Tom Atkins – Music Anatomy
Written by Liam Sweeny on December 26, 2018
If you’ve kicked your shoes off for the day, and the beer in the fridge is a quick second from being in your hand ‘cause it’s five o’clock somewhere and you want to hit that spot in your ears as well as your belly, the Tom Atkins Band’s got a jam for you.
Frontman and band namesake Tom Atkins, bassist Mike Persico and drummer Bob Napierski are going all out, blending a handful of notes and beats like a certain famous man from Kentucky blends herbs and spices, to deliver a sweet bucket of extra melodic love.
We sit down with Tom Atkins and talk turkey (or chicken.)
RRX: You have a pretty interesting groove, something I can’t pin down to any one genre, not fully. Definite rock core, but some blues here, jazz there, alternative around the edges. It’s a great mix of sounds. How would you describe what you do if you had to give what we could call “the elevator pitch”?
TA: Well thank you, that’s praise I love to hear. I’ve never been in one genre fully. Full gender, not full genre (LOL) My feeble attempt at an elevator pitch is that My band serves up a stewy gumbo of classic rock and shredded punk with a dash of power blues. I love filling the air with a loud guitar and putting everything I have into it, and I try to focus on making every note be an honest emotional expression. I have been so lucky and to be able to be still performing music today. Playing music thrills me to my core. To have been playing with the same drummer for twenty years is an incredible blessing. I have always been really lucky to make great friends for a long time, but my drummer Bob Napierski is totally my groove.
RRX: I hear that you were self-taught, and that you trained yourself finger-by-finger. So here’s a question from my inner guitar-nerd; was this your fret hand or your strumming hand, or both? And how did you go about that?
TA: Everyone is technically self-taught. Someone might teach you something but YOU make the connection for you. It’s so funny looking back at those first awkward notes. It was my fret hand. I was so bad initially I thought maybe I have to learn how to play left handed guitar because my left fretting hand was completely uncoordinated. It was pretty clear, I am not at all a “born” musician. I was terrified of playing in front of a teacher. I had tremendous stage fright, but the rush and thrill of performing, once it’s on its on, I believe the phrase is “the ham is cooking.”
Anyway, I am not self-taught any more than anyone else. Everything that I can play today, I had to really work at it. I was trying that 1, 2, 3, 4 warm up exercise, one finger per fret, and I was really frustrated because it literally felt like I could not separate my fingers at all. I would try to move one finger and all of them would move.
So one night after having the guitar for a few months, I was determined to get it done. I tried so hard to do that exercise, for so long that one night that I fell asleep sitting down with the guitar. I woke up in the morning and I was finally able to just move one finger at a time. I had absolutely no stretching ability, I could barely go two frets with all four fingers. But I worked at it every day. Now I still warm up with that. Writing a guitar journal basically keeps my chops fresh. (That’s the application I am working on.)
RRX: You got your first guitar in 1983. That’s a long time to be playing and coming up with new grooves, exploring new avenues, and it shows in what I’ve heard. Can you take us, at your own pace, on a walk through your various musical obsessions or epiphanies. Where were the major stops on your musical journey?
TA: Wow. Again, Thank you. What Awesome question. So much for sleeping tonight.
The first thing musically that I wanted to do, I wanted to play bass. I basically loved “The Police” and I loved Sting. But, one my best friends* already had a bass, so that avenue seemed closed if we were going to play together. When I brought it up to my dad, he said, “If you have a guitar, you can play bass anytime.” So he gave me that electric guitar.
I don’t think my dad knew how crazy obsessive I was about the guitar after I was actually able to play those first few notes and got my fingers moving. Understanding how to tune the guitar became a “feel in your hand” thing more than I could “hear” it. After “noodling” for a little while, I found out I could have my guitar in school too if I played in the music program. (I wanted that guitar in my hands constantly.) So I got to audition for jazz band at Columbia High school. I was barely playing single notes so chords were literally not happening. But I could read music since I had very early piano lessons and I knew where the natural notes where on the low e string, so when the audition came, I just played the single natural notes. If the chord was Amin7, I played the A. One finger, one note. The music director liked what I did and told me to check out Freddy Green and Wes Montgomery, so I got the gig.
Because that’s a lucky cheat, that incredible opportunity led to working with music program and really listening to a much larger variety (jazz, classical) of music. My good friends didn’t like it (a natural teen rebellion attitude) so they took a look at my record collection (Police, Men at work, U2, Beethoven, Eagles and Wayon Jennings) and “replaced” them with Ozzy Osborne, Dio, Iron Maiden and AC/DC.
That New Year ‘s Day was the “Jump” arrival of Eddie Van Halen. That was it. Eddie Van Halen is god to me to this day. He was my Louis Armstrong before I really discovered the real Louie Armstrong. That summer of ‘83? ‘84? was the transcription of Eruption by some guy named Steve Vai who apparently played with Frank Zappa… I became fascinated by the idea of writing down music and recording my ideas.
Notate everything. Record everything. If you write it down correctly, other people can play it, that was a beautiful epiphany. I began writing my own songs and riffs. I wrote a few songs in my first band and learned that studio time and developing your guitar tone and style is really an art to itself. Cut my first demo songs at St. Rose and loved the process. I bought a four track and I still have boxes of tapes, all inspired by Steve Vai’s self released record, “Flexible”. My first concert of Twisted Sister and Dokken (George Lynch became a clear influence to seemingly everyone, but certainly for me) Then the next wave of shredders, Yngwie Malmsteen, Vinnie Moore, Shawn Lane, Paul Gilbert. A wonderful life lesson happened that while the parents wanted the college degree, I wanted to play guitar.
