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Monsters of Post-Rock -- Don Caballero's Damon Che talks about the band's past, his present, and the history of doing stuff.

Don Caballero pic #1
Pittburgh's Don Caballero was among the giants of 1990s independent rock. They appeared just at the moment when what had theretofore been called punk rock was co-opted by the corporate music industry; as the audience for punk rock exploded, so did its musical imagination, and it splintered into a myriad of genres, each reflecting radically different ideas about music as art. Together with other bands from the midwest like Tortoise and Slint, Don Caballero paved the way for the nebulous genre that is today called "post-rock" by rearranging the punk lexicon into complex instrumental suites. Meanwhile, they almost single-handedly invented "math rock" through their continual use of odd time signatures, rapid time shifts, offset and asymmetrical rhythms, and looping. Don Caballero released four records on Chicago label Touch and Go in the 1990s, including the earthshaking Don Caballero II and the otherworldly What Burns Never Returns.
Drummer Damon Che and guitarist Ian Williams quarrelled notoriously after original guitarist Mike Banfield left the band in 1999, and their differences led to Don Caballero's dissolution at the end of 2000. Che reformed the band with an all-new lineup culled from Pittsburgh's Creta Bourzia in 2003. In 2006, this new lineup yielded its first release on Relapse Records, World Class Listening Problem. Just before the first tour in support of this release, Space City Rock spoke with Che about the band.
Don Caballero plays Friday, September 1st at Walter's on Washington (4215 Washington Avenue, Houston, TX. 77007), along with Zombi.


SCR: You are the only original member of Don Caballero, is that right?
Damon Che: Since March of 1999, that is correct.
When Mike Banfield left the band.
That would be when he left, yeah.
With your new record, World Class Listening Problem, you've created an album that matches the rest of your discography stylistically even though you are the only original member of the band. How did you manage to do that?
Well, I think that would be strong evidence towards how much more than the normal role of percussionist I've always played in the band. As opposed to giving you some long, windy thing about how I do it all -- I've always been more than just a percussionist in the band.
You do play guitar; you play guitar in Thee Speaking Canaries.
I've even played guitar on brief segments of past Don Cab records, on the old Touch and Go discography.
Really, which ones?
There's a passage in "Delivering the Groceries" [from What Burns Never Returns] that I play a guitar track on, and there's a passage on -- well, the choruses of the song "Well-Built Road" [from For Respect] I actually play guitar on... These are all details, you know -- I'm getting a little bit tired of defending the whole original member thing. Nobody noticed on the last record, nobody said anything. With this record, it's all anyone wants to talk about, that I'm the only original member. I was the only original member on the last record, and nobody said a damn thing. It's part of getting over the Ian divorce, I suppose.
Do you find yourself still having to defend the "original member thing" a lot?
Less and less all the time, thankfully. This is the first record we've done where people noticed. If we put another record out, and people are still harping on that, I probably will retire, because it's a stupid thing to have to address.
Don Caballero record cover
(Music courtesy of Relapse Records.)

