My first encounter with Pittsburgh's Don Caballero (named for the evenhanded Don of SCTV fame) was in the summer of 1992.
I was in attendance at a Pavement show at the Euclid Tavern in Cleveland, Ohio (the Euc's claim to fame: It was where parts of the Joan Jett/Michael J. Fox opus Light of Day had been shot). We arrived a bit too late to catch the whole set by the opening band, but we saw enough to glean that something unusual was afoot: This band didn't appear to have a singer at all, and the front person role was filled by a madman of a drummer who seemed to be constantly muttering to himself as he bashed out impossibly complex beats over which the two guitarists and a bass player laid down chunky slabs of riff. It was heavy but not metal, geekishly weird and badass at the same time.
I was sold; I immediately ordered the vinyl single "The Lucky Father Brown." Four minutes of soaring instrumental bliss over the busiest percussion since Neil Peart--this was the Don Cab experience. Single after single followed--"Unresolved Karma," "ANDANDANDANDANDANDANDANDANDAND," "My Ten Year Old Lady Is Giving It Away," and so on. They were eventually compiled by the band's former label, Touch and Go Records (home to Calexico) as Singles Breaking Up Vol. I.
Percussionist Damon "Che" Fitzgerald, who is now the only original member of Don Caballero, tells me that the singles era is long over. "I don't think it would be possible to have that same kind of spirit as when we put out those early singles. It was fun, I'm glad we did it. But even though we called the singles collection Volume I, I don't think there'll be a Volume II."
So much for nostalgia. Like everything else, Don Caballero has moved on. World Class Listening Problem, Don Cab's sixth full-length album, and first in six years, was released earlier this year by Relapse Records, whose roster skews heavy (High on Fire, Suffocation, Mastodon) but also includes comedian Brian Posehn for some reason. Problem is a return to form--the melodic, jazz-inflected guitar musings over Che's inimitable power drumming no longer sounds bored or compromised as on American Don, the last album that featured Ian Williams, now of Battles. Che is very pleased with Relapse thus far, and as their bio on the label's site puts it, both entities prioritize pushing the boundaries of "what constitutes heavy music."
Says Che of Relapse, "They have done excellent work. Absolutely excellent work. The only thing I have a problem with is why people in general don't like more good music."
Indeed. How is it that a band such as Don Cab hasn't attracted a larger following, given that its music crosses over that weird boundary between indie and prog metal and appeals to fans of both? Some find Che to be a bit off-putting in person--he's kinda weird, quite opinionated, and early on, he'd strip down to his boxers at every show and inadvertently (or not) share a view of his nads with the audience. He also posesses the arrogance that comes with being incredibly skilled at something. To wit: "The reason I'm the kind of drummer I am is because I made the mistake of thinking if you're really, really good at something, you will be guaranteed success, like if you're a really good athlete," Che explains. "But what I've come to realize is that it doesn't matter how good you are. And so I ended up being too good. I'm nobody now (laughs)."
Ultimately, Damon Che's a cool guy, quirks notwithstanding. And his new bandmates (who have a day job in another Pittsburgh rock band, Creta Bourzia) seem to balance him emotionally and musically far better than previous Cabellerans like Williams (whom Che describes as the cobra to his mongoose). But perhaps most importantly, he's somebody who, like your correspondent, takes bowling seriously, as I learned at Lucky Strike Lanes on Don Cab's 2004 trip to Tucson. However, and somewhat sadly, there'll likely be no rolling on this tour.
"It's just one of the many, many joyous spirits that's been trampled out of me. Touring just does that to you. ... But I can bowl after I retire."
When pressed, Che reconsiders, if we can find a suitable lane ball.