The one thing most people tell Marcus Anthony Johnson — known professionally as Marcus Atom — is his music is different. “That’s a compliment at the end of the day,” he tells The News Station, “because I’m just trying to take what I’ve heard from my peers and make my own conversation with it.”
When it comes to his musical roots, Atom’s style is heavily influenced by an eclectic blend of artists and experiences. His mother came from the South and his grandfather grew up singing Southern gospel mixed with Chicago gospel mixed with R&B. Atom himself grew up in a white suburban neighborhood, which exposed him to The Beatles, John Mayer, Dave Matthews Band and Radiohead when he was 11 years old. “All of this different music blew my mind and I think that my inspirations come from so many different places that it’s not really fair to whittle it down to any.”
When he connects with The News Station by phone, Atom is eager to discuss his debut album, Love vs. War, its emotionally vulnerable inspirations and his hopes for changing the narrative of R&B music by creating bangers that also happen to encapsulate the normalization of men’s mental health.
The News Station: Growing up in Chicago, did you always know you wanted to pursue music?
Marcus Atom: I’m originally from the western suburbs of Chicago, right outside the city, and I come from a very musical family. My mom sings in the choir at church and my dad listened to a lot of Motown – Smokey Robinson, Temptations – stuff like that. I always had music around, always knew that I loved music, and around 5 or 6, fell in love with the drums. I kept asking my mom to get me a drum set for Christmas, but it was one of those things where she became a single parent, raising two boys on her own out there in the suburbs, and it’s a $500 investment that you really don’t know if a young kid is going to dig into. So I never got the drum set, but once I was old enough, I bought my own by cutting grass and started playing drums at church. I also sang in middle school and high school, but was always more of a drummer.
TNS: In terms of finding your groove, was there a pivotal moment or set of moments that you can pinpoint along the way where you realized a career in music was possible?
Marcus Atom : Just like anybody else – if you’re an athlete, a businessman, a jeweler, janitor or whatever it is that you do – when you get put into a position where, for lack of a better word, “shit hits the fan” and you’re in the thick of it, it’s how you react in those moments. And for anyone who is doing their job, you sort of find your place. There’s a harmony that happens and you kind of just know that it fits. I feel like there was a moment where every time I was on stage or had a hardship or had a good show – all the harmonious moments throughout time that just clicked were a reminder that playing music was something I wanted to do the rest of my life.
TNS: What helped give you the awareness to listen to what your inner voice was telling you?
At the end of the day, it was my mom forcing me to go to church every Sunday, the spirituality within that and the fact that I grew up playing music in church. Growing up playing music in church is twofold: It gave me the ability to be more spiritual and also be more aware of my spirituality, and it also gave me the ability to consistently play music in front of a lot of people.
TNS: In terms of getting the opportunity to perform consistently, how did your collaboration with Gorillaz come about?
Marcus Atom : I’d hung out with this guy Twilite Tone who’s like a mentor to me. He’s associated with Common and Kanye West – basically a Chicago legend-type. It’s funny because I didn’t even know who he was [when I met him] since I don’t really pay attention to stuff like that. But I knew of him, and when I started hanging out with him, it was like I was his baby brother, just latching on and wanting to be around him. I never really asked him questions or asked him for much, but being around him I kind of realized how important he was to people in Chicago. People would stop him in the middle of the street and stuff. I was like, Who is this dude?
Throughout the years as a studio drummer and session musician, people would be singing and messing around with parts that they started to have me perform. One day, Twilite was in my car with one of our mutual friends and that friend started playing a song. I was driving, not really paying attention, when all of a sudden I heard my voice. Tone was like, “Who is this singing?” And my friend was like, “Yo, that’s Marcus.”
Tone was upset with me that I never told him that I sang, which I told him I wasn’t that serious about. He was like, “Bro, I’m going to New York tomorrow, but when I get back, we’re going to dinner.” He came back a couple of months later, we went to dinner and he said he was going to help me pursue signing.
A couple of months after that, I got a call from London because [Damon Albarn] produced the album that I was on, and [Gorillaz] asked me to come record in New York. I was on their 2017 Grammy-nominated album Humanz, which was my first major album that I’d been on, and it was actually my first time in New York recording for them in Brooklyn at Mission Sound. We took a liking to each other and I ended up going on tour with them for a little bit. It was a good time.
