ATOM’s Harry Howard: “Universally in art, death and sex and love are the big themes… I’m constantly writing songs that mention death”

Handmade collage by B.

Melbourne trio ATOM made one of the best records of last year that you may not have heard. In Every Dream Home is a dark synth-punk outing in an apocalyptic world, their music is primal yet futuristic at the same time. On Sunday, guitarist and co-vocalist Harry Howard chatted to us from his Melbourne home while eating chocolate. FYI, there’s a new ATOM record in the works!   

You’ve been making music for a long time; what keeps things fresh and interesting for you?

HARRY HOWARD: It’s just endlessly fascinating really. Having a creative outlet is just such a great thing, it’s worth going through all the little doldrums that you go through for the breakthroughs and for the good times—the good times are just so good!

As an artist what are the things that you value the most?

HH: What I value is when people put their own personal input into things. It’s very hard to be original in this world. I think it’s completely fine to borrow ideas from people, that’s what culture is, a pool of shared ideas and as long as you put something new into it it’s fine to borrow things. When people put something into it that really comes from them then it becomes unique. It’s hard to explain, but all of my favourite artists seem to be… they might not even be well on a mental health level, but perhaps that helps them put more of themselves into what they’re doing.

They also may interrupt the world in a different way and give us a unique, unfiltered new perspective.

HH: Exactly! For some people things come out of them more directly than other people, some people are very filtered. That’s the stuff that I like, when you really get personality.

Same! What inspired you to start ATOM?

HH: Meeting Ben Hepworth. I met him on a video shoot we did with NDE [Near Death Experience], we got on really well and had a lot of common taste in music and we shared a perspective about music. He told me about his band Repairs that were playing live at that time, we went and checked them out and we got them to play with the NDE. I was invited to do a project for the Little Band…

The late Alan Bramford’s Little Band Scene?

HH: Yes. It was Stuart Grant [Primitive Calculators] too, I was invited to take part in a Little Bands night at The Old Bar. I had to make up something new and I thought, god if I go along with my songs it’s just going to sound like a solo NDE show. I thought to ask Ben to do something with me. I knew anything that I did with Ben would really sound different, with him doing beats and synths. I thought it would be such a huge change for me and it was something I wanted to explore, that was a few years ago now. It just worked from the start. Edwina [Preston] joined as well. Whenever we work it’s very quick and pretty easy. It took a while to get the live shows together though. We don’t do work that often but when we do it’s great. I credit Ben as the missing link we needed to create the whole project.

ATOM’s also a new way for you to say things musically?

HH: It is. More than that it inspires me in different ways, to do things differently, because of the mood of those instruments, it is so distinct and then there’s the references that it brings up in your mind. For me it’s taken me back to all these early electronic bands that came out at the start of new wave after punk, there was quite a bit of interesting experimental stuff and then it developed into that synth-y pop, some of which I like as well. With punk and after and before there was Suicide – Alan Vega and Martin Rev – all of those things it just brought out those influences. Synthesisers have this futuristic thing about them, the sound, even though it’s not quite old it still references some kind of made up idea about the future that we have, it gives you an opportunity to write about different things like how the world’s going.

Where did you get the album title In Every Dream Home? Is it from the Roxy Music song “In Every Dream Home A Heartache”?

HH: Yes it is. It’s also a kind of pop art reference, there’s an English pop art painting that has something about a dream home in it, it has that kind of ‘50s isn’t-everything-marvellous-in-our-dream-home vibe—of course though, it never is!

A lot of the themes on the album are things that I feel are happening right now in the world, like us all running out of stuff.

HH: I know, I know. It’s weird because some of the songs that I wrote since then and after that are even more relevant. It’s like people would think I would have written them lately. There’s one song called “Teenage Saviour” about how a teenager inspires everyone to change their way, politically. That was before the movement of the teenagers coming up about the shootings in America. I thought, oh god everyone’s going to think it’s about that! Then Greta Thunberg came out and I thought, oh my god, this song is about Greta [laughs], this is ridiculous. That might be on the next album. I think sometimes when you write about the future you’re going to get it right [laughs].

