Return of the Don

| 11 Nov 2014 | 02:13


      IF THE START-STOP grooves, searing guitar lines and pseudo-metal crunch so prevalent in 1990s indie rock sound like self-parody to us today, it’s important to remember that they kinda sounded like that back then. Looking back, with their stark over-earnestness and aesthetic posturing, the slew of bands popularizing that sound now seem rather obvious in their attempts to wear their complexity and sonic purity on their sleeves. On the other hand, the elements that might make the likes of Tortoise, Shipping News and Slint seem a bit dry in the personality department are the same elements that ensure that their music still captivates over a decade later.

    Arguably, we have Pittsburgh act Don Caballero to thank on both counts; though bandleader/drummer Damon Che doesn’t agree.

    “I personally don’t hear it,” he contends. “I don’t hear a bunch of artists where it’s clear to me that ‘oh my gosh, I’m responsible for this.’ I can hear a lot of stuff where I can see, ‘oh yeah, this comes from the school of I-know-about-this-orthat-kind-of-sound.’

    But the reason I did the music that I do is that I haven’t heard anybody else that got the same point that I was trying to make—at least not in the realm of percussion.”

    Indeed, it would be hard for anyone else to make that point.Though Don Cab is said to have pioneered the mathematical, clean-guitar-tone approach that became an indie hallmark in the wake of the band’s groundbreaking early work on Touch and Go records, few of the band’s peers pursued Che’s muse in quite the same fashion. Now the band’s sole remaining original member, Che has always favored an in-your-face drumming style that borders on audacious.Where other likeminded bands embraced subtle rhythmic complexity, Che opted instead to play the drums like an octopus hell-bent on showing off.That is, of course, what the fans know and love him for. For better or worse, Che presents the drums as a “lead” instrument. Undeniably, this is also one of the qualities that makes Don Cab’s work so rousing.

    But, as remote and chilly as Don Cab’s music can be, Che is unabashed about wanting to rock. Underneath it all, it seems, Che has always been in on the joke. “There was a lot of boobery in the ‘90s underground music scene,” he says, “this phony kind of ‘We’re supposed to be happy because the Clintons are in the White House so everybody can relax now, and we don’t need to be aggressive because we’re not angry anymore.’ But I always liked rock. I was looking through Brian McMahon from Slint’s CD collection once, and he had the first four Van Halen albums.You might not expect that if you were to judge him by listening to his own music.”

    Though he will always seen as an ambassador for a music community known for its ironic, intellectually detached take on metal, Che prefers to come clean.

    Growing up, he says, he and his peers were into metal.The difference between them, though, was that he was into punk and new wave too. Perhaps more important, though, is how Che ended up with his peculiar drum setup, where the cymbals are placed way up high and the drums are really low. “A friend of mine had started playing drums when he was really young,” he recalls.

    “I got behind his kit once and I was like, ‘Man, I can’t even get a rim shot on your snare because the angle is so tilted. Dude, you gotta put this drum up a little more flat.’What’s so funny is that, over time, I don’t know how it happened, but I ended up playing on the same angle that I thought was ridiculous at the time. I could easily see how someone could look at my kit and think it’s ridiculous, but everything is placed where it can best be struck.

    There’s no fashion aspect to it whatsoever. It just happened that way. I can’t really explain it.” These days, Che sees Don Cab as a band that “flounders at the same constant level” of success, and makes no bones about the fact that he revived the band name simply because “no one would come” if he was working with the overhauled lineup under a different name. He also says that he is “getting close to graduating from the whole underground music thing.”

    And what does that mean, exactly? “I mean,” he answers, “don’t be surprised if the next Don Cab record is totally different than what someone would expect that Don Cab is supposed to sound like. I think our new record [Punkgasm, released this summer] already is.” Such adaptability has ensured that Don Cab’s post-reformation output has justified the use of the name. Long after most of his contemporaries have died off, Che’s persistence warrants respect. -- Don Caballero Dec. 8, Europa, 98 Meserole Ave. (at Lorimer St.), Brooklyn, 718-383-5723; 8, $12.