Let's Go Blue interview with
Hey Mercedes drummer Damon Atkinson talks about their new album, working with producer J Robbins, managing Hey Mercedes, Braid comparisons, being straight edge, September 11th, and more.
For the longest time, I had been trying to get Hey Mercedes drummer Damon Atkinson to do the interview through email. Then he suggested to me that we meet up while Hey Mercedes was on tour and do it in person. So, during the last few minutes of My Hotel Year's set at the Jack Rabbits club in Jacksonville, FL, Damon finally met up with me after talking to his son on the phone, and we went into the warm Hey Mercedes van to do the interview. We ended up sitting in there through the last bit of My Hotel Year and then the entire New End Original set, almost an hour. What follows is a pretty much word for word transcription from my microcassette recorder - I only edited out some small stuff here and there. I had a list of questions printed up, but as we got started the interview ended up a lot of the time being more like conversation, and talking with Damon was like talking to an old friend.
Interview conducted by Nick Daly, October 29th, 2001. Questions by Nick Daly and Timothy Brennan.
NICK: Do you drive this van?
DAMON: No, I drive the mini-van. All the time. Every day. Me, Bob, and Todd go in the mini-van; Mark, Bix, and Justin go in this van. Those guys are smokers, this is the smoking van. All the equipment is in here. Bob and Todd sit in the back while I drive and play Scrabble. All day. Bix is the one that drives this van, and he takes care of himself. He doesn't drink that much before we have to drive. He'll go back to the hotel and get loopy. So Tim helped you out with these?
Yeah, he did.
Awesome. I had no idea.
I know you've met Tim. He's a good drummer.
Now he's switched over to guitar for his new band.
Did he? Oh man. But I'm the same way. I play guitar too. I've played the guitar for 12 years.
So when you guys practice do you ever come up with any stuff?
You know, I haven't. I write a lot of songs, but I haven't brought any.
I'm gonna. There's actually a couple that I have that I can bring. This one old band I was in I wrote like 95 percent of the music. But I like to take the back seat and do the drumming.
Well, your drumming is so awesome I would hardly say it takes the back seat.
So on this next tour, you're drumming for Saves the Day also. How did that happen?
We had a tour booked with them, and then all of a sudden their drummer quit. He didn't feel like touring any more, he just didn't want to be on the road, and they were getting big, and he didn't want it, it was too wierd, so he just quit. And Saves the Day was like, oh shit, what do we do? The didn't want to cancel the tour, they were blowing up, they had to go out on tour. So they thought of me, I was the first person they thought of, which is just so awesome.
So you're learning their songs now.
Oh yeah. When we toured with them, like every night I watched them, and I picked up on some of his drum stuff then. I've been listening to their record a ton, their new one. And their bass player sent me a CD of the stuff they play off their last two albums. I've been listening to it on the headphones and making notes.
I'm sure they wouldn't mind if you added some of your own thing.
No, they said, especially for their older stuff, just kinda do what you want. Their newer stuff is what most people are familiar with.
So the new album is finally out. Why all the delays?
Right, well at first it was supposed to be out July 24th but it got delayed because the Saves the Day record was coming out July 10th, that was too close together so they kind of spread it out. So Vagrant decided to put it back till August 7th. And then the second day of the Vagrant tour we were in Chicago, the whole Vagrant team was there and they called us up for a meeting and they said it was gonna be delayed indefinitely, sort of. No one knew when it was gonna come out. And they explained it was a distribution deal. They were switching to a different distributor and the original distributor wasn't happy about it so they caused a legal stink about it. And the NY supreme court ruled in Vagrant's favor.
And nobody at the time could talk about it.
We couldn't. Now that it's over with we can talk about it, but at the time they told us the only thing we could say about it is that it had been delayed. Couldn't go into details. But now everything's done, Vagrant and TVT settled, and now TVT is the distributor for all Vagrant releases.
What's the reaction been like so far? I know it's only been out a little while..
Yeah, so it's hard to tell so far. But so far people, the couple shows we've played since the release so far, you know, like they'll hear Eleven to Your Seven, people sing along a little bit.
Yeah, so now they'll be familiar with this stuff, rather than just your 4 EP songs.
