15 Years of Wanderlust
A retrospective on the 2005 gem from Little Atlas with band members Steve Katsikas and Rik Bigai.
Little Atlas circa 2005 (L-R): Roy Strattman, Rik Bigai, Diego Pocovi, and Steve Katsikas (Image courtesy of Katsikas)
Fifteen years ago, Miami-based progressive rock outfit Little Atlas released Wanderlust, the third album of the five produced to date under the band’s name. However, Little Atlas’ first release, Neverworldly, was written entirely by vocalist/keyboardist Steve Katsikas and featured different musicians than those who became the mainstays of the band’s lineup thereafter, so Wanderlust, which was released on ProgRock Records in 2005, can be considered the second ‘proper’ Little Atlas album.
The roster of musicians who became Little Atlas during the making of the band’s second release, Surface Serene, consisted of Katsikas, bassist Ricardo “Rik” Bigai, drummer Diego Pocovi, and guitarist Roy Strattman, who sadly passed away in 2019 due to the lingering effects of injuries he sustained two years earlier as the victim of an assault.
Wanderlust may be the band’s crowning achievement of the five releases under the Little Atlas name. The album made my personal Top 10 list of progressive rock albums for the 2005 calendar year — one that included excellent releases from the likes of Porcupine Tree, Kino, Arena, Neal Morse, RPWL, Dream Theater, and Riverside, among others.
The band was coming off of 2003’s Surface Serene and several of the seven tracks that would make up Wanderlust were already either taking shape or were nearly fully formed. Almost all of the songs had been developed to near completion through live performances and workshopping them in rehearsals by the time the band went into Katsikas’ projects studio, HipKat. Katsikas and bassist Bigai, who was working as a production engineer at Encanta Productions, produced and mixed Wanderlust themselves.
“[HipKat] is where we did all the drum recording and where I did all my pieces and parts,” Katsikas told me via Zoom from his home studio. “We did quite a bit at Rik’s studio. We had a chance to mix it in a, quote, real studio, with a, quote, real engineer. It made a lot of sense. Rik has mixed all of our albums.”
The seven tracks range from five and a half to 10 and a half minutes and offer a glimpse into the musical souls of the four musicians. It is influenced by the likes of Genesis, Yes, and Rush, but becomes something uniquely Little Atlas, which sounds both familiar and new at the same time — and still sounds fresh 15 years later. The songs are tight, as the band had lived with most of them for some time, knew them well, and had performed them often enough to record them as more or less fully realized tracks. It gave the album the organic feel of having been recorded live in the studio.
Katsikas said that Pocovi’s arrival in the band at the time Surface Serene was being made gave the band just the right creative impetus to spring forth into Wanderlust.
“He just was a super important change for the band because with Surface Serene I basically brought the songs to the band, almost completely sketched out, and we arranged them,” Katsikas said. “With Wanderlust, we all wrote together. And that's why the two albums sound different.
“The finished products evolved because we were playing them and playing them and playing them and tweaking them and tweaking them. But that is the only album I've ever done — and it's really special to me — where we played those songs out a lot before we ever went into the studio to record them. I think that's why that album sounds like it does.”
Katsikas moved to Kentucky due to a job change in 2006, which changed the dynamic of the band’s operations. Little Atlas couldn’t just accept a gig in Miami or Fort Lauderdale anymore, with its singer and keyboardist a thousand miles away, which is why the band hasn’t been able to repeat the process it took in developing the songs for Wanderlust, although both Hollow and Automatic Day are fine albums in their own right.
The songwriting process was a combination of Katsikas bringing songs to the band and building off of jams and riffs that the individual members came up with. Katsikas writes the band’s lyrics.
“Of course, we’d have ideas at home or have this riff and then we started building everything from there most of the time,” Bigai said. “Sometimes maybe Steve has a full song and then we deconstruct the song. And on Wanderlust you can feel that a little bit. It’s like a nice live album but it’s a little bit crazier than Surface Serene.”
Wanderlust organically included some similar recurring lyrical themes of being away from home. These are most obvious on album opener “The Ballad of Eddie Wanderlust,” “Home,” and “The Prisoner.” But it wasn’t intended to be a thematic or concept album.
“I think I liked the word,” Katsikas said of the title. “It was taken from ‘The Ballad of Eddie Wanderlust.’ But the idea of wanderlust is it’s the journey, not the destination. You’re always looking. That was really describing where we were at that time, too. So, it wasn’t just like the sound of the word. It just reflected something important, I think.”
There’s nothing overtly borrowed on Wanderlust, but Katsikas said at the time the band was writing the album’s songs, he was listening to artists like Porcupine Tree, Spock’s Beard, Echolyn, Jeff Buckley, and Radiohead. Bigai played Transatlantic for Katsikas in his driveway once as an introduction to that group.
“We were influenced by those new progressive bands,” Bigai said, while also citing classic artists Genesis and Rush as constant influences.
Pocovi’s drum parts were recorded first and the band didn’t use a click track during most of the recording, because it didn’t have the same feel as when Little Atlas performed the songs live.
“And you can feel that we’re free,” Bigai added.
The ‘title’ track is the soaring album opener, “The Ballad of Eddie Wanderlust,” a seven-and-a-half-minute song that both Katsikas and Bigai mentioned first when asked if they had a favorite song on the album. How was it chosen to open the album?
“That’s a very democratic decision,” Bigai said. “And sometimes [the opening track is] one of the few fights we have always, in all the albums.”
“It gets less intense after that,” Katsikas added, “but what’s going to be the opening track?”
The song ultimately was selected because it set the stage for everything on the album that was to follow. It has an otherworldly introductory clip from The Wizard of Oz played through a vocoder, giving it an alien effect. Katsikas said he liked the idea that at the end of indulging one’s wanderlust, what people need is to know where their home is, which is the message of the film.
