Don Caballero drummer Damon Che doesn’t like reporters. Certainly not this one, at any rate. And I suspect I’m neither the first nor the last of the breed to earn a spot on Che’s list.
I’m not quite sure how I earned my stripes, either, or at least at what point I did so during a standard pre-arranged phone interview in advance of the band’s upcoming Knoxville appearance. The conversation began politely enough, with standard introductions and how-do-yous, but then gradually degenerated into a pattern of my asking a question, followed by Che responding with some variation of “I don’t care, and I don’t see why I, or anyone else with an I.Q. above that of protozoa, would even consider that point.”
Hints of sarcasm became high-volume belltones; subtle digs turned into outright excavations. Finally, after yet another hemming, hawing attempt on my part at switching tacks after yet another withering dismissal, Che ended the painful affair by cutting me off and announcing: “Look, man—you know, I really just have to go now,” with the sort of vocal demeanor usually reserved for telling glomming party pests that you have to leave now, that you suddenly feel a pressing need to shop for glue.
Which is too bad, really. Because I saw Don Caballero perform once, several years ago, at the behest of friends who were already fans of the all-instrumental indie prog-rock trio. And I was impressed—damned impressed—though for whatever reason, I never followed up on that stellar introduction by purchasing a CD.
Live, Don Caballero had a vibrant, contagious energy about them—no small feat, given that prog-ish outfits like that are often prone to losing steam somewhere in the abyss of extended song forms, in the monotony of ceaseless gee-whiz instrumental heroics and the self-absorption of complexity for complexity’s sake.
Perhaps it’s more to the point to say that Don Caballero rocked, rendering their often-lavish compositions with bristling post-punk tempos and attitude, and even some judiciously employed heavy metal bombast.
That approach—which Che says is rooted in the notion of “doing something no one else is gonna do, maybe something no one else would want to do”—has made for a cultish appeal. But their fan base is far-flung. Che says they’ve toured 12 countries, and their fans are fervent, doggedly following the band through a seeming torrent of membership changes. (Che is the only original member from the band’s founding in 1991.)
Perhaps that’s why Che is such a ... perfectionist when it comes to talking about this outfit he’s seen through various and sundry tumults over nearly 20 years. How else to explain his disdain for discussing topics such as the band’s songwriting process (“Not a very unfamiliar one—to people who write songs”); their thoughts on touring (“We’ve played a number of dates through December and January. It’s something anyone who’d actually gotten on our website and clicked the ‘touring’ link would know.”); or, having added tape loops in the early 2000s and even vocals in 2006, how the band might further expand the confining template of its original rock power-trio format (“I don’t see any reason why anyone would give any thought to that right now. It’s not a consideration that makes any sense to me.”)?
For a time, the Cabs were based in Chicago, well-recognized in underground and musicians’ circles as the hub of the post-jazz and free-improv music that has arisen in the decades since the ground-breaking free-jazz and modal improvisation experiments of John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman in the 1960s. The musicians of that scene are all well-traveled, notoriously prone to collaboration, so it seemed not unlikely they might find kindred spirits in fellows like the Cabs—creative, technically accomplished players with an interest in exploring the outer limits of harmony, rhythm, and meter.
So I ask Che whether the Cabs compared notes with anyone in the free improv crowd. “I’m not aware that Chicago has an improvisational music scene,” he states flatly. “That’s not to say that it might not have one. But I’m not aware of any.”
(That unison exhalation you hear is the sound of Caspar Brotzmann and Ken Vandermark breathing a sigh of relief that Damon Che has allowed for the possibility of their continued participation in Chicago music.)
All right, so Damon and I didn’t hit it off too well. That notwithstanding, Don Caballero are one of the most vital and original—in the truest sense of that word—acts operating in indie rock today, and I wholeheartedly recommend watching their performance next week. Just don’t ask the drummer for any autographs after the show. m