Even though Butchy Fuego just succeeded in reducing the origins of his band, Pit er Pat, to a two-sentence punchline, it's an apt simplification. The Chicago-based ensemble of drummer Fuego, keyboardist Fay Davis-Jeffers and bassist Rob Doran came together four years ago as Blackbirds, the backing band for an acoustic singer-songwriter named Josh Gleason. While such secondary status is more than fulfilling for many, the three adventurous musicians quickly began straining at Gleason's leash.
"I think it was just restlessness," Fuego explains. "It really wasn't working out. It was just sort of a natural thing. It was bound to happen. Then all of a sudden, Josh decided he wanted to move to New York. We didn't ask him to leave or anything like that. But we still had a show booked for two weeks away, so the rest of us decided to go ahead and do it without him."
The result was the group's first show as a trio. Although the name was still Blackbirds, the Pit er Pat sound was already starting to take shape. With more emphasis on rhythm and improvisation than strum-laden pop hooks, the then-instrumental outfit crafted a careful noise that was very much in tune with Chicago's post-rock and experimental traditions. But Fuego comes up short trying to pinpoint how such a unique amalgam of sound arose from Pit er Pat's ad hoc beginnings.
"I don't know how to describe why the chemistry between the three of us works," he admits. "Me and Rob have been really good friends for a long time, like ten years or so. We met when we were eighteen. We both had a super-crappy telemarketing job together and were roommates for a while and did a number of casual musical projects together, just playing around on each other's home recording projects. So we felt really comfortable working together. There was a familiarity to it."
Davis-Jeffers's arrival, however, proved to be a major influence on Pit er Pat's approach. She studied piano as a child but had never played in a band before, and it's this innocence and lack of pretension that has informed the group's full-length debut, Shakey. Released on the eminent Thrill Jockey imprint as a followup to the looser, more sprawling Emergency EP of last year, Shakey showcases the keyboardist's soulful contribution to Pit er Pat's sonic sculpting. While the other two members have modest pedigrees of their own -- Doran was a founding member of the renowned punk outfit the Alkaline Trio, and Fuego has collaborated with members of Need New Body and Neutral Milk Hotel as well as releasing discs under his own name -- Davis-Jeffers's pointillist note-poking and breathy chirps drench the band's jazzy chill in sheets of summer-shower wonder and wide-eyed abandon. The guys, though, hold up their end of the vocals. Doran's detached, chanting voice takes the lead on occasion, and Fuego even steps up to the mike on one track -- "Gated Community," a maudlin narrative in which an aging, disillusioned spouse wearily observes, "All these years of different faces, times, situations and places/Have brought us here together always battling the weather."
"That whole song came together in the studio at the last minute," Fuego recalls. "I actually wrote those lyrics the day that I recorded them. None of us had much experience singing when we started the band. At first we only had one song with vocals. Fay came in with lyrics, and we were super stoked on it. I think she was really encouraged by that, and we kept pushing her. It just became a bigger part of our sound. That song, 'Too Many,' wound up on our first CD, Emergency. The lyrics are basically, 'Too many this, too many that.' It just goes through a whole list of excess."
In terms of avoiding superfluity, Pit er Pat plays it like it sings it. The arrangements on Shakey are almost severely sparse, with grooves notched and locked together in a model of efficient precision. Yet within such a rigorous framework, there's a looseness and elasticity at play: Tracks such as "Uh-Oh" and "Cake Peg" revel in a carnival-esque menace even as they flutter between melody and abstraction, recalling the unhinged dreaminess of Broadcast and fellow Chicagoans 90 Day Men.
Pit er Pat's most frequently cited comparison, though, is to Blonde Redhead. In fact, you'd be hard pressed to find a piece of prose about the trio that didn't mention the more famous Gotham outfit -- not that Fuego and crew take offense. "We're totally not sweating it," the drummer says with a laugh. "We like that band. They're great. But it's not like we've ever said, 'Shit, this sounds too much like Blonde Redhead.' But I can see why people would say that we sound like Blonde Redhead, since we both have male and female vocals, and what we do is kind of arty and kind of poppy."
Indeed, that give and take between austerity and melody is Shakey's most striking and compelling quality. As Fuego confesses, "The new record, when I listen to it, just sounds like pop music. The structures are pretty much set, but when we play live, there's room within it to change the accent or coloration of things so that there's a different feel. A couple years ago, our band was much more improvisation-oriented. We're getting back into that, finding a balance between the two different ways of doing things. I think tension is a really essential element to making good music."
Tension, of course, is one of the most overplayed devices in indie rock right now, from the chart-riding dance punk of Interpol on down to your local neighborhood Blood Brothers wannabe. But the tension Pit er Pat peddles stretches much deeper than the surface. Rather than setting riffs and rhythms against each other in some contrived agitation, the threesome's guitar-free setup lets its music hang together much more organically and instinctively.
"Honestly, I try not to think about how we come across. It's not a conscious decision," Fuego explains. "We all feel that if you put too much attention on how other people will respond to your music, it's kind of limiting in a way. We're just kind of doing our thing. Our music definitely reflects how we are as people. The songwriting process and our understanding of music theory is all very intuitional. When you listen to our first EP, it has a slightly less cohesive feel than the new record. I think part of the reason why the new record sounds as cohesive as it does is because of the fact that most of the songs were written in a pretty compressed time span. But we're interested in not really conforming to different genres. We want to have Pit er Pat not sound like anything else."
And in that, the group largely succeeds. Still, inspirations as diverse as Robert Wyatt and Pinback pop up from time to time on Shakey -- which Fuego is just fine with. "When we're writing songs, maybe we're trying to sound like Fela Kuti, even though it doesn't necessarily come out sounding like that," he says. "You can't really help but be a product of your influences, you know? That's what you know, and that's what you're drawing from. You try to draw from a place that's unknown, but invariably, your influences are going to show up someplace. If you look at hip-hop culture, it's all about copping other people's shit. And that's cool.
"Still, we're all really creative people," he adds. Which is an understatement: Besides their various audio pursuits, the members of Pit er Pat have long resumés as visual artists, filmmakers and designers -- pursuits that, instead of distracting them from their music, seem to spur them even higher. According to Fuego, "If anything, we're trying to get away from what other people are doing. And I'm not going to say that we really succeed in pulling that off at all, but at least we're not trying to sound like Gang of Four or whatever. Really good bands always change a lot from record to record. We don't want to limit ourselves in too many ways. Instead of saying 'Here's what we are. Here's what we do,' we try to keep it as open as possible, so there's a lot of room for growth and change. We're just giving ourselves a lot more places to go."