You’re prophetic!

HH: [Laughs]. I think it just happens.

How did In Every Dream Home start? Does Ben, Edwina and yourself write collaboratively?

HH: We do, overall it’s collaboratively but some of the songs, I would have music and words and I’d bring it along and they’d make up their parts and things would develop from that. The other option is that Ben would bring in a track of music and either me or Edwina would add vocals or another instrument. Everything is getting quite strongly effected by what the other members bring in. Everyone gets a credit in the end. You come up with some of the best ideas on your own but you can still collaborate on those and make them better.

How do you go about writing songs? Do you have any rules you like to follow?

HH: No, not really, it’s good not to have rules about anything and go for what works at the time. Sometimes I’ll write music and I’ll try to put words to it, sometimes I’ll write words then try to make up music for the words; sometimes you just get a bit of both, you’ll be banging away and a phrase will come to mind then it will turn into a song.

I really like how in ATOM songs there’s a lot of repetition.

HH: Yeah, yeah [laughs], I know. I thought that was something that suited it, I really love the way it was so minimal, reusing versus of words. Part of it was expediency, I will admit. It was also though that it suited the robotic quality of the music to be like that. It helped create a comic book quality to it… do you think?

I do. I also think that the album artwork by Darren Wardle lends itself to creating that comic feel. As the tracks unfold it is almost a journey through a comic, a story.

HH: I like that. It’s different for me. I think we’ve all really enjoyed that aspect of it, it feels really quite cool when we can make stuff like that—it’s a good feeling.

Cover art by Darren Wardle.

Something else that I have noticed in your song writing is that you often write about the theme of death; where does that come from?

HH: Yes, yes. I can’t help that, I’ve always done that to some extent I’ve always been a dark writer. Universally in art, death and sex and love are the big themes. It’s such a big thing. I was very sick, for a while it was quite touch and go, for over a year with my own health. My brother Roland died after I started getting better, and my parents have died… it’s a good way to deal with these things, making songs about it and stuff. It’s hard to talk about things like that, but if you put it into this framework of song lyrics, you can take any attitude you want and be quite playful with it. I don’t know though, I’m just attracted to doing it. I’m constantly writing songs that mention death.

Like you said, I guess it’s just processing stuff.

HH: Exactly. Even if you’re not thinking about them, these things are there in your mind, you know them and you can’t ignore them. Whatever you say about them can be useful, it doesn’t matter what attitude you take with them, if it’s some sort of dialogue it’s going to be useful.

Absolutely. I’ve lost both of my parents as well… I don’t know if you ever get to deal with things like that, for me anyway, like you said, it’s always there. It sucks that you can’t just simply hug a loved one anymore once they’re gone. Making stuff helps.

HH: Yeah, they’re the things you can’t change; what can you do about them? [laughs]. Not much! You have to have a release for it in some way.

I even noticed with your band names, ATOM is the building blocks of life, The Near Death Experience is death, then you have These Immortal Souls that’s life after death or eternal life.

HH: [Laughs]. There you go, it’s all about death.

Yeah, the whole cycle of life!

HH: I hadn’t thought about that! Things are strange how they work out, they can start making sense after a while. It’s very odd. For example when you write words and you have no idea of what you’re writing about and then you realise after, oh that make sense now.

Where did the ATOM song “I Used To Win” come from?

HH: Ahhh, well… that’s a good question. I was actually trying to write something a bit dark and a bit negative, I’m a big fan of film noir, that’s almost like a celebration of things going bad in a way. I wanted to do something along those lines and I just came up with that phrase and I thought it was evocative because it implies so much. “I Used To Win” is a more interesting way of saying that you lose or that you’ve lost a great deal. It’s got nothing to do with the Ollie Olsen song “Win/Lose” but it somehow clicked ‘cause I was doing a thing and writing about winning and losing, it was a personal reference for me. That’s a side thing that sometimes you might be influenced by people but you’ll have a reference from wherever and it encourages you. There’s a connection to Ollie’s song but I was just doing my own thing. I thought Simon Grounds did a good production job on that song, it turns into an apocalypse of noise!

