Question: How many drummers does it take to screw in a light bulb?
Answer: None, they’ve got a machine to do it now.
The easily dispensable nature of the rock drummer has long been a basic fact of life in rock ‘n’ roll—after all, nobody really cares about Ringo Starr, do they? Probably not: Even the all-time-great drummers—like Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham—were made to look like buffoons by their own bandmates. It’s the nature of the beast.
But Martin Atkins is not just a drummer. Throughout his career—one that has featured stints with Public Image Ltd., Ministry, Killing Joke and Pigface—Atkins has made his presence felt through not only his drumming, but also through a harder-to-define sense of what makes a good song work. As the owner of indie label Invisible Records, Atkins displayed a similar sense, helping to guide the careers of artists such as Chris Conley, Sugarsmack and Dead Voices on Air. Now, in his latest project, a book entitled Tour:Smart (Soluble LLC., 2007), Atkins takes the lessons from wide-ranging career and helps readers put his advice into real-life use.
“I teach the business of touring at Columbia in Chicago. It’s about touring, it’s about merchandise, and it’s about taking responsibility for everything,” says Atkins, his voice, much like his drumming, alternating between a nervous stammer and a mile-a-minute gallop. “Even if you can blame 10 people who absolutely didn’t do what they were supposed to do, it doesn’t help you when you are in a band because it’s your career that goes down the toilet. You end up at a point where you have to take responsibility for all of this, which I think is a great place to be.”
Atkins says that Tour:Smart started as a simple replacement for the outdated textbook he was provided when he began teaching.
“The textbook was written in 1963, so I spent an hour screaming at the students ‘What the f*** are you doing? You are spending thousands of dollars on your education and you are allowing someone to teach from this book!’ So I started to add in bits and pieces from my experience. After a few years I had my text book. Then, to the horror of my office, I said ‘OK now, we’ve got to add the poetry of touring, the stress, and the triumphs.’ I think that’s when my office thought I was crazy. It added a lot of work to my book, a lot of graphic content.”
But Tour:Smart isn’t just a dry telling of percentages and lessons on being frugal—there’s advice from sex experts, drug gurus, sound technicians and even a former staffer for Vice President Al Gore. Most importantly, there are frank and often cautionary tales from rock luminaries such as Henry Rollins and world-renowned groupie (and noted rock-star-genital sculptor) Cynthia Plaster Caster.
“Bands don’t share information with other bands,” says Atkins. “Bands don’t wish tragedy on other bands. But it’s a long way from wishing tragedy on someone and actually giving them information. So I wanted to share all of the information I could in the funniest, most interesting, most graphically entertaining way I could.”
Another element of Tour:Smart, and the reason for Atkins’ traveling lecture/PowerPoint presentation, is an element that bands often forget in the brand new digital age: That human interaction is still the most viable way to earn the adulation of fans.
“The only way to affect real change is to go and see people and touch people—the animal part of it,” he says. “If it wasn’t, then not a single politician would go out and meet people.”
This can-do, nonstop kind of movement is something that Atkins prides himself on. Instead of resting on his laurels, he’s still moving and trying to create new avenues for his music, as well as other artists’ work. For example, he recently went on a tour of China to find new bands in the emerging market.
“I’ve been spinning a bunch of plates that seem to be taking off at the same time,” he says. “It’s that one plus one equals 11 kind of entrepreneurial nut job kind of thing.”
Atkins’ gung-ho attitude is atypical of the popular perception of the rock band: the lazy slackers who don’t actually work. (Or, as Dire Straits so eloquently put it: “Money for nothin’ and your chicks for free.”) But according to Atkins, Tour:Smart is aimed at showing that the laisse-faire attitude of most bands and success do not mix.
“Bands can take a cavalier approach, but there are 10 or 15 really simple things that they can do to that will literally and figuratively keep them from driving off of a cliff,” he says.
Now 30 years into a career as a musician, 18 years as a label owner and four years into teaching, Atkins is doing all he can to destroy the cliché of the dumb drummer. But after all of this time and all of the plates he’s been spinning, how does he find the will to continue his perilous balancing act?
“I’m dabbling in all things,” he says. “I don’t think I’d want to do any of this without the other pieces of the puzzle. The beginning of all of this was just me playing drums. But I’m most excited by teaching and doing these [lectures] because they are funny. If people can laugh while I’m talking about miles per gallon and geography, then that’s magic.”
[Jason Bugg is a freelance writer based in Asheville.]
who: Martin Atkins reads from his book Tour:Smart: And Break the Band
what: Experienced rock drummer-turned-educator
where: Malaprop’s (Sunday, Dec. 9, at 3 p.m. Free.www.malaprops.com or 254-6734)
where: Bobo Gallery (Sunday, Dec. 9, at 5:30 p.m. www.bobogallery.com or 254-3426)