Toronto's Atomic 7 are like the proverbial wolf in sheep's clothing. The cover of their latest album …en Hillbilly Caliente features a cutesy painting of a winsome jalapeno pepper. Yet what lurks within is something far more nefarious, namely track upon track of battle-scarred instrumental insanity.
"It's really different from the first Atomic 7 disc," confirms A7's de facto leader Brian Connelly. Best known for his work with twangy Toronto underground legends Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet, Connelly helms the A7 gravy train alongside drummer Mike Andriosso and bassist Mandi Bird, who replaced Clinton Ryder just over a year ago. "Mandi had been playing with Mike for a while so it was a pretty natural thing for her to slide into that role. Her and I had been working on a little side thing while Atomic 7 was going on and when our old bassist Clinton left, we kinda tricked her into coming over to our camp."
Bird's arrival definitely infused …en Hillbilly Caliente with a bristlier sound than A7's 2003 debut Gowns by Edith Head. "It's a whole lot more rocking than I thought it was going to be and I think a lot of that is because of Mandi's influence," says Connelly. "When you only have a three-piece band, every personality comes through. Not only did we change our bass player but Mandi plays electric bass where Clinton was playing acoustic upright. That changed our whole sonic pallet completely."
After penning some of the most excruciatingly clever instrumental rock and roll of the past 20 years with the Shadowy Men, Connelly continues his love affair with the "Ram-Bunk-Shush" with Atomic 7. Like with most songwriters, there's always a subject matter in place but Connelly opts to tell his stories through an elevated sense of songcraft in lieu of lyrics. "It's kind of 'hand in glove' with the writing. All the songs have a really strong melody and they're all about something. For example, the song 'Kicking at the Ghost of Ass' from the new record. It was written about a guy in my neighbourhood. He's this older, rockier guy—he's really got it going on, or he thinks he does anyway. When you see him walking down the street, he always looks like he's kicking ass… and I'm sure he doesn't remember which ass he's kicking. Just little things like that. Instrumental music is mainly mood music anyway. So the titles really set up what's going on in the music."
When the Shadowy Men first convened in Toronto circa 1985, instrumental rock was merely a catalyst for their tuneful tomfoolery. But before long, Connelly and his bandmates (drummer Don Pyle and the late Reid Diamond on bass) had uncovered an abandoned history of instrumental rock that provided a wealth of perspective for the band's goofy odes to TV, zombies and average weekends. "When the Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet first got started, it was little more than three guys trying to amuse themselves. It was almost like a joke to us. But then once we started looking back at the history of instrumental music—which is massive—the more interesting it got. The stuff I found just doing research on instrumental Canadian bands was incredible. I got pretty pissed off that the world had just passed over this stuff that was so bloody important from a historical perspective and pretty addictive to listen to."
Connelly points out that Canada itself has always been a pretty steady provider of danceable instrumental goodness, dating way back to the dark ages of primordial rock and roll. "There was a band for Edmonton called Wes Dakus and the Rebels that were kings of the Canadian instrumental scene from the late 1950's right up until around 1963," he says. "Montreal was also thick with instrumental music at that time. They had bands like Les Jaguars and Les Versatiles. There's a really good series of albums that some guys from Holland put out called Early Canadian Rockers. It's not all instrumental but these guys did some really incredible research. They went to places like Fort McMurray and found the only band from the region that ever put out a 45 during that time. It's probably exotic music to them, where in Canada, it's been completely forgotten for a long, long time now."
Making their best efforts to keep these wordless traditions afloat, Atomic 7 are in the midst of their first national tour that will see the band hit 13 Canadian cities in support of …en Hillbilly Caliente. On just the third date of the tour, the band encountered some classic rock and roll lameness at the musty Scherzo Pub in Kingston, Ontario. "It was one of those bills with four other bands playing," says Connelly. "The guys who went on before us, without a shred of irony, ripped off their Guns 'N Roses t-shirts and broke into 'Born To Be Wild.' It seemed really funny but they were 100 per cent serious. These guys were doing the whole 'Helloooo, Kingston. We're gonna tear this club a new one'…whatever that means. It was just a mess of girlish squeals. A lot of really bizarre crap like that happens. You just can't believe your eyes sometimes."
It's a mawkish existence but one that the boys and girls of Atomic 7 are only too happy to comply with. With close to 20 years in the business, Connelly isn't looking to move a ton of product at this point—he's just looking to for a chance to keep his mouth shut, strike up the band and let his fingers do the talkin'. "We're a really good band. I'm not worried about the songs but rather the fact that it's summer holidays, people are away from home and nobodies really heard of us. That's OK; we don't mind playing to tumbleweeds and crickets. We'd just rather play to sweaty, dancey people."
Atomic 7 play the El Mocambo in Toronto on Friday, July 30th, 2004. For more information about the band, visit the Mint Records website at www.mintrecs.com
Writer: Cameron Gordon