Frank Hart of Atomic Opera
Cornerstone Farm
Bushnell, Illinois
July 6, 1997

Over the last decade, a cluster of so-called Christian bands that test the boundaries of the average Christian music listener's expectations have come out of Houston, Texas. Preferring secular record deals or complete independence, Arkangel, King's X, Galactic Cowboys, Caedmon's Call, and Atomic Opera form a loose musical community of mainstream artists. The latest release from this creative cauldron is Atomic Opera's Penguin Dust, which follows For Madmen Only. Though Penguin Dust is still a rock album, it downplays the distorted guitars for a sound that, with mandolins and cellos, is much more diverse. Cornerstone Festival afforded the opportunity to talk to Atomic Opera's founder, Frank Hart, for an update.

Tollbooth - It's been a while since we've heard from Atomic Opera, and I thought I'd take this chance to catch up on the group. So what is Atomic Opera up to now?

Hart - Well, for the last year and a half, I've been working on putting this album together. I spent time trying to find someone to pay for the album, to have somebody support it. Then when I couldn't find anyone to do that, I just did it myself. That took longer because of the expense. I also had two of the members quit during the dry season. We still have the original drummer, and myself. Kemper (Crabb, of Arkangel) has joined the band, and he's providing extra vocals and acoustic/distorted-mandolin kind of things. We thought we would utilize more of his diverse musical instruments, but it just didn't happen on this album. It will in the future, I'm sure. 

Tollbooth - The sound of the new album, even with Kemper, doesn't seem that much lighter. It seems pretty much the same as it was.

Hart - Actually when I produced Penguin Dust, I moved the guitars--the distorted, Les Paul sort of crunchy guitars--to the back of the mix. Where before they were right up next to your ears at the front of the mix with the lead vocal. I moved those back and brought the bass and the kick drum up more to the forefront with the lead vocals. At lower volumes, the album sounds very sweet and pleasant. When you turn it up, it gets very aggressive, and it really kicks. So it kind of works both ways, and that's the way I like music to work. 

Tollbooth - Any comments on any of the songs?

Hart - The first song is probably the most like For Madmen Only. The next song is a song that I co-wrote with our ex-bass player, Jonas, so it has that sort of vibe, too. But as you continue through the album, by the third or fourth song, you're in a completely different place musically than where the last Atomic Opera album was. I really like the way the album sounds. These songs were picked from hundreds of songs to be on the album. I think they're strong. I think they stand on their own. There's nothing throwaway on the album. That's important to me. It was on the last album, too. Almost everything has a purpose and has meaning to why it's placed there.

We put the song "Water Grave" on there because it was one of the first songs I really dug in Christian music when I was teenager. I know that everyone in the world has covered that song, but no one did it like this. "Thirst" is also more obviously Christian. It's actually Psalm 150. The next song is just a list of things from the Bible that God says that he hates. It's called, "God of Hate." Those are just very Biblical sorts of songs. Whether they sound like it or not, they are. 

Tollbooth - Sometimes, those are more interesting. I think most of our readers are probably college educated and are looking for something deeper they have to dig through to get the meaning of. 

Hart - If they really want to dig for some meaning, listen to all the background vocals that Kemper and I did on the album; we get into all sorts of weird subliminal stuff on that. We sing in German, we sing in Latin, we're doing all kinds of stuff with the background vocals. Actually, on "God of Hate," we're purposely saying some words backwards and then playing them backwards. It's just really a joke at the old backward masking thing, making fun of it. 

Tollbooth - I'm sure when you picked the album cover (which shows a naked child playing in the sand while he's pointing at the sky with a sand castle in the backgroud) you had no idea that it would stir up a controversy.

Hart - It's unbelievable to me that it has. Here's what I was thinking about when I designed the cover. First of all, my wife took a picture of our godson, Christian (Velasco), who is the son of the bass player that used to be in the band, down on the beach. It was just a lucky chance shot. When I was looking at the roll, I thought, "Man, I'd sure like to use this in something." To me, it was just a graphic illustration. First of all, it was just a really cool and beautiful picture. Secondly, even though I believe in total depravity, I can't imagine a human moment that is more innocent than when you're a child playing in the sand, completely oblivious to anything around you. That seemed very pure to me. Then on another level, on sort of a theological symbolic level, he's playing in the dirt, the dust from which we come and to which we will go. He's pointing at the heavens from which we come and to which we will go. He's like this static/kinetic link between what we are and what we will be in the form of innocence, and I thought it was profound.

