The Ballad of Steve Katiskas
Miami-based progressive rock band Little Atlas was formed in 1997 and included founding member Steve Katiskas (keyboards, vocals, rhythm guitar and sax), Dan Katiskas (drums), Dave McKean (bass), Aaron Whitman (guitar), and Joanna Katiskas (vocals, backing vocals). The band released their first album Neverworldly in 1998, and shortly after, their line up changed. And changed even as the tracks for Surface Serene, their second album, were being recorded. The final tracks feature most of the line up of their current release Wanderlust - that being, in addition to Steve Katiskas, Roy Strattman (guitar), Rik Bigai (bass) and Diego Pocov? (drums). In 2004, the band played at the inaugural ROSfest.
Joshua Turner spoke with Steve Katiskas at ROSfest 2005, as he describes: "I met up with Steve at ROSFest 2005 [as...] he would later be performing keyboards and sax with Man on Fire. We wound up going to a little (and quite busy) Italian caf? across the street from the theater. Shawn Gordon, president of ProgRock Records, and Henning Pauly (Frameshift, Chain) were having a chat of their own in the booth behind us. While it was noisy there and we even experienced a few interruptions, the interview went along smoothly. Later in the conversation, my brother joined us and asked a couple questions. Steve is true professional. He is very approachable and easygoing."
Joshua Turner: Can you tell me how you got involved in ROSfest? What's the history there?
Steve Katiskas: I'll be with you in a just a second. [He turns to Shawn and Henning] You know guys, I'm doing an interview here. [One of them asks him if it's now] Yeah, right now. [He turns back to me] Sorry about that. I got involved in ROSfest last year. We slipped a CD to George. He saw the CD before he called me, and in the process he called me. He heard one of the songs before he called me. He loved the song and he's like, I'm going to get you guys a spot in the festival and I said we'll do it. So that's how that happened. Basically, one song, it had a good melody. This year, basically I'm working with Jeff Hodges who is here for Man on Fire. There's a lot for one guy to cover and be the front guy, so he thought he could probably get a second keyboard player and George actually suggested me. So then they later called me, so I got to play. They sent me the tracks and I've been rehearsing them for awhile and then I went up to Atlanta and rehearsed with the actual guys and, there you go.
JT: I want to talk a little bit about your new album. I just finished listening to it. It's actually amazing.
SK: Thank you.
JT: The first album is very good, but you've actually progressed a little further I think, and the pieces pull together really nice and you've done a very good job with the compositions. [Henning surfaces again and starts to pester Steve]
SK: That was Henning Pauly. He's the composer and mastermind of Frameshift.
JT: Talking about the new album, is that a concept album?
SK: Not really. It's a collection of songs... There's no deliberate attempt to link the songs together, but it's a concept album in as much as this is what I'm thinking about when I'm writing the lyrics. It's arousing the same issues, but there is no deliberate attempt to tie them together.
JT: How did you come up with the title Wanderlust?
SK: The first song on the album is "The Ballad of Eddie Wanderlust" and the fictional character Eddie is sort of based on... um... some people I know, parts of myself, and... Eddie is... kind of going through life always looking for the next big thing and not really sitting back and enjoying where he's at. So that's Eddie Wanderlust, the one who lusts. It's a condition where he's never really happy where he's at now. It's an affliction.
JT: That's a lot of people.
SK: Yeah. I think we all have Eddie in us a little in that song and, I thought that that would be, you know, Wanderlust would be the title for the album too. I decided to combine it to appreciate what we have now.
JT: Talking about titles, there is something I'm very curious about. How did you come up with the name Little Atlas for your band?
SK: There was a song before there was the name of the band called "Little Atlas," which is actually on the very first Little Atlas CD. Some people don't even call it the Little Atlas CD 'cause it's folksy or different or what not. But the song is... it really means a song. It's about overcoming obstacles, and sort of like in naming the band, it seemed like a good name for the band too, kind of for the same idea.
JT: Can you just describe your songwriting process? You have a really unique sound, and the way you sing and the way the music is composed... How do you go about it?
