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One of the best things about being a young band on tour is seeing things you've never seen before. The Atomic Fireballs' singer John Bunkley counts the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, N.M. and the Cadillac Ranch in Texas among his favorite new sights. Then, with a laugh, he adds to the list the 72-ounce steak that the rest of the band challenged him to eat in Amarillo.
"They wanted me to do it and I'm one of the skinniest guys in the band," he says. "But I was under the weather. So I'm going to try to do it this next outing. I could do it, I know I could. Bring on the challenge. Just make sure we don't have a show that same night."
While the 140-pound singer is preparing for the haute cuisine of Texas, the other seven Fireballs are getting set for another shot at Vegas. "They're always like, 'C'mon, man, I got $3 from the last show.'"
This is all whiz-bang-boom stuff for a band that played their first show on Valentine's Day 1997. It's not as if they had a chance to grow, either--they were headlining that night, and they'd somehow already built a heady press buzz. "At our first gig there were a lot of people and we had to be on our toes," Bunkley explains. They took that energy and a beat-up 15-passenger van all across the Midwest, converting fans from Chicago to Pittsburgh to St. Louis, as well as their hometown of Detroit.
You could call the music the Fireballs make jump blues, but Bunkley's quick to point to Funkadelic, Fishbone, X and a handful of punk outfits as touchstones for the band's sound. They were initially blind to the swing craze, he says. "We were just trying to put some roots-rock band together, so we always approached it with a harder edge," he explains. "Everyone started
Torch This Place, the band's major-label debut, is a rollicking set complete with the catchy "Man With The Hex" and the sleazy "Starve A Fever." "All the songs are about drinkin' and makin' out," Bunkley explains with a laugh, "and food, of course." It's not music to put on when you're trying to fall asleep, he adds, "unless you want to fall asleep tapping your feet."
Truth be told, in Bunkley's eyes the Atomic Fireballs are not a swing band. They've heard they play too fast. They've heard you can't dance to their songs. And to that Bunkley shrugs and says, "Basically it's too bad if the swing dancers don't accept us, because we never really got together for them, we got together for us. For those that do accept us, that's cool and we'll go along with the party."
The Fireball party spread from their early Midwest jaunts to the Eastern swing of the Vans Warped Tour last year. The band, Bunkley says, felt right at home. "It was really fun to play right before or after Rancid. Those people gave us our shakes, man. They looked at us in the first couple songs and then their heads started bobbing. By the end they asked for more. I take that as a great compliment," he says.
They also received a great compliment after a show in North Carolina. Apparently a couple of African-American women told Bunkley that the band had a lot of soul. "They told me I could dance and I could sing," he remembers with glee, "and they said, 'Those white boys in your band can dance and sing, too.' They might not have much soul offstage, but when you put a mic or a horn in their hands...That's where it all counts." No doubt.