Tollbooth - What are your marketing and touring plans?

Hart - As far as our plans, we want to let people know we have a new album out, and we want to record more albums. Most of the songs on this album were written more than a year and a half ago. These aren't new songs to me. I have hundreds of songs; I'd like to get them all out. 

As far as touring, touring is very expensive. If I can figure out a way to make a tour work to help promote the album, then I will. If a label steps in and wants to pay me a sum of money to help offset my debt on the album, and also to promote the album with touring and stuff, that'd be great. 

Tollbooth - Then you are hoping to find a label for it rather than stay independent?

Hart - I would like to. There's nothing joyous about being independent except that you get all of the proceeds from the sales, but you also have very limited resources for marketing. Basically, I have a web page, and I'm trying to get it out through some independent mail order; that's about it. It would be better if I could get somebody who can actually market the album.

Tollbooth - There's no advantage of being on a secular label versus a Christian label?

Hart - It's probably more a matter of which has more disadvantages, but I've never been on a "Christian" label, so I don't know. There might be all kinds of weirdness with it that I'm not even aware of.

Tollbooth - Are you doing a new video for Atomic Opera?

Hart - Oh, yeah. I love making music videos, so I definitely intend to do some for the songs on this album. I've already done one for the song, "God of Hate." It was part of a demo package I put together a year ago. It's a different recording, but I did a video for the song which has some really powerful images about divorce, evil, selfishness, and rebellion in it. They haunt me, so that's why I put 'em in.

Tollbooth - My co-publisher and I were commenting that when the musicians are involved in the film process, you seem to get a much better video than when they just hire someone to do it. With the latter, you get this meaningless jumble that has no relevance.

Hart - Yeah, they call it "non-linear." They like things to be very illogical and surreal. At least that was my experience with the producers of our "Justice" video. I came up with all the images for the "Justice" video. I thought they were pretty strong. When they edited the video, they put them in all the wrong places so that they didn't have the same power. At a certain musical and lyrical point in the song, this image was supposed to happen that made it all work, and that annoyed them because that was linear thinking, it was logical, and they didn't want that. They wanted it to be more abstract. I was very frustrated with that. I actually did my own edit to show the difference, which I released on a video compilation along with the other videos that I've done.

Tollbooth - Having been on a secular label, how do you view Christian music industry?

Hart - The whole idea of creating a separate Christian counter-culture within the Western culture seems really lame, ludicrous, and unbiblical to me. If we're supposed to be the light of the world and the salt of the earth, if we're called to be these things, we have to, as salt, go out and be part of that which we're to season. We have to be there. We have to become part of the meat in order to season and preserve the meat.

You can't just have this little sub-culture. A lot of my friends are home schooling their children. They pull them out of the public school system and home school them. I understand why they do that, but to me, that's just another symptom of this idea of Christian counterculture. I was saved in public school. There were other Christians at the school. My family was not Christian. The people that told me about Christianity, about Jesus, that got me going to church, were in public school. If their parents would've home schooled them, who knows? 

Tollbooth -- You mentioned that you do art, too. What type of art?

Hart - I do a lot of stuff on my Macintosh with painting and photo manipulation programs. I almost never work in real-world media anymore, but I have a lot of virtual painting that I do. Things like that cover [Hart added the sand castle as well as coloring to the clouds; the before and after pictures can be seen on Atomic Opera's home page].

Tollbooth - Do you market it?

Hart - No, the only marketing I do is for people like Ty Tabor. I did the cover for his new album, Naomi Solar Pumpkin. Occasionally, bands will ask me to do their covers. I do a bit of that. I do some film and music videos for friends for fun. Those are my outlets.

Tollbooth - I've heard a lot of discussions lately on whether music is a ministry or an art. Why music? Do you feel it's a form of art? Why do you invest your life in it?

Hart - Somebody asked me yesterday, what is the purpose of Atomic Opera? I was just dumbfounded. What's the purpose of your life? What's the purpose of my life? Anybody that can come up with a succinct answer to that question without being cliched is a better person than I am.

The music that I do, all of the art that I do, is just an extension of my life. It's probably the more meaningful part of my life. Eating breakfast doesn't have the same sort of lasting connotation as making an album, but it's part of my life, and, in doing that, I hope to glorify God and worship him. In the very act of these things, doing them to the best of my ability, making art, living my life, loving my wife and our marriage, and everything I do. I don't separate that into this other pocket where it's propaganda for some higher sort of thing.

By Shari Lloyd 

Copyright© 1997 The Phantom Tollbooth