Oh man, that's what we couldn't wait for! To play live and people actually know the songs.
Have you played "Quit" yet?
That seems like it would be a great one live.
Oh God, I can't wait to play that song live. It's my favorite on the record.
That song surprised me the most on the album.
Oh yeah, it's different. We actually wrote that song a long time ago, like that song was written before Mark. He was never really into it, he said it was a little slow. During the recording of it throughout the whole song there's this swirling thing, it's almost like an organ but it's his feedback through a rotating Leslie which is like this big box.
To me for some reason I get a kind of 80's vibe off of it too.
(laughs) I love it. The vibe for me is like it is telling a story, and it's a very climactic story. It starts out kinda cool, then it gets kinda rough. The end of the song is like total tradgedy, you know. When we sent in the demo, there was like 17 songs on that, so obviously only 11 were gonna make it on the record. We told J (the producer), he knew the plan. And then the night that we got to the studio we sat down and had our production meeting, like, okay, what are we going to accomplish on this record, and we went through the demo, we listened to every song, and when we got to "Quit" J was like "this song has to go on the record. This is my favorite song, we're going to make it sound amazing, this is going on the record." And then Mark Haines, our mixing engineer, who we didn't see until after the recording process was done, said the same thing, that "Quit" should go on the record. We should play it.
You should talk them into playing it tonight.
I think Bob and Todd would be into it, but I don't know about Mark, he doesn't want to play it live. I think it's something that, whether they dance or not, they can just like watch and just be intrigued by it.
Does Bob ever explain his lyrics to you?
No. We have to figure them out on our own. He doesn't like to explain them.
His lyrics are like where anyone can interpret them themselves and get something from them.
Exactly, whether it's his meaning or your meaning, totally. But yeah, I love the feel of that whole song. I should try to rally the guys to play it. (Note: they didn't play "Quit" that night). Mark wouldn't mind I think.
Well, it's just over 5 minutes, he could bear it.
Exactly. (laughs) You even know the timing of it.
So, at your production meeting, what was discussed when you sat down and got into detail about what you were going to do on the album?
Oh yeah, I'll never forget that night, it's like the whole atmosphere of the recording studio we were at, we had the meeting in the big house we were staying at, there's this huge dining room table, and we had the lights, you could dim the lights, we dimmed the lights real low, and there were all these windows and this wilderness outside, and we all had some beverages, you know, I had a soda or something, the guys had like beer or wine or something, real nice and calm. We took a big poster and flipped it over and made a chart with each of the songs, and the tracks, like drums, and guitar, and guitar overdubs, vocals, vocal overdubs, percussion, and we did all the songs and all the parts and then we played the demo CD, and I was the guy manning the controls and so we'd like go through it, and like Bob or J would go "hold it, stop," so we'd pause it, and it took like a couple of hours to get through it, and we'd just get to each part and say, we should do this, we gotta throw a tamborine in here, or we really want to, you know, beef up the guitar, or we want to do a clean channel. We just wrote all these notes down. And when that was all done we hung it in the studio and when we got to each song we would check off the parts that were done. And under each part there were like little notes, like okay "what song, let's go look at the notes," and then like tamorine, or special drum part, you know, and we knew what it said. So that's the best way to do it. It was so nice to take a couple of hours before we started.
And it was nice that you had like two weeks to record it.
Yeah, we had the time. The night we got there and like the next day we set up, and we got sounds, like drum sounds, guitar sounds..
So you had time to perfect it.
Yeah, like the last record I did we had like 5 days, recording and mixing.
And on this you had 2 weeks to mix also.
Yeah, the first day of mixing we gave Mark, our engineer, a day to just listen to it, to get familiar with what happened when he wasn't around, the recording process, Then we went day by day, we got roughly a song a day done. So you know we had 11 songs for the record, which we concentrated the most on, and we had 15 days.
So by then you had decided which songs were going on the record.
We knew. We knew going into the mixing process, we wanted to know, cause we didn't want to spend too much time on a song that wasn't going on the record.
Did J ever change anything, or have any suggestions or ideas?
Yeah, well the thing about us working with him is that he has great ideas, but we usually have the same ideas.
Did he do anything on the album? I know he usually does percussion.
