Chaos Spoken Here
When U.S. Maple went into the studio to record its first single back in 1995, says guitarist Todd Rittmann, he thought the band was on to something. He just didn’t know what. “I wasn’t sure what the hell it was,” he says. “It was a new feeling for me to record music and not be sure if it was good or not, or to know what level it existed on. That’s when I knew what we were doing was really special.” But vocalist and band founder Al Johnson knew exactly what it was: “We all grew up during the 70s–the classic-rock era,” he says. “We all had this imprint, and I felt that if we could erase rock ‘n’ roll as we saw it, and reorganize it, and present it again while keeping its most important elements–mischief, elegance, songs, terror–if we could do all of those things, and if these guys can be as incredible as musicians as they’ve turned out to be, then to me it was going to be a new form of rock ‘n’ roll.”
I don’t know about that, but over the course of a couple more singles and three albums–including the brand-new Talker, which comes out Tuesday–U.S. Maple has certainly warped the old form. The four band members, all of whom were raised in the Chicago suburbs, started out inauspiciously enough, playing in two different bands at Northern Illinois University. Johnson and guitarist Mark Shippy were in Shorty, which put out a couple records here and in Germany, and Rittmann and drummer Pat Samson were in the slightly less established Mercury Players. Both groups to some extent worked from the ugly rock template set by Touch and Go bands like the Jesus Lizard, Killdozer, and the Laughing Hyenas. But by the time Shorty released its second record, the 1994 Fresh Breath EP on the local Skin Graft label, Johnson says, he and Shippy were ready to try something else: “There was a ceiling on the other members regarding how much they wanted to explore, but that wasn’t happening with Mark or me.”
By then all the future members were living in Chicago. Although he hadn’t known Rittmann well at school, Johnson had been impressed by his guitar playing, so he told Rittmann about his plans for a new band and asked him if he wanted to join. Former Laughing Hyenas drummer Jim Kimball sat in for a few weeks, then was replaced by Samson.
Rittmann says at first they spent a lot of time talking about what they wanted to do; when they finally picked up their instruments they wrote and rewrote the material, reducing the songs to hard kernels with no waste. (All the band’s albums clock in at around 30 minutes, though the density of the performances can be exhausting.) On the debut LP, Long Hair in Three Stages (Skin Graft), the guitarists were studiously “turning riffs around and inside out,” according to Shippy. But with the 1996 follow-up, Sang Phat Editor, they didn’t have to think so hard, and now, says Rittmann, “We’re creating this thing instinctually. There’s sort of an internal language that we’re all familiar with, and each song is kind of a dialect of it.”
While Captain Beefheart’s classic Trout Mask Replica is often bandied about as an antecedent for what U.S. Maple does (and prickly guitar tangles, skewed rhythms, and through-composed madness are definitely shared traits), Talker doesn’t sound much like it, or any other rock record. Rittmann and Shippy seem to be working against each other, their palsied chords and gnarled lines piling up in an unkempt jumble, but slowly it becomes clear that the music is organized to sound disorganized–and live the guitarists emphasize the point, re-creating the chaos meticulously. Samson pounds out the irregular rhythms with absurd precision, making the music move like Ray Bolger on fire, and Johnson wheezes, whoops, whinnies, whines, and wails like a Skid Row loony.
Onstage Johnson is doubly mesmerizing, his face and torso twitching and his hair plastered to his head with sweat. He’s been refining this act since the Shorty days. “I really want to be a singer who tries really hard but doesn’t quite make it,” says Johnson. “I kind of want to fail in different ways, because it’s going to be emotional every time, and it’s going to be a different story every time. It’s going to be this ‘I think I can, I think I can.’ When I step onstage I become this person, and it’s an honest portrayal of who I am–although I don’t walk around my apartment slobbering on myself.”
U.S. Maple made its two previous albums with Jim O’Rourke, but former Swans leader Michael Gira produced Talker, bringing a greater depth and clarity to the band’s recorded sound. The band has also left Skin Graft for the higher-profile Drag City, which has better distribution, more money, and more employees. “Nobody works harder than [Skin Graft owner] Mark Fischer,” says Johnson, “but he’s only one guy.”
On Friday at Metro the band kicks off a monthlong tour opening for former Drag City denizens Pavement, who in recent years have backed off from their own deconstructionist tendencies. “We all believe that we’re a rock band playing rock songs, so the chance to play in front of a thousand kids, all ages, is our best opportunity,” says Johnson. “Take that versus playing on our own at the Knitting Factory in front of a bunch of folded arms in cardigans. Of course there’s a big difference between us and Pavement, but we’re used to an occasional boo or two. We’ve been chasing boos for years.”
In January Liquid Soul transformed its weekly Sunday-night gig at Double Door into a largely freestyle affair called Replacement Killers, in which band members collaborate with unannounced guests. B-Real of Cypress Hill, Joan Osborne, Kurt Elling, and members of the Ohio Players have sat in with Liquid Soul proper over the years, but since the official change the lineup hasn’t been terribly impressive. Now the group has decided to both seek out better-known guests and start announcing them; this week it’s saxist Karl Denson of San Diego’s Greyboy AllStars.
One of British guitar improviser Derek Bailey’s canceled performances this week was to be with Casey Rice, aka Designer. In a recent issue of the British magazine The Wire, Bailey told an interviewer, “[Rice] contributed to this record I did for Bingo [Playbacks]. Fast as fuck and really shifting. The old jazzers reckon that the one thing you can’t do with machines is make ’em swing, but some guys can make ’em swing, and Casey Rice does.” On Wednesday at the Empty Bottle, Rice will swing instead with guitarist Jeff Parker, bassist Noel Kupersmith, and drummer Chad Taylor, who work together in the Chicago Underground Orchestra, among other projects.
Send gripes, leads, and love letters to Peter Margasak at email@example.com.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.