Air Traffic Controller
On Fan-Funding, Capturing Ideas On-The-Go, and Adding Strings to the Mix
The extent to which most folks are familiar with the job of air traffic controllers is from channel surfing late at night and being temporarily tricked into thinking that Pushing Tin was made before John Cusack became just awful. Dave Munro however, the driving force behind Boston’s Air Traffic Controller, lived the life. And, other than being a job that afforded him the opportunity to do a lot of thinking, it served as little more than a jumping-off spot for a band that has attracted a whole lot of attention in a very short time.
Munro, who worked with producer Bleu on his band’s Kickstarter-funded album NORDO, is able to write songs that speak to the everyman because he is that man. Skilled yet lacking pretense, sweet yet not overly emotional, ATC’s music is pleasant and a pleasant surprise because it’s catchy enough to be on just about any radio station, but isn’t embarrassing to listen to. It should come as no surprise that a man who spent many years directing people to safety has an idea of where he wants to go.
You’ve definitely piqued people’s initial interest with the real-life story line of the band’s name. What does the name actually mean to you?
I became a songwriter while I was working as an air traffic controller in the military. It seemed like the same path for a while, a significant time in my life. To me, it’s just where it all began, but I hope that others might draw other meanings from it. There’s something about ‘air traffic controller’ that seems musical if you try to make sense of it.
Did you grow up a musician or did it stem from the free time you had in your work?
I never brought my guitar to the tower if that’s what you mean by ‘free time in my work,’ ha! I grew up singing in choir and playing in high school bands, but was never serious until I moved away, and started having things to write about.
Who did you listen to?
I was most inspired by The Beatles, Jellyfish, REM, Tom Petty, Springsteen, Simon & Garfunkel, Traveling Wilburys, Guster, Bright Eyes, Mason Jennings, Damien Jurado…
In the past you’ve talked about how your songwriting process sort of ‘isn’t.’ That a story idea comes to you and you write it down, and that it’s not something you do when you want to. Is this still the case?
It still usually begins with a concept. Things would happen to me and a song would emerge. It’s not that I don’t want to involve a guitar or piano in the process, I just don’t normally have those handy when an idea strikes. Often it’s just me driving or running down the street, singing into my phone.
Are there any songs that are particularly meaningful to you?
The song ‘Hurry Hurry’ was very introspective, but also forced me to look at myself on the outside. I hate to sound like a whiny celebrity, cause clearly I’m not, but at this stage of the game, the lifestyle of trying to make ATC happen on a daily basis not only takes its toll on me, but also the folks around me. There’s no way around it, though, making your dreams a reality is a lot of work. I’m sure any artist who breaks through has gone through this. It’s a labor of love, there’s nothing I want more than this band to grow. I think a lot of people can relate to ‘Hurry Hurry,’ more so the people who hate what they’re doing and are missing out on the finer things in life. I feel sorry for them. This could’ve been a sad song, had it not been created with our nutty genius producer, Bleu. I love the catchiness and the hurried feeling of it all.
The other song I find very meaningful is the hidden track, ‘Thinking Of You.’ It’s the opposite of ‘Hurry Hurry.’ It’s taking the time to just sit on the couch quietly and think. It grows into something more magical, but it’s supposed to be all in my imagination. It’s hard to explain, after listening to NORDO, find the hidden track. It’s worth the minute wait. This song began as an acoustic singer/songwriter [tune] and turns into something much more, kind of like the way Air Traffic Controller happened.
How has adding Casey Sullivan as a singer on a few songs changed the way you write your music?
Casey has such a beautiful voice; I wish I could go back and make all of my songs into duets. She’s a songwriter, too; her stuff is amazing! We plan to write together soon, so that will be a nice change for me. She is inspiring to be around.
Where did the string accompaniment idea come from? How do you feel that adds to the sound of ATC?
Making strings a large part of ATC’s music began when our producer first heard my song ‘Don’t Tell Me What To Do.’ Bleu wanted to use my acoustic demo tracks and add a string quartet, and a cracking snare drum that sounded like it was coming from an elevator shaft. I said, ‘Cool, let’s do that!’
On adding strings to the mix: “I think the strings give the listener a sense of maturity and class with ATC, even if we’re really a bunch of dorks.”
We weren’t able to bring strings into our live shows until our guitarist/multi-instrumentalist/arranger/dork Steve Scott joined the band. He understood where this band was headed, more than I did at that time. He called every string player he knew and before long, all of our shows included strings. I think this helped set us apart.
Pros and cons of your choice to use Kickstarter for Nordo? Would you do it again? Why or why not?
All pros for Kickstarter, we wouldn’t have NORDO without it!
On using Kickstarter to fund their album: “Aside from it being a successful ‘CD Presale,’ it was truly a chance for us to realize the faith our fans have in ATC. The whole experience strengthened our base significantly, it changed everything for me to know that we are loved this much, and our fans were anticipating the next phase.”
I would absolutely do it again. The only downside is that it’s like running a business; people place orders and you fill them, and it’s pretty easy, but there is plenty of room for error. I’m doing my best; I’ve been living in a workshop, putting packages together for months. If someone doesn’t give me their address or their t-shirt size, I can’t process the order. So it ends up being a bit of a wild goose chases of emailing backers trying to satisfy the orders, but it’s all worth it in the end. I just don’t want to piss anyone off. I still have some CDs to deliver, so email me back, guys!
What sort of guitar do you have? Any dream guitar you’d like to own?
I play a Taylor acoustic (410) and a Gibson Les Paul Special [as my main electric]. They both actually belong to my brother/drummer Richie. I really need to give them back to him, I just haven’t found anything that compares. I love these two guitars! I was in a little shop in Nashville and almost bought a John Lennon Gibson J-160E, the acoustic with the knobs on the front, so cool, but it was really buzzy and had issues. I’d like to own a small body acoustic guitar with a big sound. Martin makes some great ones.
Have you gone on a full-fledged tour yet with ATC? Are you planning on it?
So far, we’ve done mostly quick trips from our Boston base, so we’ve hit Canada and the Midwest, and we cover New York state and the Northeast regularly. We’ve got some West Coast dates planned for late summer and an East Coast tour in the works for early fall that should take us through Nashville and Atlanta.
What’s next in store for you?
The album was just officially released, so it’s time to get it out there in front of everyone, live and on the radio, and with new music videos. We’ve done some in-store performances with Newbury Comics, where we’ve gained a ton of exposure and have become a top selling CD [there], so those little shows have been very worthwhile. I don’t mean to toot our own horn but it seems like the only thing we’ve had to do get people to like [our music] is play it for them. So that is what’s next, an ongoing effort and celebration of NORDO. Please join us!
photos by Mark Battle