Photography by Dan Kendall
HOW TO IMPROVE AN ALREADY PROLIFIC DRONE ROCK BAND BY ADDING A MEMBER OF SONIC YOUTH
“I would rather have a band put something new out every couple of months than see them play like three times a year. I mean, that’s ultimately the deal, right? People want to hear the music!”
Brian Case, frontman of Chicago drone-rockers Disappears, is sitting outside a South American bar on a dirty backstreet in south London’s Elephant And Castle, explaining the reasons behind his band’s phenomenal work rate.
“It was really important for us to keep our momentum going, so we wanted to keep making albums and keep doing shows, and just keep moving – because it just seems like if you stop doing this, there’s just too many bands, there’s too much stuff, so it’s easy to forget.
“So we figured the best way for us to stay present, relevant, is just to keep making music and keep doing shows, so we’ve been lucky that things have continued to improve.”
The four-piece certainly have stayed busy. After a series of self-released seven-inches in 2008, their debut album, ‘Lux’, came out on Kranky in 2010, followed by last year’s ‘Guider’. Their third album, ‘Pre Language’, came out earlier this year, and marked a distinct new phase for the band – not only is it their first recording with a new drummer (more on him later, in case you don’t already know), it is a distinct development from the steady evolution of their first two records, incorporating less krautrock and more raging riffs. Tracks such as the opening ‘Replicate’ and ‘Fear Of Darkness’ are also their punchiest, catchiest songs so far. There’s still plenty of echo here, on both guitars and vocals, but where the band once sounded like a host of other drone rockers – Suicide, Spacemen 3, Neu!, take your pick – they’re now beginning to sound more like themselves than their influences.
As well as keeping a steady stream of records flowing, the group have been touring regularly, and tonight are playing at south London’s Corsica Studios, their only UK date so far this year.
“The tour’s been great,” explains Brian. “It’s been about twelve days now, it’s been really good and, yeah, we’re coming back in the summer. We’re doing some festivals and some club dates too.”
While on the road, the group’s listening material has been more eclectic than you might imagine, stretching from African pop to British post-punk.
“We’ve been listening to the Lijadu Sisters,” says Brian. “They’re these two girls from Africa that made these records when they were teenagers, and they just got reissued – it’s really good, really crazy. We listen to a lot of those Nigerian reissues, some of the Afrobeat stuff and some of the weird jazz – that stuff is always good.
“They’re trying to play James Brown music and James Brown is trying to get to the heart of Africa, so it’s like, ‘What’s happening?!’ And I don’t know, the same stuff we always listen to, like Bauhaus and Wire, all the stuff that will be on the other pages of the magazine!”
Disappears’ eclectic taste could be down to the fact that they’re not exactly spring chickens. With Case (past 30) the youngest, the group have all been around in other US groups since the 1990s – their frontman notably in math-rockers 90 Day Men and The Ponys.
Despite not releasing a full album since 2007’s excellent ‘Turn The Lights Out’, and only an EP (2010’s ‘Deathbed +4’) since then, Case confirms he’s still a part of the band, and that they’re a going concern.
“Yes, if The Ponys do anything I will be in it,” he confirms. “The very first Disappears recordings, I thought they might just be demos for Ponys stuff actually, they kind of grew separately from that so I kind of just explored that, and they coincided with this period when Ponys kept getting pushed back to work on stuff, and there were sort of personal things going on with some of the people, so I thought, ‘Oh, I guess I’m just gonna start this other band!’”
Sounds pretty easy.
“It kind of was, ha – I mean, it’s easy to start a band, but to keep it going…”
Guitarist Jonathan Van Herik and Damon Carruesco have also played in a host of other bands, but “nothing that’s gotten too far out of the city”, according to Case. As for the group’s new permanent drummer, who replaced founder member Graeme Gibson, he’s been pretty active over the last three decades – Sonic Youth’s Steve Shelley has been manning the sticks since the beginning of 2011.
“He’s been in a band or two!” laughs Brian. “Graeme was doing all the production, and he’s an awesome drummer, so yeah, [when he left] we were kind of unsure about what was going to happen. We’d gotten to know Steve so we were joking, like, ‘OK, let’s just ask Steve’, and then he said he wanted to do it, which was pretty surprising. It’s like, ‘Ah, this is really weird’…”
Far from just pulling off every Sonic Youth fanboy’s dream out of the blue, the two parties had history.
