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Cartographers get by with a little help from their friends
Jackson Albracht — guitarist, vocalist, and primary songwriter for San Antonio’s Cartographers — explains how “Aldon,” a lyrically abstract and musically complex standout track on the band’s self-released untitled debut, started out as an ad lib meant to piss off a friend.
“Originally, I was really singing it just to embarrass Aldon,” Albracht explains at Joey’s between sips of a beer he’s barely old enough to drink. “But I played this pretty cool chord change, and I became infatuated with it.”
That chord change and friend-antagonizing chorus — “Aldon is the coolest guy I’ve ever known/ I wonder if I should ask him what his secret is” — remain on the album version, but the song offers a first-person account of a relationship’s death throes. “Feeling confused, think we should talk/Put on your shoes, circle the block/ I noticed the clouds had started eating the stars/ About the same time that we were falling apart.”
The lyrics for every Cartographers song, personal or poetic as they sound, begin as “placeholders,” Albracht says, strung together to chain all those chord changes into songs, coherent musically if not always lyrically. “I’m more concerned with interesting words,” he says. “I don’t really care if they’re gonna, like, make a narrative.”
If this approach to songwriting seems coldly calculated to any language-fetishizing English majors out there, you should probably just skip the next paragraph.
Albracht says one of his biggest songwriting influences is Elliott Smith, but unlike most Smith-heads, Albracht doesn’t start quoting lyrics when the songwriter’s genius comes into question. When an acquaintance dismissed Smith’s often-depressing verses (“Needle in the Hay” has soundtracked both Frank Black’s therapeutic crying sessions and Richie Tenenbaum’s suicide attempt) as “too emo,” Albracht says he became angry. “Do you know anything about chord progression or music or anything?” he replied.
Albracht, dressed for his sandwich-delivery job in black-framed hipster glasses and a Quasi T-shirt, looks every bit the kind of guy who would say this. Quasi is a three-piece featuring Sam Coomes, formerly bassist for Smith’s Heatmiser, on guitar and keyboard, and Jonna Bolme, Smith’s former girlfriend, on bass. Albracht says he once met Smith’s sister, Ashley Welch, at the merch table after a Quasi gig — when he was trying to pass along the cupcakes he’d baked for the band. He’s so inspired by Smith, Albracht says, he’s constantly afraid of the influence becoming too prevalent in Cartographers songs.
“Whenever anybody tells us we sound like somebody, and it’s not Elliott Smith,” Albracht says, “I’m really relieved.”
The most apparent similarity to Smith is in Albracht’s vocal delivery: Both singers possess a soft-voiced masculine vulnerability, though Albracht is less likely to employ his to heighten heart-stabbing emotional pathos than to punch up a gallows-ready punchline. “When I’m dead,” Albracht sings in his sugariest tenor over the sleigh bells on “The Particulars,” “don’t waste no money on me/ Don’t need a spectacle to prove I’m not living/ But you can give my bones to the family dog/ Cause he’ll be hungry still even when I am gone.”
If the idea of the family dog gnawing your remains like rawhide doesn’t make you chuckle, Albracht, who snickers recalling a Neil Hamburger joke, is ready to admit he’s the odd one. As he explains in “I Don’t Care for Job:” “Conventional ideas of humor often fail to make me laugh or smile.” That line begins what’s probably the album’s most immediately catchy song, thanks to one hell of a catchy guitar hook and the refrain’s sing-songy Sunday-school vibe, which effortlessly carries the song through interludes of distorted experimentation and lounge jazz.
What does make Albracht grin, then? Religious proselytizing, apparently, which he more or less likens to cannibalism: “They told me if you don’t got Jesus in your heart then you’re dead,” the song continues, “I seen a Christian with a fork and knife just lookin’ at my head like he was hungry/ Lickin’ his chops, I never seen nothin’ so funny.”
If that offends you, you should probably skip the next paragraph.
Religion, or more accurately the ridiculousness of it, is a favorite songwriting subject for Albracht, who studied music at Nashville’s “Bellmont Baptist Shitville.” “If there is some sort of god,” ridiculously sunny sounding “Grandfather Clock” muses, “tell me don’t it strike you rather strange/ That he made us all so lame?” And album closer “God’s Messy Divorce,” is self-explanatory.
“I’m not trying to be outspoken or, like, in your face about it,” Albracht says. “I definitely have friends with dissenting opinions, and I realize these are push-button issues. Really I don’t care what people do.”
Sometimes people care what the band does, though. It’s only happened a few times, but Albracht does occasionally decide to skip some of the more objectionable material. “There are nights when I see the crowd and say, ‘Hey guys, let’s not do “Job” tonight,’” he says.
And sometimes they just laugh and play it anyway.
Multi-instrumentalist Marcus Rubio remembers a gig where the band wasn’t allowed to drink alcohol onstage because the venue was using a PA borrowed from a Christian church.
“Which is really funny if you know anything about Jackson or the lyrics to the songs,” he says gleefully, “because we’re basically up there onstage saying ‘Fuck god,’ and they’re worried about us drinking beer.”
On second thought, if the lyrics to “Job” up there offended you, you probably should’ve just skipped to another story.
