A Commentary on “Om” 2011 Photo of the Year

by JT on January 10, 2012

By I. Lee Myers

How he got there is a mystery, but it is certainly fitting that Muhammad Ali finds himself on the unofficial musical bulletin board of Seattle, the 11th Street wall between Pike and Pine, captured here in J.T. Liss’s “Om.” After all, the man was more of a poet than most contemporary mainstream artists are. More than that, though, Ali typifies the Seattle music scene, and local music scenes throughout the country, in ways he could never have known.

Take, for instance, Atomic Bride, the band whose poster Ali has punched through.  Take the time to watch their live performances, appreciate their artful promotional fliers, or be fortunate enough to get to know them on a more personal level, and you gain a unique perspective on the bands of today. In spite of their eccentricities (for instance, the formation of the band through “the miracle of Craigslist”), or perhaps because of them, Atomic Bride makes for a great character study of small bands with big hearts.

Technology has had a dramatic impact on music for decades, from the recording and editing processes to simply the tones an artist can create. However, technology has had an even more profound effect on music, most notably on its distribution, in recent years. There was a time, not long ago, when someone could record a few songs on their Powerbook, make a MySpace or PureVolume page, and manage to get a record deal. It was a wonderful musical renaissance (ironically derived from technology) that allowed no-name bands exposure on a scale that was previously impossible. Then, the bubble popped (rather quickly), and instead of technology allowing unsung talents a fair shot, it oversaturated us with moody tweens and Fallout Boy clones. The same applies to the inexpensive home recording studios like Mbox. “As technology progresses… people aren’t taking the time to do the things that they need to do,” remarks Astra, co-lead singer and guitarist and founding member of Atomic Bride.

The things they need to do.” Before technology rampaged through the musical world, there was a sort of musical Darwinism that bands had to face- the natural selection of bands within a scene and the natural selection of the artistic strokes within bands themselves. For Atomic Bride, whose different influences are too various to name, this process yielded a “very finely tuned compromise of tastes… We forced our influences upon each other; gave way when we needed to, held strong when it was important,” says Astra. The band’s indefinable style, with hints of the B-52s and garage punk bands like the Cramps, is refreshing; it’s a style that has arisen organically and been thoroughly vetted, and ultimately warrants them a smaller, albeit more fiercely loyal, fanbase than if they played cover tunes and reciprocally uninspired originals. It’s easy to make money playing cover songs at bars, but it’s admirable to make great music knowing that the average person won’t bother to take the time to appreciate it.

Didn’t anybody tell Atomic Bride that punk is dead? That indie-folk has taken over Seattle? That their sound needs to fit more comfortably into predetermined sonic boxes to be accepted? You could ask the cyclist in Liss’ picture a similar question; doesn’t he realize that BMX bikes were left with Dave Mirra in the 90’s, that fixed-gears are the new vogue? And that cyclist and Astra would certainly respond in kind- “we know we’re not doing what’s popular; we’re doing what we love.”

The things they need to do.” This includes the arduous task of self-promotion. “It’s like guerilla marketing,” Astra says. When you hang your posters in Seattle, and it feels like someone is watching you around the corner, armed with a tape gun just waiting to get the jump on you, it’s because they are. “That wall is a really great reflection of that… of how one band puts something up and another band comes along and puts something else up (over it). The paper on those walls is, you know, 3-4 inches thick. It’s like a mattress. It’s crazy.” It’s not that Seattle is comprised solely of conniving, mustache-twirling… well, there are a lot of mustaches in Seattle. But the community of artists is actually quite amicable towards one another. That amicability is earned though, through performances as well as promotion.

“That was one of our really good posters that we made.” Astra says of the featured poster from Atomic Bride’s May 21st performance at the Comet. “That picture was taken months after that poster was put up there… It’s kind of like, you know when (graffiti) taggers come along, and someone tags over your tag it’s a sign of disrespect? (Laughs) It’s comparable to that in the sense that if it’s a band that you really like, you’re not going to post over them, you’re going to go around them.” Chris Cool, the other lead singer and guitarist, designs all of Atomic Bride’s posters, one for each and every show, and the band goes so far as to blow them up into giant murals that they hang in the city. Look through their catalog of posters on their website, all of clever 1960’s inspired designs with a dash of pop art thrown in, and you have to appreciate the time and energy that goes into their creation, not to mention the Sisyphean task of posting and reposting fliers as they are torn down and pasted over. Other bands stand in the street handing out fliers, and some have taken to posting goofy promo videos on YouTube for exposure, but the prevailing principle is the same: promote cleverly and ardently, because unfortunately making good music just isn’t enough.

Astra sums up Atomic Bride’s mindset on everything they do, on and offstage: “We want it to make an impact. We want people to remember what they saw or what they heard. We really, really care about what we do. And not just for the people who are listening to it. More so for us I think; it feels good to do a job well.” That’s what local artistry is now. Artists have realized the need for a blue collar attitude to permeate everything that they do, for the need to do a lot of ungrateful and unglamorous work and do those jobs well in order to feel the satisfaction that is returned to them when they finally get to play for fans who truly appreciate their devotion to their craft.

And that brings us back to Ali. Muhammad Ali got into boxing as a boy in order to beat up the thief of his bicycle, much like a boy picks up an instrument to impress a girl or feel accepted, but continues out of love for the craft. Ali spent countless hours in the gym in the most humble surroundings for the thrill of that one night, center stage between the ropes, much like artists will slave in living rooms and basements just for the thrill of that one night, center stage between the speaker stacks. When he wasn’t perfecting his craft, Ali promoted his fights with the same finesse and grace that he fought with because he knew he wouldn’t become “The Greatest” simply because he deserved it- he had to demand it, just as artists know it’s not enough to play great music, they have to creatively demand that people take notice.

Ali is on that wall- that wall that so many artists return to because they know that their performance means nothing without the hard work they put in beforehand- by unknown means but with a clear purpose: to deliver his message, “The fight is won or lost far away from the witnesses, behind the lines, in the gym, and out there on the road; long before (you) dance under those lights.”

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I. Lee Myers makes a living writing cruise marketing articles even though he’s never been on a cruise himself.  He enjoyed writing this piece much more than writing for his day job.  You can check out his blog, Metaphorically Speaking, at www.thetroublewithmetaphors.blogspot.com

“Om” was recently voted as the 2011 Photography For Social Change Photo of the Year  and will be turned into a T-shirt for social change.  Stay tuned for your chance to pre-order!

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Previous Posts…

Photography For Social Change Accepted Into National Gallery Exhibit

Every Picture Tells A Story: “Breaking”

Every Picture Tells A Story: “Untitled” (Denver,CO)


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