In the amalgam of that, I came in second in the 1989 Best Western NY guitar competition while attending SUNY Fredonia. Coming in so close convinced me I had to move to LA. And when I did move out to LA, I studied with MoJazz master Norman Brown and he turned me on to studying one of my absolute idols, Jimi Hendrix. As I was graduating Musician’s Institute, Nirvana came out and everyone who knew how to play guitar was basically fired and the industry had had its fill of “good” guitar players.
But It did help focus me on how to be a well-rounded songwriter. Right around that same time, one of my best friends (*my bassist) committed suicide. That was life changing. Music stopped. I moved home, but after a few months I realized I didn’t want to starve on a suddenly silent beach, so I went to finish college with a music industry degree from SUNY Oneonta, I got on MTV as an intern and experienced the real music business in New York City.
From all that, I completed my first CDs made on my own label (Reason, Heads or Tales, 1995), John Thomas “Darker Shade of Blue” in 1997, THICK in 2000, College for Criminals in 2006, Tom Atkins Band Guitar Candy in 2015.
And that is as brief as I can answer that question (LOLOL!) In 2014, Steve Vai started a guitar camp and I made friends with fellow guitar lunatics from all over the world. That Epiphany is on going, so many incredibly talented people to play with and enjoy every musical moment!!!
RRX: One of the things I love about interviewing bands is that you all get to go out in front of crowds and share what you’ve created, what you love. Do you have any shows that made all the work, all the practicing, worth it? I’m talking more than every show does; one in particular?
TA: I’d have to say when my Band THICK opened for Blue Oyster Cult back in 1999, that was one show that I am really proud of. But as far as my own band, my first show in Montreal was exciting since it was the first Tom Atkins Band show with me as the singer, and we have done so many since then. We recently had a show at the Arsenal City tavern in October this year, it was completely packed, wall to wall people, drunk people were dancing on my footpedals. I loved every second of it. A hot sweaty drunken mess. We were all having a great time, some maybe too much. LOL!
For me personally, performing Little Wing with guitarist Eric Johnson, that was one for my tombstone – “Here lies Tom. He played Little Wing with Eric Johnson. He died a happy man.”
RRX: You have a CD coming up. I have a CD on the way, and thank you very much, can’t wait. You also have a CD release show at Dinosaur Bar-B-Que in Troy on December 28th at 9 PM. What do our readers (and myself) have to look forward to, from the CD (and the show, if you have any surprises)?
TA: Tommy Love is going to sing for everybody and be wonderfully entertaining as always. At tonight’s rehearsal, a talented trombonist (I didn’t hear his name) came downstairs during our rehearsal tonight and just started playing some beautiful notes with us, so hopefully he does that on the 28th as well! It is my favorite aspect of performing live music – having people come up and play with us is as much a treat for us as it is for the audience.
Live music is a celebration in a moment in time, and Nothing fills the present moment like a live band playing live music that is breathing something unheard of before. My good friend Johnny Grignon who has performed with me since 1988, he is coming to sing a few songs, especially since he cowrote two of the songs on the CD.
RRX: Recording in a studio is like the famous Tolstoy quote from War and Peace, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Everything comes out in the studio. Can you share your experience, and your personal takeaways from the time you’ve spent in the studio, especially for the new CD?
TA: This is the first CD that I have written and sang on all of the tracks, and it was a real struggle because it was also the first CD I completed while having a full-time job and being a father and a husband. It was challenging emotionally because I know my guitar, but I am only beginning to really learn my voice, what I can do and can’t do. And that was really emotionally intense battling the fear that I had to overcome as a singer, especially in today’s musical entertainment environment where “the voice” is more important than the song or even the words.
I am proud of my effort, and I look forward to the next one with greater confidence and I plan on working with a producer next time, one who knows how to coach performances to be as good as possible. It was also the first CD where I knew my limits and hired a mixing and mastering engineer. (I learned from my last CD “Guitar Wash” that just because I know my way around a studio doesn’t mean that my ears are up to the challenge.)
I can track what I need to, and leave the rest of the cooking to people who have all their ear hairs. For my latest CD, Peter Jones tracked all the songs and was a real professional and did an incredible job with his mixes. My long time friend from my college days in Fredonia, Robert Kulhman of Root Cellar Studios did the mastering job of a lifetime. The CD sounds so incredible because Bob and Mike and I really did our best to perform on it, and Peter and Rob really displayed their talented audio skills.
RRX: We here are a family, and we’re looking to connect our long-lost cousins. We’re also looking for stuff to put in the family newsletter. Anybody out there you think we should know about? And what is in your near future?
TA: I was in Nashville this past April and was blown away by all of the talent in all the clubs. In a tiny club called Dee’s country cocktail lounge, I was blown away by Jim Oblon. He is a top session guy in Nashville and his skill on guitar was incredible. His Album “Sunset” was inspirational and I listened to it the whole drive home. I play guitar for my friend Doug Lawler who grew up in Rotterdam but moved to Nashville – Doug writes and puts out beautiful country music. I have wonderful friends down in Newburgh area, Jason Casterlin’s “Old Stone Church” has a few of my licks on there, really well produced record and good friends. Jason’s band is Hillbilly Parade, they are awesome.
And I have some incredibly talented musicians I have met at all my Vai camps and will be partying next month at NAMM with – Chris Stark (from Hawaii) writes and performs beautiful instrumental guitar music and we are playing on each others future songs. I have a dear friend in Montreal Canada named Victor E and on the new year he is launching a new song, might be RadioRadioX friendly. One more to keep an ear out for – Mick Hayes from Buffalo NY – tremendous talent. I want to get him in our area for a show, I think he is top tier one talent!
As for me, I’m hoping to get the word out about this CD, and I writing the next one, maybe recording it down in Athens Georgia by the end of summer.