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October 18, 2018

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For the Ataris, music is much more than a game

Who: The Ataris, the Juliana Theory, Further Seems Forever, Yellowcard.

When: 7 p.m. Tuesday.

Where: Huntridge Theatre.

Tickets: $15.

Information: 678-6800.

Anyone familiar with the history of the Ataris shouldn't be surprised by the band's willingness to accept demos from aspiring musicians.

After all, the pop-punk quartet might not be around today had Vandals' bassist Joe Escalante not listened to a demo tape given to him by Ataris frontman Kris Roe in 1996. Escalante signed the Ataris to his Kung Fu records label, the break that launched the band's career.

More remarkable, however, is that the Ataris' devotion to their fans extends far beyond spinning those fans' home recordings. The 7-year-old band has shown an extraordinary willingness to make itself accessible to its faithful supporters.

"The bands that really made an impact in my life are those bands that would take the time to show their fans that they have a personal bond with them, like Avail or Fugazi or All or the Descendents," Roe, the Ataris' 26-year-old singer and rhythm guitarist, said in a phone interview before a recent show at Portland's Crystal Ballroom.

"Those bands always went out of their way to show people that they totally care about their fans and that they're willing to do anything they can for them."

Ataris fans planning to check out Tuesday's show at the Huntridge Theatre might want to get there before the doors open at 7 p.m. They just might get a chance to spend a few moments chatting with Roe, guitarist Johnny Collura, bassist Mike Davenport and drummer Chris "Kid" Knapp.

"Every night we got out for an hour before and after the show and sign stuff and talk to every one of our fans in line and until the last person has left," Roe said. "We also run our own website and we read all our own mail personally. We go to a great extent for our fans."

One lucky fan will also get the experience of a lifetime: the opportunity to play guitar with the band during their closing number, "San Dimas High School Football Rules." Bringing a member of the audience onstage has been an Ataris' tradition for several years.

"There are always people waving their hands in the air, and we just pick somebody randomly," Roe said. "It's one more way for us to make some kid's day by having him get up and play with his favorite band in front of, like, 2,000 people. It's another way to have an audience participation vibe."

The Ataris are touring behind "so long, astoria," their fourth full-length album and first for major label Columbia Records. The disc has been hailed as the band's most developed effort, largely on the strength of Roe's most mature songwriting yet.

"This is definitely our most in-depth and personal record," Roe said. "I really wanted to write a record that would take the listener right to the moment of when I was writing the songs.

"I wanted to write a record that would represent me as much in five years as it did the day I wrote it. And I think that I finally achieved that. I've never been more happy with a record."

Whereas most early Ataris releases were fraught with tracks about youthful relationships and songs with humorous themes, the band's March 4 release features far deeper subject matter.

"I just write what comes natural, and what came natural for this record is that every song is its own personal story about something completely different," Roe said.

"There's one song I wrote to my wife -- 'Looking Back on Today' -- and that's really the only relationship-based song on the record. One song -- 'An Open Letter to the World' -- is about the life and times of the poet Emily Dickinson. There's a song called 'Eight of Nine,' which is about a bunch of really close calls that we've had with death.

"And there's a song, 'My Reply,' about this girl from Australia who wrote us a letter telling us she was in the hospital about to pass away and wanted to say thanks for helping her though the hard times before she died."

To his relief, Roe recently discovered that the Australian fan actually survived her ordeal, her illness having gone into remission.

Roe wrote "The Saddest Song," another track on "so long, astoria," for another young Ataris fan, his 6-year-old daughter Starla, from a previous marriage. Starla lives with her mother in Indiana, and Roe -- a Santa Barbara, Calif., resident who spends much of the year on tour -- said he hopes the song's lyrics will help her understand why he sees her so infrequently.

"I'm just saying to her that there are a lot of obstacles in life and a lot of things that you have to overcome to follow your dreams," Roe said. "And I just wanted to say to her that it doesn't mean that I don't love her. I just want her to know that I am trying to do my best to be there for her as much as I can."

Pretty serious stuff for a band named after a popular late-1970s-early-1980s home gaming system. Roe chose the moniker rather hurriedly during his early days as a musician, mainly because he happens to own more than 700 Atari game cartridges.

But, Roe said, as he grows as a songwriter, the name fits less and less. And since it means his music is progressing, he's not ashamed to admit it.

"I feel the name the Ataris is kind of a silly name, and I don't feel our music is silly at all," he said. "We definitely had some more fun, pop-oriented songs when we were starting out, but I think our music has totally evolved into something that's completely different."

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