You won’t find many in the punk scene, or the music scene in general, who have had a more interesting an impressive career than Atom Willard. Josh Freese comes to mind. And like Freese, Willard’s resume is filled with great, sometimes genre defining bands: Social Distortion, Rocket From The Crypt, The Offspring, Angels & Airwaves, Danko Jones, the HELL with Matt Skiba (he also filled in with Alkaline Trio for a brief time) and of course, Against Me! The band he is currently in and has been in the past few years.
With all that history, we had a lot to talk about, including but not limited to Against Me!’s upcoming live album 23 Live Sex Acts and their next studio record, which could be in the can sooner than you think.
Against Me! have a live album coming out in September. I’m assuming the album (23 Live Sex Acts) is taken from a single show, rather than cobbled together from a number of shows on that tour?
Atom: Yeah. We recorded a number of different shows, but we settled on this one as being, what we thought was the best.
That always works out better than having a patchwork of songs from a number of different shows. And I like the spontaneity on this record. In ‘New Wave’ for example, you guys stop the song because a kid is getting kicked out and Laura is trying to stop him from getting kicked out. That struck me as funny and very honest. As much as I would’ve liked to hear you guys finish the song, I like that you left that in there.
So is 23 Live Sex Acts a good representation of the typical Against Me! live experience?
Atom: Yeah, I mean that was the whole idea. Just to get as close as we can to a typical representation of what we do, just about every night. And I think we got pretty close. There is that level of spontaneity, it’s not a perfect performance. There’s definitely flaws and mistakes, but ‘warts and all’ is really the idea.
Well, it’s nice for the listener. There’s nothing worse than hearing a live album slicked over with overdubs or whatever and then going to see the band and they sound nothing like they did on the record.
Atom: Yeah, I agree.
Is this your second or third year in the band?
Atom: I don’t know. It feels like I’ve been in the band for ten years (laughs). We’ve basically been on tour the entire time. But it was the very end of 2012, when I had my first rehearsals with them. And we went to Australia right after that.
Do you see Against Me! as a long term gig?
Atom: It seems like it. It’s a really cool environment for me to be involved in. And I really like working with Laura and James. Professionally and off stage, we just get along really well, everything just clicks and feels natural. And it’s a real band with people that love to play and can play and are ready to tour and do the work required. And these are all different things that are important to me. And if we can continue writing together the way we do, (because) Laura and I really work well in that regard too. And that kind of stuff is hard to come by.
You keep pretty busy, musically. theHELL, with Matt Skiba, was something I know you were involved in a couple years ago. Are you involved in anything besides Against Me! right now?
Atom: I’ve done some of the reunion shows with one of my old bands, Rocket From The Crypt. And Matt Skiba and I have plans to continue doing stuff whenever we’re not busy. But the reality of that is that we’ve both been super busy. But no, Against Me! is my main focus and my main priority.
You’ve been in bands at all levels of success. From big stadium bands to dance hall bands, to bar bands. Other than bigger pay cheques and bigger venues, what are some noticeable differences behind the scenes between big, established bands and the ones working their way up?
Atom: Well, it depends on what way you’re involved in those situations. For me, being with The Offspring, who was, at the time, arguably one of the bigger bands around, I was an employee. I wasn’t ‘in the band’. I wasn’t making decisions, I wasn’t writing songs. I was just a paid drummer. And that’s a very different scenario than being part of the creative process. And the reason I was drawn away was because Tom Delonge had phoned me and said he wanted to start this band (Angels & Airwaves) and it would be an equal partner kind of thing. So that’s what prompted me to leave what some people would consider a sure thing at the time with The Offspring. And Angels & Airwaves had its ups and downs and ins and outs and devolved into something that wasn’t really a working band. Or something that wasn’t holding my interest completely. So with Against Me!, it is fun to kind of have the hunger back, and be in a situation where everybody is working and striving to give the best show every night and not have an attitude of, ‘we’ve already established ourselves and don’t have to work hard’. I don’t like that attitude in anything. I don’t like to see anyone resting on their laurels. Every night is a new opportunity to prove ourselves and of trying to be the most kick ass band you can see. That’s the goal.
What about major labels vs. indie labels, because you’ve worked with both. Do you see major labels as a necessary evil, or are they easier to work with now than they once were?
Atom: Well, that’s such a complicated question, because, for example, the major label deal that I signed in 1992 is so different from the major label deals being signed today. And the climate and landscape of the music industry is so different now than it was then. At the time, that was a real viable opportunity, to have somebody pay for a record to be made. Now, you’re much better off financially just doing it yourself and putting it out yourself, the way we (Against Me!) do. I think that there was a time when major labels were extremely useful and important to an artist who was trying to explore studio time, that stuff doesn’t come cheap. But now, the technology has changed and you can record a record in a much cheaper way. And you don’t need to sell your guts out for the rest of your life for that one record. I think that majors had their time and their place, but it’s not as much of a factor any longer.
