If Al Johnson, singer/moaner/wheezer for the Chicago avant-grunge jazz quartet U.S. Maple, remembers nothing else about his band's experiences in Cleveland, he'll remember the dogs. When the band played a show on the Case Western Reserve campus, it regaled what it hoped were open-minded college kids with its freaked-out, utterly indescribable free-form rock, splintered blues chords, arbitrary, time-signature-less rhythms, and song structures and melodies that seemingly rise from the dead and float in the air for a few seconds, before abruptly imploding. And above it all, Johnson's ghoulish, near-incoherent croon, gasping tortured lyrical fragments in a voice so indecipherable, some fans swear he's singing in Japanese.
Then the dogs came.
"The way our songs are structured, and the way we present them, things dwindle down to virtually nothing," Johnson explains. "So we were doing our thing, and I can't remember if it was one or two dogs had joined us up on stage. And they weren't necessarily going from band member to band member -- they were sort of facing the audience, like we were."
An emotional bond had formed. Unified and content, the band and its newfound friends stood staring out onto a probably befuddled crowd.
"There were disparaging similarities between the dogs and us," Johnson continues. "It crystallized the way this band is thought of in this country: how we're perceived as dogs, and how lonely a dog can be. I don't think I'll ever forget that."
Likewise, few art-rock enthusiasts who cross the path of U.S. Maple -- which, in addition to Johnson, includes drummer Patrick Samson and guitarists Todd Rittmann and Mark Shippy -- will forget the experience. Beginning with its 1995 debut Long Hair in Three Stages and leading up to its upcoming fourth long-player, Acre Thrills, the quartet has gleefully hijacked the key components of "rock" (guitar riffs, rumbling drums, and guttural moans) and scrambled them beyond comprehension.
Think of U.S. Maple as the anti-Smashing Pumpkins -- pop music conceived and written and performed in exact reverse, sacrificing cohesion for intense concentration. Johnson has resigned himself to a lifetime of Captain Beefheart comparisons, but the ultimate U.S. Maple end product is the band's and the band's alone. On record or in person, the four players often appear to have no relationship with each other -- it's as if they're not even playing the same song.
"I think there are moments when we don't know what we're about to do," Johnson says of the U.S. Maple live experience. "We don't know if we're going to get to the end of a song, come in together, or find a resolve."
Then again, pop backwards is still pop, lack of resolve notwithstanding. Acre Thrills finds U.S. Maple confidently sticking to its anti-rock guns, blasting out free-jazz jolts of electric rock inspiration with song titles such as "Chang, You're Attractive," "Make Your Bedroom Great," and "Rice Ain't Afraid of Nothing." The album retains traces of the paranoia that dominated Talker, the band's 1999 quasi-concept album that Johnson once described as dealing with "high school, the last American haunted house."
The subject matter may have changed, but the core U.S. Maple sound and philosophy have not. Committed from the beginning to "reorganizing rock and roll," the band ain't done yet.
"U.S. Maple is a rock and roll band," Johnson explains. "We were in 1995, and we are now. I think we're still doing it. Every time we make a record, we have to reorganize the race and further this idea. We continue to do that. You can listen to all of our albums, and I don't think we've strayed far from what we're trying to do. We're still scratching."
"Scratching" still ably describes Johnson's voice: As the song titles suggest, translating his lyrical conceits ("Yeah/Go ahead/Get your window clear") proves almost impossible. But -- at least in theory -- it makes sense to his fans, and it certainly makes sense to him.
"It's a natural course for me to be a better singer after all these years, but by no means do I think I'm going to be known as a singer, so much," Johnson admits. "I think I'm known for being this physical flu on stage."
If anything, Johnson hopes to vocally present the image of someone attempting to be known as a singer -- and quite possibly failing.
"The undercurrent of feelings and emotions from someone who's trying to do something is poetry to me," he says. "I try to do things and go places where I'm not sure I'm going to make it. I think that comes across. I think there are moments on the records when you go, 'Oh, God.'
"I've always been sincere," Johnson concludes, sincerely. "This band is the most sincere thing I've been a part of in my life."
But sincerity has rarely enthralled the masses, and the band thus draws the small but unshakably devoted fan base that insists Johnson and Co. are light years ahead of their time -- 30 years from now, U.S. Maple will enjoy the deification currently heaped upon, uh, Captain Beefheart.
Then there's the small but unshakably devoted contingent that shows up for a live gig and subsequently considers U.S. Maple the very scourge of mankind.
"There are people who absolutely detest what's going on," Johnson admits. "Detest it. But generally, the people who hate U.S. Maple -- they stick around. We're offering something that keeps them there, so they can decide what they hate next."
Johnson appears to welcome either reaction.
"I think we have a profound effect on people -- good or bad," he says. "I think if you can leave people with that at the end of a show, you're open to interpretation, down the line. I think it's quite easy to be bluesy, to have a retro sound. You can go out and buy those things. It's a lot harder to create something from absolutely nothing -- to get out there and put it out there. I don't think people know what to do with it all the time."
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