John Atkins doesn’t want you to worry about him. He doesn’t want you to call the suicide hotline; he doesn’t need you to take away his bottles of aspirin. He’s just fine. Sure, when Atkins sings lines like, “I hate to bring you down/ but it’s too late,” from “Something Else,” it might seem like there’s some cause for alarm. But just because the general mood of 764-Hero’s latest disc, Weekend of Sounds (Up Records), is about as chipper as Morrissey on a Nick Drake binge, Atkins wants to reiterate: Everything is fine.
“I get a lot of that, ‘Oh, your stuff is so depressing,’” Atkins says. “I see it as melancholy. I’d hate to have it seem like, ‘Oh, I’m so bummed out all the time.’ Yeah, I don’t really know if it’s happy music per se. But I think music should make you feel something, and maybe this will make you feel introspective.”
It’s obvious Atkins has been feeling introspective of late. While the Seattle-based 764-Hero has never been as bubbly as a cheerleading squad, the singer-songwriter has buried body parts throughout Weekend of Sounds—a broken heart here, some thin skin there, a warped mind in the middle. It gives the whole album a feeling of demons being exorcised, Atkins letting go of everything that bothers him. It might be the reason that, while the disc sounds nothing like The Cure or the Jesus & Mary Chain—think more Built to Spill without all the guitar pyrotechnics—764-Hero has recently been compared to Britain’s two biggest connoisseurs of spiritual decay.
That’s fine with Atkins. He thinks that while 764-Hero has been rolling around in the indie underground, Weekend of Sounds might open some doors for the group. The trio’s most consistent album to date, the disc is poppy enough to win over a few people on the fringe, appealing to more than just the hard-core college rock contingent. Like Modest Mouse’s The Moon & Antarctica and Built to Spill’s Keep It Like a Secret, Atkins sees Weekend of Sounds as his band’s transition from a quiet secret discussed only in whispers, to a well-known fact.
“I think that every record, we’re getting better at this,” Atkins says. “Every record we’re growing. And with this one, friends who have never really said anything about our music are like, ‘This one is really good.’ It makes me think that we’ve tapped into something. Sure, you work hard on a record and you want people to like it, but you just have to do it. But I think this one really has something to it.”
It’s not like Atkins planned it this way. He says Weekend of Sounds was just one of those happy accidents, the band stumbling onto something new. The group unintentionally left behind some of its emo roots—what originally scored the band its early critical praise—and tried a few new things. It just happened to work out.
“We’re not a band that plans anything,” Atkins says. “We don’t set out to make a certain record. We hadn’t actually written much until right before we went into the studio. We hadn’t played any of the songs live, so rather than working them out in front of an audience, we just tried different things.
“Like ‘Leslie.’ We made that up in the studio. We’d never done that before. Polly [Johnson, drummer] jokingly said, ‘Write something pretty.’ So I did.” It’s one of the standout tracks on the disc. Starting with a simple funk, the rhythm section holding down a tight groove, Atkins guitar gliding on top, it slowly builds to a chugging blast of distortion. Atkins bellows “keep it honest” over and over in the background. The dynamics swing like a pendulum. Though the track clocks in at over five minutes, it feels like the perfect indie pop song: ominous, cool and catchy.
It’s a long way from where the band was five years ago. Originally just a quiet duo, Atkins and Johnson exploring the limitations and freedoms of drums and guitar, the band helped pioneer emo, churning out ardent tracks and building a cult following around the country.
But the band’s debut, Salt Sinks & Sugar Floats, while inventive, felt like it was missing something—namely, low end. Unlike Sleater-Kinney, whose twin-guitar attack manages to bomb without coming anywhere near 100 hertz, 764-Hero’s delicate nature needed a bass to groove. In 1998, the band was scheduled to perform live on the radio and decided to add a bassist for the gig. Atkins called longtime friend James Bertram, who had done time with Beck and Red Stars Theory, to come join the group for a set. It worked out so well, Bertram joined the group. Since then, it’s like the group has been fully realized, all the right pieces coming together. Atkins hopes that with Weekend of Sounds, it all pays off.
“Lets put it this way: I can see not wanting to have a day job. Up Records treats us great, don’t get me wrong. It’s three people and they’re my friends. There’s no bureaucracy or worrying about creative control. But I can see why a lot of indie bands lately have gone over to major labels. There are bands that still make weird, cool records on major labels. And it’s not like we have any set dogmas about staying indie. It would be nice someday to live on music. I guess that’s the dream of every person in a band, isn’t it?”
Yeah, I think it is.
764-HERO plays Kilby Court Tuesday, Aug. 15 ($6).