Primary Instrument: Band/orchestra
Some people start bands because they feel they have something to say. Others see band formation as a guaranteed path to free drinks and unprotected sex. When Damon Che formed instrumental crunch-rockers Don Caballero 15 years ago in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, he had significantly different plans. “The only plan we had at the time was to come up with music we liked,” he says earnestly. “The reason we ended up the way we did was because, in our estimation, [the music] wasn’t ready yet. The opportunities to record kept coming up, and we didn’t want to waste them, even if we didn’t have our craft entirely up to specifications yet.”
Che might have had reservations about the preparedness of the music, but nobody was really prepared for the kind of efficient instrumental urgency DonCab generated. Mike Banfield’s crunching guitar riffage and Pat Morris’ bass underpinned everything so that Che’s indefatigable complexity�i.e., drums as lead instrument�was front and center. The band was instrumental by default, wielding a technical proficiency that could rival the staunchest prog outfit, but instead choosing to deliver a far more visceral impact.
Of course, like most things genuine and exemplary, DonCab were greeted by blank stares and confused looks similar to the ones a dog makes eating peanut butter. An early supporter pleaded them to participate in a city battle-of-the-bands contest. When the leader of the judging “panel of experts” heard two minutes of the band’s first single, he lifted the needle and said, “These guys need to go back to Songwriting 101.” Fortunately, Songwriting 101 got brushed aside so DonCab could expand to a quartet, adding guitarist Ian Williams; sign to the Touch And Go label; and head off to Chicago to record their 1993 debut album, For Respect, with Steve Albini at the controls. Many a fanzine writer and alt-weekly-residing tastemaker began describing the band’s complexities and Che’s rhythmic prowess as “math rock,” a term that, to this day, sits uneasy with the drummer. “I think we got to much credit for those particular aspects of the band,” he reflects. “We did have many twists and turns and hard-to-follow time signatures. But we were a much more simplistic mechanism compared to great bands like Breadwinner or Confessor. Much respect to them�I hope they’re not mad about it!”
The next 10 years saw the band generate an admirable body of work in the form of three additional albums (Don Caballero 2, What Burns Never Returns and American Don) and a singles compilation (Singles Breaking Up, Volume One), along with a series of bassists and the resignation of original member Banfield. And while the band were collecting their hard-earned share of accolades from indie rockers and headbangers alike, the creative friction between Che and Williams had escalated to reactor-melting proportions. At that point, we couldn’t see eye-to-eye on anything,” says Che. “Ian and I are like natural-born enemies, like a cobra to a mongoose. People think that’s harsh for me to say. On a humanitarian level, Ian is, obviously, not my enemy. But on an artistic level, you’re godamn right he is. Looking back, it was kind of a miracle that we actually accomplished all that we did together.” While Che can listen to previous DonCab recordings without reaching a cringe factor, he is upfront about what exactly went into those proceedings: “In my opinion, those records are a product of one person getting their way, the other getting theirs, and the entire process getting deflated by a lot of boring compromise.” By the fall of 2001, Che and Williams decided that DonCab belonged to the history books, and the band fragmented.
Immediately following the split, Che kept himself busy. He signed on as bassist for Matador Records act Chavez for a brief tour; explored his guitar playing and songwriting in his side project, Thee Speaking Canaries; and got behind the drums in Bellini, an outfit he formed with former Uzeda guitarist Agostino Tilotta. Yet through all of these playing situations, Che felt that Don Caballero wasn’t finished. In 2001, he made the acquaintance of bassist Jason Jouver and guitarists Gene Doyle and Jeff Ellsworth, members of Creta Bourzia, a Pittsburgh-based angular rock unit who were long on musical talent and short on ego-tripping. The trio bonded with Che over music and aesthetics, and a friendship based in music was born. (Che played bass on a Creta Bourzia tour; Doyle manned the drums for some Speaking Canaries gigs.) Che broached the prospect of reactivating DonCab with them. Not surprisingly, writing and rehearsals followed with an intense fervor.
Earlier this year, while the quartet were recording in producer Al Sutton’s Detroit studio, Rustbelt Recording, they were approached by Relapse to become a part of the label’s roster. The connection is hardly unusual, considering that both band and label have histories of changing listeners’ perceptions of what constitutes “heavy music.” World Class Listening Problem, Don Caballero’s Relapse debut, exceeds the expectations of longtime followers, while also recognizing that calendars only move in one direction. Che’s playing is still equal parts tantrum and tempered, and the ambi-directional musings of Doyle and Ellsworth traffic in everything from engaging atmospherics to full-on guitar choogle. Tracks like “Palm Trees In The Fecking Bahamas” and “And And And He Lowered The Twin Down” are imbued with a refined energy, as well as a greater willingness to explore sonic texture. We’ve come up with material that tips its hat to everything DonCab has done in the past while still having its own new, distinct voice,” says Che. There’s nothing contrived here.” Not surprisingly, the new music also has its psychic benefits, as well. “We’re liking the music we’re making,” he says, “and as people, we’ve accrued more ‘get-along points’ than Don Caballero has ever had before.”
DonCab 2K6 intend to make Problems for everyone across the United States this summer, with plans to bring the noise to whatever global hamlet wants them. Owners of unkempt long hair and faded Slayer t-shirts�as well as listeners from the realm of white belts and Rod Stewart haircuts�are encouraged to attend. Don Caballero doesn’t subscribe to any “scene elitism” and hope no one brings that kind of psychic baggage to their gigs. A festival show in Paris found the band sharing a stage alongside such hipster beard-scratcher favorites as U.S. noisemongers Hair Police and British eccentrics Volcano The Bear. (There were beards, Che says about the gig, but they did make a fuss.”) But long after the last songs are played, and the 117th set of drumsticks are reduced to kindling, Che’s sole concern comes off as selfish, but is essential to Don Caballero’s mythology.
The main edifice here was just to exist, he says. “To exist, thrive and enjoy the process. The fanaticism has to start with us before it can reach the fans.”