Yeah, he did percussion. I don't recall if he did vocals; I remember wanting him to. No, maybe he did. Oh, that's right, on "Quit," at the end of "Quit" and on "Eleven to Your Seven," we all say "hey!" He was part of that. That night was really fun. That was the last night of tracking. We did "Eleven" and then "Quit," it was all the backing vocal stuff, and those guys got all lit up, you know, they had a bunch of drinks, and Bob especially - well, I shouldn't just point Bob out - but we set up the mic, and our assistant engineer was in the booth pushing the record button and we were in there with our headphones on. It was fun, I videotaped the whole thing. It was so much fun. There were the four of us, there was J, and then there was Bob's girlfriend Christine, all around the mic. But J, he didn't really change too much around. I think he was impressed when we sent him the demo, and at the production meeting, all of our ideas he was like, "I was thinking the same thing." Which is great, it's the best way to have it. I can't think of anything too specific, but I know there were some things where he said we should do this or we should do that. I mean, some producers that I've heard of will totally change the song, or change a part, but he didn't do any of that stuff.
I know Bob and Mark write most of the material, but do you ever bring in a drum part that just makes the song?
Yeah, definitely. It's usually like Mark will have something, or Mark will write something at home or Bob will have a part or two. But like "Every Turn" was drums, and like, I can't believe I'm doing this, but going back to Braid, that happened a couple times, like "The New Nathan Detroits" was drums first. Like "Every Turn," we had got to practice and got set up and those guys were still tuning their stuff, and I just started doing it, cause I think I really wanted to write a song that I did some tom stuff in. And like "Que Shiraz," same thing, where I do the double time on the hi hat, I really wanted to write a song where I do that in there. Those songs I came up with the drums first.
Todd's bass is amazing when he hooks up with the kick drum on that song.
On "Que Shiraz" you mean?
Oh yeah, that breakdown part in the middle, my kick and hi hat hits go along with Todd's bass hits. But at first when we were writing it, I was doing those same parts but Todd was playing through it, and I said "Todd, why don't you just do bass hits on the kick hits," and he did it and it was perfect, it was like that's it, that's right there, man.
So, how did you like touring in the bus?
Amazing. I loved it.
You didn't have to worry about doing any driving, just got to chill out.
Nope, just got to chill out.
Did you have to do much managing on that tour or did Vagrant have you a tour manager?
Well, I was like the liason between the band and the actual tour manager, cause there were like four bands on the tour, four busses and an 18-wheeler, the tour manager and a stage manager. The tour manager had so much going on. I would settle from him every night, he would collect all the money so I would have to go on his bus to settle and I would have to sign for it, and I kept all the money and paid all the bills, would order the shirts if we needed it...
So you were still basically the manager for Hey Mercedes.
Yeah, and I was like half tour manager for our band, and there wasn't a ton I had to do, but I had to make sure my guys were around for soundcheck, and on that tour it was great cause on each bus had call sheets with set times and loading times, the curfew for each show, what time bus call from venue to hotel was, what time bus call from hotel to the next city was, how long our travel time was- that was all set up. And like at one show, actually in Jacksonville we had a couple days off, so the buses were off, so no one went in there but they put the call sheets on the bus, so I went in there, got the sheets, went to the hotel desk, had them make copies for everyones room - we had two rooms, and No Motiv had two rooms, and our bus driver had a room, so I made a copy for each room - I made copies for five rooms. And then I went and took the stuff and put it back on the bus, but then No Motiv, us, and the bus driver, I made sure they had call sheets and made sure they knew exactly when, cause no one was going on the bus, you know. I just love to take care of that stuff, i enjoy the work, and I just want everything to go smoothly, you know. And if I just think about it, if I think "oh I should make copies of the call sheet" and then don't, it'll bother me. Cause you know if I get on the bus, and no one's there, everyone's roaming around Jacksonville while we should be leaving, I'll think "I should've done that." I just have this sense to make sure everything's smooth. I enjoy it. But this tour, I do all the tour managing. Bands on the shows, I made sure all the hotels were booked, I put together three tour books, one for each band and then one for me personally, with all the contracts in it and stuff, and I settle every night, re-order all the shirts...I wouldn't want to be just a drummer in a band and have like tons of time to kill. I like to keep myself busy.
