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Up And Atom

13 June 2012 | 2:24 pm | Doug Wallen

Former Little Red member Tom Hartney never had the right voice for that group, he tells Doug Wallen, as he steps out with his new band, Major Tom & The Atoms.

Best known as the fatherly baritone amid the higher voices of Melbourne pop sensations Little Red, Tom Hartney took advantage of the time between albums to found the side project Major Tom & The Atoms. The new act wound up consuming him so much that Hartney recently announced his exit from Little Red. That's perfect timing for Major Tom & The Atoms, who have a feisty new EP produced by Tony Buchen (Andy Bull, Tim Finn) and plan to record an album this year. Not bad for a band that played their first gig last September.

The Shake It Til You Break It EP has already yielded two singles in Mockingbird and The House That Love Built. Fans might notice a similarity in title between the latter and Hartney's tune Place Called Love on Little Red's second album. In fact, Little Red demoed The House That Love Built but didn't have time to record it properly. It was also written back to back with the swaggering Place Called Love.

“If someone wanted to look deeply into these things,” muses Hartney, “they could draw a link with the fact that I got married around that time. I was in a romantic frame of mind. But The House That Love Built has a bit more of a dark twist than Place Called Love. In any sort of love song, there's got to be the element of danger and the chance that it might all fall apart. That's what makes it so special.”

Was getting married part of the impetus for founding a band that didn't tour so much and so widely? “There may be an element of that in my subconscious somewhere,” he reckons, “but it mainly boiled down to the fact that I started playing with these guys [to] try a different musical path. I didn't intend it to take over from Little Red, but I was really excited by the passion and enthusiasm of the other guys and obviously just the excitement of doing something new.”

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Hartney says touring with Little Red was actually the most fun part. On the other hand, he admits that his low voice wasn't an ideal fit. “With Little Red, it was difficult because there are two guitars making a lot of trebly noise,” he explains. “It probably, frankly, wasn't the perfect vehicle for my voice.” He cites Tom Waits, Jim Morrison, Nick Cave and John Lee Hooker as vocal influences, adding, “What I've learned is, it's as simple as how you arrange the songs and the band. You need to leave space for the vocal.”

Major Tom & The Atoms certainly do that, letting his baritone throw its weight around. But the newer band is no less melodic than Little Red, thanks to shiny extras like Sean Vagg's saxophone and Benny Huisman's keyboards. There's also an earthy rhythm section in bassist Si Lawrie and drummer Adam Swoboda, with fuzzy guitar teeth supplied by Simon Tait. It's a darker, grittier affair all around, though there's a party-starting edge that comes from Hartney's longstanding love of soul music. And it turns out Vagg and Huisman play in the Melbourne funk/soul outfit The Skylines, some of whose vibe spills over into The Atoms.

Early on, in fact, the band gravitated towards more accessible and upbeat soul-influenced songs “that just grabbed people instantly,” says Hartney. “What we're moving towards now is edgier. A fusion of classic American rhythm and blues and more kooky showtunes, Shirley Bassey- or Tom Jones-style. Bombastic showtunes. As we start to develop a following, we'll be able to indulge those tangents we're most passionate about.”

Providing the main support for King Cannons' album launch tour in June, the band should bolster that following while confirming Major Tom & The Atoms as their own entity outside of Little Red. “We're building up our own catalogue of songs now,” says Hartney, “which is exciting.”