Dianogah: Dueling Basses and Melodic Distortions

Ed. note: This feature originally appeared in ALARM 30.

Dianogah: QhnnnlDianogah: Qhnnnl (Southern Records, 8/12/08)

Dianogah: “A Breaks B”

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Essayist and self-proclaimed “dean of American rock critics” Robert Christgau once wrote, “Great bands keep creating from what they know, and figuring it out as they do.”

Chicago’s Dianogah (consisting of bassists Jay Ryan and Jason Harvey and drummer Kip McCabe) has spent the last 12 years crafting unique compositions primarily from its two basses and drums, incorporated minimal guitar, or keyboards when the situation called for it. On its newest album, Qhnnnl, coming six years after its most recent album (the John McEntire-recorded Millions Of Brazilians), Dianogah is branching into new territory, using its bass-centric background in exciting new ways.

“We’ve been a band for a really long time, and I think now we’re trying to shrug off how captive we are to our instrumentation,” McCabe says. “We’ve explored a lot of what we can do rhythmically and melodically. I think our next step was breaking away from what seemed easier to do with our instruments and trying to do something different.”

Dianogah formed in 1995 and quickly became a staple of the vivacious Chicago independent music scene. “You had all these vibrant labels working here,” Ryan says. “You had bands that were operating on a really small level, like ours, all the way to the more popular indie-rock bands, like Shellac, Tortoise, and The Sea And Cake. There was very much a “do-it-yourself” attitude. That was the thing people said about Chicago.”

Now, in 2008, Dianogah is operating in largely the same self-sufficient manner, but in a changing scene. Harvey comments, “The whole point of this was to have fun, and the fact that anyone would come to see us play, the fact that anyone would still put out our record, is great because it’s just our fun thing to do. Now every Tom, Dick, and Harry band has a booking agent, a PR guy, a label, a manager. When we started out, we felt lucky that we would have a label to release our record.”

“We’ve been a band for a really long time, and I think now we’re trying to shrug off how captive we are to our instrumentation. We’ve explored a lot of what we can do rhythmically and melodically. I think our next step was breaking away from what seemed easier to do with our instruments.”

Ryan, who also runs his own screen-printing studio, The Bird Machine, adds, “I think it’s fair to say we’ve always had super-low expectations of the band. We can probably go to any city in America and a dozen people will come out, and maybe four of them will have heard of us, and that’s cool. We don’t expect 300 people to come out, and we don’t get frustrated when 300 people don’t show up.” The rampant careerism of current Chicago bands is somewhat at odds with the community from which Dianogah arose. Still, Dianogah perseveres, and, in 2008, the band is shaping up to be stronger than ever.

Dianogah’s first three albums are in-depth explorations of bass guitars, seductive rhythms, and intertwining melodies. By the time Millions of Brazilians was released, the wandering melodies threatened to drift away entirely. “I think we realized after the last couple records,” Harvey says, “that the quieter songs don’t end up making it into our live set very often because they seem to be the things that bore people when we’re playing them.”

The new Dianogah is a different beast. “We all bought a distortion pedal,” McCabe explains. Ryan adds, “To name names, we all got into Meshuggah a lot. I finally got around to discovering the Melvins, and listened to them a lot, which is really late in the game. Our musical tastes have continued to develop and have tended towards some heavier stuff.” Which isn’t to say that Dianogah has gone metal. But on several new songs, there is a rock-oriented, often noisy approach that was only vaguely hinted at on previous albums.

On the other hand, several new tracks rank with the most beautiful work it has made. Chicago violinist Andrew Bird appears on four new songs, adding subtle counterpoint to the most direct and intensely melodic songs of Dianogah’s intensely melodic career. “A year or two ago, he came and played a show with us and just played on some older songs,” Harvey says. “He reinterpreted guitar parts or keyboard parts, and did them on the violin in his own way. We were all floored by what he had done, just really excited, and agreed that we have got to get him, if he’ll do it, on the new record. So we gave him a tape of everything, and he picked the ones that he wanted to write stuff for.”

The high point of this collaboration might be “A Breaks B,” which not only features Bird’s poignant string work but also a vocal duet between Jay Ryan and Pawner’s Society singer Stephanie Morris. Millions Of Brazilians was the first Dianogah album to feature no vocals at all, and on prior albums As Seen From Above and Battle Champions, vocals were already scarce. On Qhnnnl, Dianogah has brought singing to more songs than ever before.

McCabe says, “We’re a bit challenged tonally, in that we have two basses and drums, and there’s a lot of room. One of the things that interested me about adding a female vocalist was the tone.” Indeed, Morris adds a distinctive character to several songs in the same way that Bird’s violin enhances others. “Stephanie has just a really genuine, ego-free, unaffected voice that’s quite beautiful and also super subtle. I think that they’re the vocals that a band like [ours] need[s]. They’re very timid, almost like an instrument.”

It all adds up to what may be one of the most exciting, diverse, and satisfying albums of the coming year. “I think collectively we can say that we think that it is our best record,” Harvey says. “I know that every band that puts out a new record probably says that. I think that [it applies to us] in terms of having an idea of what you want something to be and then having it turn out the way you hoped.” Dianogah has made several worthy albums — now the band is preparing to release a potential Chicago classic.

“On the last couple records, we would end up having songs for the record, and not songs for shows,” Harvey says. “So we wanted more songs for shows that were fun for us to play. ‘Qhnnnl’ and ‘You Might Go Off,’ which are songs we’ve been playing for years, are some of our favorite songs to play live because they’re fast and loud.” “You Might Go Off” might be the key to the new record’s code. It is beautiful in its simplicity, and quintessentially Dianogah in its swirling melodicism, yet it is the most punk-oriented song that the band has written. For the rousing finale, the whole group shouts, “This is how we fight!”

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