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InterviewsLittle Atlas Takes On the World

Posted on Monday, March 21 2005 @ 21:13:47 CST by Duncan Glenday
Progressive Rock April 2004. We're sitting in an Indian restaurant in the sleepy burgh of Phoenixville, PA, and unlikely as it seems, there are progressive musicians and prog fans all around us. It is the weekend of ROSfest, and the Royal Sangam is one of the best places in town – and probably the only one without a half-hour table wait.

Steve Katsikas, multi-instrumentalist, vocalist and band leader of Little Atlas, is still coming down from the 'high' of an enormously successful set this afternoon, and we're wolfing down Kingfisher beer and curried lamb and glancing at the time. The night's final act is scheduled to start in a few minutes and we don't want to miss it, but I have so many questions. What does 'Little Atlas' mean? How'd you get signed with Prog Rock Records? Are you going to finish that last samosa?

Little Atlas's set was one of the most popular of the weekend, and had there been a poll it would have been voted 'the band that surprised you the most'. I can't count the number of people who were blown away by the foursome's deceptively approachable melodic music, and the very progressive complexity that lurks just beneath that serene surface. So how did they get to this point, and what can we expect from their new CD scheduled for release in the next few weeks?

Duncan Glenday – Sea Of Tranquility: Steve, for those readers who aren't yet familiar with you guys – give us the nickel tour of who and what little Atlas is.

Steve Katsikas – Little Atlas: Well, we're a prog rock quartet, occasionally a quintet. The name has been with me for about 5 or 6 years and band's been through a lot of changes stylistically, as well as personnel-wise.

SoT: You've had the name for a while – but how long has the band been together?

SK: We were 'born' in 1997, and we've had the present lineup for 2 years

SoT: Regarding ROSfest – how have the logistics been?

SK: Perfect – amazing! There's an excellent road crew and stage crew, and it all ran like clockwork. From an artist's point of view, all you had to do was play your songs! George put together some great crews.

SoT: How do you usually warm-up before a show – both when you first heard you were booked, and immediately before going on?

SK: When we found we were doing ROSfest – we did philosophical things, really. We knew we could come and play Surface Serene – but our philosophy was to present an hour and a half of the best material we could find. So I did preliminary setlist, and the band refined it. We rehearse regularly anyway, and we play live shows a lot so we're experienced at setting up & breaking down. Today, we kind of psyched each other up – we were all very focused! This was what we'd been working for.

SoT: And physically – do you do any warmup exercises?

SK: I warmed up a bit vocally, which I've found lately gives me a lot more control over my voice. I should probably take singing lessons to learn proper voice control.

SoT: You've never taken singing lessons?

SK: I was in a choir in college – it was a great place to meet girls! And it worked – I met my wife through the choir at the university! But it wasn't really training – my training has really been in my musical instruments.

SoT: What training was that?

SK: I'm a product of piano lessons as a child – eight years – and that was from age 6 to 14. In middle school, I wanted to play sax! I played sax through high school, in a jazz ensemble, and in the marching band. At university I played some jazz, then joined a rock band as a sax player. The keyboard player stopped showing up, though, so I got to play keyboards – and fell back into that. Around age 20 or so I started playing guitar. On our first album there's very little keyboards – I almost exclusively played guitar. Before 2000, I always played acoustic guitar when we were doing live shows. But keys are now my primary instrument, and I write from the keyboards – although 2 songs on Surface Serene were written on the guitar – "Shine" and "Salmon Song".

SoT: So do you write all the songs?

SK: Good question! On Surface Serene I was the songwriter – I would write the lyrics and the melody and the chord changes, then bring it to the band – and we'd all arrange it and flesh it out from there. Things are different now, and better, because all the new material is being written as an ensemble.

SoT: Is that really better? Aren't you in danger of the 'camel is a horse designed by a committee' syndrome?

SK: Oh, it's working better! I'm much happier, and the material is more energetic … I couldn't do it! It's been working better – although you're right, it could have been chaos…

SoT: It sounds as if there's a good chemistry within the band?

SK: Yeah – and the chemistry has to work in 2 ways. Musically you've all got to think in a complementary way, in terms of writing and arranging. Also, personality-wise. Those are the reasons bands self-destruct. Usually 1 of those 2 reasons. You could have a band that's super-compatible musically but the personalities get problematic – or you could have a bunch of guys that get along great but somehow the music doesn't come out right – it doesn't do anything. So we're very fortunate.

SoT: I take it none of you guys are full-time musicians?

SK: No – the closest thing to that would be Riccardo – until very recently he was a recording engineer, so he made his living in the industry. But he's bought a small business now … and Internet cafι, primarily focused on gaming. Roy, the guitar player, is an environmental scientist in Munroe county. Diego is in video production. And I'm a clinical psychologist, just started a new job working at a big public hospital in Miami – and work with kids and adolescents. I'd been teaching at the university for about 6 or 7 years. But I really enjoy working with kids and families.

SoT: And are any of you guys involved in side projects?

SK: Sort of – but not really. Everyone is committed to Little Atlas. Occasionally Riccardo will pick up gigs in different bands – he sometimes plays in a cover band on South Beach, and he's been doing a bit of touring with Julio Iglesias Jr. Riccardo is an outstanding musician – he'll play any style of music you put in front of him. But I think his heart is in Little Atlas.

SoT: Steve, what music do you listen to?

