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Great Pretenders

The members of 90 Day Men are some of the biggest assholes in rock. Just ask Chunklet, an indie-rock magazine based in Atlanta; earlier this year, it published its "Shit List" of the most obnoxious people in the world of underground music, and the Chicago quartet -- guitarist Brian Case, bassist Robert Lowe, drummer Cayce Key and pianist Andy Lansangan -- made the cut. Why someone would choose so innocuous a target to pick on is bewildering, especially to the Men themselves.

"I was working at this record store when that issue of Chunklet came out. I read it and was like, 'Wow, this guy really hates us,'" says Case, sounding more amused than injured. "The thing that really struck us about it was that it was so personal. It had almost nothing to do with the music. It was all based on what we were wearing or how our hair was or how we supposedly perceived ourselves. It was just funny to us that somebody would be so against what we were doing that they would take the time to craft this pretty well-written little diatribe and actually go out and get it published."

According to the Chunklet piece, one of 90 Day Men's biggest atrocities in the eyes of hipsterdom was, simply, being pretentious. In all fairness, this accusation is not entirely unfounded. The group's second full-length, To Everybody, came out in the spring of 2002, and it packs almost as much frilly melody, meandering arrangements and neo-classical ivory-tickling into its six tracks as does, say, your average Emerson, Lake and Palmer record.

Case, however, is uneasy with the progressive-rock comparisons -- not to mention charges of pompousness -- that his band has been garnering lately. "I guess I can kind of understand why people see that in our music, but I don't really sit around and listen to Yes records and try to come up with ideas," he says. "I guess we're progressive in the sense that we're trying to take our music somewhere it hasn't been before, doing things that don't always seem like the logical thing to do.

"Still," continues Case, "I'd rather have someone call us progressive rock than post-rock. What is post-rock, anyway? After-rock? I don't really understand what that's supposed to mean."

Funny he should say that. The band's home base of Chicago is usually cited as the birthplace of post-rock, a conceptual mishmash of post-punk, jazz, dub and electronic sensibilities concocted in the '90s by artsy Windy City ensembles like Tortoise and the Sea and Cake. Cerebral and self-indulgent, post-rock has become almost as derogatory a term as progressive rock was by the end of the '70s. The music of 90 Day Men, distinctive though it may be, doesn't color far outside the post-rock lines.

"Our music definitely has a bit of headiness to it, but that's just what we feel comfortable playing," Case says. "That's how we want to express ourselves. We don't force anything. Everything we're doing just comes naturally, relaxed. It's not like we're thinking, Okay, this part is in 6/8 and that part's going to be in 5/7, just because it'll be considered challenging.' We just do what we think sounds good."

The band's knack for such metronome-twisting time signatures has been apparent since its inception. Formed in 1995 in St. Louis, 90 Day Men moved to Chicago later that year; the group's sound at the time was much more punk than prog, akin to the clangorous angst of Unwound or the Monorchid. Lansangan had not yet joined, and the guitar/bass/drums trio was known mostly for jumping around, breaking shit and blistering every square inch of its songs with anger, dissonance and an almost maddening complexity. "I think it's fun to drink more than you probably should before you play and just fall all over each other the whole time," Case says. "It's obviously fun to do, and the crowd gets off on it. But as a musician, I'm a lot happier with what we're doing now, pushing ourselves in different ways, not as much physically as mentally."

A quantum leap forward came with the addition of keyboards to the 90 Day Men lineup in 1999, right before the recording of the group's first full record, [It (is) It] Critical Band. "The introduction of the piano was a real growing thing for us. Adding a piano is like adding another guitar and another bass. There's so much you can do with it. For us, it was just a great way to incorporate more ideas that we couldn't really translate through any other instrument," says Case.

While Critical Band's sparing use of a Rhodes organ can barely be heard above the tangle of strings and percussion, To Everybody places acoustic piano in the music's nucleus. The album's opener, "I've Got Designs on You," references decades of experimental rock, from Piper at the Gates of Dawn-era Pink Floyd to early Public Image Limited to current Chicago math-rock outfits like Owls and US Maple. The keys, creeping in halfway through the song, ping against the dense arrangement like meteorites. Langansan's piano work is polished, baroque, especially on "Saint Theresa in Ecstasy," a song that bears an unsettlingly unhip resemblance to Michael Oldfield's "Tubular Bells." On "A National Car Crash," Key's drumbeats skitter across the surface of Lowe's glacial bass line, while "Alligator" echoes with a melody so delicate and ornate it unfolds like origami. Throughout the album, Case's vocals are detached yet languidly sensual; on the track "Last Night a DJ Saved My Life," he even comes dangerously close to plagiarizing Radiohead's Thom Yorke.

"I like the way Thom Yorke uses his voice," Case admits, "and Björk, too. They have this control. They use their voices in such a way that you're not really concerned with what they're saying at all. That's what I, at some point, would like to be able to do. I've become really interested in developing the voice as an instrument, whereas before it was like, 'Well, I guess there should be some screaming here.' Now I probably work on my voice more than I work on my guitar."

Besides sharpening his chops, Case is assembling ideas for the group's third album, scheduled for production in spring of 2003.

"Right now we only have about half of a new record written," Case explains. "The songs are still really new and being changed all the time. Every song, every album, we try to do something entirely different. None of us are interested in writing the same song twice or making the same album X amount of times in a row.

"There's an element of improvisation in what we do," he continues, "though I think that's easier to see in our live shows than on our records. For as much fucking around as we do, there's a lot of form and structure that we follow."

Such aesthetic restlessness in the independent scene is not exclusive to 90 Day Men, and the band has aligned itself with many like-minded groups around the country. "We did a tour over the summer with a band called Denali, and we got along with them great," says Case, speaking of the up-and-coming Virginia outfit that mixes post-hardcore edginess with the sultry tones of trip-hop. "We don't sound anything like them, but we can appreciate their approach to music. We recently played with the Liars, from New York, who are incredible. There's a lot of good stuff coming out of Chicago right now -- bands like Sterling and Timebender and Milemarker. Engine Down is another band that I think is just amazing. Those are the bands that are kind of pushing what they're doing, that I kind of consider contemporaries or whatever."

Coincidentally, many of these contemporaries of 90 Day Men have also been hung by the indie press for pretension in the first degree.

"Pretentiousness is something that I have a real hard time identifying in music," Case admits. "I don't think anyone sets out to alienate people with their music. That happens sometimes, but I think the original idea is just to make music that you like playing."

Speaking of alienation and pretension, does making Chunklet's "Shit List" still stick in the band's craw?

"I later found out that the guy who wrote that thing came to see one of our shows," says Case. "This was after he wrote the article in Chunklet. He told someone, 'Yeah, I met the 90 Day Men the other night. They were really good, and they were really nice guys. I feel really awful about writing that thing.'"

As vindicating as that sounds, Case remains nonplussed. "Whenever I hear someone calling us pretentious, I just write it off. It's just because they probably never hung out with us. I've heard from friends that we can come off, for some reason or another, as intimidating. But pretentious? Whatever," he says, sounding a bit chagrined. "I think that if anybody sat down and had a beer with us or actually engaged us in some conversation, it would pretty much dispel the whole pretentious thing.

"Or maybe not," he adds, laughing. "Maybe it just adds to our allure."

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Jason Heller
Contact: Jason Heller