According to recent reports, we Brits are not only useless at mathematics but openly proud of our woeful inability to simplify a complex fraction. It’s a slightly perplexing position to uphold, particularly if you consider that physical impotence is something we’re not all too comfortable discussing, yet when it comes down to our innumerate brewers-droop we readily declare it like a nerd-repelling badge of honour.
Given the UK’s rebuking of Pythagoras theorem then, it seems almost contradictory that its music loving masses so willingly embrace the algo-rhythmic sounds of math-rock. The complex dissonance of Shellac, Slint and Don Caballero is revered by those with a predilection for challenging sonic arrangements, and with a plethora of newer acts likes Battles and Foals polishing up the genre's more abrasive edges math-rock looks set to continue burning a pathway through the country’s musical landscape.
One band standing by, gas-canister and a box of matches already to hand, is Chicago-based ensemble Maps & Atlases. The quartet’s debut EP, 2006’s exhilarating Trees, Swallows, Houses, skewered the discordant crepitating of home town leviathans Don Caballero with wheezing melodic splutters and elasticated yelps. They’ve since returned with follow-up EP You And Me And The Mountain, completed a stateside tour with Foals and will embark upon their first-ever jaunt to the UK this autumn.
So, in eager anticipation of the band’s venture across the pond, we caught up with guitarist Erin Elders before a show in Nashville, Tennessee to DiScover whether Maps & Atlases’ numbers really do add up.
Video: Maps & Atlases, ‘Songs For Ghosts To Haunt To’, live
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Evening Erin. Whenever I see the name Maps & Atlases it’s almost always followed by two words: ‘math’ and ‘rock’. Is that frustrating at all?
Erin Elders: I think we have definite elements that could be described that way, especially when compared to other math-rock bands, but we’re much more comfortable with being seen as a progressive band. We try not to see our music like that; we don’t sit down when we’re writing a song and think, “How are we going to make this more Math?” But I think because we include elements like time signatures you can see how people would consider us more of a math group.
So you don’t feel burdened by being tagged as such?
EE: No, not really. There’s always a lot going on in our songs so I suppose that’s why people see it that way. I think we get lumped together with other math-rock bands because of the techniques we use.
Talking of fellow math-rockers, I believe you recently toured with Foals across there in the States. How did that go?
EE: We did a bunch of West Coast shows with them a couple of weeks ago and I think we’re going to be doing some more together in the UK soon. The shows here were amazing - they’re a band we really respect. We’d heard the record though we didn’t know much about them, but from the first shows we hit it off with them straight away. They were the sweetest, most kind-hearted people and it was the first time we’d toured with a band we had a great connection with. It seemed like we were playing from the same page and I feel like our two bands really compliment each other.
Musically, I think it's fair to say you guys are kindred spirits. The last time I interviewed Yannis [Philippakis, Foals frontman] he told me his band were exceptionally precious about the process of recording music. Is that something that’s applicable to Maps & Atlases?
EE: Yeah, I can definitely see where he’s coming from. Some of the songs took a really long time to write on You And Me And The Mountain. When we first sit down to start writing we try to figure out the best relationships between each part. It’s almost as if we’re overly critical of ourselves during the writing process because we really want to make the best songs we can make. If we put out a record we want it to be representative of ourselves as it’s an important thing for us. Other bands can just make a record and whatever happens happens, but for us each element goes through a long process where we’re almost building something up just to tear it down again.
Hmm... sounds like your band's the musical equivalent of the British press. So do you deliberately set out to make songs with as much scope and depth as those on Trees, Swallows, Houses?
EE: Definitely. A lot of the songs start as an idea that Dave [Davison, guitar/vocals] has and then we’ll flesh out the structure by bringing it into a band setting where we layer things on top and figure out the drum part, then look at the relationship between the bass and the drums, the guitar and the drums and so on. We look at each instrument and how every one fits together - it’s like a puzzle of some sort.
It sounds like a laborious process.
EE: Yeah, it is but I feel like the longer we’re in the band the more we’ll figure out our songwriting process.
Having spawned bands like Shellac and Don Caballero, Chicago has form for math-rock. Just how much of an impact has the city had on your sound?
EE: When we started out you could hear a lot of elements of Chicago-based bands like Shellac, but now I’d like to think we’re reaching out in different directions a little bit with this record.
There’re obvious similarities between your band and the aforementioned Don Caballero, particularly in the two-handed tapping guitar technique you use. What is it about that style of playing that appeals to you?
EE: I think what appealed to us initially was the percussive element to it. In the songwriting process we’re a band that thinks with a certain sense of percussion behind all of our parts. We found it was really easy to emulate different percussive sounds with our instruments by using tapping techniques, and that’s really where it all started. We went crazy with it on our first EP, but now we’re trying to find ways of getting out of that pigeonhole.
Is You And Me And The Mountain an attempt to step away from the math-rock stigma, then?
EE: That was really the idea with this record. As a band, you make your first record and then think, “Where do we go from here?”. We wanted to achieve the same level of intensity as on the first record, but we didn’t want to make just another mathy record. We wanted to figure out ways to branch out melodically and we feel like we’ve made a Jethro Tull record with this new one.
