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Unlucky Atlas
Interview By: Jeff Ward 2004

The first floor apartment of Terence J Hannum and Erica Burgner is well-appointed for guests. Thereís a comfortable, old couch. Their numerous bookshelves are sprinkled with framed photos of the coupleís wedding ceremony among the overstuffing of collegiate, liberal texts. Iím offered drink and generous conversation about the debate between candidates for United State Senator from Illinois on the tiny television before I begin my interview with two-thirds of the band Unlucky Atlas. Itís a civilized conversation earmarked by complex ideas and heartfelt convictions.

Unlucky Atlas is a Chicago-based three-piece characterized by his plucky guitar, her crystal voice and, more recently, the drone of Andrew Huneycuttís synthesizers. Unlucky Atlas draws on Hannumís punk rock roots politically and Burgnerís musical theater background dramatically to create a dark-hued palette of mid-tempo, contemplation. They employ an approach to songwriting and performing that offers a thoughtful and complicated interrogation of the war in Iraq and the fiscal policies of the Bush administration. Drawing on a diversity of source material from Defense Department briefings to verse of the Romantic poets, Unlucky Atlasís clever strategy exemplifies the generous plurality of a sober democracy.

Jeff: Whatís the history of Unlucky Atlas? I know you didnít begin in Chicago, where you are based in now. Iíve also seen you play with several other musicians.

Terence: I had been part of a post punk, hardcore band in South Florida, and after that had ended I had these songs I wanted to play on acoustic guitar. So, at first it was this solo project. Sometimes, Iíd play with a loose association of punk musicians on Floridaís diverse punk scene. Some people had four tracks and we would make recordings.

Erica: TJ invited me to sing with him. Heíd have a lyric or a tune he was working on. Iíd come over and weíd try different lyrics atop various musical ideas. Initially, I worked primarily on arranging.

Terence: The inclusion of new sounds has definitely been great as Unlucky Atlas has moved away from my solo project. Back in Florida, our friend Jon Glover was a third member of the outfit. He was the first other musician Iíd play out with as Unlucky Atlas. Here in Chicago, weíve done some recording with Brian Getnick, an accordion player, and now we have a new, third piece to the band with Andrew Huneycutt. Having Andrew around is great! He has a million ideas for synthesizer parts that add new textures to our sound.

Erica: It has been good working with other musicians, because before we started collaborating with Andrew, we really stripped down the sound to just voice and guitar. We began to really focus on the songwriting. At first TJ and eventually I relocated to Chicago, we decided we could really invest in Unlucky Atlas. Thatís when the songs became really political. The emo element to the songwriting, the songs about failed relationships, that can be heard on the Decline CD are no longer in the music.

Terence: That CD, which we recorded in Florida with Jon Glover, had our looking-at-nature-and-seeing-itís-downfall attitude, too.

Jeff: Could you elaborate on that political attitude that pervades your music. What are your influences and goals with Unlucky Atlas?

Terence: We liked how the Romantic Poets, like Wordsworth or Holderlin, would look at ancient architectural ruins as a poetic metaphor for the decline of civilization. One of our biggest references is the text Ruins or Meditations on the Revolutions of Empires and the Law of Nature by CF. Volney. Itís filled with scatological ideas of the inevitable downfall of an era. It was hugely influential on a group of painters, the Hudson River School, who painted lush, Romantic images of the American landscape in the 1800ís. A lot of this language and imagery is lamenting the end of the world. Itís a sad and inevitable Armageddon. The political Right also uses an apocalyptic language. Dick Cheney uses an apocalyptic language to talk about a moral decline to justify the present administrationís foreign wars and the limiting of civil liberties domestically, but he canít use this language to investigate the rightís horrendous economic policies. Conservative use of an apocalyptic language is very close to a fundamentalist, extremist logic. They are too self righteous to see that their moral grandstanding is undercut by their destructive economic polices that will actually cause the downfall of the United States.