SK: Well, this album is different. We tried something completely different from the last album for this album. Surface Serene was basically written by me and I bring the arrangements to the guys and [we] work together on arrangements as the songs are basically written, and they add their parts, so to speak. This album was written from the ground up, all of us together collaboratively. We would be in the rehearsal room and we'd throw out ideas and we had some certain concepts, like every idea is valid, and we would try everything everybody suggested. This sort of evolution of ideas where the really good ideas sort of percolated to the top and became the basis for structures. So that's why I think it has a little bit more of a cohesive sound and I think it's a little more adventurous.
SK: You know, I wouldn't have thought of most of the ideas on the album all by myself locked in a room, so this is really... beyond what I could do by myself, and it's a real synergy I think between the four of us.
SK: I've never written that way. It's a very difficult way to write I think, because you have to be very trusting of each other and respectful of each other and be musically on the same page, and you've got to leave the egos at the front door 'cause it's all in the service of the song. It's like, if somebody doesn't like your part, you know, you can't take it personally, you've got to just, you know, say, well, it's in the best interest of the song. So that's really the basis for the songs on the album.
JT: It's definitely paid off. I mean, you can tell just by listening to it, you can hear the synergy. I mean, you can really hear that in the music.
SK: That's cool.
JT: You've done a good job. I would say just keep doing what you're doing, you know. Talking about your unique style, I'm wondering if you can describe your musical influences. Like, where your interests lie and what is actually influencing the music you create?
SK: Well, growing up ... uh, coming of age, moving through in the eighties, in the late eighties, it was sort of a wasteland, I think, in terms of radio... rock radio. So in the eighties, especially when I was in college, I went backwards and sort of discovered bands from the seventies. Bands like Genesis and Crimson and Yes and Kansas and Jethro Tull and Pink Floyd and all that stuff. So I spent most of my... musical adolescence as well as my regular adolescence discovering that music. At the same time I was also interested in bands that were sort of popular at the time, bands like U2 and Toad The Wet Sprocket... some bands like... Jeff Buckley is a big influence on me. And then discovering there's this whole modern prog scene, which I didn't know about, Bands like Echolyn and Porcupine Tree. These bands that are taking more modern approaches to the ideas of longer songs, more adventurous arrangements slightly out of the pop motif, you know. So, it's really hard to say, you know. [My influences are] all in there, but there is no deliberate attempt to cough them up in any sense. It's just, you know, I think it's all sort of stuck in there.
JT: I can see your getting excited about talking about going back to what you found and getting excited about it [again]. It brings back memories for me as well and discovering these thirty minute songs and going, what in the world is this song? I thought it was supposed to end 26 minutes ago.
SK: Oh yeah I know. I remember the very first time I heard "Supper's Ready." I remember where I was, who I was with, and I remember sitting in my parent's stationwagon and my friend popped in the tape. The song had been around for, geez, I don't know, thirteen years and I'd never heard it. You've got to hear this [he says it like he's his friend speaking]. I was like, holy crap.
JT: How did you decide you wanted to be a keyboardist and a vocalist and become involved in music yourself?
It's sort of been a meandering thing. I was a product of piano lessons, like eight years of piano lessons when I was a kid, and then when I got to junior high and high school, I picked up sax and then I played sax. I played it all through junior high school and high school, and then when I went to the university, I played in a university jazz ensemble. I was playing in the jazz ensembles and some guys approached me about playing sax, and they really liked that and they thought that sounded cool. I joined their rock band as a saxophone player and one day their keyboard player bailed on them and I'm like, I think I can play keyboards. [I laugh] I used to be able to play keyboards, so I started playing keyboards and I sort of rediscovered that. And then when I was in my early twenties I learned guitar. I taught myself guitar, which is, I guess it is easier to learn an instrument once you know piano, because everything's laid out linear on a piano. So... this is a long story, isn't it? Um, then I started playing in original bands sort of in my early twenties and I just fell from band to band.
JT: How did you meet your bandmates who ended up playing with Little Atlas?
SK: These guys... you know, the original Little Atlas is none of these guys.
SK: Yeah. We changed members quite a few times and this line-up has been together for a couple years. [Shawn Gordon hits Steve in the back of the head and causes a distraction] You bastard, [I laugh] not you Josh. That's Shawn Gordon. [A couple of patrons join in on the laughter] He's my pimp. [We laugh] Yeah, exactly... I don't remember where the fuck I was.
JT: You were talking about your bandmates.
