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 > October 30, 2003 > Arts > Music Feature

Playing the Numbers
WRCT compilation greater than the sum of its 28 parts


With Don Caballero, the Modey Lemon,
We Safari, Creta Bourzia
Saturday, November 7
Carnegie Mellon Drill Deck, Oakland
5 p.m., $10

By Mike Shanley

Compiling a CD that represents the Pittsburgh music scene proves to be a daunting task, to put it mildly. One approach limits the scope to a certain style of music, which ensures that only the people hip to that music will buy the disc. The other approach brings all kinds of far-flung bands together, spreading itself too thin and diluting its appeal. Let's face it: Few are the alterna-rock fans that will go for the rabid noise of a group like the Pay Toilets, and vice-versa. Finally, many of these compilations rarely cause a ripple beyond city limits, the hope to which many of them aspire, at least in theory.

Two years ago, WRCT-FM, Carnegie Mellon University's bastion of independent music of all stripes, issued WRCT-A Compilation. It featured 18 local acts recorded in the station's studios, most from live broadcasts. Although it included a variety that went from noisy pop to indie country and noise, the raw non-production varied from so-so to extreme lo-fi. Furthermore, the cover was riddled with misspelled band names and lacked contact information for the bands.

Doug Luce and Sean Cho, who both work as producers at the radio station, started thinking about assembling something more representative of the city at the time of that CD's release. Advanced Calculus, a Monday night radio show that has hosted different local bands for five semesters, provided the perfect forum. This weekend, an on-campus concert will mark the release of Advanced Calculus, an elaborate, two-disc, 28-track compilation that bridges the gap between genres and just might take the music beyond our local borders.

Luce says the previous WRCT compilation came up short because it didn't fully represent the music heard on the station. "We're really shooting here not just to hit any particular genre, but to really give a good idea of the wide number of really excellent acts that people just don't know about, that are coming out of Pittsburgh," he says. "We wanted to get more of a broad selection. So we invited people from the hip-hop scene, people like Beam, people like Strict Flow, [oboist] Lenny Young and people from the avant-jazz scene. Of course there are a lot of rock bands on there."

While the discs indeed lean heavily on guitar bands, and only two bands include women, within that spectrum the number of bands who produce something interesting with the tried-and-true format is high. Blunderbuss, Thee Speaking Canaries, Microwaves, (the) Alpha Control Group (c) and Creta Bourzia capture the original drive of the mid to late 1980s, when the influences of bands like Nice Strong Arm, Hüsker Dü and Mission of Burma were felt but not in a conscious way. The Viragos and Life in Bed turn equally different takes on pop. Teddy Duchamp's Army combines fevered punk guitars and a catchy chorus, which sounds especially visceral preceding the more standard hardcore/pop-punk contributions of McCarthy Commission, the Code and SF Firehydrant. Bands like IO and Cattletrap's noodly guitars and raspy screams prove that the math rock's tricky arrangements don't substitute for strong songwriting.

Disc two features the more adventurous tracks. Zombi's "Gemini" opens like a slow Pink Floyd soundscape before kicking into a heavy fusion/art rock groove. Black Moth Super Rainbow jumps between an ambient groove and a slow guitar plinks. Strict Flow's "UR Not Ready" kicks hard but is a criminally brief 2:34, especially in light of Beam's nearly 17-minute "100072002," one of the few tracks that would have benefited from a mix that cranked up the two basses on an even keel with the drums.

The latter track aside, Advanced Calculus doesn't sound like a raw production where everything was mixed down to two tracks -- mainly because it isn't. "That was one of the goals from the start: to really do a good job on the actual sound production," Luce says. "Not just have it straight-off a live mix."

"It was multi-tracked and mixed down later," Cho explains." Both producers, along with WRCT staffers Johannes Ma, Adam Beaulieu and Daniel O'Neil mixed the songs, which were later mastered at by Andy Wright at Plus/Minus studios.

Advanced Calculus comes in an elaborate foldout cardboard cover printed locally by Third Termite Press in red ink with mathematical symbols imprinted on the front. Inside, each track lists all the band members, along with an email address or website.

Luce calls the disc a labor of love and he has every right to such a claim. "Everything was funded out of pocket by me," he says. "I even had to buy the equipment to do the recording on."

Not that he's complaining or bragging. With two national distributors lined up to push the disc, he sees this as a job that has to be done. "There's a lot [of music in Pittsburgh] that I think is undeservedly unknown," Luce says. "We really need to get the information out there."

Return of the Don

By the end of Y2K, after nearly a decade, a final album -- American Don -- and a tour, Don Caballero, a trio that shuttled between guitarist Ian Williams' home in Chicago and drummer Damon Che's roots in Pittsburgh, seemed to be calling it a day. "Actually, that's what Chunklet magazine wanted everybody to believe," says Che. The fact that they are headlining an all-Pittsburgh band event proves Chunklet wrong. Or does it? Williams is long gone, along with everyone else associated with Don Cab. In their places are three out of four members of the 'Burgh's math/metal monstrosity, Creta Bourzia, a situation that's ruffled a few feathers, most notably those of Williams.

"In reality, I've been the only original member of Don Cab since 1999," defends Che. "They're a little bit disturbed. Nobody said anything when we went on without Mike [Banfield, former guitarist who left around 1998]. The fact of the matter is, Ian wasn't an original member of the band. I've got to make a living and this is what I do best."

And let's face it, as interesting as Williams' guitar work was, either in the company of Banfield or all by his lonesome, it's been Che's bent time signature orchestrations from behind the drums that have given the band not only much of its character but its place, for better or worse, in the math rock pantheon. "People who are fans of what Don Cab has always been about -- unless they are off their rockers -- I don't see how they wouldn't also enjoy what this current lineup is doing now."

Ironically, Don Cab doesn't appear on Advanced Calculus, although Thee Speaking Canaries, in which he slings guitar and sings, appear on it, as does Creta Bourzia.

As for his relationships with the former members, Che feels no guilt. "I'm sure [Ian]'s not happy [about Don Cab going forward without him] as we're natural-born enemies," Che says. "We're like a cobra and a mongoose...I'm still friends with Pat [Morris, original bassist]. I don't hear from Mike that much, although I did call him about playing with us again."

Ultimately, though, his comments about Williams are this: "If Ian's upset, I'm sorry. I would congratulate anything he's doing, I just can't work with him." And a bit more defensively: "He's got a band called Battles. If you like what he does, I encourage you to go out and see them."

The current Don Caballero is looking toward the future. "We're probably going make the next record with Al Sutton, who we've worked with plenty of times before," he says. "I'd like to get the record to reach more than 13,000 people, which was all we could reach with [former label] Touch & Go, even if I don't make as much money. But I can't actually say we're not going to work with that label again."

So, Che has something in common with the Fall's Mark E. Smith and Pere Ubu's David Thomas. Surely no one believed for a hot minute that a man confident enough to set his cymbals aflame onstage was just going to allow personality differences and the instability that comes with it to force him to pack it up.


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