Against Me!’s last permanent drummer, Warren Oakes, had a great stage presence and a very particular style of drumming. When you come into a band and fill a seat of such a recognizable member, is there ever a level of anxiety with it?
Atom: You know, I don’t want to sound shitty about it, but I really didn’t feel that. I saw an opportunity. And I was a huge fan of the band before I was in the band or playing with them, or anything, so for me it was just pure excitement to be playing along with these songs that I’ve listened to so many times, with the people that wrote them. That was really what I was thinking about. And Warren is my favourite former drummer of all the drummers that Against Me! has had, but I always thought that I would love to have his job. So it was really just a cool opportunity that came along.
And when you’re playing the older songs live, do you replicate what the former drummer did in the studio or do you do your own thing with them?
Atom: Well, as you can kind of hear on the live record, I really tried to stick to the things that were maybe indicative of a certain song. What you might call signature drum sounds. But outside of that, I’ve really been given the freedom to do what I think is appropriate. And that’s what’s been great about working with Laura and James, they’ve really been open to that. And there has been times when they’ve asked me to keep a certain part in, but it’s always a conversation. And I’ve been in the other situations too (with other bands), where you’re asked just to play what’s on the record. And we have gotten to that place where things do evolve and I’m able to do something different in the show and they’re right there with me. It’s intuitive. We all just kind of know what we’re going to do.
And does the musical style of the band you’re in dictate the style of drumming you bring to it?
Atom: I’m not really that versatile, to be honest. I just come in to whatever situation it is and just play the way I play. For Offspring, that was faster, in a lot of cases, than I was used to. And in Social Distortion, it had to be a little bit quieter than I was used to. But ultimately, it’s just me. I’m just doing the only thing that I know how to do. And I’m not technically proficient, or have a lot of tricks. I’m just a very meat and potatoes kind of drummer.
Well, what you may lack in technical proficiency, you make up for in power. I always think of Dave Grohl when I hear you play. You have a very hard hitting, solid sound that, I think, elevates the sound of the band’s you’re in.
Atom: Thanks, that’s nice to hear. I’ll take that (laughs).
Against Me! is a raw, raw band. They were even back when it was just Laura by herself playing songs on an acoustic guitar. But Transgender Dysphoria Blues is probably the rawest and most honest record to date. What was your reaction when you heard these songs initially?
Atom: Yeah, other interviews I’ve done have asked that as well and to be honest, the lyrics are not something I focus on initially. I really listen to vocal melody and vocal cadence. And to figure out where her vocals are going to change and lift. So I don’t really focus on what the words are until later, after I’ve written my parts. So I didn’t understand everything that was being said and being talked about until much later and it all just kind of hit me like ton of bricks. This is a very personal and very powerful collection of songs. And it just made me really excited to be a part of it.
Do you guys have any plans or any new material you’re working on yet for your next studio album?
Atom: Yeah, we’re, I’d say, seven songs deep. With songs that we have ready to go and record with. We’re going to start the process in September. I don’t think we’ll be fully immersed until October, but I’m 99% sure we’ll have our new record finished by the end of this year.
Wow, that’s great. So do you guys write and record on the road?
Atom: We have been, yeah. Our sound guy on the road is also our recording guru and his house and studio is kind of our home base now. His name’s Mark Hudson and he’s been instrumental in keeping us documented. He recorded the live record and mixed it and he’ll be doing our next full length as well. But we get songs together and demo them in whatever way we can and then if we are starting a tour or ending one, we record what we have with him and it’s a good representation of where the songs are at the time.
Atom: I don’t think there’s ever going to be an Against Me! record quite like Transgender Dysphoria Blues. It’s just not something you can bottle, or reproduce or anything like that. But I’m really excited about the songs we are doing. It’s going to be powerful and probably a bit more lighthearted than the last record (laughs). But it’s still very much Against Me!
You’ve been in so many great bands over the years and worked with a lot of really talented people. Do you ever look back on your career and think ‘damn, I’ve done a lot so far’.
Atom: To be honest, I don’t really, until someone like yourself asks me that question and then I kind of think, maybe it is something to think about. But it’s never something I sought out to do, play with a bunch of different people. I’ve always wanted to be in a band and be someone like, for instance, Alex Van Halen, who has been in…Van Halen. That’s all he’s done and he’s created a signature sound, which is commendable and hard to do. So that’s something that was kind of my goal, but I’m also an idealist. I want the whole package. I want to be creatively fulfilled and I want to make a living. I’m not trying to buy any sports cars or anything, but I don’t want to have to work outside of making music. And up till now, there’s been some level of compromise there which each of the band’s that I’ve left. And every one of the those steps have lead me to where I am today and I wouldn’t change it for anything.
Against Me! is currently on Tour in Canada and the USA. They will be heading over to Europe in August. Be sure to catch them live!. Also you can now Pre-Order their upcoming album “23 Live Sex Acts” due out this Spetember via iTunes.