Don Caballero Can’t Touch This

Don Caballero Can’t Touch This
It’s not easy being Damon Che, drummer nonpareil and de facto bandleader of Pittsburgh math rock groundbreakers Don Caballero. Over the last 15 years, they’ve released four critically-acclaimed albums and a singles compilation, toured extensively, squabbled, broken up, reunited, and made other bands realise that they could never be as tight as the Don, even if they practiced every day for the rest of their lives. Yet after the band’s formal divorce in 2001, Che decided to reform the band without long-time guitarist Ian Williams; fans seemed shocked that Che toured this line-up in 2003. Subsequently, the critics, also with some obvious hang-ups regarding change, gave them mixed reviews.

But the music was still Don Caballero. Gone was Williams’ dazzling finger-tapping technique, but Che’s polyrhythms were as muscular as ever. New guitarists Eugene Doyle and Jeffrey Ellsworth ably filled the spots, as bassist Jason Jouver nailed down the low end better than Don Cab’s historic turnstile of four-string players. Scooped up by avant-metal label Relapse — who apparently were more stoked about this roster addition than the band’s original home, Chicago’s seminal Touch and Go Records — Don Caballero release their first studio album in six years, World Class Listening Problem.

Che states that this resurrection (not reunion) is the result of his moving forward, and his mates get along swimmingly, unlike the frequent infighting of past line-ups. "There’s no weird jealousy or competitiveness,” he says. "It’s like we really all just have a great time, like each other’s jokes, appreciate each other’s company, care about each other, and so on. Whereas in the past, there was always a weird, chess-move kind of tension, where everybody was playing a game to win, like the Survivor island.”

Much like 2000’s American Don, World Class Listening Problem is an exemplar of a kinder, gentler Don Cab. They’ve succinctly exorcised the skronk and stripped away their youthful angst to reveal the devastatingly mature and expert musicianship that comes first and foremost in this subgenre. However, the chaotic time signatures are still pleasantly torrid: opening scorcher "Mmmmm Acting, I Love Me Some Good Acting” retains the rawness of a less metal Meshuggah, while "Palm Trees in the Fecking Bahamas” (possibly their most accessible track yet) rings true of Discipline-era King Crimson.

Che is quick to assert, however, that this incarnation is not attempting to go in any unpredictable directions. "There was a conscious effort not to throw something at people that wasn’t formal Don Cab enough,” he explains. "I think we really adhere to that concept; we weren’t going to put out a record with electronic drums and vocals and call it Don Cab. That would be too much of a curveball from the past legacy. We really tuned into the past embodiment, and I think we’ve splashed over into some new channels at the same time while keeping our core focus. We kind of spread our wings a bit.”

The new album reunites the band with long-time studio engineer Al Sutton (Big Chief, the Laughing Hyenas, Kid Rock), who tweaked 1998’s What Burns Never Returns and their singles collection, Singles Breaking Up, Vol. 1. "He is top-shelf material,” says Che. "He notated that we were the only band he’s recorded in years that can actually play their songs in the studio. Most bands mess around with a click track, have the bass player in there for a day, then the drummer, then finally a month later, you have this half-assed song put together, and that’s like a lot of the stuff he does. He complimented us on being a band that can play their music in the studio. All he has to do is make sure his mics are in the right place.”

This month, their supporting tour makes five stops in Canada, and fans can fully expect the "barrel ass” to roll out, though Che won’t be showing his ass, since he’s no longer playing in his skivvies. "We’re going to barrel-ass through it,” says Che of the band’s live set. "We acknowledge the older stuff, too. We have a rotating menu of the oldies, though it’ll mainly be new material. But I got so much shit for playing in my underwear, and whoever had a problem with that, you won. From now on, it’s all sweatpants.”

Ultimately, Che is resigned to stick with what worked best when the band first broke up. Don Caballero aren’t kids anymore, but the new material hearkens back to classic Don Cab without replaying past glories. Its rounder edges reflect a newfound intensity and focus, but how much have age and wisdom of the music biz affected this record? "Maybe it’s caused a little difference in the approach, but we really are just who we are still, for the most part,” replies Che. "Or at least I am.”