Fun w/Atoms and Lefty’s: Two one-of-a-kinds made for each other

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Fun w/Atoms and Lefty’s: Two one-of-a-kinds made for each other

Posted on: April 4th, 2014 by tommyj

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From left, Curt Lefevre, Rick Smith and Dan Collins of Fun w/Atoms bring more than 30 years of experience to this weekend's second annual Salute to Lefty's.

From left, Curt Lefevre, Rick Smith and Dan Collins of Fun w/Atoms bring more than 30 years of experience to this weekend’s second annual Salute to Lefty’s. / Evan Siegle/Press-Gazette Media

From left, Dan Collins, Rick Smith and Curt Lefevre of Fun w/Atoms considered the old Lefty's an incubator for bands playing original music.

From left, Dan Collins, Rick Smith and Curt Lefevre of Fun w/Atoms considered the old Lefty’s an incubator for bands playing original music. / Evan Siegle/Press-Gazette Media

DO IT

Second annual Salute to Lefty’s
9 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Friday: Fun w/Atoms, Gary White & The Rockerts, Tim Schweiger & The Middlemen and Beach Patrol. Saturday: Rev. Norb & The Onions, Go Go Slow, Fun w/Atoms, Scrap Heap Kings/Moral Disgust and Sons of Kong

ABOUT THAT NAME

That’s Fun w/Atoms, as in small “w,’’ forward slash and no space.
The band liked the contrast of the words “fun’’ and “atoms,’’ while also recognizing that those tiny building blocks are the basis for everything, including music.
In the pre-Internet days, the forward slash played harmoniously with the rest of the name, but once it became a computer command, it wreaked havoc when trying to put it in a URL. So for all of the band’s music on streaming and downloading sites like Spotify, CD Baby and iTunes, they spell out their name as “Fun with Atoms.’’
“Who knew we’d be that far ahead of our time?’’ said bassist Dan Collins.
Follow them on Facebook at FunWithAtoms. Their albums are available locally at The Exclusive Co.

Released in 2010

Released in 2010

Released in 1985

Released in 1985

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Like most everyone who spent time at a crowded Lefty’s in the ’80s, Fun w/Atoms can’t help but remember those nights with a smile.

Curt Lefevre, Rick Smith and Dan Collins played the Green Bay bar revered for its original music offerings with such regularity during its run on Main Street from 1978 to 1988 that they were considered the unofficial house band, packing the place on back-to-back weekend nights with University of Wisconsin-Green Bay students eager to dance to an alternative beat.

No other local band was — or is — more synonymous with Lefty’s than Fun w/Atoms. Twenty-six years since the bar that’s considered by many to be a contender for “best Green Bay bar ever’’ closed, it’s virtually impossible to talk about the business without bringing up the band or vice versa. For the generation that came of age in that era, the two are forever sealed in the same smoky, beer-soaked time capsule — crazy rocker bangs and all.

“Everything just came together at the same time,’’ said Lefevre, who plays drums and sings in FWA. “It was the culture and us getting into original music at the same time as the bar became popular. You’ve got this place to go to and the place to be, and we happened to be part of it at that time.’’

For a lot of music fans, “that time’’ at Lefty’s was significant in their lives. The legal drinking age then was 18, so many were starting to date and some would meet their future spouse there.

“That was an important time for a lot of people. They were getting their independence. They were dancing and hearing a new kind of music,’’ said guitarist and vocalist Rick Smith. “It was just an exciting time, and we happened to be in the scenery as part of it. I think people still coming out to see us helps them relive that a little bit — a really nice time in their lives.’’

That explains why last year’s inaugural Salute to Lefty’s was a hit. The brainchild of Tom Smith, a longtime Green Bay promoter of punk shows who was a DJ at the UWGB college radio station — “WGBW 91.5 Best on the Bay’’ — the two-night tribute featuring local bands was a chance to recognize how much Lefty’s open mind to a diverse slate of music, including punk, meant to him personally.

This weekend’s second annual event at Phat Headz will again feature two nights of local bands. As a nod to the ol’ Lefty’s days, FWA will play both Friday and Saturday nights, just like they used to do in the ’80s. (Look for the longer set on Friday when they headline.)

“We’ll have to take our naps,’’ joked Smith, who knew Lefevre and Collins before they had girlfriends. Now all three men have families, and yes, second-generation Atoms kids old enough to attend the 21-and-over show.

‘It was always packed’

Before Fun w/Atoms formed in 1982, Smith and Collins had known each other from playing in garage bands together and attending Green Bay Southwest High School. Collins and Leferve were still in college when the trio formed a New Wave cover band heavy on Elvis Costello and whatever “cutting-edge’’ albums their friend at a local record store could slip them early.

“It definitely wasn’t songs you’d hear on the radio, unless you were listening to WGBW,’’ said Collins, FWA bassist and vocalist.

When it became clear to them they wanted to play their own stripped-down power pop as Fun w/Atoms, they found a receptive ear in Tom Parrott, who owned Lefty’s along with two partners and booked everyone from the Violent Femmes, Trip Shakespeare and Soul Asylum to Mojo Nixon, Bryan Lee and Plasticland in a joint that wasn’t exactly roomy.

“I don’t even think Lefty’s was designed to have a band when we started playing there,’’ Collins said. “We kind of squeezed in there.’’

But tight quarters were always secondary to the entertainment.

“Tom was consistent with who he booked. It was always someone doing original music and not cover songs all night,’’ Smith said. “He was consistent enough that people had a lot of trust that they could go there and see an original band and not be disappointed.’’

The bar quickly caught the attention of bar-hopping UWGB students who claimed it as their own. On any given night, they could walk across the street from other hangout Duck Duck Goose and catch popular local bands The Duanes or Worlds, the Heart of La Crosse comedy troupe or Pub Theatre plays. The common denominator? A lot of people.

