Dave Davison wasn't that interested in the guitar as a kid. He preferred the drums. But his school band wouldn't have it.
"They made me play trumpet," he said. "There was already too many drummers."
While being denied an instrument is a blow to any young musician, it is a good thing Davison's ambition for the skins was shot down. Otherwise, he might not have ended up playing guitar in Maps and Atlases, which will perform at Neurolux Friday, June 15.
The Chicago band's second full-length album, Beware and Be Grateful, released in April, is a pop powerhouse. Warm guitar riffs hum beneath Davison's rich tenor, which explores casually existential themes of modern life and relationships.
"When the fever passes / when we don't know what to do / we'll buy twice as many comforts / like we used to do," he sings on "Fever," the album's second track.
Full of mid-tempos, major keys and catchy hooks, Beware and Be Grateful is exactly the sort of album that wields music-snob credibility but doesn't require challenging one's sonic sensibilities to enjoy.
But seeing the band live is a whole other story, because that's when it becomes clear how much more lies beneath.
There are no keyboards, samples or laying on effects pedals as a crutch. What sounds like simple bouncy riffs aided by an echo-pedal on the record are revealed as dizzyingly complex guitar lines synchronized between Davison, the band's other guitarist Erin Elders and bassist Shiraz Dada. A seemingly straightforward chord progression becomes a finger-ballet somewhere between a Van Halen solo and a flamenco riff.
Backing it up is the ferocious drumming of Chris Hainey, whose style is like an ADD hurricane. His beats might seem off-limits beyond the bounds of noise-metal or free jazz if they didn't pair so well with the layers of guitars.
Maps and Atlases' furious math-pop style may actually have its roots in Davison's high school affinity for rhythm.
"We were having fun jamming, just trying to do things in a really rhythmic way and create different levels of harmony," said Davison.
A solo guitar track called "The Ongoing Horrible" features Davison slapping the neck as he turns the tuning pegs to create different chords.
"I really liked the idea of doing bass and melody together, divided up between right- and left-hand stuff like bad piano playing. So that became a way of doing things that was really chordal, but at the same time, moved in a way that was melodic."
It was an approach that earned Maps and Atlases a strong following among the guitariati right out of the gate. The band even got a write-up in Guitar Player magazine a year after it was founded.
"The key to Maps and Atlases' topographic 'tap-estry' is the careful layering of counterparts," Guitar Player wrote, after commenting on the relative simplicity of the band's gear.
However, like so many bands with a surplus of instrumental prowess, it took a few years for the band's songwriting to shine through its chops.
With Beware and Be Grateful, Maps and Atlases has definitely found the sweet spot, with the complexity of the instrumental parts disguised in the smoothness of the songwriting. It's something Davison said is almost becoming a problem but is also a big part of what he likes so much about the new album.
"The first song on the album, 'Old and Gray,' is fun to listen to because there is a million vocal parts," said Davison. "It's fun to listen to things that are impossible to hear outside that [record], because you can't replicate it live."
Davison said that much of the what the band now wants to do in the studio is borderline impossible to do live. But rather than shrink from those moments, band members welcome them and then figure out how to perform them live.
And though some of the anti-pop purists are crying foul, it's an approach that appears to be working. Paste Magazine wrote that the band "seems intent on expanding their sonic horizons--a task they've accomplished with enviable grace." The Onion AV Club wrote: "This time around, unnecessary clutter has been trimmed, making room for an expansive atmosphere that's well-suited to Dave Davison's folkie, full-throated vocals." Slant Magazine called it "disorienting and thrilling."
The band is touring more than it ever has. It's hitting Boise as part of a six-week U.S. tour, which was hot on the heels of a two-and-half-week European tour, which came after multiple appearances at SXSW in March.
"We've always toured a decent amount," said Davison. "But we usually do shorter ones. This time, we figured we'd try to do everywhere in one shot and then come back later, rather than breaking it up into two- or three-week chunks."
Davison said the secret to handling all the time on the road is not to think of it as time on the road so much as just time.
"I think a lot of times, younger bands have the perspective on touring where you're thinking about it being like a one-time thing, or a vacation kind of thing," he said. "It's different when you're not thinking about, like, this will be over in a week and then I'll go back to a regular job. You just figure out how to live in a nomadic way."
Davison said one of the biggest ways the band does that is with simple things like trying to eat something specific to the location everywhere it stops, instead of just staying up late every night eating pizza.
"All you can really do is just do your thing," said Davison. "And that's what we're doing."[ Video is no longer available. ]