February 08, 2011

Interview: Maps & Atlases

Early last month, the wonderful Maps & Atlases graced the stage at Stuart's Opera House as the headliner for the second annual Cabin Fever Festival. Launching straight into the driving riffs of "Living Decorations," the group quickly struck the balance between their folk-rock tendencies and math-rock precision, as showcased on their latest release Perch Patchwork. Tracks like "The Charm" and "Israeli Caves" bristled with energy and saturated the room with percussive intensity. By the time the band reached the rousing finale of "Solid Ground," there was still a palpable enthusiasm filling the room that was not wasted on the exiting performers. Taking to the pit in front of the stage, the group cobbled together some impromptu acoustic versions of a few older tracks from their catalog as the remaining crowd huddled around. It was an appropriately intimate ending to an evening that had already set an exceedingly receptive tone.

Earlier that day, I had the chance to sit down with lead vocalist Dave Davison and guitarist Erin Elders and talk about the recording process for their most recent record, the band's affinity for Columbus, OH and where to get the best veggie hot dogs.

Tapes: This past year saw the release of your first full length record, entitled Perch Patchwork. Was it any different shifting from recording EPs to working on a full length record?

Dave: It was, with both of our EPs I think we started out with the intention—however unclear—of working towards an LP. But when we got to the point where each of them were finished, the first being seven songs and the second being five, they just seemed to have a consistent energy throughout that we didn't necessarily feel could be maintained for an entire long-playing album. So I guess it was different insomuch as we set out to have a piece of music that had all different types of variation in tempos, etc.—just a flow to it throughout that made sense as a long piece of music.

Tapes: One thing I noticed about this latest record is that it has this slightly more organic feel to it, almost folk-y at time. It's an element of your music that's always been there, but on this one it showed through a bit more. It almost felt like there was a change of scenery—where did you guys end up recording this record, and did you feel that influenced the way the album sounds?

Dave: I guess it's hard to say whether or not it was scenery. It was done in a very comfortable way—a lot of it was recorded at my parent's house or at our practice space that we've had for all these years and we did a couple of days at Electrical Audio which was really exciting. I think the feel stems from a mentality of experimenting in different ways with the core of a song—in some ways that core potentially showed itself more on this record just because we were experimenting with different aspects of things on different parts. There's still a lot of layering in the same way that we did on the previous EP, but I guess we were just going for a lot of things—trying all sorts of things we'd always wanted to try.

Erin: A lot of it also comes from the way the EPs are so guitar driven and this was the first time we'd really stepped outside of that and experimented with a lot of different instrumentation.

Tapes: Well, as far as instrumentation goes, I've always felt as if you're a very percussive-based group—be it the finger-tapping or the interplay within your rhythm section. On this record, it almost felt as if you were bringing that percussive element to the forefront—was that a conscious decision or more of a natural progression?

Dave: I think that was one of the first things that we ever really acknowledged. It was like "OK, we seem to naturally do this well together, let's see where it takes us." It was kind of an extension of the stuff we've done before, but I think where it's different in the context of Perch Patchwork is that there was more contrast between the rhythmic ideas and then also with the strings having this more flowing sound. That was one of the ideas we had in terms of making it flow more—to have these really rhythmic parts go into these really flowing parts, and slow to fast, which is a variation which I don't think existed as much on the EPs.

Tapes: Next I'd like to talk about on track in particular, the title track "Perch Patchwork." It's the album's most pastoral track, and in the same way you talk about making tracks flow, I felt that this song almost had movements to it. Is there a story behind this track and the way you recorded it?

Dave: Really, I think that track is the most mysterious one to myself and the rest of the band on the record. Certain songs arise in different ways, and feel like that song was this weirdly intuitive thing that we knew was cool, but couldn't exactly pinpoint where it was stemming from necessarily, but it was really exciting. Working on it with Jason Cupp who produced the album, we both had a lot of different ideas about where it go and we ended up trying a lot of stuff and it kind of just went in that direction. We definitely did go into it with the idea of it having movements and whether it was going to be building in this way or falling apart in that way—it went through a few different phases, but I'm really excited about the way it ended up.