Jeff: How is this end-of-days vernacular mobilized to indict a political right exemplified by the policies of the Bush administration?

Terence: Using doom-based language to describe a political stridency in punk rock music is not uncommon. Weíre noting that a similar language is being used by the right and redirecting their words back onto them.

Erica: The contrast of a line like ďadapt or perish / against all enemiesĒ sung over an acoustic guitar part is a powerful contrast. In writing sessions, TJ might have this guitar part, and weíd have talked about subjects we would want to address. We got excited with the idea of writing these beautiful songs that, at their heart, used this horrific, violent language.

Terence: There is an eerie use of this poetic language by the Right to disguise whatís really happening because of their policies. They are using the sophistication of the language to establish an unquestionable truth. There this passage by the romantic poet Keats which uses the phrase ďbright starĒ which is the same language recently used to describe a military action. We point out these similarities to flip it from a pro-violence, pro-war message thatís so absolute. We use it as an interrogative tool. We question the action rather than affirm it. We quote their extreme, fundamentalist dogma to question the propriety if their agenda.

Erica: All of our music is really about the use and power of language. We open the language to a wider interpretation. On one hand, the language is really sarcastic. We are not quoting the Air Force in earnest, but there is some similar sincerity of spirit. Iím influenced by a background in fundamentalist Christianity. Growing up, I went to church three times a week, participated in revivals and soloed for the choir. Thereís a passion there, even if I now think that ideology is misguided, that I bring to the table. The lyrics are sarcastic, but they are still spiritual or evocative. I interpret them like sacred music. We hope people hear the spiritual, passionate side to the music.

Terence: Our political agenda and the way we use independent means to distribute our music is meant in as much earnest as ways people worship.

Jeff: Does that solemnity suggest the way you dress in performance? You always have on formal, black attire and arrange white flowers on the stage before performing.

Erica: The funeral attire is an idea I got from a personal experience. Essentially, the music has a sadness about how misguided we are as a country. My grandfatherís death in 2001 was a major turning point for me. That experience shocked me into a realization that everything I was raised to believe in was wrong, narrow-minded and intolerant. It was appalling and scary, and it opened me up to a mourning process which was not for my grandfatherís passing but the death of who I had been. I decided I needed to take a more active stand against problems I saw in society. Unlucky Atlas is one way to do that. I have a background in theater, so when it came to designing our on-stage look, I drew on this mournful, frightening experience.

Terence: Itís also a very enlightening experience. My background is a little different than Ericaís, but it has similar tendencies. I got in this argument with my father over this article by Victor Davis Hanson, whoís a writer for the conservative magazine National Review. The opinion piece equated George Bush and the unfound weapons of mass destruction with a suggestion that there wasnít a genocide in Kosovo while Bill Clinton was president. I got unproductively hot-headed in the disagreement, but it was so important. I feel badly because Iím ignorant of the conflict in Kosovo and Serbia, and I want more people to know about it. The media doesnít like complicated or difficult issues, but I keep wondering if similar injustices will be shrouded in mystery at Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo Bay?

Jeff: You seem to draw on a diverse base of material to make your music, but I wonder who your influences are sonically. Itís not like you employ an angst ridden punk rock or folksy sing-along models of protest song.

Erica: We draw from all sorts of music without really sounding like anyone else. We are influenced by the Church. Thereís a strong apocalyptic element in David Bowie thatís definitely an influence. Thereís also a certain Goth element from some 80ís bands: Echo and the Bunnymen, Depeche Mode, Robert Smith and the Cure.

Terence: Also, there are models we look at that might not obviously influence our sound. My primary model for communicating a message with a band would be His Hero is Gone. They were a crusty, grind core band whose sound was just an awful noise, but within that they found a way to talk about prison injustice, technophobia and a whole range of issues. Iíve learned a lot from them about how to structure a song.

For MP3's of Unlucky Atlas please visit:

"Hurricane We"
High on Crime
"Until No Flags Fly"
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