And give the other guys time to kill.
Exactly, that's why I do all the driving, so they can just chill out, and play games and stuff.
Everyone quit their jobs to go on tour. After this tour, will you have to go back to day jobs for a while?
You know..(pauses) Probably not. After this tour we only have like a week home, and then we go on the Saves the Day tour, which we should do pretty good financially. They're all huge venues, like 1300, 1800, some sold out.
Nothing like this. (mentioning the club here)
Oh, quadruple the size of that. Some sold out. With like a line of people wanting in. But that'll be a good tour. Everyone will do pretty good. I'll do better than everyone in my band cause I'm doing double duty, cause I'll be drumming for Saves the Day.
So everyone can pretty much support themselves off of Hey Mercedes now?
Yeah, yeah I think so, but we're going to take a few months off in the winter, so I think some of the guys might go back to work. I might go back to work just because of the simple fact that I might get bored.
I know Mark recently got married, and everyone has their girlfriend - is it ever tough to go on tour and leave them behind?
No, it's okay, I mean it's what we love to do, and our loved ones and family respect and support what we do, cause it's our job. They all work jobs too, but it's just different - we could work in jobs like them, but we'd be unhappy. If we're home all the time we'd have to work in a cafe' as opposed to going on tour, like that would be a miserable relationship.
So has your son seen Hey Mercedes play yet?
Yeah, at the Metro in Chicago. It was really cool, they came backstage and had their Hey Mercedes shirts on and were really proud...
I know you made him wait till he was a little older to go to a rock show.
Yeah, it wasn't the right time, I thought he was a little too young.
You seem very protective of him.
Yeah, you kinda have to be. It's an interesting situation being a parent being as young as I am and doing what I do, but you know, like, when we go to the playground or something he'd be climbing around and I'd always be right underneath him waiting to catch him if he falls, but there's a point where you just have to say, just let him fall. He'll learn then. Otherwise you'll just be hovering over him, and he's not going to feel free. But yeah, it was really cool. He's a really good kid. He's not hyper, he's well mannered. He's kinda shy , I was very shy too. I broke out. If you give me a microphone on stage I'll be talking all night. He's the youngest member of the chess team at his school. His mom tells me he's actually kinda popular.
So are you tired of people still mentioning Braid?
(pauses) Oh, I want it to go away, yes.
On the internet when I was looking up some info about this show tonight, someone had written a little paragraph about Hey Mercedes, and all they talked about was Braid, said Hey Mercedes featured Bob, Todd, and Damon, absolutely no mention of Mark at all...Don't you get sick of that? I mean, just the other day I was actually listening to Braid, Frame and Canvas even, and to me it's really different.
It really is different.
In my mind I don't even put the two together anymore, even with Bob's singing and your drumming, it's just so different.
Right, it is really different. But I almost have to defend Hey Mercedes by making the case that it is different. But like, you know, when I do interviews...Like I did this interview with the Chicago Tribune, when I was doing the interview I said, you know, see if you can print this, I want to give a shout out to Mark because any interview I do, nobody ever talks about him.
I was a fan of Braid before, but mostly only later Braid, and I'm a huge fan of Hey Mercedes - a much bigger fan than I ever was of Braid.
Yeah, me too. That's awesome. Yeah, I did this interview a couple of days ago, and every question had to do with Braid, comparisons and all this stuff, and I was like, I want to be done with this interview.
In some repects when you talk about Hey Mercedes though you do mention Braid, more like in a passing sense-
Right. If it seems like the interviewer knows nothing about Braid - that is unlikely. It's actually happened before, so I said the band I used to be in, he said "oh what band is that?" and I said Braid, he said "wait, I've heard of you guys." I almost wish all of them...But I've got to be polite about it. It's not like it upsets me, but Braid is in the past. We have this attitude that we're still new. So if people are familiar with Braid, we can use that association, like, "Hey Mercedes, I've never heard of that band," "oh it's the guys from Braid," "oh!"
Like it gets people in, but hopefully they'll forget about Braid once they hear it.
It's like New End Original. Who are they? They're ex-Texas is the Reason, ex-Chamberlin...
I didn't know that.
That's the best thing about a new band. Forget the old stuff. Concentrate on the new stuff, man! I don't know. I hope it dies off pretty soon.