Speaking of soaring, the nearly 10-minute “Higher” follows as the second song. It shares some thematic elements with “The Prisoner” deeper into the album with its message of breaking free. It was one of the tracks the band played live in between albums before the recording for Wanderlust had begun.
“Weariness Rides,” clocking in at six and a half minutes, opens with one of my favorite lyrical passages on the album.
Weariness rides on the backs of our serious sides.
“I like the double rhyme in that,” Katsikas said, referring to both weariness and serious as well as rides and sides. “I like playing with the sounds of words.”
The song features a unique acapella section around the four-minute mark.
“I recall looping the section and then just kind of la-la-ing my way through it,” Katsikas said. “And once I kind of found melody one, I wrote lyrics to it. And then I went and found counterpoint melody while it was playing and just looped it and was kind of looking for the melody, and then I did the same thing with three. And then I was like ‘holy crap, how do I get out of this?’ And then I had the three voices that were sort of doing this kind of thing come together and sing the last part together. So, that’s where the tools of the studio are really helpful.”
The longest track, and the one both Katsikas and Bigai mentioned second when discussing their favorite Wanderlust tracks (though the bassist said it was his favorite), is “The Prisoner,” which runs a little under 11 minutes long.
“It’s super fun to play,” Bigai said.
“It was like being on a ride at a theme park to play that,” Katsikas added. “It’s taking you places. I’m really proud of the lyrics on that song. I'm not a storyteller with my lyrics, but that tells a story.”
The inspiration for the song came from a Venezuelan story Bigai shared with Katsikas about a person who is having an out-of-body experience, goes out and explores the world, and then returns, only to find his body is gone. It’s an epic, cinematic song and the centerpiece of the album.
Track 5 is “Home,” which clocks in at just under seven minutes. This was a song that got a twist during the recording process, with the addition of a Venezuelan folk instrument called a Cuatro, which was played by Claudia Sarmiento.
“Home” connects lyrically to the idea of wandering (Home, far from my home) and there is also some connection to the story Bigai described about the out-of-body experience that inspired “The Prisoner” (And strangely I am calm, a disconnected mind, wanders in a place where time is free).
The penultimate track is “On and On,” at a hair over five and a half minutes. It features one of Katsikas’ favorite instrumental breaks on the album.
“I'm really proud of that. That's a really cool, like, interplay [with] the three of us (Katsikas, Bigai, and Strattman), the notes that we're playing, the way that they're kind of different and they hold together, and the time signature…there’s a groove behind it that is unexpected. That was from jamming. I think most of it was it was like in the room just trying stuff. And then, I remember spending a lot of time on transitions. Like, how do we get from here to here?”
“It's very hard work,” Bigai said. “We are in a room trying to figure out how to go from point A to B. And it's very time consuming, but when we all agree [on] something, it was very cool, and I remember we felt very euphoric.”
Album closer “Mirror of Life” was the only track that was added during the recording process, although there were some moments of inspiration that sprung up during the sessions.
“That was kind of a later decision — a seventh song on the album,” Katsikas said. “It's more in the box, compared to the rest of the songs that are that are a little more adventurous maybe. And I think it made a lot of sense to close the album on the song that seems the least connected stylistically to the rest of the songs.”
Another idea that came about during recording was the addition of violin to “Mirror of Life,” which was provided by Frogg Café’s Bill Ayasse.
“We didn’t like the sound of synthesized violins,” Katsikas explains. “And we're pretty connected to that band. We've been to New York got to hang out with those guys. We were on the same label for a period of time, actually, on the same label twice. They just kind of kicked it out really quick and then on their next album I got to go and add a synthesizer piece on one of their songs.”
The album’s dramatic cover artwork was created by Xavier Cortes and features a green handprint with an eye looking out from the center. It was chosen off of a page of thumbnails of his work that he’d sent to the band. Cortes had previously worked on the Surface Serene artwork for Little Atlas.
“We were familiar with his work and we knew him personally,” said Katsikas. “He was associated with an art gallery that often had music that we would often play, called the Wallflower Gallery. It's not around anymore. But that’s where we met him. We liked the idea of being able to use original art, as opposed to graphics. I think the artwork fits.”
Little Atlas got Wanderlust exactly right. There are few albums where a band can say that, but this is one of those instances. The lyrics, the musicianship, the feel, the quality of the recording…everything works. It doesn’t overstay its welcome at only 43 minutes of running time, whereas many bands try to use the entirety of the CD-length capacity to stuff in as many of their ideas as they can.
Oftentimes musicians look back at what they were doing 15 years earlier and cringe at where they were musically at that point in time or they lament the way an album was recorded. That certainly isn’t the case with Wanderlust.
“I love this album,” Bigai said. “You have to, of course, set yourself in that moment, in that time. But for me it sounds very, very good.”
“I agree. That album, Hollow, and Automatic Day, I'm just incredibly proud of those albums,” Katsikas said. “I love everything about those albums. I don't go back and say, ‘ugh,’ anywhere on any of those albums.
“I feel like I've been in a lot of bands and played with a lot of musicians, and I have never had that experience of working that every single person in the band is willing to spend whatever it takes in the studio together, democratically, for the music. It's not happened since for me. I've been in some good bands, Rik's been in some great bands. It was just special. We didn't have the same ideas. We didn't always like each other's ideas, but we were on the same page that we were working on something special. And we were willing to just break it down and just make everything work.”
Author’s note: Thanks to Steve Katsikas and Rik Bigai for being generous with their time in discussing the making of Wanderlust. If you’re interested in seeing that entire interview, you can watch it here.