Maps & Atlases shot by Ryan Russell
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If Don Caballero has been the obvious influence, what other sounds have inspired you that people perhaps wouldn’t consider?
EE: We really like older progressive bands, but you could also argue we use elements of The Beatles’ Abbey Road. One of the things we wanted to do was pull out a lot of old soul melodies - not that we’re looking to do a Sam Cooke record or anything, but there’s definitely more of a combination of soul and folk in our sound now.
The vocals feature quite prominently on your records but I’ve always thought they seem to exist more for the purpose of sound rather than meaning. How much emphasis do you place on the lyrical substance?
EE: On a lot of the songs Dave will have put together almost the entire song on his guitar and we’d tape the vocal melody without really thinking about the lyrics for a while. But then sometimes it works out the other way round and we’ll come up with the lyrics first and then Dave and I will come up with the melody to complement it.
It seems like you’ve got an organic ethos to creating music.
EE: It’s not like we’ve ever set rules for ourselves, but we’ve always tried to make something interesting from regular instruments that haven’t been digitally manipulated. We’ve always liked the idea of at least trying to make sounds that are as organic as possible. But we’re not going to limit ourselves where we can’t do something because we want to keep it organic.
Your debut EP, Trees, Swallows, Houses, is a labyrinth of sound that’s almost impossible to escape from. Have you ever consider stripping it down and making a play for the charts?
EE: Oh, definitely. Outside of the music we play nobody really listens to math-rock. For this whole tour Dave has been listening to Bruce Springsteen. We would just love to make a pop record and strip all the math away, but we’re hesitant to do that because we don’t want to lose the intensity that is our band. We’ve got some songs that haven’t worked out with the style we have, but maybe we’ll try to do that on another project sometime in the future.
There seems to be a lot of blog buzz about you guys but a severe lack of press coverage, which is surprising considering a band like Foals are on the cover of every rag over here. Why do you think that is?
EE: With the last record it was a really slow and organic development and we didn’t do much press. We put out our first EP initially by ourselves and then we did as much touring as we could. After we sold out our first pressings and re-released the record there was a bit of press, but by then the record had been out for a little while so there wasn’t really a big campaign. The thing is we’re really impatient and we don’t want to sit for four months waiting for our record to come out just because we’ve got press to do.
With the influence of the internet these days I guess you don’t need to rely upon gushing praise from us two-bob hacks, do you?
EE: Yeah, I mean the interesting thing on this tour has been that we’ve played a load of shows in places we’ve never, ever been to before, but there’s still people there who’ve heard the records and are singing back the words to all of our songs. It’s weird because we think of ourselves as a touring band, so for people to get into us through the internet still seems really strange.
You’re touring the UK in autumn this year, are you looking forward to it?
EE: It’s the first time we’ve been anywhere out of the country and we’re really excited about it. It will be interesting because Foals are absolutely huge out there, aren’t they, so it will be fun to see what the crowds are like.
Ah... so you’re still to discover what it’s like being covered head to toe in lukewarm ale – lucky you! So how does the sound of your records transfer to the live environment?
EE: Obviously we started playing shows before we made the records so we consider ourselves to be a live band first. Of course, the records are a little more polished where we’ll add some guitar noises and a few slide parts but I think they’re pretty similar. If anything the live shows are a little more intense because of the crowd’s energy but I don’t think there’s too much difference right now. We’re trying to figure out how to make the live shows different to the record.
Thus far you’ve recorded EPs, but when do you plan to start working on an album?
EE: We have some songs that we’re working on at the moment which we plan on putting on full-length and we’ve got some that we’ll use for other ideas. We’re also hoping to run a series of digital singles or 7”s, so when we get back from Europe we’ll do those and start a full-length.
And finally, all the press shots I’ve seen with you guys have you sporting some rather delightful facial hair. How’s that going?
EE: I think Shiraz [Dada, bass] has the makings of a pretty good beard as do I, whereas Dave has the full sideburns/moustache combo going on. By the time we make our way over to the UK we’ll have some full-on facial hair going on.
Well, I suppose if you’re going to be in the math-rock club you’ll need some face fuzz.
EE: That’s true. I’ll try and grow my beard out as much as I can before I get over there so I can look like some sort of sulking outsider.
Video: Maps & Atlases, ‘Every Place Is A House’, live
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Maps & Atlases play a number of headline dates in September and October as well as a good number in support of Foals – details below. Find the band’s MySpace page here
27 Aylesbury Civic Centre with Foals
28 Cardiff University with Foals
29 Norwich UAE with Foals
30 Nottingham Rock City with Foals
1 Leeds Brudenell Social Club headline
2 Hull University with Foals
3 Liverpool Academy with Foals
4 Aberdeen Music Hall with Foals
5 headline date TBC
6 headline date TBC
7 Newcastle Academy with Foals
8 Glasgow Captain’s Rest headline
9 headline date TBC
10 headline date TBC
11 Exeter Cavern Club headline
12 Brighton Engine Room headline
13 Oxford The Regal headline
14 London Bardens Boudoir headline