Interview: Atlas Genius` Keith Jeffery

The first time Atlas Genius came to the metro-Detroit area, they were touring with Silversun Pickups and playing the Royal Oak Theatre. We were there, and we were impressed. This time around, and disproving one of our five reasons to see them in the first place, they'll be playing Detroit-proper, opening a sold out show at the Fillmore with Imagine Dragons on March 1. Hailing from Adelaide, Australia, Atlas Genius is comprised of the Jeffery brothers Keith (vocals/guitar), Michael (drums), and Steve (bass) and their friend Darren Sell (keys). They happen to be making music that walks the line between pop and rock, synth and strings, and happy and heavy. But they walk that line well, and the end result is a debut album, When It Was Now, that features interesting and engaging tracks as sunny as they are serious.

We spoke to Keith in advance of Atlas Genius' Detroit arrival, dealing largely with the creation of their breakout track, "Trojans," and walking the aforementioned line.

Let's start with [the single] "Trojans." What was that whole experience like? Walk me through the writing, recording, and then viral success.

Some songs that we do happen overnight, that was one that didn't happen overnight. We had the music... I had the lyrics quite early on, and we had the music - one version of the song - I'd say about six months before we finished the track, and we all felt the music was good but there was one part of the song that came two minutes or so in that had a different groove that we all gravitated to. So we actually threw away most of the first version of that song that we had and redid the song using the one part of the original version that we really liked. So we rerecorded most of the track and, um, I had some melody and lyrics that the other guys were kind of, you know, okay with, [but thought, let’s strike these lyrics,] but I was like you know what, I really like these lyrics for this song so I kind of forced the issue and said, let's record this song with these lyrics I've got here. And I guess I was proven right, when we finished the song I was really happy with the way it turned out and those were the lyrics it contained, the Trojan line and everything you hear now. So it kind of evolved, had a few different versions, but we finally finished it.

And then shortly after that, we kind of thought, we should put this song out because we've been working on a bunch of songs and should just put one out there and start to make, you know, start to have an appearance. So we put that song up on Soundcloud and a few other websites, there's a directory of music in Australia called Triple J Unearthed and we put the song there and a few other places, and then we properly forgot about releasing it, really. We just kind of put it up there, and because we didn't really tell anyone about it, there was no marketing, we didn’t think anybody would even find the song. The plan was to keep recording and then when each track was finished, we’d put that up there and start to build a following, hopefully. So we were caught completely by surprise when after a month or so, Neon Gold in New York had found the song and blogged about it. From there, interest really took off. 

That’s great. So you were saying there were other songs you were writing along the way, and you had an EP out when you came to the US on tour in the fall, but were you still working on your debut full-length [When It Was Now, out yesterday] on the road? What was the timeline there?

That’s a good question, we had finished it all but there were a few parts of I think maybe two songs that we still needed to finish tracking. There were vocals on two songs we had to finish, there were a couple of lyrics I was still working on. I’d say that 97% of the album was done when we came over, but because of touring we had at the beginning of August, we weren’t able to quite finish the songs. We came over here and, you know, we had this mobile recording studio set up with a laptop and microphone, a few things, that allowed us to finish it. So we were working on - between shows we’d be in hotel room trying to finish these songs. It’s not ideal, but it can be done, you know? The situation where had we been back at our studio it might have taken us a week to finish those last couple songs but because of touring around the country, I think it two or three months to do these little jobs, but, um, that’s how it happened.

What were your first impressions of touring America? We’ve had European bands tells us they’re struck by the amount of time on the road and distance between cities. What was the experience like coming from Australia?

Oh, well, I think it’s the opposite for us in that we’re coming from Australia where we have, you know, five or six big cities in a country that has a land-mass a size similar to America. I mean, it’s so spread out in Australia that we were actually amazed at how short the distances were between cities. I mean I get that if you’re coming from Europe where there’s a city every five km or so, it’s ridiculous, but in America it’s amazing to us that there’s so much built up population. You know in Australia you can drive for…I’ll give you an example: last night, yesterday, we did 800 miles, we drove from Houston to Atlanta, where we are at the moment, and you know there’s a lot of towns and cities that we went through, where in Australia we could have gone through maybe two truck stops, depending on where you go. Australia’s really sparse so America didn’t feel too big to us.

Speaking of touring, what do you listen to on the road?

Sometimes it’s music, sometimes it’s podcasts or, you know, comedy CDs, that kind of stuff as well. Because music…we play music, we’re hearing music – we’re with two bands as well – so sometimes it’s nice to get a break for a few hours. If it is music, it’s, um, whoever’s driving or whoever is copilot up front gets to Spotify, they’re the DJ for the next couple hours, so it’s pretty random. Like last night we had – it was getting crazy last night – we had, what did we have?, one of the guys was pulling out some classic 80s hits, at one point we had some Barry White on it. It was really quite eclectic.

My next question is about the songwriting. On When It Was Now, your songs sound very upbeat, almost pop-y, but the lyrics themselves tend to be more serious than the sounds would necessarily imply. Where are you priorities when it comes to these contradictions?

Oh, well, the thing that I try to do is, um, find that balance with, you know, the low side, the darker side of music and lyrics. I’m not really drawn to music that’s super, you know, super pop and super, kind of, over-the-top-happy, but also I don’t generally like really heavy…I mean, you can deal with heavy topics in a way that’s not, kind of, making the listener put a noose around their neck. So I think it’s finding that balance where I’m satisfied as a listener. Where I’m listening back to music that we’ve written where I don’t feel I’ve left the listener in too dark a place but also maybe touch on those moments…I find that sometimes I listen to a musical arrangement that as an element of optimism to it, if the music has some kind of optimism it can juxtapose with the lyrics that aren’t so, aren’t so happy. I really like Bob Marley so that union [in his music] – you take the music and that’s super happy and up but sometimes he’s dealing with really heavy issues. And that’s why music like that works.

Which song off the album are you most excited for people to hear?

I’m really…there’s a song called “Through the Glass,” actually, that I’m looking forward to people hearing. That’s one that took a long while to finish off, but I’m really happy with that one.

Lastly, what can Detroit expect this time around from Atlas Genius? What will be different from the Royal Oak show [last October]?

It’s going to be a longer set. That tour we were doing a half an hour set, so this time we’re doing more like 40-45 minutes, so I think we’ll play all or most of the album. They’ll be able to get the album [before] and I think it will be richer experience for everyone, because there’s something to be said for hearing songs you’re familiar with. I know that if I know a band’s songs, it’s a richer experience. 

If you haven't already bought tickets for their March 1 show at the Fillmore (and even you have), you can stream their debut below.