Interview: Maps & Atlases
Coinciding with the release of their sophomore album Beware and Be Grateful this month, April has seen Chicago based indie rock band Maps & Atlases embark on a new European tour. Having started off with a few dates in the UK before playing in Germany and France, the band will then precede on a month long tour of the US starting in May. Formed in 2004, the American foursome released their two most well known EPs Tree, Swallows, Horses and You, Me and the Mountain in 2006 and 2008 respectively. The math-rock styling of these early works were followed by their debut full length record Perch Patchwork in 2010, which demonstrated a lighter indie rock sound. Beware and Be Grateful again marks a slight change in sound for the band. Whilst they still preserve an indie rock approach, their latest album sounds darker (as its title suggests), yet also contains some of the more fun elements that made up their excellent debut record.
In the intimate setting of Manchester’s Night & Day Café on the 16th of April, I was lucky enough to see Maps & Atlases live and up (very) close. Opening with new track Winter, the band’s set consisted of material from their new album as well as established fan favourites such as Pigeon, Witch and Solid Ground. What was particularly striking about seeing them live is the way each member of the group had their own defining presence, standing out on stage in different ways. For example, the band’s hunched up, hyperactive bassist Shiraz Dada and drummer Chris Hainey, one minute cool and composed, the next manic and sprouting what seems like two extra arms, contrasted yet complemented the calmness of guitarist Erin Elders and the imposing presence of lead singer Dave Davison, looking every inch like Albus Dumbledore’s long lost younger brother.
The gig also demonstrated how far Maps & Atlases have progressed in the last two years. Whilst many of the songs on Perch Patchwork do not extend beyond the three minute mark, the group now do not seem to be afraid of expanding their songs and this has not just permeated into their latest record but into their live sets as well. The way the band broke into short jams throughout some of their songs during the set demonstrates their growing confidence as a live band having now played together for a number of years.
After overcoming a few problems with some unfamiliar amps during their sound check, Erin and Chris were kind enough to speak to me before the gig about how their latest album came to be.
Erin: It’s going good. This is only our third show so far but the other two shows have been great and we’re excited to be playing all these different places.
Since this is not your first time to the UK do you now have any particular favourite places you like to play and spend time in?
Chris: We don’t get too much time outside the driving and the evening to see much of the cities we play at.
Erin: We like Brighton though, we’ve spend some time there and that was pretty cool.
What inspired the title for the new album ‘Beware and Be Grateful’?
Erin: It kind of came about randomly. It came from a discussion when we were recording, someone said it and we thought it would be a really good title for this album. I think it definitely seemed random but it also fitted thematically and matched the tone of the album as we were working on it.
Have you got any particular favourite tracks on the new record?
Chris: We haven’t started playing all of them yet, but it’s hard to say as I think some of them are going to be really fun to play when we start learning so they might end up as some of our favourite songs. As of right now Fever’s definitely my favourite one since its challenging in a good way to play for me and probably everyone else in the band.
What do you think are the differences between the first and the second albums?
Erin: Well this is the first album we’ve ever done totally in a studio, so it was different being in a space that was totally dedicated to making a record. I think that led to a lot of crazy experimentation with different sounds and weird instruments that you wouldn’t usually have access to such as keyboards, synthesisers and an actual grand piano. But I also think song wise the new record is different in that the song writing has been more concise while at the same time the songs have become looser, there’s like a looseness to this record that I think is new for us. I think that came from us playing Patchwork live for a couple of years every night and gradually each song would develop as we’d jam and stretch the songs out as the tours progressed. So when we started to work on this record I think we were all in that mode so the songs ended up being five-minute long jammers.
What are your hopes for the album success wise?
Erin: I don’t know, I don’t think we have any real definitive expectations but the first challenge for us is to figure out how to perform it. Our main goal is to present the songs well and put them in a live setting but we just hope to keep growing, keep evolving and that’s all we really hope for.
What are the main elements that inspire your lyrics and song writing?
Erin: A lot of the lyrics come from small, real life events that we hope point towards bigger ideas. For example, there’s a lyric in Remote & Dare Years about pushing bottles into a sewer grate, which is a real thing that happened. It’s a simple, visual thing but I think that’s how a lot of the lyrics start.
Do you think the fact that all four members of the band are from different parts of America means that different elements of American culture are brought into your music?
Chris: Not necessarily, we’ve all listened to different bands our entire lives and shared all that music with each other pretty much since the beginning so we’re all on the same page in that sense I guess. I’m from Texas so I can’t say country music has affected my-
Erin: ZZ Top! They’ve influenced your drumming! [laughs] I think it was more when we first started playing together it was kind of at a time in which we were all going to school and it’s at that age where you get exposed to so much and we all processed that together. Being in a band and being shown a whole world of music where people were like ‘here are all these crazy albums you’ve never heard of!’ while we were playing music together… we’d listen to stuff and kind of filter that through our band. Hearing different stuff together I think helped us figure out what we wanted to do and what we did well together.
Who were you most influenced by when you started out as a band and do you think your influences have changed over time?
Erin: From a guitar stand point I was really into classic rock, we weren’t really into like prog rock or anything but I think we liked some of those ideas… But at the same time we were really into bands like Talking Heads and I think as we’ve progressed definitely artists like Talking Heads and David Bowie, we still look to them and we’re still influenced by what they do. I think on the new record we were especially influenced by Brian Eno-era David Bowie albums and they were definitely a reference point. At the same time I think our influences have been drawn from all over the place. With this record I feel we’ve almost accepted the more eccentric sides of those influences. Like for instance we’d say ‘this is kind of like something that Prince would do, let’s just go with it and see how far we can take it’.
Do you have any favourite contemporary bands that you’re listening to at the moment?
Erin: Yeah, I still think that M83 record [Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming] is still my favourite of the last two years.
Chris: I’ve been listening to The Weeknd a lot. It’s not anyway near in the same vain as our stuff so it would be pretty amazing to tour with someone like that, like an R’n’B act would be crazy but- [Sign o’ the Times by Prince suddenly comes on over the speakers] We listen to a lot of Prince! [laughs] Not Prince’s new records though…
What are your plans for the rest of 2012?
Erin: After this tour we are going back home for a couple of weeks and going on a really big six week long American tour. That’s all we’ve really got planned but we will probably just be touring for like the next two years. Hopefully we might do some festivals in the summer and keep touring and I’m sure we’ll be back in the UK in the fall.