Unlocked: Darren Schlappich on the unexpected origins of Ataloft - WXPN | Vinyl At Heart
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“The last thing I was looking for was to start another band,” says Darren Schlappich. “It just kind of worked out that way.”

In fall of 2012, the singer and songwriter behind the new Reading-area six-piece Ataloft didn’t know Ataloft was going to exist a year and a half later. He didn’t know that it was going to release a fantastic pop-rock production of a debut LP, a far cry from his country-Americana roots. Schlappich was wrapping up a long stretch of activity with his other band, Frog Holler, in support of 2009’s Believe It or Not. He was pretty content that he’d kick back and take time to himself with no looming musical pressures, when his friend Bruce Siekmann gave him a call.

He had some free time in his Fleetwood, Pennsylvania studio, Amoeba Audio, and asked if Schlappich would like to record anything. Intrigued, Schlappich and his Frog Holler bandmate Michael Lavdanski showed up with an unrecorded tune called “Warning Signs.” It had a midtempo bounce and worked in a contemplative lower register; they recorded some guitar parts and vocal harmonies, then left for the day.

“A couple weeks later Bruce sent me a copy, and he’d added bass and keys, fleshed it out a lot,” says Schlappich. “And then it was another year before we talked about it again. He got in touch and said ‘Hey, did you want to revisit that song? It’s not really finished.'”

Schlappich, Lavdanski and Siekmann reconvened to put some finishing touches on “Warning Signs,” then moved on to another song – the plaintive “Heart Attack on the Holidays,” which kept things very tightly focused around acoustic strumming, an electric lead, and an understated bass part.

“I remember Bruce putting the first bass notes on it,” says Schlappich. “I was like ‘wow, we’ve gone outside of Frog Holler now.'”The two bands have totally opposite methods to how they work, he explained. Frog Holler is a capital-L live band – their songs are born out of jams, they are tested and refined in performance before they even enter the studio, and once they’re ready to record, the band records as a live crew.

“Mike and I always wanted to do something where we build on the seed of a song with different parts, making a bigger and lusher record,” Schlappich says. “It was definitely a different way to go about it.”

All of the songs that make up the Ataloft LP were already written before the project began in earnest; most had been played at a Frog Holler practice at one time or another. But for one reason or other, they didn’t click – maybe the energy was off, or some element of the song wasn’t clicking. But in any case, they were musical orphans of Schlappich’s songbook, so he took the opportunity to bring them up in another musical style that he admired.

“When I was a kid in the late 70s, my friends and I had a pretend band,” he recalls. “We’d basically just hang around our basements, lip sync to Beach Boys records.”

They called that band Ataloft – though he forgets the exact origins. “I’ve even tried looking the word up online,” he says. “I can’t find anything.” And so, with the Brian Wilson-esque pop direction of this new project, Ataloft seemed the perfect moniker. Schlappich says that, when it came time to turn the LP into a live band, it also gave him an opportunity to work with friends and musicians from the Reading area that he never got to play with before.

Bassist Nick Franclik, who has performed with Eric Steckel and Electric Farm, joined up, as well as Cory Heller of Neo-Trio on keyboards and backing vocals and Keegan Linder on guitar. The full band played a couple hometown shows in Reading; its recent Record Store Day performance at Main Street Music was only its third gig overall. The album’s proper release party takes place at Ardmore Music Hall on Saturday, May 3rd.

Beyond that, Schlappich views the band as a take-it-as-it-comes operation, though he is optimistic. The three core members of Ataloft are very pleased with the final result of the record, he says, and as the live band takes shape, they’ll see where it leads.

“We’ve written and recorded a couple songs together since finishing the record,” Schlappich says. “We hang out, we make music. We’ll try to get as many chances to play it as we can.”

Ataloft is the featured album in this week’s installment of Unlocked. Download “The End is Nearer Than We Know” in Monday’s post, read yesterday’s album review, watch a video performance of “Old Jones” in yesterday’s post and check back later this week for a tour of Berks County.

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