You would retire the name Don Caballero, or retire from music entirely?
Whatever would hurt music fans the most, I don't know. I can't make up my mind.
Part of the reason that discussion about this sort of thing has fallen off a little bit is that it's been two years since you assembled this lineup of the band.
It's actually been three, I think.
Since 2003?
Yeah, it's been three years.
You did a couple of tours in 2004 -- did you spend the entire time in between working on this new record?
Not the entire time. You'd have to have rocks in your head to do that. We spent an appropriate amount of time to make a really stupendous record that you're not going to get anywhere else. We spent whatever amount of time was required for a record as good as the one we put out.
What do you do when Don Caballero is not recording or touring?
I have a never-ending list of chores that I will get to in good time.
When Don Cab first started playing, your music was distinctive, but it had roots in the punk rock of the '80s and the early '90s. Is that a fair thing to say?
Yeah, it would be pretty hard to escape our influences. We come from punk rock before we come from King Crimson or whatever. We definitely come from punk rock first.
Do you still consider what Don Caballero does to be punk rock?
Well...taking all labels away, I think there's a spirit there that's probably -- yeah, why would you hit so hard, why would you drive so far for a show. I mean, it's a spirit, there's a rebellious spirit there, sure.
Does your audience still understand it the same way?
Our audience has changed so much, and I never knew what they understood in the first place. Most of the kids with backpacks and pop-bottle glasses that came out to see us in the early '90s, they're all grown up now and we're like an old toy. It's like we're the big wheel, and now they have a bicycle. They grew up.
There are a whole bunch of new people, young kids, that, you can tell, five years ago they were probably stuck in their suburban bedroom diddling around with their video games, or playing their guitar licks or breaking their paper-thin drumheads or whatever they did -- now they're finally coming out to our shows because they're finally old enough to go out and see a band like us at a bar or a club. You can tell they've been fans for a while now, but they're finally old enough to come out and see us.
Has your attitude toward what Don Cab does changed as independent music has evolved and become further removed from the D.I.Y. scene of the '80s?
If we mature, we mature. If we regress, we regress. I don't think we've done that, and I think the more we mature, we have an appetite to take it to levels that hadn't previously existed. I think anybody that does anything would want to have that type of attitude about what they were doing. Even if it were your sex life, I mean, would you want your sex life to get lousier over time, or would you want to take it to bigger and better places?
When you say "taking it to bigger and better places," are you talking about the way you approach the band commercially?
Well, yeah. People might not see it as so do-it-yourself anymore if we've got an army of people helping us. We finally have a tour manager for the first time. We didn't ever have anything like that in the past, and he's very helpful. We're able to get twice as many things done because we have somebody working on all the little details that we don't have to get consumed with now. It makes us more musically oriented than, y'know, taking care of all the tricks of the trade and keeping shop.
It makes your life easier.
Well, it makes it proficient all around. It's teamwork. If I'm the first baseman, it makes the first baseman's job, role, or responsibility more functional. If you want to say "easy," okay, easy, but I would say "functional" before "easy."
I didn't mean "easy" as a pejorative, by any means.
Okay. Either way.
Touch and Go is having their 25th anniversary this year. As someone who was in one of Touch and Go's flagship acts for a decade, do you have any thoughts about the label or their anniversary?
I'm almost 101 percent sure that I wasn't invited. And furthermore, unless somebody wants to make a typo correction or something, I consider myself to be for the most part excommunicated from that whole fiasco.
Why? How did that happen?
I don't know. You might want to ask them. It might a better question for them.
Are you aware of the image that Don Caballero in general and you specifically have as being difficult to approach or standoffish?
There's an element there. Is it any different than not having vocals in your music, though?
I'm really speaking of a personal thing rather than a musical thing.
Well, "Who would I want to be approached by?" would be a better question. Maybe that's just another way of saying, "What's the point of approaching me?" I put out there what I do and try to share it with anybody who's interested. If they're hungry for more than that, and they want to pry into my personal life, and I make them feel uncomfortable while they're doing so, that's probably just an innate defense mechanism. It's nothing personal; I don't mean to put anybody off. I've been accused of having an alienating attitude, I think is how Henry Owings put it in his little fanzine.
In Chunklet?
Yeah, Chunklet.
Have you ever read the article that Chunklet published about your last tour with Ian Williams?
Sure. I mean, I was there. I know Fred Weaver; he wrote it, he was with us.
What did you think of the tour diary?
I thought it was a pretty accurate portrayal, to be honest. It was almost too fair.
What do you mean by that?
Well, it wasn't steeped in erroneous falsehoods. It was pretty much an accurate, true account of how things went.
What kind of falsehoods are you referring to?
There aren't any, that's what I'm saying. There aren't any falsehoods at all, it's an accurate account. He did a good job, I'm giving him credit.
I've got to say, that tour diary is a gripping read.
Hey, if it is, I mean... All journalists are going to put a sensationalistic flair into just about anything, and that's journalism, so that's fine. He did a great job. He didn't get too crazy with the light show or the fireworks. He told the story for what it was and didn't juice it up with too much fake hormones -- that stuff they put in turkey to make it plumper and makes you tired on Thanksgiving, what is that stuff -- tryptophan. He didn't inject it with tryptophan.
I didn't realize that tryptophan was something that was injected into turkeys.
Maybe I don't know my agricultural biology that well. Do they inject it, or is it a hormone treatment, or what is it?
I don't know. I was asking you, I suppose.
Yeah, I think both of us don't know, is what it is. [Laughs] Which is enough about that.
We discussed people questioning the lineup of the band earlier. Is Don Caballero involved in a dialogue with its own past with respect to the people that are involved?
I'm still friends with Pat Morris. I'm still friendly with Mike Banfield, although I really don't hang out with him ever or anything. And I know most of the one-time all-stars, like the bass player on this tour, bass player on that session. I don't have anything against anybody that was ever in the band, I just, you know...
Ian has never had a very high opinion of me, and I'm sure he probably has a lower opinion than he's ever had of me at this point in time, and hey, that's it, he's allowed to. And so consequently I'm not very good friends with Ian. But other than that, we're not running, we're not trying to bury our heads in the sand from our past, we acknowledge it, and we also acknowledge our present, right here and right now.
Do you think of the band as having two or three distinct periods, or is it just a continuous shifting of the sands in terms of who's in the band?
It's an ongoing -- it's like a baseball team, or a comedy troupe; you have different casts in different seasons, but it's still the same, it's still the game of baseball, or it's still, get up on stage and try to make people laugh. The essence of what it ever was and still is is pretty much the same.
Is the current lineup going to continue indefinitely, or are Jason --
No, I'm firing all of them for the next record and I'm going to get a whole new cast. No, I'm kidding. Who can say? Somebody could get run over by a steamroller, another guy could fall off a cliff. I could spontaneously combust. Who knows? Anything could happen.
How long will you continue doing Don Caballero?
I don't know. I couldn't possibly say. I didn't know from day one. I think most people that have done anything with their lives -- in the history of doing stuff, getting out of bed and making something happen -- didn't know how they were going to do it any more than anyone else. Sometimes you see people that are really successful, and have their act together, and are really good at what they do, and you assume that that means they're an expert and that they have this vast body of knowledge that an amateur, just starting out, doesn't have, and could use some tips. But the truth is, most people, on any level of success, being good at what they do, don't have any better an idea of what they're going to do tomorrow to make it keep going than anyone else.
The other interesting thing is that the most accomplished people in the world make more mistakes than anybody else because they're the people who are willing to try more things. Most people play it safe, cover their ass, find a pattern that works, y'know, the shoe fits, marry this girl, get this house, get this job, gold watch, got it. I'm not like that; I just keep trying to make different things happen and sees what goes, what floats. END