Pitfall Punks

Don't tell anyone, but Mike Davenport, bassist-vocalist for the Ataris, once had a backroom fling with a seductive game system that was not the recipient of his public devotion.

"I was very heavily into Intellivision for a while. They had the better sports games by far," he says. "Plus, they had Dungeons & Dragons." But even though he strayed to this high-tech hussy, he remains true to his old-school love. "Pitfall was the best game on the Atari 2600," he muses. "Just the best."

And if there's a TV on the tour bus, Davenport has had plenty of opportunity to hone his vine-swinging technique. That's because the band, which also includes singer-guitarists Kris Roe and Johnny Collura and drummer Chris "Kid" Knapp, has spent most of the last five years gigging all over the world and slowly building up a die-hard fan base. The punk poppers' new effort, So Long, Astoria, won't be out until late February, but already they're playing hosts to a traveling party with friends Sugarcult, Autopilot Off and Rufio.

"We like to tour whether or not we've got a new record out. When we did take some time off, we got [complaints] from our fans," Davenport says over the phone from a sound-check in Toronto. "Plus, we can warm up some of the new songs."

So Long, Astoria will be the group's fourth full-length record. But it's their first on a major label, which could give them quite a boost if Columbia Records puts its marketing might behind its new acquisition.

"It's been very exciting, but the strangest thing has been having so much time to record," Davenport says, adding that previous efforts took weeks and not months. "Before, Kris was putting down lyrics up to just before we were supposed to record them."

While early sampler tracks "In This Diary" and "Take-Offs and Landings" show no diversion from the band's overall sound, there is a shift in subject matter. "There are really only one, maybe two, songs about a girl here," Davenport says. Much of last year's End Is Forever was about busted relationships and broken romantic dreams, reflective of all four members' difficulties with that textbook challenge of maintaining a steady relationship while being in a traveling rock band. Davenport notes that all four relationships "survived," including his own. "My girlfriend was born and raised in Corpus Christi," he says, "so I've got a Texas girl!"

Instead, So Long, Astoria has a wider theme: It's about how life is only as good as the memories you make. "We've learned that. It's all about dreams. Our dream was to play music, and it came true," Davenport says with no hint of irony. "It's easy to forget that what's important in life are friends and memories and good times."

A surprise source for this concept -- as well as the record's title -- was the 1985 movie The Goonies. Now a cult favorite for nostalgic Gen-Xers, the adventure yarn about a group of resourceful kids on the trail of buried treasure was both filmed and set in Astoria, Oregon. (The Ataris -- all of whom are in their mid- to late twenties now -- frequently sprinkle '80s pop culture into their lyrics.) The record and the film "have the same concept," Davenport explains. "These kids were going to have to leave the town they loved, and went on this journey for one last hurrah," he says. "We can relate to that."

The Ataris' unlikely formation began in 1997 when small-town Indiana teenager Roe attended a Vandals show and passed a demo to bassist Joe Escalante, who owns the independent label Kung Fu Records. A short time later, Escalante offered Roe a contract.

The only problem was, Roe had no band. But Davenport did. In fact, Roe met his future bandmate after moving to Santa Barbara, California, and dating the lead singer of Davenport's then-group. Roe remembers the musical connection as "instantaneous." The two pulled together the initial Ataris lineup and released Anywhere But Here.

An EP, Look Forward to Failure, followed, as did Blue Skies, Broken Hearts… Next 12 Exits, Let It Burn and End Is Forever. The current lineup has been together almost two years, sharing bills with Blink-182, the Hives, Jimmy Eat World and Alkaline Trio, and taking the main stage at the Vans Warped Tour.

It's given the band the chance to mix and mingle with virtually every branch of the punk family tree. It's a genre capable of astounding elitism among its practitioners despite their proffered stances of nonconformity. "Like a lot of the [punk pop] bands, we've been written off by some as 'not punk enough' since the beginning. The hard-core kids thought we were gay since the start," Davenport laughs. Still, he's more amused than offended by the barbs. "I was talking the other day to these Straight Edge kids, and they went on and on about how they don't drink or do drugs, but they'll bring weapons to a show and look for a fight. That's just a bizarre contradiction, but I don't think they saw it that way."

But the band's lighter sound doesn't mean they eschew the DIY ethic. The Ataris own their own merchandising company, a record store in Santa Barbara (Down on Haley), and they personally respond to every fan who writes them. The last is a promise that, admittedly, is getting harder to keep and may disintegrate if So Long, Astoria translates to So Long, Obscurity. "We'll be writing people when we're 80!" Davenport says.

One thing they will continue to do, however, is hang out with fans after their gigs and invite someone in the crowd up on stage to play rhythm guitar on "San Dimas High School Football Rules." In the four years they've been doing that across the United States, Europe and Japan, the quality of the bandmates-for-the-moment has ranged from "all right" to "kick-ass." But it was only last month that the band had to halt the song because their selection had no idea how to strum a guitar, much less the song's chord sequence. "And he passed all the tests we gave him," Davenport laughs. "He said he could do it!" And, other than a story to tell, what do the pseudo-Ataris take away from the experience? "The pick," he says. "They always shove it in their pocket and run away like we're going to take it back."

After their current U.S. swing, the band won't slow down. Their immediate future holds Australian festivals, tours of Europe and Japan, the CD release, a second U.S. swing and then a probable slot on the 2003 Vans Warped Tour. Somewhere the suits at the Atari corporation must be amused, because the Ataris -- like Atari Teenage Riot -- have never been sued or even reprimanded by the video game giant.

"Nothing, ever, which is surprising," Davenport says. The band "almost" got the rights to use the famous Atari logo, but the deal fell through. "Very early on in our career, we did make some shirts, that, uh, were a little infringing," he adds sheepishly. One wonders if Intellivision would have been as understanding.

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Bob Ruggiero has been writing about music, books, visual arts and entertainment for the Houston Press since 1997, with an emphasis on classic rock. He used to have an incredible and luxurious mullet in college as well. He is the author of the band biography Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR.
Contact: Bob Ruggiero