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Doing the Math

The bumpy journey of instrumental rockers Don Caballero.

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In 1991, right about the time that Pavement, Superchunk, and Sebadoh were readying themselves for increased exposure and the Nirvana/Mudhoney variety of underground rock was giving way to the mainstream grunge movement, a lesser-known but highly influential indie-rock band was calling it quits: Louisville's Slint.

Among their many followers was the Pittsburgh-based instrumental quartet Don Caballero. Formed in 1991 and named for the SCTV character "Guy Caballero," the four-piece's no-vocal route was common among the subgenre that some music journalists called "math rock." Rightfully shunned by Don Caballero, math rock was as relevant as most terms underneath the indie-rock umbrella, meaning hardly at all. Allegedly, it signified the complex song structures favored by bands on the loud and discordant end of the indie spectrum.

The rarely mentioned truth about this style is its uncanny likeness to a later movement that attracted such unflattering monikers as "indie metal" or "hipster metal." Don Caballero's 1993 debut, For Respect, and the epic-length sophomore release, Don Caballero 2, are metal albums through and through.

It's no surprise that the Don Caballero lineup responsible for this pair of albums — guitarists Ian Williams and Mike Banfield, bassist Pat Morris, and drummer Damon Che Fitzgerald — occupied a somewhat different social demographic than that of fantasy-obsessed metalheads. But while devoid of the distracting corniness of progressive metal stalwarts like Fates Warning or Dream Theater, Don Caballero was no less intricate. Fitzgerald's drum kit assumed the role that a lead guitar is known for in most bands. Utilizing a trick pedal (which transforms the sound of a single setup so that it sounds like a double bass drum) and demonstrating the prowess of drummers twice his age, Fitzgerald was — and still is — the focal point of the band's albums and live shows.

Don Caballero returned in 1998 with What Burns Never Returns. Hinted at on Don Caballero 2, Williams' strange but innovative guitar strategy showed him to be no slouch behind Fitzgerald's showy playing, using What Burns Never Returns as a vehicle to update Robert Fripp's legendary "Frippertronics" technique with his own effects-delayed, finger-tapping mastery.

Unrecognizable as guitar in the traditional sense, Williams' instrument simultaneously assumed the sonic places usually filled by a beautifully plucked electric piano, a female vocalist, and ambient electronics. The double-delay box setup and dexterous playing transformed Williams into multiple musicians, and even if many readers have never heard Don Caballero, they may have heard Williams use essentially the same playing style in his current and much more popular band, Battles. The byzantine metal riffing of the two previous albums was largely absent from the Don Caballero of What Burns, though it would return several years later. In the meantime, Eric Emm (of future production duo the Brothers) replaced Morris (Morris' second departure) on bass, and second guitarist Banfield jumped ship in late '98.

Snatched from Williams' free jazz-meets-Don Cab side project, Storm and Stress, Emm matched Williams' dual-delay box, and the band expounded upon the What Burns template during the two years of touring and songwriting that produced the final Don Caballero album in the Fitzgerald-Williams nine-year run, 2000's American Don.

A bad van accident in November of that year caused no serious injuries, though it was too much for the bickering, unstable lineup to handle. After a stint as the drummer for the short-lived Bellini and an increased focus on side project Thee Speaking Canaries, Fitzgerald pulled a Mike Love and reformed Don Caballero in 2003 with three new members. Truthfully, Don Caballero Mach 1, throughout the near-decade of the Williams-Fitzgerald configuration, was rarely spoken of without immediate mention of Fitzgerald's ridiculous command of his instrument. Williams may have brought up the rear with some anti-guitar inventiveness, but it was Fitzgerald holding everything together and steering the ship more often than not.

Setting off on a touring and writing period that lasted well over two years, the three-quarters new incarnation of Don Caballero blurred most of the progressions made by the '90s lineup into one condensed prog-metal sound, then found a comfortable home with Relapse Records for the 2006 release of World Class Listening Problem. The musicians Fitzgerald surrounded himself with were formerly of Creta Bourzia, a band that heavily represented Don Caballero influence while based in both bands' hometown of Pittsburgh.

Losing a guitarist to domestic duties last year, Don Caballero toured some more and recorded another album as a three-piece. If interested parties can get past the name, Punkgasm is more confident and well-rounded than its predecessor. Appropriating a good deal of material from Thee Speaking Canaries, Punkgasm deploys vocals on a whopping five tracks. One of those all-over-the-place albums that works on most levels, Punkgasm has received much positive critical acclaim and probably won't be the last album, or even close to the last album, made by the band known as Don Caballero.

Don Caballero

The Hi-Tone Café

Thursday, February 5th

Doors open at 9 p.m.; admission $10

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