Mustard had the pleasure of speaking with ska-collective Atlas & Oracle. Together we discussed the inspiration behind the ska collective, their living album “Jubilee”, their upcoming single with Common Sense Kid, and so much more!

1. Mustard is grateful to have Atlas & Oracle join them at Music Shelf. How is everyone?

We’re grateful for the opportunity!! We’re doing alright- each of us tends to stay pretty busy, which is a double-edged sword, but does help stave off the whole “end of the world” thing.

2. You are primarily based out of Boston and New York City. Do you have any plans to extend your atlas in the future?

We already have! Just this year we added a new guitarist/bassist to the mix, named Juno Grey. They’re the third nonbinary musician in the group, and our first member from outside the Northeast! They might not show up in music videos just yet, but we’re excited to have such a talented player join the mix. 

3. Besides providing “The Chosen One” Neo from The Matrix some great advice, what is your relationship with the oracle?

(Atlas) I won’t pretend I didn’t spend some time trying to bend spoons with my mind as a kid, but I can’t remember if I got that from The Matrix or from the Alakazam episode in the original run of Pokémon.

4. Combined you are Atlas & Oracle. How did you come up with this name for your ska pop collective?

(Atlas) After graduating college, I was going through the normal pains of adjusting to living my own life in a new city. I had song ideas floating around in my head constantly, but it took over a year (and switching from a rough job) to finally start writing anything down. 

I observed within myself a part that can “see the future”- in reality, fantasizing and daydreaming about how great I would feel when all the work was done and I could look back on my life and bask in the glow of a successful music career. 

But I noticed something else as well- I wasn’t making any progress towards those goals, and with time the imaginary payoff was becoming less and less visible. My mind was working overtime, but I had nothing to show for it.

That’s when I first started thinking about these two parts of me as their own distinct concepts- the Oracle, the part that foresees the work to be done and the benefits of doing so, and the Atlas, the part that actually does the work and effects change in the world. 

I don’t think I can actually see the future, or that this is something that’s special to me. It’s almost like Body & Mind, but it’s more psychological- these are both parts of your being, and different people have differing levels of both. We all know people who are all talk and no game, as well as people who work themselves to the bone but don’t seem to make any progress. 

It’s just a framework that has helped me find some semblance of balance. I am a Libra, after all.

5. You all met while playing jazz together. Had you met each other before or was this the first time? Did anyone quote “The Bee Movie” in their introductions?

This is dating ourselves a bit, but “Ya like jazz?” only took off after we had already been playing together a couple years. Instead, in one of our first meetings with the veteran jazz guy leading our group, we were introduced to “The Lick”- and instructed never to play it. The Lick would also become a Neely-level meme pretty soon afterwards, but it actually started as a YouTube compilation video put together by a jazz professor in 2011!

6. Who (or what) inspired you to begin a ska pop collective? When did the idea initially strike?

(Atlas) It actually started as a solo project that could be best described as genreless. Our first two EPs (now Bandcamp exclusives) were basically just my first attempt at putting together full songs by myself, based on snippets of ideas that had been taking up space in my head, sometimes for years. 

From doing one EP with MIDI guitar and one with guitar I recorded myself, I knew that recording guitar stressed me out. I wasn’t good enough to play what I really wanted to write, and I had more fun by adding harmonic and melodic layers that sounded completely different from each other, rather than layers of guitar. This naturally led me back to the horns of my formative years, and the synths that I had started exploring in our first EP.

I wrote one song with horns, then another. Then another. Then a couple more. At first I was using MIDI horns, but then I wrote a song that just wouldn’t sound right without a solo section. Fortunately, I knew some horn players who would be perfect for the job.

So gradually an album was built. Honestly, at first I wasn’t calling it ska- it was my top genre and very important to me through high school and early college, but my experience with the online ska community was from Reddit circa 2012, so I was expecting a lot of backlash from ska fans if I called it ska when it was clearly skadjacent, or clearly not ska at all- just pop with horns, or something else that I hadn’t thought of.

But over time, as I’ve found a place for myself in the online ska community, I’ve been thinking of it with more self-compassion. ‘Everything We’ve Done’ or ‘Be Natural’ or ‘Kick It On Down the Line’ might not be “ska songs”, but they’re played by a ska-shaped band, and they’re on an album that can only be described in its entirety as ska.

I mean, as a whole, what else would you call it?

7. As a ska pop collective what is your creative process?

(Atlas) I handle most of the writing as of now, but we’re looking to change that in the future. It’s just hard to find the time to work together, since all of us are busy with our own priorities- part of the idea behind being a “collective” rather than a “band” was to give more flexibility to individual members to participate only as much as they are able.

Basically, I collect little snippets of ideas in my phone’s built-in recording app- I used to use a third party app until I lost two years’ worth of snippets- whenever a song pops into my head. Sometimes I see a line in a text or notice something that I’m thinking that makes me go “hmm, that could be a song!” Other times it starts with just a melody, or just a bass line, something I notice has been looping in my head for a while, then if it’s catchy enough I’ll pull out my phone to record.

There’s a skill called “audiation”, which is basically the ability to hear notes in your head before you sing/play them- with enough practice, you can hear different instruments, or at least groups of instruments, all playing at the same time. I think I developed this as a coping mechanism because I’m one of those people that can’t visualize very well- so instead, I just have constant background music. It’s a skill anyone can learn, and it’s a lifesaver for those who want to work on music during their day job. The hard part is finding time to flesh those ideas out!

8. Artists such as Streetlight Manifesto, Father John Misty, and We Are The Union are some of your cited influences. Which album of each do you recommend humans listen to? How have they influenced your work?

(Atlas) Each of these three bands have inspired me in different ways. There is definitely overlap, but I learned from Streetlight musically, Father John Misty philosophically, and We Are the Union personally.

