Steep Learning Curve
"You have to just listen to the record," says Damon Che, drummer and leader of post-punk instrumentalists Don Caballero. "We didn't make the record so you could ask me questions about it; we made it so you can listen to it." Che's not being a dick; he's just sick of hearing the singerless, meta-metal, prog-rock instrumental band he started in the early '90s described as "math rock."
It's a term hacks conceived to describe the Don Caballero indulgence of on-a-dime time changes, sideways playing and generally challenging listening that Che pioneered, at least for people who would bother to write about it. King Crimson by way of Slayer and Metallica for Jesus Lizard fans as it may be, Don Cab became, simply, "math rock."
"I don't have as much a problem with the term as I used to," he says. "To me, that term's better for bands like Confessor or Breadwinner. I'm into rock & roll across the board. We don't sound like Van Halen, but you'd be surprised how much we think about Van Halen when we're making a record."
When the first incarnation of Don Caballero recorded their 1993 debut, For Respect, with anti-producer Steve Albini, they were anathema to the pretension that dogged American punk rock, which, as the documentary American Hardcore illustrated so well, started as leaner and faster, but wound up being skater bands playing to an audience that bought Ratt records.
Some kids, Che among them, dug the musical talent that sprang up in punk's wake, especially in the Midwest, where bands weren't as beholden to the corny politics of their coastal brethren and were more influenced by even weirder post-punk (PiL, Birthday Party, Wire) coming from abroad.
"I always enjoyed it when people take something from one thing and put it in another," Che says. "How Jim Kimball of the Laughing Hyenas brought jazz to this Birthday Party-type band. I always liked it when white guys did reggae—like the Clash."
If only it were so simple for Don Caballero. When they came on the post-hardcore scene, Che smashing his kit and cymbals with goddamn marching-band tree-trunk sticks and guitarists weaving in, out, up and over one another, they were like Anton Fier's Golden Palominos on a tear through the Rush catalog. While Don Cab amplified the whiter, male side of the post-punk mindset—as math went, it sounded like long division with a lot of numbers being carried—Che now admits he never felt at home with the seminal Don Cab sound. His strained relationship with original guitarist Ian Williams led to great tension in the band's music—and ultimately to the band's dissolution after a few more records.
"I didn't really enjoy it back then," Che admits. "I wanted to play stuff that brought more of a musicality, instead of just give people a headache. I get that we were an art-rock thing. But I wanted to enjoy rock & roll, make it a music experience instead of 'look what we can do.'"
The parting was less than amicable, but without hard feelings. "I just ran into him down in Texas, and I hadn't talked to him in six years," Che explains. "It wasn't like Jerry Springer or anything."
What is more Springer-esque is Don Cab's latest, Worldwide Listening Problem (Relapse). If Don Caballero 1.0 were the post-punk King Crimson on hipster label Touch and Go, Don Caballero 2.0 are now the preppie jazzbo metal of Helmet for new prog-metal bands, many of them their labelmates: Mastodon, High on Fire, etc.
"With Relapse, we've been able to make inroads to new media outlets," Che explains.
Like? "I had an eight-page spread in Modern Drummer. For the first time in 28 years," he sighs. "I just was tired of not getting the recognition." His tree-trunk marching-band sticks? "I have an endorsement for those now, so they only cost me about 3 bucks a pair. If I could just get a cymbal endorsement, I'd be rocking."
Free rides or not, the new version of Don Caballero are pretty damn rocking, groovier and more atmospheric than their wall-to-wall sound back in the day. Che has new compatriots drafted from the Pittsburgh geometry-rock band Creta Bourzia. There's still tension, but from the sounds of World—more groovy than grinding—it's all good, like Metallica covering Aphex Twin.
Che says that despite the pleasantly schizo mix of sweeping vistas, the extended intros and outros, the crashing waves of melodies and rhythm collisions (and that's just "Railroad Cancellation"), the inspiration comes from a group mind. "'Palm Trees in the Feckin' Bahamas' is our [version of] Earth, Wind & Fire," he says. "The stuff we like, we take and re-contextualize."
So how is it being indie-prog OGs these days? "It's easier because I've found a way to enjoy it more," Che says. "The landscape and the climate for what we do hasn't changed. People know what they can count on us for. The record we're working on now [is] kicking our ass. [Guitarist Gene Doyle] has me doing these Latin 3-over-4 things I thought I knew how to play. Hopefully, it'll give kids a sick fuckin' headache."
Don Caballero perform with the Enablers and Telomere Repair at Alex's Bar, 2913 E. Anaheim St., Long Beach, (562) 434-8292; www.alexsbar.com. Fri., 9 p.m. $10. 21+.
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