Worth the Trip: Maps & Atlases in Cincinnati
By Alan Sculley
Maps & Atlases is often described as an experimental folk/pop band, and a group whose adventurous approach to sonics would suggest the band members are no strangers to effects, processors or other high-tech studio magic.
It turns out this is one time when their ears can play tricks on listeners. The Chicago-based group’s first full-length CD, Perch Patchwork, may not sound old school but it’s actually a very organic production.
“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.’”
The idea of combining inventive sonics, creative rhythms and, at various points, complex instrumental parts with music that also boasts pop accessibility has been a key goal for Davison and his bandmates — guitarist Erin Elders, bassist Shiraz Dada and drummer Chris Hainey — ever since they formed Maps & Atlases in 2004 while they were art students at Chicago’s Columbia College.
“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,’” said Davison. “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.”
The quest to combine the experimental and accessible and the technical and organic has been exactly that — a journey and a process. The Maps & Atlases sound has evolved and developed considerably over the course of two EPs — 2006’s Tree, Swallows, Houses and 2008’s You and Me and the Mountain — and now the full-length Perch Patchwork.
Davison sees Perch Patchwork as a logical progression in the group’s sound, but also a CD that takes some elements of the group’s music to new extremes.
“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,” said Davison. “We really never did that stuff before. Like on the EPs 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.”
Another major goal was to give Perch Patchwork more of sense of flow than the EPs possessed. And indeed, the CD has enough variety to give it a flow, and 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 CD), “Solid Ground” and “Living Decorations” boast enticing melodies that are only enhanced by creative rhythms and some slightly off-kilter instrumental tones. Other songs, such as “Pigeon,” “Is” and “Perch Patchwork” more clearly highlight the band’s experimental 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, said Davison, but that’s something the band welcomes.
“I think both the new record and the EPs present their own challenges and rewards as far as us performing them,” said Davison. “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.”
Maps & Atlases will play June 17 at 9:30 p.m. in Cincinnati at the Midpoint Music Festival Summer Series. Got to www.cincyticket.com to purchase tickets or visit mpmf.com/schedule/indie_summer for more information on the festival and for a show schedule.
Reach DCP freelance writer Alan Sculley