They even collaborated a couple of years before the drummer joined Disappears, on an experimental record that is set to see the light of day sometime in 2012 – a collaboration with Shelley and White Light.
“It’s probably going to be called Disappears In White Light,” reveals Brian. “It’s a noise record but it’s cool. There’s some crazy stuff on it. It’s like an Eddie Hazel, Prince noise band!
“Our friend Jeremy works for Sonic Youth, he’s their monitor guy – so he brought Steve to see us play, and Steve liked it, and he was trying to get us on some shows with Sonic Youth, which didn’t end up happening, so kind of as a consolation prize Jeremy set up this session that was all of Disappears, his band White Light (which is a two-piece noise band) and Steve, so we got all set up in this room and just recorded music for two days, not really knowing what was gonna happen with it. This was in 2009.
“So that record actually just got finished! It’s gonna come out in the Fall. It’s superweird, I really like it, it’s very cool. It’s a great way to complete the circle, how we met, what brought us together in the first place. There was nothing pre-written. It was like seven people – lots of opinions, lots of ideas and lots of people to satisfy, but I couldn’t be happier with the way it turned out.”
Something we’re keen to ask Brian about is whether the band has a manifesto or a set of rules to go with their strict Protestant work ethic. From their sparse production, copious helpings of delay and even the aesthetic limitations of their first two records’ text-only artwork, there seems to be a set of self-invoked limitations Disappears are playing by.
“Not as much rules as just always being conscious of just keeping things at the essence, keeping it really simple, keeping it straightforward, going a lot of times with first instincts, and not getting bogged down,” reckons Brian.
“We always wanted to approach it in like a minimal way, so I think on the first two records it stuck out because they were very stark, production-wise, too. This new record was the first time we’ve worked with outside hands, so we had more time and somebody engineered it, and then we took a couple of weeks, we went to Texas and mixed it, so some other people got involved as well, which was I think necessary at this point.
“I mean, I love the first two records, but we wanted to keep going, you know, keep everything different. We definitely don’t need to make the first record again, or the second one. ‘Pre Language’ sounds different, but I feel like we’re still working with the same ideas that are important to us.”
While it’s impossible to know whether Disappears would have scaled the heights they’ve attained on ‘Pre Language’ if Shelley hadn’t joined the band, it’s pretty clear that his exemplary drumming, all whip-cracking snare and tom-tom thwack, has given the band a new muscle and power behind their sound.
From the way Case tells it, any change was more evolution than revolution, but spurred on by the members’ hometowns.
“At first we didn’t even talk about it, we just started rehearsing some older songs,” he says, “and then the first practice we had we started writing new songs too, so Steve could put his stamp on the old stuff, but also so he could feel like he was contributing something that was only his. I think it was kind of a good way to do it, so he was learning the old stuff, literally figuring out how to play it, and we were writing, so the same ideas were all in the air. Him and Graeme have really similar tastes in music, and we’re all coming from the basic same place, so there weren’t any weird moments.
“We spent a lot more time refining the music and talking about it. More time kind of developing the moods rather than letting the mood be whatever it was, so I think we just talked about it more. With before, Graeme lived in Chicago and we were playing two or three times a week, so things were just coming as they were, but Steve lives in New Jersey, so we have to kind of talk about it more, because we can’t just sit there and play it all the time. It was cool, you know, another way to look at music, another part of your brain to use to communicate some other idea or whatever. I think it helped a lot.”
Before Brian goes off to prepare for the band’s show next door, I put it to him that it must nearly be time for them to be thinking about writing another album, if they’re to keep up their work rate.
“Yeah – we’re playing one new song tonight and then we have a bunch of other stuff we’re working on. It sounds different but I don’t know how,” he explains. “It’s kind of quieter, but it’s weird, I don’t know. It’s going to be another record that sounds different, I think, initially, but may reveal itself as being something else. Hopefully by the end of this year it’ll be recorded.”
By Tom Pinnock
Originally published in issue 37 (vol 3) of Loud And Quiet. April 2012