I love that the album has a lot of atmospheric sounds.

HH: Synths are very atmospheric. They have such a strong personality.

It’s interesting that you’re in a band with synths now, I remember reading an interview with you from a while ago and you mentioned that as kids your brother and sister was enrolled in piano lesson but you dodged them.

HH: [Laughs] Yeah, I did! When I think of synths now, the keys are like a way into the sounds. I can’t play keyboards, I can only play rudimentary riffs on the keyboard, it takes me ages to work things out. So, I should have gone to more lessons! [laughs].

A lot of the music you write is quite dark; where do you find joy and happiness in your life?

HH: Just in the silly things [laughs]. There is an awful lot about life that is dark, e.g. the fact that you die and everyone you love that’s around you dies. There’s a lot of misfortune and there’s a lot of people that never get to be as one bit lucky as we are in Australia, being one of the richest countries in the world. There’s lots that you could describe as dark that goes on, on top of that I’m a bit of a sceptic about happiness, I don’t think we’re meant to be happy all the time. I don’t know if we’re designed to do that, I think it’s a bit of a high ideal. If you’re going to really look at things realistically I don’t think you can be happy all of the time. People use mind-altering substances because it’s easy to forget about why you’re not feeling happy at a particular time. I don’t want to be grim about it, I think life is really great, there’s so much to enjoy. I’m dubious about optimism, of always looking on the bright side, ok, but the dark side is alright sometimes as well, I don’t think we should block that out completely. It’s quite enjoyable when you embrace it in the way of film noir or look at all of the literature, film and music that is dark and how incredibly life affirming it can be—it can inspire you.

I get you. Sad songs often make me happy.

HH: Yeah and it can be a quite useful way to get out your own emotions. There’s nothing wrong with a bit of sad.

That’s been a big lesson for me in the last year. I was one of those I-should-be-happy-all-the-time people until my husband pointed out that it’s insane to try and live like that.

HH: I agree. You’d have to make yourself really shallow to live like that, we have many sides; I don’t want to be like that.

Same! What are you working on now?

HH: At the moment we’re working on a new ATOM record.


HH: We’re doing it in isolation. Ben told us today that he was working on some updated beats and things we’ve got going. Ed and I will work on them here. We’ve got songs on the go, about half the record is written, it just needs to be arranged. We have three writers and things happen pretty quickly with us, everyone really wants to get their stuff in so we can be quite competitive; there’s no shortage of material. So there’s the next ATOM album, ATOM 2, and then I’ve got all this solo stuff I keep working on. I’ve just been in touch with Dave [Graney] and Clare [Moore] – Dave has a lung condition and he will be isolating quite seriously for a while – I thought we might try emailing stuff back and forth for a potential NDE project. I work in a hospital, so I’m in this lull before the storm too! Which is taking up a bit of my mind right now, it’s very stressful.

It’s scary what’s happening in the world right now?

HH: It is! It’s like the future is here now!

The ATOM record has come true!

HH: I know! All those shows we’ve watched on Netflix about the dystopia has come, it’s really arrived.

We’re very excited that you’re still creating throughout it all!

HH: Thank you!

You’ve made our day that a new ATOM record is coming! It was such an underrated record, when I first heard it I thought it was so cool and different; sonically it was like a punch in the face in a good way!

HH: [Laughs]. I wish it had punched more people in the face, not many people I think have heard it.

That’s why we’re having this chat with you! It was one of our favourite records of last year!

Please check out: ATOM. Get In Every Dream Home out now on IT RECORDS.

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