Do you think this new album will kind of maybe push the comparisons away?
I hope so. It better. That's what I'm hoping. If it doesn't we're gonna have to start putting our foot down, and letting our publicist know if they want to do an interview they're not allowed to mention Braid. It's almost getting to that point cause it's happening so much.
And as much as you don't want to be rude..
Right, we don't want to be rude, but it's almost rude of you, but like whatever.
Beause this album is so different even from the EP, let alone Braid.
Right, yeah, it's the whole progression, it's moved leaps and bounds away from Braid. So hopefully it will all go away.
I know you are straight edge, right?
What do you think of the whole "straight edge movement?" I mean, a lot of people take that so seriously. I've heard people get really angry when someone is "straight edge," or a straight edge band, and not liking stuff or people who aren't straight edge...
Well, the whole movement, I never..(pauses) It's more of a personal choice for me.
Right, I guess what I'm saying is that it shouldn't impact somebody's appreciation of the music.
There's a certain aspect of saying straight edge...I mean, my whole thing is, I used to smoke, I used to drink, I used to smoke pot, I used to do acid, and I enjoyed it at the time, but I was young and I was learning. But I saw bad things happening to my friends, and I saw partying taking away from my music, which was the number one thing that changed me, and another thing was my mom, I was upsetting her by what I was doing, which was killing me. It didn't seem right, it didn't seem like what I wanted to do so I quit, and that was it. And I had friends at the time and even before that who were straight edge, with the x's on their hands and all that, and I was like "what?" It seemed a little cliquey and it didn't seem real to me. Like what I did, and I'm not trying to praise myself or pat myself on the back, and I know there's a lot of people like me who've done the same thing who are straight edge and they just quit doing stuff. If you've never done drugs and you've never done that, and then like going around praising yourself the almighty because "I don't, I never have.." I can't swing with that, you know what I mean? How do you know you don't like it if you've never tried it? I'm not encouraging people to go do drugs, cause I know it's bad, but you've never seen it first hand.
I guess my point is that it shouldn't take away from the music, like who cares, right?
Right, the whole thing about straight edge music..It's the same thing.
But at the same time, if you liked a band and they turned out to be assholes, in a way that's going to impact the way you listen to the music.
Right, yeah, exactly. Like if you go to see one of your favorite bands, a band that you've been intimate with in your own bedroom with your headphones on, and you're just feeling it and you see them live and you go introduce yourself and say "I'm a big fan, you make me so happy," and the singer's wasted. And it's just like, fuck you, you know. That would suck, wouldn't it. Stuff like that happens, sure, but the whole straight edge movement I don't know too much about.
I just thought it was stupid to hear people saying how they hate a band cause they "used to be straight edge" and had a drink or whatever.
Oh yeah, exactly.
Is it ever hard to stay straight with these guys?
Oh, it's a piece of cake. It's probably easier.
As far as morals go, this band has a lot of morals, you're like squeaky clean.
Yeah. None of our guys would ever get wasted and sleep with a girl that they just met. Everyone's faithful to their girlfriends-
You just don't see that much usually with like a touring band I guess.
No, I think we're, not just us, there's bands like us, but this whole, I don't know, genre, I wouldn't say scene so much, this whole new breed of rock'n'roll, there's an opportunity to change the face of rock 'n' roll behind the scenes, you know what I'm saying? When you think of a rock band, they get messed up, and chicks, and like on the Vagrant tour that stuff wasn't happening.
And you can hear that in the lyrics and in the music.
Well that's where we all come from, we come from punk rock. We all come from that kind of stuff. Not just, like, when you think back to bands like Poison, you can't imagine what they grew up with, you know what I mean? Like how did they become that band that did that kind of stuff all the time? Like us, cause I can think of where we come from, it's like respect for women, respect for guys, being faithful. I mean, I think about that stuff all the time, especially on big tours and stuff. I mean, the more popular you get, the more people want to interact with you, and I'd be lying if I said there wasn't a girl that came on to me, and it'd be easy just to say, okay, let's go. But never have I done it.
But that's not just on tour, that's everyday life, anywhere.
Right, exactly. But yeah, we don't party like that.
