Although Maps & Atlases’ latest album kicks off with blasts of electronic noises, layered studio production and effects-heavy instruments, the band’s big-bearded guitar-hero frontman Dave Davison promises its inspiration comes from a rambling, organic place. In fact, the genesis for the songs on Beware and Be Grateful isn’t rooted in samples, electronics or recording studio magic. Most of the songs came from three of the members—Davison, guitarist Erin Elders and drummer Chris Hainey— exploring Chicago by walking dogs as their day jobs.
“I remember distinctly a lot of these songs arising from these time periods of being out for like eight hours at a time just walking around with just you and a dog,” Davison says. “I think that is partially the setting for some of the songs on the album, and you know it’s just this wandering album, and that makes it contemplative in some ways.”
“I think that feeling of wandering around carried into the studio,” Elders agrees. “And it was really exciting for us to kind jam an idea out and let it run wild for a while until we tied it back up.”
Although the band is probably best known for their last album, Perch Patchwork, Maps & Atlases first got early media attention with their 2006 EP, Tree, Swallows, Houses. The short burst of songs featured six-string tapping acrobatics and math rock-rooted progressions that had plenty of aspiring guitarists shaking their heads and retiring to their bedrooms to practice. But more than anything, in a time where synthesizers and samples were rising as preferred instruments in indie rock, the complexity on Maps & Atlases’ first efforts came from minimal instrumentation—two clean guitars plugged straight into amplifiers, bass, drums and Davison’s rootsy voice.
The band’s next releases—2008’s You and Me and the Mountain and Perch Patchwork—were records that saw the band experimenting and ultimately finding themselves musically, blending that technical ability with more audience-friendly sounds like the percussive, hummable “Witch” and Patchwork’s moving, slow-building “Solid Ground.” And although the band still has that original technical element that established them early on (just take a listen to the finger-blistering solo on Beware’s “Silver Self” and Shiraz Dada’s nimble, careful bass parts on “Fever”) the band has been digging a bit deeper into their songwriting these days.
“I think it took a little while to figure all that out, but then once we kind of made that transition and figure that out it became easier for us to figure out how to release and make new music in the way that we wanted to,” Davison says. “Since then, we’ve embraced the idea of constantly growing. We wanted to make music that was not necessarily the most concise, but the most fun, challenging music we could make that was still meaningful.”
And while those assorted retrievers and terriers of Chicago can’t take all of the credit for this deeper level of reflection on the band’s songwriting, those walks gave the reflective time Davison and Maps & Atlases needed to make what he would say is one of his most contemplative collections of songs of the band’s career.
“There’s a lot of questioning in the album, and a lot of ideas and stuff. But I think the meaning of the title is sort of representative of the balance between feeling and idea. I’m trying to think of the best way to phrase it because I’m just now figuring it out for myself in a way.”
The layered, surprisingly electronic-influenced studio sound for the band—which teamed up again with producer Jason Cupp, who produced the band’s first full length album—came later. Much like the inspiration behind some of the songs, the influence came from Davison and Cupp wandering Chicago by foot. Stumbling upon a street salesman with a huge inventory of dirt-cheap, old Casio keyboards, Davison and Cupp asked how much he wanted for the whole lot of them. And when the offer was too good to pass up, the band decided to take them back to the studio and experiment.
“Initially, that sounded really different,” Elders says about Beware and Be Grateful. “I think as a process, we kind of figured out ways to tie the song together in a more Maps and Atlases way, so it wasn’t just so keyboard and electronics based, but like have that as a sort of jumping-off point for the record I think helped us kind of step outside of ourselves, and kind of be able to think in different ways.”
“We weren’t necessarily with the mindset of ‘Oh, let’s use all these keyboards,’” Davison explains. “But just when we were sort of demoing the songs we were like ‘Oh, let’s try messing around with some of this stuff’ and we ended up using a ton.”
But if there’s one thing that has been consistent with the band all of these years, it’s that willingness to experiment and step outside their own personal boundaries. And curiously enough, one of those things that brought the band out of their comfort zone was also something that seemed like a no-brainer for them—a proper guitar solo. The track took Davison right back to the beginning of his guitar career, picking out Led Zeppelin guitar solos by ear. This time around, though, he had to do it for his own guitar part when learning how to play “Silver Self” live.
“I’d really like to be able to do exactly, but it’s just such a long solo,” Davison laughs. “But I really want to do it. Eventually I want to be able to do the whole thing, because is seems like it would be a bigger payoff. It kind of in a way reminds me of listening to and learning albums when I was a teenager.”