“We really wanted to capture that glam sound, that T. Rex, Flo & Eddie-type thing; it’s such a cool sound that I think it’s timeless,” says Atomic Swindlers‘ platinum blonde vocalist April Laragy. And capture the glam sound she and her band have. Captured it, cradled it, and released it in a tightly knit, highly stylized package. Their debut, Coming Out Electric, is very much steeped in the music and imagery that defined Ziggy-era David Bowie — complete with guitar-bent, futuristic lyrics and flamboyant androgyny.
Melding musical genres that include psychedelic, garage, glam, and pop, Atomic Swindlers have carved a niche that transcends all of these — even if the band’s beginnings were somewhat incidental. Atomic Swindlers began as a recording project in Rochester, New York, and has since blossomed into a multimedia production. “[At first] we wanted to do just a recording thing, so we got Chris (Yockel, guitar),” says Laragy, “Then it started to sound really good, so we figured if we’re going to have to do this live, we’re going to need more guitar players, so we got Scott (Ostrowski).” Ostrowski and Yockel come from very different musical schools — Ostrowski is from the traditional school of guitar, while Yockel is “everything but,” in Laragy’s words. The dynamic between the blues-based and jagged, ambient guitars creates tension in the music that gives Coming Out Electric much of its edge.
In addition to more-than-capable musicianship, Atomic Swindlers have in their arsenal three talented songwriters — Roy Stein (drums), Gary Trainer (bass), and April Laragy, all of whom contribute equally to the album. The first four songs written and recorded for the album were “Sex66”, “Stars in My Pocket”, “Jupiter’s Falling”, and “Empty Girl”. It was at that point that the trio realized that they were headed somewhere, even if their destination was somewhat unclear. They decided to approach the album as though it were a comic book, set at the borders of space, time, gender, and sexuality.
With three very different songwriters in the band, approaching the writing process as though they were constructing a comic helped provide the writers with some focus and give the album continuity. “We’re all a little different,” laughs Laragy. “Gary’s lyrics are a little… uh, out of this world. So sometimes it’s hard. I have to say, [whispering] ‘Gary, I don’t know what you’re talking about.’ A couple of things I have changed without knowing it… sometimes he’s like, ‘What are you singing there?’ after the song is already recorded and done… [I have to say] ‘I don’t know, you wrote it.'”
From this collaborative effort, a sort of concept record emerged. There is no narrative per se, but rather a string of twelve songs that tie together thematically and aesthetically — more Dark Side of the Moon than Operation: Mindcrime.
The album opener and first single, “Float (My Electric Stargirl)”, is awash in ambient keyboards and anchored by a rhythmic groove. “I wanted to shine like the Silver Surfer, cosmic queen of the stars / I’m a killer on a waveless sea, weightless and free / Your voice is all that’s left of me”, sings Laragy, channeling Bowie’s stellar lyrics and Lou Reed’s cool delivery.
The accompanying video by Joel Trussell, featuring Laragy in animated form as a love-struck mercenary battling intergalactic biker bandits and tyrannical robots to rescue her sapphic queen, has garnered significant praise at animated film festivals in both the United States and Europe.
The following track, “Wonderlove”, builds on the dreamy atmosphere and sexual androgyny of the opener, while “Space Bandit” eschews ambience for noisy guitars, reminiscent of Bowie’s, “Let’s Spend the Night Together”. Throughout the album, Atomic Swindlers move seamlessly between the two modes, sandwiching melodic tunes like “Underground Love” between rollicking numbers like “Diamond Dreamer” and “Intergalactic Lesbian Love Song”.
Recently, Atomic Swindlers released a 2 song demo featuring the songs, “Into the Strange” and “Susan Jolie”. These two new tracks pick up where Coming Out Electric, leaves off. The former is a glam-pop gem, the latter a fragile and forlorn ballad. Perhaps even more so than on Coming Out Electric, the demo finds Atomic Swindlers sounding as comfortable writing delicate melodies as they do writing catchy guitar hooks.
Whether delicate or driving, all of the songs on Coming Out Electric and the demo are laced with sci-fi imagery and blur the lines of gender and sex, but like the best science fiction, it both entertains and informs the human experience. The isolation of space and the sexual identity of the songs’ characters serve not just as a provocative fodder, but as metaphors for the uncertainties of everyday life. These are songs about overcoming fears and navigating a perilous world. Fortunately, the Atomic Swindlers’ future is a utopian one where the good thrive in happiness and love conquers all.
Unfortunately, the band’s gender-bending and overt sexuality has kept them primarily on the fringes of the music community. The original album title for their debut was Intergalactic Lesbian Love Songs, but they decided against it “because [Coming out Electric ] has a lot of meaning to it. Besides, we didn’t want to be too in-your-face,” jokes Laragy, whose onstage persona lacks only the intense amounts of blush to rival that of Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust.
Though they are starting to make their presence known outside the GLBT community, Atomic Swindlers aren’t exactly being welcomed with open arms to many venues. Their shows, though generally well received, are rare, partly because of the technical requirements to stage their elaborate, multimedia show, but primarily because there are a limited number of club owners willing to take a chance on them. And while they haven’t experienced overt bigotry, they aren’t sure they’re ready to knock on the doors of conservative America. Says Laragy: “We haven’t purposely gone out to clubs where they have a built-in crowd… I mean, we haven’t exactly been invited to the Kennedy Center… [But] It’s hard for us [to care too much] about that because we’re all so much a part of that scene… you kind of get used to yourself and forget there other people out there.”
It’s easy to talk about Atomic Swindlers in the contexts of their image or sexuality, but what many overlook is the songwriting and musicianship. Though Atomic Swindlers have planted themselves firmly in the aesthetics of glam, Coming Out Electric is more than the glitter and androgyny. Without the songs, androgyny is a gimmick, glitter is passé. Atomic Swindlers have the songs.