Maps & Atlases is often described as an experimental folk/pop band, and the band's adventurous approach to sonics would suggest that band members are no strangers to effects or processors.
But it turns out this one time when the ears can play tricks on a listener. The Chicago-based group's first full-length, Perch Patchwork, may not sound like an organic production, but it was recorded with very little studio trickery or electronics.
"We didn't use any synthesizer except for a little – and I don't know if this is technically a synthesizer – but we used a Mellotron on a couple of parts," singer/guitarist Dave Davison said in a recent phone interview. "Other than that, a lot of the sounds that sound synthesized are actually, it would be like me singing, but in a weird way...There were so many little bizarre things that we did that were kind of just so simple, like let's try humming this part."
For example, that fluttering and humming sound that one hears at the start of the second track, "The Charm," is not a synthesizer.
"It's actually just me singing with (producer) Jason (Cupp) beating me on the back, rhythmically to the track," Davison said. "I was doing it in different intervals and harmonies. It sounds cool, but I think probably people who are really technically minded and have a good understanding of synthesizers and all of those things probably could have been like 'Why don't you just do this? It's a lot easier.'"
That love of unusual rhythms and complex instrumental parts has earned Maps & Atlases comparisons to genre-bending groups such as Animal Collective and Minus The Bear. It's also led to some pretty creative attempts to describe Maps & Atlases' music.
Davison, for the most part, has no problem with many of the labels hung on the band, including art rock, progressive rock and math rock.
"If somebody sees us as an art rock band and they like that, then that's cool with me," he said. "A genre like art rock or progressive rock, they're so all-encompassing that I can definitely see that, for sure. I think we're artistic and we're a rock band. We try to be progressive and we're a rock band. So I think both of those are apt.
Art (school) rock?
Davison, guitarist Erin Elders, bassist Shiraz Dada and drummer Chris Hainey formed Maps & Atlases in 2004 while they were art students at Chicago's Columbia College. At the time, the four band members also wanted their music to have a strong element of pop that was inviting.
"I think from the beginning we always wanted to frame it in the context of let's make this song only a couple of minutes long and like make there be choruses and things like that," Davison said. "That's really what we still listen to. Like we listen to avant-garde music and stuff like that sometimes. But for the most part when we're driving to a show together or something, we're listening to David Bowie and Van Morrison, stuff like that. Or the Talking Heads is a band that we all love. They're definitely a big influence on our music."
On the group's debut EP, the self-released 2006 EP, Tree, Swallows, Houses, the music was harder-hitting, while pointing toward the melding of technical complexity and pop accessibility.
By 2007, Maps & Atlases had started to tour nationally and had signed on with Sargent House, which not only served as the group's management company but record label, re-releasing the first EP.
Initially the group planned to make its next release a full-length CD, but instead opted to make another EP, the 2008 release You and Me and the Mountain. By the second EP, the band had eased up on tempos, dialed down the intensity some and showed more of a folk influence in its songs.
Or math pop?
Davison believes that Perch Patchwork represents a logical progression in the group's sound.
"We had specific things we really wanted to try to do within the record, and we had been working on these songs, which we really liked, basic songs where it would be fun trying to do stuff like tempo changes and key changes and time signature changes," he said. "We really never did that stuff before. Like on the EPs we basically, the songs were really syncopated, but were typically in pretty standard signatures and didn't change tempos and didn't change keys. We thought let's really try to do that and also make a really flowing sounding record.
Perch Patchwork has enough variety to give it a flow; it's both
adventurous and accessible, textured while also energetic. Songs like "The
Charm" (perhaps the closest thing to a conventional pop tune on the album),
"Solid Ground" and "Living Decorations" have enticing melodies that are only
enhanced by creative rhythms and slightly off-kilter instrumental tones. Other songs,
such as "Pigeon," "Is" and "Perch Patchwork," more clearly highlight the band's
experimental and math-y tendencies, but also find room for some melody.
The fact that Maps & Atlases achieves its idiosyncratic sounds and style without resorting to programming or arsenals of effects pedals and triggers will be apparent in the live arena, where this is very much a guitar, bass and drums group. Translating the songs into a format that works can be tricky, Davison said, but it's a challenge the band welcomes.
"I think both the new record and the EPs present their own challenges and rewards as far as us performing them," he said. "It makes it really fun, and each of the EPs and this record have really different feels to them, and it's a good way to, like I think to keep (challenging ourselves) as musicians. Hopefully the songs are different enough that it kind of keeps it mixed up for the audience as well."