The temperature was still below zero at noon, and the day was only going to get colder. Inside the Great Dane Brew Pub, three guys named Nick, Thump and Spank were drinking cold Bloody Marys and hot tea, mulling over the odds stacked against local rock bands in 2008.
"We'll probably spend 60 bucks on gas driving our van to Oshkosh and back tonight," said Thump.
To get to Oshkosh, Thump's van would be cutting through wind chills of minus 30 along Highway 151. Destination: a motorcycle club. Purpose: to hammer out a set of industrial metal.
Meet Flat Atom, a Madison band tough enough to bash the forces that would doom live music.
"You'll never see Nick head-butt me and chip my teeth if you're listening to a goddamn MP3 at home," said Thump. "You'll never see a random naked guy running across the stage."
In the Madison arts market, demand may not be high for a local heavy metal band, even one that distinguishes itself with the use of electronic effects.
"About the only places in town that accommodate what we do are the Annex and the Klinic," said Nick Seward. Less frequently, they play at the High Noon Saloon.
So Flat Atom have ventured beyond Madison and gained a niche following throughout the upper Midwest.
"I came out of the south-side metal scene in Milwaukee, so we know people there," said Thump. "We've also become friends with some bands up in the Twin Cities, and we've got a following there now, too."
Flat Atom formed in 2000, soon after Seward and Thump met as students at Madison Media Institute. After graduating, they both landed jobs at Sonic Foundry. Bassist Pete "Spank" Pagel joined the band in 2004.
Following two EPs, Flat Atom released their first full-length disc early in 2007. That was followed by a DVD release last fall. "We filmed it at a theater we played in Reedsburg," said Thump.
Seward says the band's artistic focus has changed considerably over the years.
"We started out as overtly political. But recently we've become more introspective and esoteric."
Seward cites a newer track called "Noose" as an example.
"It's a song about string theory and quantum physics," he said. "I've always been interested in scientific themes, which is how the band got its name."
Seward is the wordsmith behind many of Flat Atom's song titles. He chose Flux as the name of their last CD "because we were a band in a state of change - changing sounds and a changing lineup."
He says Flat Atom have already decided to name their next album Galvanize. It's a steel-coated metaphor for the state of American society. "We've all become hardened to the violence around us," said Seward.
Increasingly, Flat Atom's heavy guitar sound is punctuated by complex electronic arrangements laid down by Thump at his home studio.
"I grew up listening to synth pop in the '80s, and it's something that has always stuck with me," said Thump.
But Flat Atom's signature feature is an intense and unpredictable stage act.
"I love performing," said Seward. "I need to be around the live music environment. I crave it."
Sipping his drink at the Great Dane, Seward talked about everyday ways the band fight adversity to keep their show going on.
"Our drummer [Trever Hawley] is sick this week, and we had to find a replacement last night and for tonight."
"There are nights when I have to ice my hand after pounding my guitar all night," said Thump. "And I just say, 'Oh my God my hand hurts, and God was that fun!'"