To Serve The Song Above All Else

It's pretty common that bands known for technical ability will push the limits of their playing with each new release, but Chicago's Maps & Atlases latest work strives to flex both creative muscles and the ones in their fingers.

“I don't think we were ever heavy in any way,” said lead singer, guitarist and most bearded member Dave Davison when talking about how the band used to share the stage with the post-hardcore group Russian Circles. The band's early work bared the signs of math rock, but now Maps & Atlases more closely resemble a folk band.

Perch Patchwork came out last summer and was the band's first full-length offering, filled with rich, subtle instrumentation and an increased focus on Davison's voice. Being their debut LP, Maps & Atlases spent the time to make a cohesive piece of work that shows growth to a technically proficient musical palette.

“It was a really fun and productive way to allow the songs to take shape,” said Davison about the more experimental process to songwriting the band took with this record.

“On previous work with Maps & Atlases we would spend a long time getting ideas together to play live, and then the recording process became mostly a way of documenting that live experience,” he said.

“It was the prospect of recording and letting whatever happened happen, like if something started seeming a certain way or going in a different direction, to just allow it to go that way was only possible through this type of recording. It was really exciting for everybody in the band. Jason made everyone excited to explore more.”

Jason Cupp produced Perch Patchwork, and a warm, complex sound was formed – one which draws influence from as many directions as genres in their hometown music scene. Cupp worked with Davison in 2009 for his solo work under the name Cast Spells, and after exploring these new approaches to writing brought the artfully arranged sound to a full band context. The result builds off the Cast Spells EP, with engaging, unorthodox percussion and melodic form catchy enough for a pop song.

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“It was really fun, it was something that wouldn't have been possible before this time,” said Davison. “Making an album with as many intricacies as this one has would have cost a fortune. It would have had to be a totally different production 10 or 15 years ago, but we were able to do it in our practice space and in my parents' house, getting friends to help out with it.”

Horns and strings take up room formerly dominated by two-hand guitar tapping, but while they may have moved out from under the math rock label there has been no dumbing down of their sound. If anything, the complexities are now just more subtle, wound into the fabric of the song with great care.

“We had some idea prior going into it where strings and horns and whatnot would go, but it was my first time seriously working with instruments that I couldn't mess around with on my own,” said Davison. “It was definitely a trial and error process with that, there are so many interesting things that can be done with other instruments that you can't think of when you're thinking with a guitar.”

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“I think we've just gotten better at layering things and playing together more tightly where it doesn't seem crazy and random. Still, I think the most technical guitar parts live definitely are some of the newer songs,” he said. "Layering lots of different instruments hopefully allows someone to get more lost in the overall song rather than focusing specifically on what a guitar is doing.”

The band wants to avoid the feeling of isolated tracks playing together, instead arranging the record's many layers as complimentary elements.

“My most enjoyable musical experiences right now come from when I'm not necessarily identifying with the musicianship, but more with the music,” said Davison.

“Sometimes it can be difficult for me when I'm listening to somebody play the guitar really well, I'll switch into thinking about it in a more logical way rather than allowing myself to get lost in it, like [I do] with electronic or classical music.”

The band strives to serve the song, wherever it takes them. With their new composition style it could go anywhere, but it's too early to tell what the end result will be for any upcoming material.

“I have been continuously writing and recording stuff without necessarily trying to think about it in the context of what it's going to be,” said Davison. “There definitely is new material, but I'm not exactly sure in what way it's going to come out. I think we're at a weird place where it's hard to talk about what's going to happen next just because you don't want to necessarily think about it too much as far as the end result right now, more focus is on the process, the creative side of it.

“We don't have a specific political agenda or message, when you're writing from your experience you definitely feel excited when people can connect their experience to that, to have a positive association with the music,” he said. “I feel weird about overly contextualizing our music, telling people how to think about something. My strongest associations with music that means a lot to me I'm sure is 100% off from what the artist originally intended, and that doesn't really matter to me, on either side of it.”

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