I could listen to one single band every free moment I got for the next two years, and it still wouldn’t match how much I listened to Streetlight during the few years before and after The Hands That Thieve came out. Ska was brand new to me, and I’ll admit Streetlight was the first ska-type band I heard (We Will Fall Together, followed by the rest of Somewhere in the Between, which is my answer), but it engaged me in every way. It filled me with energy, it was packed with challenging twists & turns that made you go “Wait, what?” on first listen but made you go back a second and third time. And through it all, it’s so damn catchy. My all-time top band of any genre.

Father John Misty was a band I initially wrote off as pretentious (I mean, the name?), and if you look up the lyrics before you hear the song you’ll think this guy’s a total weirdo. And he is. But also? He makes beautiful music. And it’s not like he’s trying to be normal, he’s just doing his weird thing. I admittedly haven’t kept up with his new cinematic-inspired album, as I already liked “Pure Comedy” less than “I Love You, Honeybear” (my answer), which grew on me with each listen. A quote that I read in an interview that changed how I was thinking of music:  “I showed the song to my wife, and she told me ‘Don’t be afraid to make it beautiful’. So I did.(He was talking about my favorite song of his, the adorably bizarre love song “Chateau Lobby #4”).

Finally, We Are The Union is the band that has most helped me personally since the release of their album Ordinary Life. Reade’s lyrics are full of relatable messages and an openness that inspires self-expression. I’ve come to have very clear memories associated with almost all these songs at this point, and WATU is definitely one of my grail collabs. (If you’re reading this, I’ve already got a song written that you’d sound great on!!)

9. Last year you released your “living album” Jubilee. Could you share what it was like to put this album together?

‘Jubilee’ was a step in a lot of directions at once. First time recording a full album, first time managing recording sessions between members, first time recording horns (or being recorded, for some of us), first time promoting releases.

It also took almost a year to fully release. Walls Come Crashing came out in November of 2021; the album came out in October ‘22. 7 singles total from a 14-track album, with about 6-8 weeks in between them. Four music videos.

From the outside, it’s easy to say that we should have released the album in a shorter period of time, or all at once. But from our perspective- here’s a secret- we weren’t even done with the album until like September. It was fully written and recorded as of June ‘21, but it was also our first time overseeing an in-depth mixing process (Atlas works very closely with our mix engineer) and that ended up taking a long time.

Spacing it out definitely worked for us, but it also means that if we write a new song it might get added to a queue of songs stretching out months. We’re hoping to release a lot of songs this year, so we’re constantly refining our process!

10. On “Be Natural” you proclaim that “our leaders want us dead.” Mustard wonders – how did these humans get elected? What can humans do to fight against those who want to harm them?

(Atlas) “Our leaders want us dead” is only a partial thought- or rather, it’s a paraphrase of a longer thought. The longer thought is “Our leaders care about power and money more than they care about any individual’s life”. Obviously if we all died, that’d be bad for business. But if some of us die- well, that’s just a risk we’re going to have to take. Sorry, they misspoke- that’s a risk you’re going to have to take.

I don’t know if every single elected official has this in mind, but you can see that it goes into their thought process. When there’s an option to save lives or cut costs, the latter is picked almost every single time.

Some of them, I assume, believe that they are doing the right thing- a rising tide lifts all ships, as the saying goes- but we have 40 years since Reagan to tell us that this simply isn’t true.

So what can you do? Start small. Find people who make you feel safe when you’re with them. Then find a community for both of you to feel safe in. Then work with that community to effect change on a larger scale. 

I believe that’s how all change is made. But of course, it’s easier said than done.

11. Who would Atlas & Oracle like to kick it on down the line with?

(Atlas) In the song that’s a bad thing, but let’s put a positive spin on it! I think it’d be cool for us to kick it with the members of Simple Minded Symphony- musically I feel our songs have some comparable elements so I’d love to talk composition, and their bassist gave me some great tips on singing and playing bass at the same time. I should really get to practicing those tips so we can play a show together sometime!

12.  You recently collaborated with Lumpy on “Live This Way.” How did this collaboration come together?

(Atlas) I heard about Lumpy in the same way I think a lot of people did, with his excellent Bob Dylan cover on SPI’s “Songs for Moms Vol. 2”. My mom actually listened to the comp before I did and pointed his track out to me as one of her favorites (besides the one I had arranged for her, of course 😉) and when I listened later, it definitely stood out to me as well.

I talked with Lumpy a bit after that, got to listen to ‘Burn the Page’ a bit early, and ultimately ran a demo by him that I came up with after listening to a lot of Lumpy tracks. He sent back some trumpet recordings and sage advice, and then A&O brought the song to completion!

13. What is next for Atlas & Oracle?

On March 21, we’ll be dropping our next track, another collab- this time with the U.K.’s own Common Sense Kid. Working with him was a totally different experience, but equally rad- he actually wrote the hook for this song, in addition to a killer verse. I got the chance to listen to his album a bit early as well, and you’re gonna love it when it comes out!

This one is a totally different style- I know CSK is no stranger to synths, so I saw that as permission to make a song closer to the “electro” end of the electroacoustic spectrum. That makes it maybe a bit more similar to something you’d hear on Jubilee than ‘Live This Way’ was, but this time with the addition of some classic ska/reggae guitar.

After that, we’ve got a big year planned out- we can’t say too much right now because there’s a lot of prep work that’s going to need to go into it, and not as much time as we would have liked to get it all done- but expect more pop-ska originals paired with synth-ska covers. 

At the very least, there will be more synths!!

14. Where can readers listen to your music?

We keep this link up-to-date with all our most recent releases! Thanks so much for having us on!


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