“It was always packed,’’ Collins said. “It just amazed me when people would show up on Saturday, because all your stuff is already set up (from playing Friday) so you didn’t really need to show up until an hour before you play, and you walk in and the place is just packed. You can’t find a place to park anymore in the neighborhood. It was a good feeling.’’

In its heyday, Lefty’s was a lot like the bar in 1983 movie “Valley Girl’’ that Nicolas Cage as a Hollywood punk takes his San Fernando Valley girlfriend to so she can see his world, Lefevre said.

“There’s a scene in the movie where they walk into this club and it’s typical Lefty’s — loud music, people who are dressed differently, everybody talking and getting along and dancing,’’ he said.

“Dancing was the rage back in those days,’’ Smith said. “It was crazy.’’

FWA would play a weekend at Lefty’s about every six weeks so as to not wear out its welcome, and every gig was approached as an event. Sometimes they’d haul in bicycles, ladders and TVs that got no reception to make the stage look like a garage. Smith recalls bringing in as many portable TV sets as they could find one night and just letting them flicker as the light show. They would often enlist the help of Lefty’s fixture and lighting guru Pye, who would use concert-style lights.

“It was like a Pink Floyd light show,’’ Smith said. “He would cook us on stage, but it was worth losing 20 pounds because it looked so cool.’’

The majority of the money the band made from Lefty’s gigs went back into production. They’d often cut the sound guy in as the fourth member and split the money four ways to make sure they always got quality sound.

“We weren’t in for the money anyway,’’ Collins said.

Ask them if there were groupies amongst all those regulars back then and you’ll get a laugh.

“We were more likely to go to the bookstore than to the after-party,’’ Lefevre said. “That was just our personalities.’’

More than anything, Lefty’s was a place for the band to test out its music. If the tight trio’s crunchy guitars and pop-rock hooks and harmonies got the crowd dancing, they knew they had something. If not, it was back to the drawing board.

“We kind of have rules on our songwriting,’’ Smith said. “It has to have melody. It has to be a little bit quirky and most definitely catchy. Three minutes for the most part. Just quick hitting and danceable.’’

Songs like “National Geographic Girl’’ and “Last Cigarette’’ were among those they took to Smart Studios in Madison to record their 1985 debut “Main Street.’’ They were one of the first bands to record at the famed studio that would go on to host such heavyweight acts as Nirvana, The Smashing Pumpkins and Green Day. They had become friends with Butch Vig, who co-founded Smart in 1984, from his days in Madison band Spooner, which often played Lefty’s. Vig would become the drummer for alt-rock band Garbage.

FWA’s popularity at Lefty’s earned them gigs in Milwaukee, Chicago and into Minnesota and Michigan. But they learned that original music wasn’t universally accepted wherever they went.

“We’ve been asked to stop playing because we weren’t a cover band,’’ Lefevre said.

And they’ll never play another wedding.

“I remember seeing the groom’s dad. All I could see was that dangling thing at the back of his throat he was screaming at us so loud,’’ Smith said.

So when Lefty’s closed in 1988 — the result of the drinking age going to 21, stricter drunk-driving laws and higher rent on the building — the band lost their “home base’’ of seven years. They used the downtime to sit out from the local scene and keep writing, maintaining their days jobs just as they always had.

“After Lefty’s closed, it was like a vacuum of places for original music, until Concert Cafe opened up and (then) Rock N Roll High School,’’ Collins said.

City Centre Theatre on Walnut Street became a player, and Fun w/Atoms found themselves opening for The Replacements, Violent Femmes and Richard Marx there until that venue closed. They played bars that came and went so quickly they can’t remember the names, but they found a new home at downtown’s Heroes Club, where they had a 15-year run.

There have been breaks — all three members raised children about the same time — but Fun w/Atoms has never not been together. They’ve put out albums, to flattering press and college radio airplay. They’ve even earned a bio on the MTV website that compares them to Cheap Trick and Husker Du. Their most recent release, “Smart,’’ was fittingly one of the last albums to be mixed at Smart Studios before it closed in 2010.

While they’ve had their share of “near-misses’’ when it came to breaking out nationally, Fun w/Atoms has always been about more than that for the three guys, or “brothers’’ as Smith calls them, who have earned the respect of their peers. That songs they wrote in the ’80s still sounds tight, fresh and timeless is a testament to both their music and their passion for it.

“We did keep or integrity,’’ Smith said. “Maybe it’s having day jobs. We weren’t forced to have to play everywhere.’’

Friends they made at Lefty’s still come out to see the band when they play select gigs — sometimes even with a vinyl copy of the “Main Street’’ LP in their hands. Younger fans have discovered them by default when they turn up at a venue like Phat Headz.

Appreciative of their longevity and grateful for the unwavering support for three decades and counting, FWA knows Lefty’s was integral to that.

“Lefty’s was an incubator. It provided a lot of encouragement to bands that were doing original music, because they had a place to go and try out their music and build an audience,’’ Smith said. “We used to play a whole night, and now bands play a set with five other bands. You really don’t have a chance to build an audience and showcase your music. I think other bands would tell you the same thing. That audience, that amount of enthusiasm for original music at that time was a turning point in their careers. Either you keep going with enthusiasm or you hit the wall and you quit …’’

“I’m surprised sometimes when the younger musicians come up and say ‘I admire you guys for the stuff that you did,’’’ Collins said. “We really haven’t been in everyone’s faces for a long time, but we’ve always been working on music. It feels good to know there are musicians out there who appreciate this music scene is one long stream. It’s all a history. Thirty years from now, they’ll be where we are, and we’ll still be playing rock ‘n’ roll.’’

— Press-Gazette Media

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