Simplicity is one of the toughest tropes for a good musician to master. Good musicians tend to be, well, good, and in their writing and playing they often artfully complicate their music—with revelatory key changes, daring note choices, intriguing metrical shifts. Those who do without bells and whistles run the risk of slipping across the thin line that separates Zenlike focus from tediousness. Brilliant bands like the Modern Lovers and the Clean are distinguished from the packs of three-chord songwriters stalking open mikes only by an intangible spark of originality that’s pretty much impossible to develop on purpose.
Disappears keep their hazy garage drone simple. “We’re working inside of a really tight parameter of aesthetic choices,” says front man and guitarist Brian Case. Those choices, which he and his bandmates jokingly call “the rule book,” dictate the particulars of their limited palette: buckets of reverb and tremolo, lots of repetition, four chords or fewer per song. They combine these elements in bursts of taut rock ‘n’ roll whose riffs have the trance-inducing quality that links Bo Diddley with Krautrockers like Can.
Keeping it simple is no small task for Case’s fellow guitarist, Jonathan Van Herik. He’s a fan of intricately crafted pop like the Kinks and the Zombies, and he’s got the skills to emulate it—so when he writes his parts for the band he has to fight the impulse to get fancy, ruthlessly editing out any frills that creep in. “It’s a struggle sometimes to come up with all of the different things that could be in there, and then suck them out,” he says. “Every month it dawns on me that I could be playing even less.”
The earliest Disappears could be said to have existed is November 2007—that’s when Case, formerly of the 90 Day Men, tapped drummer and engineer Graeme Gibson to record demos of some songs he’d written between tours with his current band, the Ponys. They didn’t stay a two-piece for long; Gibson brought in Van Herik, his old bandmate in Boas, at the end of the year, and Van Herik recommended bassist Damon Carruesco in February 2008, a couple of weeks before they played their first show. Though their previous affiliations have helped them land plum gigs—right out of the gate they scored opening slots with Cluster and Wire, and they’ve toured with the likes of Deerhunter, Obits, and Tortoise—in some ways the group’s antivirtuosic aesthetic represents a rejection of their indie-rock resumés.
Every song on their new album, Lux (Kranky), is shorter than four minutes, but they’re really only radio friendly in that department. You won’t step away from the album with a head full of hooks—you’re more likely to end up carrying around a dark lump of tension. “The atmosphere is really everything,” Case says. The songs’ repeated phrases rarely resolve themselves harmonically, and the lavish use of reverb amplifies this taut, suspended feeling—the band sounds like it’s charging at you from across the room but never getting any closer, and Case’s vocals seem to be coming from the bottom of a well.
Artists who depend on atmosphere—trip-hop acts, black-metal bands, gothic chanteuses—often end up blunting the impact of their music with layers of their preferred ambience, but Lux is visceral and hard-hitting. Gibson and Carruesco drive “Pearly Gates” with a relentlessness worthy of Motorhead while Case and Van Herik crank out a dense two-chord guitar boogie on amps that sound ready to burst into flames. The title track is more restrained, but almost more menacing for it—atop a tremolo-heavy guitar drone, Case sings in a monotone drawl that comes off less like a melody than a threat.
Gibson doubles as Disappears’ engineer, and their approach to recording is as unfussy as their approach to songwriting. Lux was tracked live in the studio in January 2009 with minimal overdubs—mostly just to double up an instrument here and there. Three songs were cut with four drummers playing the same thing along with Case, and in those cases Carruesco and Van Herik overdubbed their parts afterward. The sessions for Lux were only slightly more complex than those for the group’s first full-length, Live Over the Rainbo, which they tracked all at once, vocals included, in late 2008 in their practice space. (It’s been released as a CD-R, as a Plus Tapes cassette, and most recently, in October 2009, as an LP on Rococo Records. Like the band’s two 2008 seven-inches, it’s also available as a free download at disappearsdisappears.blogspot.com.)
Lux was recorded in a larger room, at Clava, and the band made the most of the facilities. “We wanted the ambience to be there and the feeling to be there,” Case says. “The songs are super dense, so instead of making them more dense by adding layers we just set up the studio in a way . . . Graeme set up pianos behind the guitars and put the sustain pedals on, so the amps were ringing through these pianos the whole time we were recording. Graeme set the room up to make the room a layer on top of the rest of the stuff.”
Disappears’ radically austere aesthetic may make recording easier, but it makes writing the music in the first place much tougher. “We throw songs out on a regular basis,” says Gibson. “We’re riding a fine line, where when you fall off it’s beyond repair. It’s probably like one in six songs that lasts more than a month.”
“The big challenge,” Case says, “is not repeating ourselves. The more you pare back and the more you strip away . . . “
“It forces you,” Gibson interrupts, “to find new ways to play the same kind of rhythm, with an accent in a slightly different place, or a note dropped out, or a slightly different tempo. It feels like the more we do the more constrained it gets.”
“Every time I work on something,” Case says, “I’m like, ‘How am I going to get away with this again?'”
It’s that challenge that keeps Disappears interested in their experiment. “It took us a long time,” says Case, “to get to the point where we could be like, ‘I’m going to play a G chord for six minutes.'”
He adds, “Go home and play a chord for three minutes. It’s a good exercise.”
I did. He’s right.