When Mark and I formed the band in 1990, I was 13 and ready to rock. Instead, we played about five Eagles covers at my eighth grade dance. I doubt I need to clarify the fact that "Hotel California" was the crowning jewel of the show. Then Alex joined. Obviously this made the proverbial difference since we finally got asked to play the pep rally. Mark and the cheerleaders sang the national anthem before we started, but unfortunately he did not know the words to the school song, "Lo Hearts Behold". Soon thereafter, Mom named us Athenaeum (ATH-A-NEE-UM).
In 1995 we put out our first recording, cleverly untitled although more familiarly known as "The Green Album." This we recorded in Raleigh, NC (not far from our hometown of Greensboro, NC), with producer John Plymale (Meat Puppets, Superchunk, Squirrel Nut Zippers) and engineer Jerry Kee (The Connells, Superchunk, Dish). We recorded most of it in Jerry's living room. At night, after recording, we got together for group activities like watching The Dark Crystal. Incidentally, The Dark Crystal is a terrifying movie.
In 1996 we signed with Atlantic Records. Obviously, this was the coolest thing ever. We went to LA in 1997 and recorded our first major label release, Radiance, with producer Gavin Mackillop (Toad the Wet Sprocket, Goo Goo Dolls) and mixer Jack Joseph Puig (Black Crowes, Goo Goo Dolls, Verve Pipe). Our first single "What I Didn't Know" enjoyed some success, hitting the top ten on the modern rock charts. We were in our van on I-85 outside of Greensboro when we first heard it on the radio. Once we realized that it was our song coming out of the speakers (hey, that's us!) we promptly skidded across the median, trailer in tow, directly into oncoming traffic.
After regaining control, we went on to tour forever with bands like Semisonic, Big Wreck, Better Than Ezra, Black Lab and the Goo Goo Dolls. Following the erosion of several Ford vans, we traveled in a huge green tour bus with mirrors on the ceiling. I wish I could say that we were the ones who put them there, but it must have been the people who had the thing before us. I suppose they reasoned that a mirrored ceiling would complement the illuminated airbrush depiction of the beach that was so tastefully placed in the back lounge. But I digress...
People loved Radiance. It got lots of good reviews. It was on TV and in The Movies.
Then we went home. At this point we either:
A) made up with our girlfriends.
B) found girlfriends.
C) continued to play drums.
These are mutually exclusive.
We also wrote a lot of songs.
In February 2000 we began work on our second Atlantic release, Athenaeum. It's a deceptively simple album. Ignoring the majority of pop trends, mostly due to our lack of knowledge about them, it seems that what we've created is at once an anachronism as well a contemporary statement. It's a pop rock record whose cerebral sophistication coexists perfectly with its accessibility, kind of like the paragraph I just wrote. Sorry, back to the story.
We commenced recording in Nashville with veteran producer Peter Collins (known for penning the classic "Monster Mash" as well as producing Queensryche, Bon Jovi, Rush) and an engineer named Elvis who dressed like...well, you get it. In May, after finishing a few songs in Nashville, we traveled to San Francisco to work with well-known remixer (No Doubt, New Order, Korn) and producer (Los Amigos Invisibles) Philip Steir. We recorded in Philip's legendary San Francisco studio, Toast, and stayed across the street in two tiny rooms at the Roadway Inn. The deskman at The Roadway refused to give us any of our phone messages because they were written in his wife's handwriting, which, of course, he couldn't read. Also, I wish someone had told us before we packed that San Francisco isn't actually warm in the summer... ah, the sweet, sweet life of rock and roll.
One of the best things about working with well known producers is that they have the phone numbers for lots of people who play their instruments better than anybody really should. They also have the clout to make them answer the phone. This would explain our luck in enlisting the help of Rusty Anderson on guitar (Paul McCartney, Sinead O'Conner, Ricky Martin), Carl Herrgesell on keyboards (Elton John, David Mead), and Matt Brubeck (Dave Brubeck's son) on Cello, among others.
After completing a batch of songs in San Francisco, we brought Philip east with us and finished the album late in the Summer of 2000 with sessions at Mitch Easter's Fidelitorium in Kernersville, NC and finally at John Plymale's Overdub Lane in Durham, NC. Once again, we turned to Radiance alum Jack Joseph Puig to handle the final mixes.
Once completed, we found that Athenaeum resembled the soundtrack to a strange and beautiful film no one could remember ever having seen. It all seems more familiar than it should. "Sweeter Love" sounds like what the band would play at Flash Gordon's wedding. "Damage" and "Comfort" make radio sound like it was invented as a medium for their specific transfer. The torch song "If Baby's Gone" makes one think of some sort of time warp to the coolest 1950's prom ever. "Plurabelle," named after the heroine in James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake, proves two things: Athenaeum can rock while playing a song about a book that almost no one has ever read, and that we should probably still be doing things like watching The Dark Crystal. It was also a song co-written by both Mark and Mike Garrigan, who recently joined the Athenaeum ranks after a stint with his own successful band, Collapsis.
Granted, that legendary pep rally rocked pretty hard back in the day, but even by the time we recorded Radiance, we were still spending most of our time in the studio simply not believing that we were actually there. By no means old pros this time around, we had garnered enough time in the studio to have a much better perspective on what we wanted, as well as how to take advantage of what the studio can offer. With Athenaeum, we explored new instrumentation at every angle. More than once I caught Mark daring the instruments to remind him that he didn't actually know how to play most of them. And in spite of themselves, the timpani, string sections, sitar, gongs, and strange keyboards all seem to fit in.
This album is good, I promise. So damn good, in fact, that I quit the band and went to college. They replaced me with some new guy (Jeremy Vogt of Tonic, The Connells). God help him.
Check this band out, they may just inspire you to get smarter too.
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