SK: Oh, my bandmates. Yeah. So these current guys... um, okay. I'll tell you the story and you can edit it down if it's too long. Basically, the group that was in place prior to Surface Serene disintegrated as I started to make that album and so I was left with virtually nothing and everybody basically quit and I... I was ready to quit, too. But when our bass player quit, we knew he was quitting because he had to move. We put an ad in the newspaper and then everybody else quit. But the ad's still in and I got a phone call from Ricardo and... his English wasn't very good at the time... and he called and said, I saw your ad and I want to play bass. And I'm like, I don't even know if there is a band, give me a couple weeks to think about this, because it was such a painful breakup. And he called two weeks later. I said two weeks, he called two weeks later. He's like, we can find a guitar player, we can find a drummer, let's do it. And so, 'cause he liked the music, we got together and we started auditioning drummers and we found a new drummer and then we found... a bunch of guitar players 'til we finally got Roy, and then we made the album and then right after the drummer recorded, that drummer quit.
SK: He didn't like what was going on I guess or... I don't know. So we got another drummer, which is Diego and that's the current line-up. Did you follow all that?
JT: I got all of that.
SK: Actually, the story's on the web site [he laughs] 'cause I had to commit it to writing. It's confusing to watch other people checking in and out, but these guys have been with me for two years, two and a half years and we found each other by classified ads mostly.
JT: I actually have a feeling that you're going to understand this question and you're going to have a lot of examples, but many times I ask this question and the artist has no idea what I'm talking about. So, do you recall any Spinal Tap moments in your career as a musician?
SK: Spinal Tap moments? We didn't have any... no exploding drummers, no bizarre gardening accidents, but yeah... Okay, here's one. When we were auditioning drummers, before we found Diego... I don't know if you've ever auditioned musicians before.
SK: But when you're desperate enough to put an ad in the classifieds, you're pretty much asking for the freak parade [same goes for dating I guess - JT] and we got phone calls, phone calls and all sorts of folks coming over to the house to rehearse and this one girl... yeah... no, there was this guy that came in, the girl was another story. This guy came over and he's tattooed from, like, head to toe and his name was Mr. Rock. That's what he wanted me to call him, Mr. Rock. And he played as loud as a human being could play. I mean, there was no dynamics. He just wailed and wailed and he was just not good.[Kinda like the kid down the street from me -ed.]
JT: He was probably a hardcore metalist. [My apologies for stating the obvious]
SK: But, then he called us... this is not Spinal Tap, we're just being musicians. But then he called us like two days later and he accused me of recording him and said I was going to use his tracks on an album upcoming.
SK: He was like, [he starts speaking in a funny voice] you can't use my recording man. [returning to normal voice...] I was like, oh no, what have I done. But if you have to ever audition musicians, meet them in a restaurant first. [We laugh] Don't let them know where you live.
JT: [Or share your home phone number.] I just wanted to ask you a little bit about your current musical tastes. What's the last CD that you purchased?
SK: The last CD I purchased was ? You know, I'm thinking in terms of linear... Uh... Henning's CD [this was around the time of the Frameshift release, so that's probably what he meant], which is excellent. I don't know if you've ever heard of it. And... I got U2 and it's okay. Let's see... Jeff Buckley I got, My Sweetheart the Drunk, which is a little bit more like outtakes and stuff, unfinished songs. I'm a big fan of his, so that was the thing to buy. And I have on order Porcupine Tree's new one. It's not arrived yet.
JT: It's very good. [I had "just" got done listening to it for the first time the day before.]
SK: I heard the song that was playing on the radio, Internet radio. "Shallow." [he now starts chanting] shallow, shallow, yeah.
JT: I've got a question here. I think I've got the answer. I think there is a statistical certainty I know what the answer is. What's the last concert that you attended as a fan?
SK: [he starts laughing] Oh, that would be ROSfest [we'd "just" got done seeing Kino perform] before that I don't know. Oh, Peter Gabriel before that, but that tells you how long it's been since I've been to a concert.
JT: I just want to ask you some of your favorites and you can treat this as short answer questions. These might be hard to narrow down, so just whatever pops into your head. What would you say is your favorite album?
SK: Kansas' Leftoverture.
JT: That's a good one. Who would you say is your favorite band?
SK: [He pauses] Genesis.
JT: And then I just want to ask you some of your favorites that aren't necessarily related to music?
