By Daniel Kohn
By Imade Nibokun
By Arrissia Owen
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By Jena Ardell
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For a band touting such a heady approach to indie rock, it's surprising Maps & Atlases began with no real plan in mind. Meeting in 2004 at Columbia College Chicago, the quartet started jamming because, in the words of guitarist/vocalist Dave Davison, "it just seemed like something fun to do that would be positive and interesting." Amazingly, given their nimble rhythms and sophisticated guitar work, none of Maps & Atlases' members was a music major, although each did spend countless hours investigating avant-rock icons, finding intellectual solace in artists and songs that eschewed conventional narrative in favor of meandering, instrumental journeys. (Both Davison and guitarist Erin Elders count Ornette Coleman's The Shape of Jazz to Come as a major influence.)
What makes their lack of a goal so startling is their material's style sounds as though it grew out of a manifesto. Dexterous guitar tapping, tempo changes and polyrhythms can make room for playfulness, yes, but that's when it's not sounding like a complex piece of machinery completing whatever task it was assigned. Considering Davison's contemplative lyrical content, it's no surprise he and his band mates bonded over their appreciation for the interplanetary songwriting sensibilities of David Bowie and Talking Heads. "We just wanted to make songs that were kind of cinematic-feeling," Davison says. "[The songs were] not necessarily cinematic in overall feel, but cinematic in that they're very visual and continuously moving and weren't necessarily saying, 'Okay, here's where we're starting, and here's what happened, and here's the end.' [They're] just presenting you with a series of ideas."
Evidence of their intent appears on April's Beware and Be Grateful, the group's second record on Barsuk Records. In a recent interview with The Boston Phoenix, Elders described the album as "a balance between lightness and darkness."
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"On this newest album, we just wanted to make music that was exciting and that people could dance to but also have—relative to our previous work—a different overall feel," Davison says, adding that Beware and Be Grateful is "more overtly existential" than previous releases. Maps & Atlases have long enjoyed exploring dichotomies, and their most crucial is trying to find the middle ground between creating music for the brain and music for the feet.
Davison has his reasons for bringing these two elements together. "If you make a song that's really over-the-top avant-garde and alienating to most people, it's mostly going to just be people who are thinking about it on a really intellectual level, who are watching it for the most part and not necessarily engaging with it," he says. "If you can take an element of something that's just fun and interesting on a basic level, [and] mix those two [ideas], you can have the same benefits of being a band who make really fun dance music."
The end goal, Davison says, is to express common feelings in novel ways that can surprise even the band. "If you can create a new feeling, then that's definitely worth trying."
This article appeared in print as "Math Rock Magellans: Maps & Atlases' sound journeys from your brain to your feet."