Name the Pittsburgh band that has inspired more innovative rock groups throughout the world than any other local outfit. You probably can't, because regional booster literature, such as the History Center's "Pittsburgh Born, Pittsburgh Bred," doesn't recognize Don Caballero's discography of seven albums as significant enough to warrant an entry, since its cultural impact isn't as mainstream as that of Rusted Root, The Clarks, or Anti-Flag.
But don't try to claim that Don Caballero isn't important to one of its ex-members -- guitarist Mike Banfield -- who left the math-rock giants after their 1999 European tour supporting "What Burns Never Returns," their third release on the Touch & Go label. Don Cab certainly changed his outlook on music, even though he wouldn't let it alter his lifestyle. "Those guys wanted to turn the band into a full-time thing. They had already moved to [Touch & Go's homebase] Chicago," recalls Banfield. "But I wasn't really willing to quit my job and move."
That ended Banfield's celebrated role as Don Cab co-founder (with drummer Damon Che) and original architect of their unique sound, which added intricate dual guitar lines when Ian Williams (who later formed Battles with Helmet drummer John Stanier) joined the fray. The band's status as a legendary instrumental rock unit was accidental. "We never intended it to be an instrumental band," he explains, "but we never could find a singer, and we kept playing shows, so eventually that evolved into our identity."
- With: Broughton's Rules, Italian Ice, and Red Team Blue Team.
- Where: Smiling Moose, 1306 E. Carson St., South Side.
- When: 9 pm. Saturday.
- Admission: $6; 412-431-4668.
After departing Don Cab, Banfield hibernated until a member of Pittsburgh band Mihaly (one of several local bands who have displayed considerable Don Cab influences) connected him with drummer Rob Spagiare of the post-hardcore band Tabula Rasa. "We played a few times and it never materialized into anything, but then I got inspired and wanted to play more seriously. So I called Rob, and he brought along [guitarist] Andrew Grossman, who was also in Tabula, and then we met our bass player, Andy [Curl, of the band Southpaw]."
Banfield immediately clicked with Spagiare on a creative level, and they formed a new band, now familiar to scene aficionados as Knotfeeder.
"Finding a drummer like that, whom you have good chemistry with, is pretty rare. Over time we've all grown more comfortable with each other, and everyone is a good musician, and that's what makes it work."
Although professing a common interest in heavy complex rock music -- the band members share a passion for Led Zeppelin but also indie icons from the '90s such as the Jesus Lizard -- Banfield stands out as a decade older than his Knotfeeder mates. "That's a weird thing about playing with a bunch of younger guys -- we don't always have the same frame of reference," he says. "We'll be talking about bands from the '90s, which doesn't seem that long ago to me, but they'll say, 'I remember the first time I heard Nirvana when I was 12 years old.' That makes me feel old."
The majority of the tracks on "Light Flares," Knotfeeder's debut CD, which will be released this Saturday at the Smiling Moose, stem from the same fount of math-rock that Don Caballero does, but Banfield's guitar parts are more noise-laden rather than clean lines. "Anything you hear like that comes from an interest in Sonic Youth," he explains. "My playing is almost devoid of melody."
And here's where fans of Led Zeppelin might want to cover their ears. "I really grew to dislike the blues scale and tried to avoid any trace of the blues. Which is funny, because before I started to play with [Knotfeeder], I jammed with [local musicians] Sam Matthews and Mark Miller, and they said, 'Man, you don't play the blues at all, do you?' I was always going back to the late '80s/early '90s, trying to create a heavier version of all the things I liked about bands like Live Skull and Sonic Youth. Which was why I thought Helmet was so great, because they pretty much accomplished that."
Yet in the meantime, the pace was glacial on Knotfeeder's recording front, between Spagiare's job in Philly as a print technician and graphic designer, and studio adventures down in Baltimore with engineer (and ex-Jawbox frontman) J. Robbins. "We ended up taking a lot longer than we thought. Some of it had to with logistics and financing, but we stretched it out, thinking about possibly reformatting things by including live tracks with some dub remixes and doing a two-volume record."
Ultimately, they decided to separate the projects and make "Light Flares" one CD. But there are a couple of studio creations on the disc that are clearly more than just the band playing live. "The title track is three different overdubs of me playing prepared bass with alligator clips and some effected drums. Then there's another piece that's the three of us playing metal percussion with a layer of effects and a field recording mixed into it."
So, "Light Flares" isn't your typical math-rock album any more than it would be your typical Pittsburgh rock album. Except, of course, for some obvious resemblances to Don Caballero, who finally added vocals to one of its songs on last year's "Punkgasm." Knotfeeder coincidentally followed suit. "Rob was the biggest proponent of having vocals, so he came up with ideas and we narrowed it down to three songs. Two of those are on the record."
"Rob hasn't tried to sing them live yet," Banfield continues, "but he says he can do it, so I guess we're going to try. Although there's one thing I can tell you for sure -- he's not going to use the Phil Collins headset microphone."
Manny Theiner is a Pittsburgh-based freelance writer.