Having that really syncopated vocal part at the end—I kind of had some idea of how each of those parts would fit together, but on the record it came out a lot better. A lot of that had to do with Jason's help producing the record, but I think that it came out better than I expected which is always a good thing. I also do think that song specifically is a progression in a lot of the ways that we hoped this record would be. We'd never really done any extreme tempo changes, we'd never really done too many crazy time signature changes—certainly nothing as drastic as the ones in that song—and we'd never done any major key changes in a song. ["Perch Patchwork"] has all three of those elements, and one of the goals was to make those things happen but for them not be a focal point—to just have them happen seamlessly and to have them serve the purpose of this song in general. We just wanted to have it happen and work, and I hope that happened...

Tapes: I definitely think so—moving away from the album a little bit, the first time I saw you guys play was a couple years back in Milwaukee on the Fourth of July when you opened up for Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks...

Dave: That was awesome!

Tapes: Yeah, I felt that must have been a pretty big deal for you guys and I was wondering as you've moved along as a band what has it been like meeting those people that you grew up listening to?

Dave: Actually, that day we had the opportunity to meet Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks, which was amazing and I'm definitely a fan. When I first went to college I was a little bit conscious of Pavement, but my first two weeks of college, the first friend that I made there gave me that first Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks record and I was just super into it and I thought they were this new band and I had no idea that he was in Pavement. I was like 'We all have gotta go see this band,' and they announce this show at the Metro which is this pretty big venue in Chicago, and I was like 'Whoa, they must be doing really well!' So I got all these people to come to the show who obviously didn't know Pavement existed and it was sold out, and again I was like 'Wow, they must be doing really well,' and then not too long after I found out about the history of Pavement and how Stephen Malkmus was in it and all this stuff—it was just this silly thing because I was so into that record.

I guess just on the subject of meeting people, yeah, it's been really amazing to meet people who you actually listened to when you were younger. Obviously we have just been really lucky to have the opportunity to play with all kinds of bands that we like, and that's definitely one of the most awesome elements of being in a band. The last tour that we were on, we did a short run with Broken Bells, and that was just amazing to be able to play with James Mercer and Danger Mouse.

Tapes: Of course! Alright, moving away from the music, I read an article somewhere that you guys are big fans of Dirty Frank's in Columbus. Now I know most of the folks in the band are vegetarian, and I'm not to start a feud or anything, but who's got the better veggie dog, Dirty Frank's or Chicago's famous Hot Doug's?

Erin: Well, the thing about Dirty Frank's is that there's a huge variety. Hot Doug's is pretty awesome, and being from Chicago you've gotta support Hot Doug's but you can get any of the Dirty Frank's hot dogs as vegetarian where as you really only have one option at Hot Doug's.

Dave: Yeah, another thing in Chicago—not dissing Hot Doug's—at several of the Whole Foods there, you can get super cheap Chicago-style veggie hot dogs. And so, whenever I'm in the mood for that in Chicago, I just go to Whole Foods. But yeah, Dirty Frank's, I feel like I'm constantly rep-ing that place to everybody—I'm constantly getting text messages from people that I forgot I even mentioned it to and they're like 'Yeah, we're on tour and we went through Columbus and went to Dirty Frank's!'

Tapes: Especially if you're a band from Chicago, that's a little slice of home in Columbus between Old Style bottles and all the Cubs paraphernalia...

Dave: Definitely, I think we as a band definitely like Columbus a lot. We play there pretty often, and one of my really good friends went to Ohio State so I was visiting down there and became kind of familiar, so by the time that we started touring it was one of those places where we knew a couple people, could stay there and it just seemed comfortable and there was good vegetarian stuff to eat around, so we definitely back Columbus.

Tapes: Alright, well obviously 2010 has been a really great year for the band, I guess I'm kind of wondering what's next for the group? Do you have plans to head back into the studio soon?

Dave: We don't have any specific plans to, but I'm sure that we will at some point this year. We're kind of figure that out—it's interesting because we're always working on stuff and coming up with ideas but I think we're finally getting to a point where, after playing the songs on Perch Patchwork long enough, we can have a perspective on what we can do beyond that. Not necessarily a step forward, but I think you're always reluctant to jump right back into doing something until you have a perspective on what you've just worked on.

Tapes: Until you close the book on what you've done with this record?

Dave: Exactly, and I think that's why hopefully our releases have a sort of common thread between them, but are different because we come out with something, we tour on it, we get a feel for it live and then we feel like we need to break from that and do the next thing. So hopefully now we have a perspective on what we've done and we'll figure out that next thing.

Many thanks to Maps & Atlases for taking the time to talk with me. Make sure you check out Andrew Spear's video of their awesome acoustic encore at Stuart's Opera House!

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