TNS: In terms of singing, your debut album Love Vs. War just came out. How deeply did you take a dive into your own family history and your own psyche for this album?
Marcus Atom : I come from a pretty blunt, honest and straightforward family. The heart of the album is truly being able to put out there how I felt. [“Son of a Bad Man”] is a song about me dating a girl who is trying to figure out why I’m so difficult. The whole point is, I didn’t try to be this difficult, it’s just kind of how my surroundings have made me.
Music is the place for people to be honest. You can share art. Being able to share my most inner self is therapy for me, but it’s also hopefully a blessing to someone else who feels like they want to say the same thing or is going through the same things that I’m possibly going through.
TNS: There’s a relatability in the internal struggle.
Marcus Atom : Us men being put under this masculinity lens, it’s not something you’re going to hear a dude say all of the time or anyone really say all the time. Since I’ve written that song, I’ve had people send me emails or come up to me on the street like, “Dude, that song really hit me.” Which means: a) they either have issues with their father; or b) they understand [the struggle]. It’s cool that I’m able to still sing and groove but also have a different message.
TNS: There’s a certain taboo around men addressing any familial problems, whereby society has instructed us to be like, Figure it out on your own, don’t talk about it. But with the increasing normalization of mental health, it feels like your music might come at a time when people are more receptive to discussing those issues.
Marcus Atom : We’re living in a different time. We’re all in this time where it’s sensitive, so let’s be sensitive. Let’s be honest about the shit we actually think and go through. Let’s talk about why dudes are sometimes assholes, which can be for reasons we might not feel comfortable talking about.
TNS: Would you say that’s something you hope your music inspires?
Marcus Atom : I don’t think it’s the mission, but rather that’s just a derivative of me being me. Who I am is just honest. Sometimes to a fault.
TNS: In what way can honesty be a fault?
Marcus Atom : In two different ways: 1) You can show your cards too much to someone who doesn’t deserve to see them; 2) The biggest detriment to being honest is being hurt by people. Being too nice. You have to guard yourself a little bit more, and I think some of my songs relate to that — the struggle of growing up and understanding that you’re going to get burnt or you’re going to burn somebody. Just being real about that [is a way honesty] can be a fault.
TNS: But if you’re coming from a place of honesty, nothing is ever bad. Even if you burn somebody or get burned but your intentions were pure and not malicious, it’s weirdly okay.
Marcus Atom : It’s a weird, supercool thing. But at the same time, if you can be honest about whether or not you were a shithead…maybe it was unintentional, but you did a shitty thing or if somebody did something shitty to you, it’s about being honest about the outcome — whatever it is. You can’t really move forward unless you’re honest about [the shittiness] happening in the first place.
I think that in R&B specifically, a lot of the narratives that I grew up with in the ’90s were “I’m gonna get your P wet,” “bump and grind” and all that stuff. I want to bring back that old school style, but with the new messaging of where we’re all at in terms of our mental journeys and experiences. In 2021, we’re a lot more open and receptive to talk about things we might not have talked about before, and we’re appalled at some of the things that people used to talk about.
TNS: Are there plans for a tour to help promote the new album?
Marcus Atom : We’re at the mercy of the [COVID] variant. I’ll probably throw a record release party, nothing big, but I’m just so sick and tired of it. I played a private party recently and half of the people showed up, so it’s interesting seeing how people are reacting to this thing now. We’ve been in it for 400-plus days, and the last thing people want to do is do more of that. So I try to provide that pre-COVID feeling as much as possible while still being respectful towards it.
TNS: Does that help inform the way in which you make your music?
Marcus Atom : When I’m writing songs, I think about how I can bless somebody with a track or how I can simply be honest through the song, which then might end up relating with someone else. Even if it’s a party song, whatever song I’m making, I want it to find somebody who is going through something. You know how it is, you listen to a song and it brings you to a whole new place. That’s what I want to do for somebody else. I realize every song that I write isn’t going to be that for somebody, but if it’s not, it might be for somebody else. And if it’s not, it is for me, dammit. At the end of the day, I just want to write in a way that blesses somebody else.