So if Hey Mercedes got huge, would you still be the same? Like I could see you guys sell a million records and still come out and meet the fans. Would you still do that?
Oh yeah, we just love people, you know? I couldn't imagine being in the kind of band that wouldn't want to go meet and greet.
You wouldn't have sold records if it weren't for your fans.
Exactly. If we ever got to that point where we were selling thousands of copies and all-
Do you think that would ever happen?
I hope so.
Really? I figured you guys would want to keep it indie.
Yeah, I mean, we all love the indie thing, cause that's where we come from, it's very comfortable, it's what we're used to.
Vagrant, though, for an indie label, it's pretty big.
Yeah, right. They're like, I'd have to say Vagrant, for this style of music is like one of the biggest labels.
How do you think Hey Mercedes fits into Vagrant? I mean, Vagrant to me has more straight ahead, punk, and poppy punk, and Hey Mercedes is like more highbrow, or something.
Yeah, personally I'm not afraid to admit this but I think we bring in a little special uniqueness to that record label.
Well there's really nothing else that sounds like Hey Mercedes.
Right, exactly. And from what I can tell from the Vagrant crew is that they're into that as well. It's something new. And I like that, but there's a part of me that thinks like, when I think about stuff like that I think about, like, Jawbox- Jawbox was well accepted. You know, we'll see how the album sales turn out, and we'll see what the reaction is from the people. Especially on the Saves the Day tour, cause the record will have been out, and we'll see how the album does.
So you guys were on tour September 11th. Where were you?
We were all sleeping, and I think someone from home had called Mark's cell phone or something like that, and told him to turn on the TV. And he was in one room and they called our room and said turn on the TV, any channel. And so me, Bob, and Todd were in one room, totally crashed out, and Bix was like "turn on the TV, any station." And I was like all tired, and said I can't find it, and all of a sudden it hit, like, CNN and I was like oh my God. I was like "holy shit." And Todd was rolling around, and opened his eyes and was like "oh my God."
And you guys had just played those places.
We were just there! Our hotel was pretty much across the street from the Pentagon.
And that day we were supposed to play Detroit. And we were leaving, and we had breakfast, and I was like in a daze, and then we go to the gas station right next door and we got a call from Flower Booking, who books Jimmy Eat World also, and he's like "Jimmy cancelled the show tonight." So we ended up driving home and seeing our families. And Minneapolis, we didn't know what to expect, and it was great. Like when I was watching Jimmy Eat World, I was just like...
Do you keep track of it?
I keep track of it, and it's very interesting, like the Gulf War, I was at the age like "war! awesome!" And I'm at an age now where I understand it. They talk about politics and they talk about foreign affairs and world trade, I can kinda somewhat make sense.
I want to tune it out a lot cause it's just scary.
It is scary.
I know J was thinking of changing Burning Airlines' name. Do you think he should do that?
Well, it's an interesting situation with that because if they keep the name they could not be accepted.
But then again it's just a rock band.
Do you have one of those limited posters that were screen printed?
Oh yeah, with the burning buildings, yeah.
I signed one last night, and I hadn't seen it in so long, and I was like "oh man." It's kinda uncomfortable being associated with that.
So what's next for Hey Mercedes?
Our plan now is to support the album, do the Saves the Day thing, come home for the holidays, be home for January, Febuary, March, then come April and May, tour overseas.
You're not afraid of flying now?
Well, I've always been afraid of flying.
I'll never set foot in a plane. Even before all that stuff I wouldn't.
Wow. You'll have to if you ever want to see another country.
Yeah, I guess. Maybe.
So yeah, go overseas in the spring-
Are you still going to do an EP in the spring?
I think so, yeah, we've been talking about that.
When will you start writing new stuff?
I think after this Saves the Day thing we'll write some new stuff, come back and do one last hurrah through the US and then do the new record.
Do you think you will be an one album a year band?
That would be great.
Yeah, definitely. I'd like to.
The progression just from the EP to this album, I can't wait to hear what's next.
Me niether. And we haven't even written anything yet, yeah.
Well, thanks for doing this!
Yeah, totally, I'm glad we did it this way as opposed to me trying to do it on the internet, you know?
Special thanks to Damon Atkinson for the interview.
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