Don Caballero - Biography
In all the official literature pertaining to Pittsburgh, PA -based Don Caballero, one item is emphasized again and again and again: The members of Don Caballero despised the term “math rock,” an appellation that was draped around their collective necks like an albatross from the 1993 debut until the band’s (initial) demise in 1999. Too bad. Praise or slur, it’s the perfect description for Don Caballero’s spasmodic, epileptic, rhythmically challenged performance idiom. These guys defined the math rock scene that swept through the offices of Touch and Go in the mid-1990s, and as far as the math thing goes, well… If you’re going to step on stage with crew cuts and horn rims, lurch into flailing seizures like electrified frogs in dissection trays, and rock in impossibly abstruse time signatures like 17/11, then, well, you’re asking for some sort of withering generalization. And rest assured: If you’re playing in 17/11, at least one person on stage is silently engaged in some furious arithmetic. Don Caballero even eschewed the most basic element of rock ‘n’ roll cool: the lead singer. They had enough on their hands just managing the music without being bogged down with vocals.
Don Caballero was formed in 1991, with Mike Banfield on guitar, Pat Morris on bass, and Damon Che on drums; second guitarist Ian Williams joined the next year. They took their name from the episode of SCTV in which Joe Flaherty’s Guy Caballero character becomes a version of Don Corleone. More germanely, they took their musical influence from a variety of sources, and while jazz was one, Don Caballero threw the underlying formats of jazz straight out the window. With impossibly rigorous, militant precision, every last complicated, convoluted and contorted measure of a Don Caballero song was written by the group and assiduously memorized, note by frantic note. This sort of OCD mania put them on a level of prog-rock dementia that would have made Frank Zappa proud, but Don Caballero knew better than to project a fastidious, satin-and-hi-tech, art-rock vibe. Instead, they kept the Touch and Go kids mollified with a fastidious, Slint-and-lo-tech, indie-rock vibe. Steve Albini heard them, and recommended them to Corey Rusk.
The debut LP, For Respect (1993 Touch and Go), catches the band on the rise, but it doesn’t quite nail the stroboscopic insanity that would make them darlings of the national underground. While Ian Williams had joined the band in name by the recording of For Respect, he hadn’t had enough time to secure a creative toehold. However, on the next album, Williams would assert himself with mathematical aplomb. Don Caballero 2 (1995 Touch and Go) is the album that really launched the sub-genre. Within its claustrophobic and unpredictable confines, Don Caballero 2 is a relative unique blast from the alt-rock realm, and that surprising feat alone — originality — was enough to inspire a raft of like-minded basement-dwellers to flaunt their technical prowess. Yet in the wake of the album’s success, Don Caballero was already shaky, subdividing into other projects and churning through multiple members. Williams started the even more experimental group, Storm and Stress, recording with both Steve Albini and Jim O’Rourke.
The group returned from hiatus with What Burns Never Returns (1998 Touch and Go), now featuring more effects and electronic flourishes; it was very well received, and prompted the release of a compilation of singles, Singles Breaking Up, Vol. I (1999 Touch and Go). While the studio version of What Never Burns featured a return to stability with the original 1992 lineup, the subsequent supporting tour found the band splintering again. By 1999, Don Caballero was a three-piece consisting of Ian Williams, Mike Banfield, and Eric Emm from Storm and Stress. The Albini-produced American Don (2000 Touch and Go) was an aurally dense and sophisticated work that was received as Don Caballero’s most mature work to date. The band responded by breaking up in the middle of the support tour. Williams had the most effective rebound of the lot, starting the critically acclaimed Battles, with the multi-talented Tyondai Braxton (son of composer Anthony Braxton) and Helmet’s John Sainer. In the mid-2000s, Don Caballero’s drummer Damon Che reformed with all-new members. Touch and Go wasn’t interested.