The absence of a loving creator (or, depending on your beliefs, the thought of several young musicians burning in eternal hellfire) is glum stuff to be sure, but you wouldn’t know it from the music. Albracht can’t resist undercutting a bright, bouncy melody with some dark lyrics or a few bars of cacophony, a trick he says he took from Wilco. He even names a single one of their songs as the Cartographers’ template.
“‘Via Chicago’ is definitely responsible for a lot of the songs we play,” Albracht says.
The effect of “Via Chicago” — which begins with singer Jeff Tweedy matter-of-factly stating “I dreamed about killing you again last night, and it felt all right to me,” and devolves from a folksy ballad into an entropic noise collage — is apparent (at least after Albracht says so), but mostly intangible. The song, or the idea of it, seems to have helped shape Albracht’s songwriting approach, but little on the album is conspicuously musically similar.
A more immediately obvious influence is the Beatles, whose black humor, intricate harmonies, and tendency to gussy up their rock ’n’ roll in classical string arrangements seem to’ve crept onto nearly every track on the album in some form or another. It’s an influence Albracht openly acknowledges and one he shares with several of the other band members, including keyboardist Chris Madden, who joined Cartographers after hearing them cover “A Day in the Life,” and guitarist Raul Alvarez, who is responsible for most of the album’s harmonies. Violinist and bassist Rubio says the Fab Four are the reason he originally picked up an instrument.
“I started playing guitar basically because of the Beatles,” Rubio says, “but all their songs were too hard, so I had to play the Ramones instead.”
Albracht and Rubio met through Joe Reyes, guitarist for San Antonio’s Buttercup, another common influence. Albracht and Rubio are both fans of the band, and they individually began talking music with Reyes at Buttercup shows and developed friendships with him. He’s forgotten most of the details, but Reyes says he’s pretty sure he first saw Albrecht at a Buttercup house party gig that was ultimately busted up by the cops.
“I can’t really remember how I met Jackson,” Reyes says, “but I think police handcuffs were involved somehow.”
Rubio, who heads the eponymous Gospel Choir of Pillows (for which Albracht plays bass), is far from the only Cartographer pulling double duty — Madden fronts Blowing Trees and plays keyboards for the Pillows, Alvarez plays guitar in Austin’s Space Pandas, self-described “seasonal” keyboardist Aaron Green plays in several bands in New York (where he studies philosophy at Bard College), and drummer Skyler Ellis promotes tinnitus with solo project St. Satan — but the similarity of Rubio and Albracht’s inspirations and theory-driven songwriting technique might easily make for two bands releasing a single mass of indistinguishable indie pop. Rubio insists that it doesn’t, though he can’t explain why exactly, outside of the individual sensibilities and vocal styles of the two bands’ frontmen. He does, however, describe how he arranged the string portions of the Cartographers album without self-plagiarizing.
“I listen to a lot of avant-garde classical music, and that influences a lot of [the Gospel Pillows] stuff … but when I was working on the Cartographers’ album, and I tried to incorporate those elements they just didn’t really fit.” And he’s right — the arrangements on the Cartographers album stick closer to “Eleanor Rigby” than “The Rite of Spring,” but the differences run deeper than who’s ripping off whom. The Gospel Choir’s Oceanic Tremors, released July 17, is a whimsical concept album featuring sentient whales and grander-scope classically inspired compositions (and, for two tracks, Current art director Chuck Kerr on the drums), while the songs on the Cartographers album are linked by little besides some skillful cross-fading.
The Albracht-penned songs also incorporate classical elements, but they have more in common with Brian Wilson’s Frankensteinian approach — stitching often unrelated musical ideas together into a coherent whole — a technique Wilson used to create what he once called “teenage symphonies for God.” Put another way, Tremors sounds like classical music with rock instruments and the Cartographers album sounds like rock instruments arranged like classical music. If that seems like splitting hairs to differentiate between two collections of what a casual listener would classify as Beatlesque indie pop, maybe it is. The fact that these albums are distinguishable is worth mentioning, though, considering they feature several of the same musicians and were recorded during the same period in the same home studio.
Reyes recorded both albums (incidentally between trips to Dallas to work on his own band’s The Weather Here, to be released August 1). Though Reyes insists Albracht produced most of the album (which doesn’t sound like it was recorded in anyone’s house), Albracht says he learned a lot from Reyes, who programmed the lead synth line in “Take to the Seas,” and the backward guitar solo at the end of “Grandfather Clock.”
“Joe’s house was like the most natural environment we could’ve recorded in,” Albracht says, “and Joe’s so laid-back. I paid for most of our studio time just by going to Buttercup shows and throwing a hundred dollars on the stage.”
Reyes allows, begrudgingly from the sound of it, that yes, maybe he’s a “mentor” to Albracht and Rubio in some ways, but he stresses that it’s more of a friendship than a tutelage.
“It’s like we’re a gang,” Reyes explains, “but it’s a music gang. … I’m not trying to ride out of town on these kids’ coattails or anything.” He pauses to consider. “Actually that would be pretty awesome. … These kids are going to do some great things.”
Cartographers will drop their debut Friday at Limelight. Bring a blank T-shirt and get a free Cartographers print when you buy the CD for $10.