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TJ Kong and the Atomic Bomb: Confessions of a Storyteller?

February 16, 2015

TJKongKaraKhanSmallText by Beth Ann Downey. Top image by Kara Khan. Bottom images by Jason Melcher.

The members of TJ Kong and the Atomic Bomb pile into a booth at The Dew Inn, a friendly, neighborhood-y, no-nonsense diner on Girard Avenue in Olde Kensington.

They’ve come here in search of cheap Sunday brunch fuel and won’t be disappointed, save the disproportionate boiling of bassist Josh Machiz’s soft-boiled egg.

As a smattering of eggs, bacon, scrapple and toast take over their table, the TJ Kong and the Atomic Bomb bandmates discuss why they enjoy living in a working class city like Philadelphia, with all of its grit and grease. The same characteristics have also kept the local Americana scene, of which the band is a part of, both relevant and thriving.

“Folks come here to live on the cheap and work and find their way in the world,” says frontman Dan Bruskewicz. “It’s a great place to live in order to find what you want to do because you can live for cheap, you can find work, you can drink for cheap, eat for cheap. It’s easy to get around town. It’s a great place to live in your 20s and find out what you want to be. I just feel like folk music is a very nice soundtrack for that.”

The band is named for a character in the black comedy “Dr. Strangelove.” With its folk-style narrative lyrics and foot-stomping, rabble-rousing, attitude-driven music, TJ Kong and the Atomic Bomb is a band particularly skilled at providing another kind of soundtrack – one for a great party.

“Our friends would come and dance around and get drunk,” Bruskewicz says of his band’s early days as a two-piece that he started with drummer Dan Cask. “It was fun.”

After being accepted into the 2009 POP Montreal International Music festival out of the blue, they decided to add a bass player to the band and redirect their focus.

“We were like, ‘Well maybe we should think about doing this in a more professional capacity,” Bruskewicz says.

His detailed storytelling in every TJ Kong song may make you quick to dub his stage presence a persona but Bruskewicz says he’s not really putting on or acting. Despite this, he still has a way of making audiences think he’s speaking about real-life experiences, no matter how outlandish they may be.

“You never know if they’re autobiographical or confessional,” says lead guitarist Josh Olmstead of his bandmate’s lyrics. “Has this stuff really happened or has he observed it happening? How theatrical is it versus how autobiographical it is. He always treads this nice line. The only way you can be describing this so vividly and making people connect to these lyrics is to have experienced it in some way. But at the same time, it’s like, I don’t know how one person could have experienced all this and still be alive, in a sense.”

“That’s actually a good way to think about the band too – it’s a vehicle for the stories to be told,” adds Bruskewicz. “It’s a fun way to experience folky storytelling songs rather than a sit-and-listen sort of way. It’s in an interactive and strange theatrical sort of way. We make a different atmosphere for people to experience lyrical blues and folk music.”

Even in the context of a studio recording, TJ Kong and the Atomic Bomb tries to capture that in-the-moment feel of a live show. Nowhere is this more evident than the band’s most recent five-track EP Kong, released last March and produced by go-to scene favorite Bill Moriarty. Bruskewicz says the band barely rehearsed the five songs before entering the studio. They recorded the session all in one day and that actually helped them capture the raw sound they were hoping for.

“There are definitely parts of it that aren’t perfect and parts of it that are really, really good,” Bruskewicz says. “But it just feels more like what we’re trying to do. So we just found a good way to finally communicate what we’re doing. I think that that communication is very much in the moment and very alive. It’s just, like, letting all the different personalities do their thing without having to think too much. Just letting them run around.”

TJ Kong will release music videos for each song on the Kong EP in the coming weeks. They plan to release a full-length some time in 2015.

Until then, the band will continue to donate their talents to the robust local Americana scene and entertain live audiences with the unexpected.

“Basically we’re like an Americana band that’s scared of being bored and is very easily bored,” Bruskewicz says. “That’s a good way to think about it. We just write songs that make you dance around.”

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