Piano Their Forte
Andy Lansangan moved to Chicago from Saint Louis on New Year's Eve 2000, enticed by what he'd heard about the music scene from Cayce Key, a friend from home who was already here. While Lansangan studied drumming at Webster University and the Percussion Institute of Technology in Los Angeles, Key had come in 1994 to learn sound engineering at Columbia College; he ended up playing drums in an art-punk three-piece called the 90 Day Men. He invited Lansangan to come check out a practice, and as he and his bandmates bashed out a jagged postpunk wall of sound, Lansangan began noodling on an electric piano nobody was using. By the end of the practice the trio had become a quartet.
Lansangan made it onto about half of the band's first full-length, [It (Is) It] Critical Band, recorded a few months later and released on Southern in the fall of 2000, but he hadn't yet figured out what his role was, and his parts come off like the afterthoughts they were. On the band's surprisingly melodic new album, To Everybody (also on Southern), that's no longer the case; in fact, he seems to have become the band's guiding presence.
It's not the first time a lineup change has radically redirected the band's aesthetic. The 90 Day Men formed in 1995, when Key and bassist Chandler McWilliams, another Columbia student from Saint Louis, were home for the summer and began writing aggressive post-hardcore songs with guitarist Brian Case. That fall Case came to Chicago to attend DePaul, and the following summer the trio set up a tour with a band from Kansas City called Sevasch, which broke up before the first show. The 90 Day Men went anyway, and Sevasch's bassist, Robert Lowe, tagged along for the hell of it. "He brought a cornet, even though he didn't really know how to play it," says Case. "He started synching into the shows, standing at the back of the stage and playing this cornet. It started with one song, but by the end of the tour he was doing it for the whole set." When the trip was over, they asked him to join permanently--on cornet. But shortly after he and his horn arrived in Chicago, in early 1997, McWilliams quit. Key went over to the apartment Lowe shared with Case to discuss the band's next move. "When I walked in the front door Rob was playing, note for note, one of the bass lines from an old song with a big grin on his face," says Key. "It was understood then that he would be the new bass player."
The new lineup wrote a whole new set of music, abandoning the flatulent brass accents and replacing the old throttled energy with a looser, artier sound. The songs were built on thundering but disjointed grooves sketched out by Key and Lowe, over which Case would drape grimy monochromatic sheets of guitar and recite his obtuse lyrics in a bored Lower East Side sneer. This was the sound when Lansangan came into the picture, and it wasn't until months after [It (Is) It] was completed that he found a meaningful way to add to it. "It was a whole different way of playing," he says. "It took me a couple of months to realize that I was dealing with a different language. Harmonically the music didn't really move that much, so I had to deal with texture. But I was pretty much free to play anything I wanted and it wouldn't clash."
The quartet spent most of the next year and a half on the road, reshaping its songs, improvising to incubate new song fragments, and just generally jelling as a live act. By the time they began writing in earnest again, last summer, they'd decided that melody would play a more significant part in their music, a shift that brought Lansangan to the fore. "I was always saying, 'You can't do that,'" he says. "Brian would be playing a minor chord and Rob would be playing a B, and I'd tell him he couldn't do it."
"We took a couple of guys who had always relied on feel and we added someone who knew what they were doing technically, and we reached this point," adds Case. Lowe's bass lines now authoritatively assert themselves as the anchor for each song, and Case's sung-spoken drawl has morphed into a breathy, somewhat elastic, and often tuneful instrument--particularly when it intertwines with Lansan-gan's backing vocals. Key's unusual time signatures underline the episodic nature of the new material, but the defining element is Lansangan's melodic piano.
On the whole that's a good thing: when he joined the band, Lansangan admits, he hadn't paid any attention to underground rock in nearly a decade, and he still draws on influences well outside the typical indie-rock firmament. "For the past two weeks I've been kicking Gershwin and K.D. Lang," he says. At its nadir--on the five-and-a-half-minute quasi-classical instrumental "We Blame Chicago"--his tinkling seems variously cheesy and at odds with Key's busy drumming style. But on most of the other five longish cuts, he creates pretty harmonies and lively melodic counterpoint and multiplies the ferocity of the rhythm section.
After heavy touring behind [It (Is) It]--including a European trip where they got to play John Peel's famous BBC radio show--the 90 Day Men felt themselves burning out on the old songs, and since recording To Everybody in Dallas this past September, they've played live only very sparingly in order to keep the new material fresh for their upcoming tours. They'll celebrate the new release with two local gigs this weekend--Friday, February 8, at Reckless Records and Saturday, February 9, at the Empty Bottle.
On Friday, February 8, Tortoise will play Chicago for only the second time since the release of Standards last February. The show is at the Empty Bottle, a more intimate venue than the band has chosen in some time; tickets are $20 and all proceeds go to the Chicago Women's Health Center, a nonprofit feminist clinic and outreach organization founded in 1975 by the underground abortion service known as Jane.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.