3).
To put it as simply as possible, we’re all kind of psychotically creative people, and having all these projects are, without sounding too cheesy, essential to our health. It’s getting kind of pat to have a diverse musical palette in 2011, isn’t it?
The diverse individual projects sort of cull our tendencies to pull The Atomic Bomb Audition into different directions creatively. We’ve become less coy and intellectual with the metal aspects of the band, and really just want to be savages when we meet to do this.
The Atomic Bomb Audition has done a scattered number of concerts recently along the West Coast. What kind of touring plans does your band have in mind next?
Karim: Touring for this band is not easy. Despite the fact that there are full-time jobs, wives, and babies, we do make time to tour, even in short stints. Unfortunately, booking this band has always been difficult. It takes us forever to find venues and bands in new towns that are amenable to what we do.
Ultimately, we never really play with the appropriate bands or at the appropriate venues. Invariably, however, everyone from absolute dives to art galleries falls in love with the live set when they take a chance on us. That’s ultimately what makes us happy.
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