Old Don, New Tricks: Damon Che takes a retooled Don Caballero to Reggies

Don Caballero; courtesy of the artist

Don Caballero; courtesy of the artist

If you’re going to devote seventeen years of your life to something, it had better be something special. Damon Che has spent the better part of two decades, with a few hiatuses, as the drummer (and only remaining original member) of Don Caballero, a mostly instrumental rock outfit from Pittsburgh, PA. The band’s history is riddled with lineup changes; they’ve been adding and subtracting guitarists almost since they formed in 1991. On the band’s latest album, “Punkgasm,” Che is joined by Jason Jouver on bass and Eugene Doyle on guitar. This Friday, Don Caballero will play at Reggies for a night of 1990s nostalgia.

There are reasons for keeping the band’s original name, despite the departure of three-quarters of the original lineup. One is that Don Caballero’s style hasn’t changed much over the years: many parts of “Punkgasm” are little time-capsules of the band’s late ‘90s work. Another reason: the nostalgic fans. It’s not just about keeping them happy; according to Che, “There’d be no one in the audience if we called it something else.” So the present Don Caballero uses the critical acclaim of predecessors to draw a crowd. But what’s in a name, anyway?

What’s in any label, for that matter. Don Caballero has always resented genre pigeonholing; the mere mention of the phrase “math rock” elicits exasperated sighs from the band. Their current label, Relapse Records, mostly represents metal bands with a heavier sound than Don Caballero, but that doesn’t bother Che. “We don’t fit in with a lot of the other artists on the label,” he admits. “But I think you’d find that on just about any label we could end up on.” Even Che himself has trouble describing their sound. It could be modesty: “Blowing smoke about my music, in a verbal form, is not my strong suit.” Or it could just be that it’s difficult to acknowledge that Don Caballero’s distinctive style has gradually lost its innovative edge. Surprising changes in time signature have become expected, even though Che executes them just as masterfully.

What Don Caballero has tried to do over the past decade or so is create an association between musical perfection and complex, math-y rhythms. Che maintains that Don Caballero achieves this. “I used to say that we’re trying to set a higher standard, but that makes me sound like an arrogant fool, so I’m not going to say that,” he says. “But it leans in that direction.” His goals are no loftier than those of other artists: “I mean to create something that someone’s not going to forget easily once they come into contact with it.” This is becoming more and more difficult in an industry where the tricks of yesterday are the standards of today. Che struggles to “make peace” with the evidence of Don Caballero’s inability to make a lasting impression: the four-year turnover rate of their college-age fans. “As soon as you graduate, you’re not going to remember our name, you’re not going to ever listen to us again. You’re going to forget all about us,” he says, only slightly bitter.

Whether or not Che’s fatal prognosis is true, it’s perhaps the sentiment that motivated the band to try some new tricks on “Punkgasm.” The last song, for example, features Che on guitar, with Doyle taking over the drums. But the most significant change is the addition of vocals: Che sings on five tracks. This major development “wasn’t really very thought out,” according to Che. “Some of the songs that have vocals on them actually happened in sound check. I started singing, and we were like, let’s make that a song.” The album is less rhythmically disorienting than previous ones (or maybe we’ve just become accustomed to the style), with tight rhythms that coalesce to create winding melodies. Old fans, wherever they are–out of college and into their 30s–will not be disappointed: “Punkgasm” still has that special Don Cab something. It’s not the same as it used to be, but it’s still Don Cab.

Reggies Rock Club. 2109 South State Street. February 27. Friday, 8pm. (312)949-0121. $12. 17+. reggieslive.com