There are very few qualifiers for the title of Most Singular Sound in the world of Indie Rock, but U.S. Maple comes as close as any to laying a claim. Since its birth eight years ago from the ashes of Shorty (contributing vocalist Al Johnson and guitarist Mark Shippy) and the Mercury Players (offering guitarist Todd Rittman and drummer Pat Samson), the DeKalb-to-Chicago quartet has managed to craft a sound with all the mystery of a sixth-grade math story problem: "If one vocalist, two guitarists and one drummer left in the same direction toward the same influences but at different times and in different time signatures, and without a bassist, at what time would they arrive in Chicago to kick everyone's ass?" The Dadaist answer, of course, is "With every album so far."
The U.S. Maple story to date has been a series of minor triumphs as each successive album (1995's Long Hair in Three Stages, 1997's Sang Phat Editor, 1999's Talker, 2001's Acre Thrills) has garnered near universal critical acclaim and inspired peer adulation. Jim O'Rourke sang high praises for Long Hair, and Stephen Malkmus tapped U.S. Maple as opener for Pavement's farewell tour on the basis of Talker.
And yet no good thing can last forever. When U.S. Maple finished touring Acre Thrills in 2001, a wrung-out Samson declared he was retiring from the band. The drummer's departure was a serious blow to the intricately woven sound, as his Jazz-flared chops were U.S. Maple's beautifully irregular heartbeat.
"When you replace someone, do you want them to sound just like the member they're replacing? Pat obviously had a great deal to do with our sound and our whole identity," says guitarist Rittman.
"That was a major problem as far as trying to continue. There was a moment where we were up against the wall as far as deciding what to do next."
As if in answer to prayers aimed at the gods of music, impossibly young and improbably talented drummer Adam Vida fell to earth in Chicago, linked by fandom with U.S. Maple (and Rittman having met him at one of Vida's Jazz improv shows years before) and ready to find his place in an obvious void. At his audition, he stretched the pair of songs he was asked to learn into seven perfectly rendered gems. He was hired on the spot.
With Vida on board and comfortably integrated, the band began work on its fifth album, the characteristically uncharacteristic Purple on Time. Even with a vital new member, Rittman says the band's method remained largely unaltered.
"I would say we approach each record as a natural evolution from the last point that we were at," says Rittman. "We'll start writing a few songs and then an idea of how the whole body is going to be put together comes along about halfway through that process. We're constantly reflecting those two ideas off of each other."
And this process transcends the making of albums, as U.S. Maple employs the same technique within each individual song structure. In this sense, Purple on Time follows the non-repeating pattern of its four predecessors by featuring all of U.S. Maple's strongest assets (Johnson's rasping vocal strength, the angular guitar acrobatics of Shippy and Rittman and Vida's loose yet highly precise timekeeping in the wake of Samson's brilliant drum blueprints) in settings both warmly familiar and shockingly fresh.
"We're constantly trying to approach the song from within itself and trying to discover what the song is while we're writing it," says Rittman. "There's not really a defined way in which we go about putting our music together."
Because of the seemingly random manner in which U.S. Maple achieves its sonic goals, a good many critics draw an understandable parallel between USM and Captain Beefheart. Rittman accepts the supreme compliment with grace and an appropriate level of gratitude but also puts that reference into the proper perspective.
"That comparison has come up more than any other between U.S. Maple's music and the history of contemporary Rock," says Rittman. "I guess it would be interesting to note that none of us were Captain Beefheart fans when we first started playing music together. It was only after those comparisons that we started to investigate their music. We all appreciate the music of Captain Beefheart and his wonderful Magic Band, but it's definitely not an influence. There are similarities, but only in that we choose not to use some of the same stock ingredients that the Captain chose not to use. It's like saying Thai food and Mexican food are very similar in that they don't use potatoes."
Although words like "dissonance," "noise" and "improvisation" get thrown around a lot in U.S. Maple reviews, Rittman is quick to dispel any notion of the band as casual or undisciplined when considering the creation and performance of its music. No matter how aimless U.S. Maple might sound, he maintains the band always tries to keep an eye on its destination and offers his view of Purple on Time as the most melodic and conventional U.S. Maple album in its canon.
"We're very deliberately aware of how the song comes together as a song," he says. "The details as far as what one might hear as dissonance or aimlessness is perhaps a result of the sort of method we're employing in that song, and it's different from song to song, like I said. I think once our audience or a listener internalizes any of our songs, one can hear a little past that detail that it's aimless or tuneless. To us it sounds like traditional Rock music. It's not deconstruction. It's just that we're playing with the ideas of reassembling these really traditional ideas of Rock music."
U.S. MAPLE performs Thursday at alchemize with openers The Chocolate Horse.