Pitfall Punks

Swinging over the crocodile pond with the Ataris.

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The Ataris, with the Juliana Theory and Further Seems Forever Agora Theatre, 5000 Euclid Avenue 7 p.m. Wednesday, March 26, $15, 216-241-5555.
More than a name: The Ataris' new album was - inspired by The Goonies, an '80s classic.
More than a name: The Ataris' new album was inspired by The Goonies, an '80s classic.

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 over the phone from a sound-check in Toronto. "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 devoted fan base. The Ataris' new effort, So Long, Astoria, just dropped late last month. It's their fourth full-length record and their first on a major label (Columbia), and the early buzz is so strong that the Ataris appear primed to be the next breakout pop-punk troupe.

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

While tracks like "In This Diary" and "Take-Offs and Landings" show little diversion from the band's overall sound, there is a shift in subject matter on Astoria. "There are really only one, maybe two songs about a girl here," Davenport explains. 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.

Nevertheless, Astoria has a wider theme: It's about how life is only as good as the memories you make. "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 20s 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 -- shows that have allowed the band to 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 hardcore 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 Ataris' lighter sound doesn't mean they eschew the DIY ethic. They own their own merchandising company and a record store in Santa Barbara (Down on Haley), and they personally respond to every fan who writes them -- 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.

After their current U.S. swing, the Ataris' will remain on the road with a string of Australian festivals, tours of Europe and Japan, and a slot on the 2003 Warped Tour, all of which should further the Ataris' brand name. 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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