SK: It varies - Radiohead, Jellyfish, and a lot of progressive rock. Early in my life I listened to Genesis and Kansas and Rush – and grew up with those influences. Nowadays – I'm also into stuff like Toad the Wet Sprocket – it's all over the place.

SoT: What do you think has been the best recent album?

SK: Salem Hill, Be. Incredible album, the production is terrific, the vocals are terrific, lyrics are terrific – it's a great album! Another great one is IZZ, I Move.

SoT: You mentioned that 'Little Atlas' has been with you for a long time - What does Little Atlas mean?

SK: It came from a song I'd written – so the band was named for a song, which is a little unusual. I was living in Arkansas at the time, 1992 or '93, and it was written about a child I was working with, who was having a very rough time of it – rotten family, but he was the sweetest kid. I worked with him for 18 months, a long time, and watched him blossom and grow in confidence – not necessarily because of anything I did, he was just coming to terms with the fact that he was an awesome person. So the image of Little Atlas is what I thought of him, when I first met him. This little kid holding the weight of the world on his shoulders. Flash forward to when we were trying to think of a band name, in 1997, someone picked that song's name out as a band name. I think it was David, our first bass player. It sort of symbolized a bit about what we were doing – it was like a metaphor for us overcoming adversity – the adversity of breaking into the industry. Just putting a band together and making music presents adversity, let alone getting out and playing.

SoT: And God knows there's plenty of adversity in this genre – it's a difficult genre to break into, and when you do break in, you still don't necessarily make it big! What – for you – has been the most difficult thing about doing business in the progressive rock world?

SK: Yeah - breaking in. It's a hard type of music to write, and it's hard to play. So let's say you get those roadblocks out of the way – and you have something you think is good. You've got to put it out there, and that's a hard thing to do. How do you release an album? With other styles – you invite your friends, and you play in a few clubs (which we do), and that's it. But with our style of music – people don't really understand it! People like it, we sell CDs at shows, and most of the people who enjoy it don't know what progressive music is – but they know what they like. Still I think at a local level it's hard to do. Then to move from local to something like ROSfes was virtually impossible until the Internet came along. Now we have a conduit to share information with people regardless of geographical location. No one would have heard of Little Atlas if it hadn't been for the Internet. I'm sure of that. In fact there probably wouldn't have been a ROSfest without the 'net.

SoT: When you write – how do you approach the creative process? Do you get an idea and put the words down, do you get a tune in mind and put the words to that, or is it concept/lyrics/melody/structure..?

SK: Good Question. A lot of times – I'm sitting at the piano, playing different things. And every so often I'll find a progression and a melody that starts to flow, and that can be the kernel. Sometimes a lyric will emerge at that point. And when it does – it's usually something that's bubbling around in my preconscious, something that I've seen or I've been thinking about, and I can develop the lyrics around that kernel. Other times, especially lately, we'll write extended instrumental sections with an implied melody – and after the guys go home and we've recorded it on the computer, I'll break it out into sections, loop it, burn it on CD, and I'll drive around with it for a while and it'll start to come to me.

SoT: Your album's title Surface Serene – what does that mean

SK: It's named for the second song on the album. That song deals with the unconscious, and the way that things might look one way on the surface, and they're actually something completely different underneath. With the songs on that album – they may have a pleasant melody on the surface, but there's more to them under the surface and we're inviting the listener to jump into it and see what it is…

SoT: You're on the Prog Rock records label – How did you get signed?

SK: Cool story! This goes back to the Internet. So we're recording this album. We don't have a label, we're going to have to fund it ourselves … and I'd been involved for a while now with an Internet service called MixMasters. It's a group of recording musicians, and what we do is post MP3s of what we're working on and get feedback from each other from an engineering point of view. Very knowledgeable people, with very specific feedback. So in the early stages of recording I had a pretty decent quality version of one of the songs, we didn't have all the bells and whistles yet but the core of the song was there – and I uploaded it and asked for feedback. One of the people listening to it was a fellow by the name of Ken Hada. Ken wrote me and said – I like your stuff, and I have a friend, a former bandmate, who's starting a progressive rock label and he might be interested. Would you mind if I passed it along? So I said sure, and less than a week later I got E-Mail from Shawn Gordon, who said he'd heard the song and liked it, and wanted to hear more. He was just starting the label at that time – he didn't have anyone else signed. So we got him some more songs, and he liked it, and a contract was faxed over. We perused it – it was a very nice contract, and we signed with them – and they helped us release the album. And as far as I know, we were the first to sign with them!

SoT: Tell be about your cover Art?

SK: There's a Venezuelan artist in Miami – Xavier Cortez – and he works at a place called the Wallflower Gallery where we sometimes play. And he's a phenomenal artist. Surreal in his approach, and there's a ton of emotions. He's not what I would call a cerebral artist, but you look at it like a Salvador Dali and you see things very cognitively. He's got some of that – you look at his art and it's very emotional. You feel something. I got to know him – he's a wonderful guy – and we started talking about the artwork and he said hey' I'd love to do the album cover – and we said cool! It was a great match. If you look at it, there are so many things going on! It's like the album, there's more than you initially see. I definitely plan to use Xavier for the next album.

At this point I looked at my watch and realized we had to leave in a hurry if we were to catch RPWL, Sunday's headline act!

Click here to read our reviews of Little Atlas's Surface Serene



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