JT: ?just to find others ways that you might be getting influenced. What would you say is your favorite movie?
SK: Oh man, that's a... hmm. It's either Monty Python and the Holy Grail or... After Hours, one of those two.
JT: Those are both good; what would you say is your favorite TV show?
SK: Hmm? uh, West Wing, I guess.
JT: I really like that show. What is your favorite book?
SK: Favorite book? That's a tough one. Um, let's see, The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant that I think is really amazing by Stephen R. Donaldson. Uh... all the classics. In terms of non-fantasy fiction, a book by Wally Lamb called I Know This Much is True, definitely on my top-ever book list. That was absolutely amazing and there's another one by Jeffrey Eugenides, um, called Middlesex that I read recently and it blew my mind. [Ironically, most musicians have trouble coming up with even one and he has a whole bunch at his disposal. It goes to show you that he is quite the intellect. -JT]. Yeah. So, you know, I read all different genres and sometimes non-fiction.
JT: I've got kind of a stupid question I like to ask, nobody asks.
JT: Do you have any pets?
SK: I have two parrots. I have an African Grey Parrot and a Pionus Parrot. My wife is allergic to dogs and cats, though parrots it is... [he chuckles]... birds work.
[My brother, Gabe, who is an experienced musician as well, walks into the restaurant. He is an opera singer who started doing weekend gigs around his regular work schedule. As a result, he is interested in Steve's singing background.]
JT: [This is directed towards Gabe] Since we have a guest interviewer here, do you have any questions you would like to ask?
Gabe Turner: You talked about your music background.
SK: Yeah, long boring story.
JT: You have a singing question?
GT: You're a singer-songwriter and I'm interested in your thoughts. So, when you sing, do you kind of have to work on your range or anything like that, or does it just come?
SK: Yeah, I'm untrained for the most part. You know, I came at music as an instrumentalist and a jazz guy and singing has helped... come by necessity, because I write the songs and there's nobody to sing them, so, I'm a default singer. [this surprised both my brother and myself as Steve is quite an accomplished singer with a uniquely developed style - JT] As opposed to a, you know, a person who goes into it as a singer.
JT: It's interesting to hear that, because I thought you were a singer who did instrumental stuff, because you've got such a range and diverse way of singing.
SK: No, just... that's probably why I sound so unique I guess, and I don't really come at it as a singer.
JT: [There's a pause] That's pretty much all the questions I have. But before we wrap-up, I wanted to ask if there was anything you'd like to say to your fans at this time?
SK: I want to say thanks. I mean, it's been... it's a total privilege to be able to make music and share it with people and have people pay attention and ask the questions about it and show interest in it. I mean, we'd be happy just making it and just making it ourselves, because that process is an enjoyable one. And when you get to share it and set it free and let other people hear it, it's very fulfilling. So I just wanted to say thanks to everybody's who made that possible.
JT: Well, I just wanted to say, it's a pleasure to talk to you and thanks for taking this time out to perform an interview.
SK: Absolutely, my pleasure. I appreciate it.
JT: Enjoy the rest of your weekend at ROSfest.
SK: I will.
Josh notes that, "[Steve and I] continue to have a conversation [...] and it comes up that he is not a full-time musician. He has a day job as a child psychologist, as he earned a Ph.D. from the University of Arkansas in this field of study. With this he adds, 'wooo pig sooooie,' whatever that means. He currently works as the Director of Child/Adolescent Psychology at the University of Miami / Jackson Memorial Medical Center. He was a psychology professor for 7 years, but wanted to get back into the clinical work. Anyhow, we encounter him numerous times throughout the weekend. Each time he was very personable and approachable. He's an all-around friendly individual and he's very talented, too. In my opinion, he was one of the highlights of the late-night party; you know, the one where the musicians mingled with the patrons and ad-libbed on the stage. He played impromptu pieces and did this both years. He wasn't shy either when it came to performing and he was the first one out front on each of these evenings. He did his best to entertain people who were still starved for more music. I hope to see him perform his new material at a future event. Wanderlust is certainly his best to date. Promoters should check into his band. Trust me, they won't be sorry. Little Atlas truly is one of those undiscovered treasures in today's world of music."
As of this writing, Little Atlas' next live performance is on August 5, 2005 at the Wallflower Gallery in Miami, FL.
Surface Serene (2003)