That pesky new legislation that sets you up for a roadside suspension after just one lousy drink sure is having an effect on folks. When Murray Atkinson of local rock band Swan drops by the Straight for an interview and I ask if he’d rather go for a coffee or a beer he says that he has to drive afterwards, so Starbucks it is. Way to go, cops! Atkinson has afternoon guitar lessons scheduled downtown at Tom Lee Music, where he’s been teaching for six years now. Before that he used to deliver his chops directly to students’ homes.
“I liked bombing around Vancouver,” he recalls, sipping on a nonalcoholic tea. “I had this little route where I would leave my place in Kits and go all the way into East Van, just do a big loop. I had it all mapped out, and it worked out great, but it just got to be a little too expensive driving around.” Atkinson is particularly happy to be teaching guitar nowadays because the youngsters are raring to learn the licks he loves. About seven years ago they were all into crap like Blink-182 and Sum 41, but then things started to change for the better.
“It was this narrow niche of power-punk stuff that these kids wanted,” he says, “and then all of a sudden they started asking for AC/DC and Led Zeppelin and Hendrix. Literally all of my students were asking for these bands, and I’m like, ‘What the hell’s goin’ on?’ “Then about two months later I actually saw the movie School of Rock and I went, ‘Okay, that’s what it is.’ All these kids have seen this movie, and now they’re interested in all this classic rock—which shows the amazing power of movies. It completely changed what all these kids were listening to, which was great, ’cause I was always trying to encourage them to listen to the classic stuff anyway.”
Atkinson got turned on to ’70s rock as a kid growing up in Ladysmith, B.C., where his father played piano in a weekend band with his uncle. The group would rehearse at the Atkinson house, and the proximity of the pounding racket soon encouraged six-year-old Murray to score his first KISS album, Love Gun. That early love of melodic, guitar-driven hard rock stuck with him, so he combined it with some postgrunge sensibilities on the new Swan debut, Salt March. Ace Frehley would approve.
Named after Mahatma Gandhi’s nonviolent 1930 trek to try and free India from British control, Salt March is packed with catchy, radio-friendly numbers like the supercharged “El Camino”, which helped Atkinson win the 2007 Fox Vancouver Seeds talent competition. “They’ve been most generous with spinning the songs,” he says of local rock station 99.3 the Fox, “they must have spun ‘El Camino’ almost 300 times back then.”
Atkinson played most of the instruments on Salt March himself, though for the drums he recruited the help of Scotty MacCargar, Jamie Kaufmann, and Odds skin-basher Pat Steward. His four-year-old boy, Noah, also gets credit for “additional drums” on the track “Sterilized”. Turns out the tyke was just banging on Steward’s drums one day, so Atkinson videotaped him, took the audio from that and cut a little loop of it, then stuck it at the beginning of the song.
“It was just more so I could put my son’s name on it than anything,” says the proud pop. Atkinson also got a helping hand from his engineer, Armoury Studios manager Paul Silveira, when he borrowed a sketchy AC/DC guitar that had been given to Silveira’s late boss, producer-to-the-stars Bruce Fairbairn (Aerosmith, KISS, Bon Jovi).
“They’ve got an amazing collection of vintage gear downstairs at the Armoury,” notes Atkinson, “so for the chorus of ‘Give Up the Ghost’ we used a Gretsch Duo Jet that used to belong to Malcolm Young. It had this kind of a harmonic ringy thing goin’ on, though, so while I was playing it Paul actually hit Record and then he put his hand on the bridge to stop it from happening.”
When he’s not using the old instruments of guitar legends to further Swan’s cause, Atkinson also plays lead for iconic local pop-rock band Odds. (He’s actually wearing one of the NHL Players Association T-shirts the band was given when it played Molson Hockey House several times during the Olympics.)
Atkinson performed on the group’s 2008 album Cheerleader when it was briefly known as the New Odds, causing frontman Craig Northey to note how Atkinson’s vibrato and feel made it seem like “he has ’70s hands”. But that group is really Northey’s baby, while Atkinson has his own offspring to look out for in Swan, the live version of which currently includes guitarist-vocalist Aaron Grant, bassist-vocalist Erik Nielsen, and drummer Matt Van Dyke. He’s ready for the big break that could take Swan to the big time, like the one that nearly materialized when Salt March’s rifftastic opening track, “The One”, was a candidate for the trailer song for this year’s blockbuster action flick Iron Man 2.
“The music-production team actually called back in April and asked if they could use ‘The One’ for the trailer of that movie,” explains Atkinson, “and we were like, ‘Hell yeah, please do!’ Then something happened at the last minute and they went with AC/DC. It’s pretty hard to compete with those guys.”