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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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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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