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Strange World Of...

The Strange World Of... U.S. Maple
Joe Thompson , March 13th, 2024 08:59

“There were so many great bad ideas to explore.” Joe Thompson of Wrong Speed records guides us through the imperfectly formed catalogue of the cult Chicagoan noise rock band, with the help of guitarist Todd Rittmann

U.S. Maple, 2003, left to right: Adam Vida, Mark Shippy, Todd Rittmann, Al Johnson

High Fidelity. Scene 12, act 3. Setting: a record shop in Chicago. A twitchy character is trying to summon up the courage to buy Safe As Milk by Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band. The custodian of the 'deep dive' racks digs it out, lets the twitchy character sniff it, but then refuses to sell it to him. Twitchy shuffles off. End scene.

It's a record shop snob cliche played out by Mr Jack Black with relished gusto. As a self-confessed deep diving vinyl snaffler myself I may never have experienced this exact scenario but I’ve certainly gone through similar.

“No, you can’t have Loveless, you have to buy Flip Your Wig.”
Thanks, Oven Ready Records, Aylesbury.

The real beauty of the scene in High Fidelity though is that the would-be Beefheart purchaser is played by Al Johnson, frontman of U.S. Maple – a band who were in the middle of their impeccable, untouchable, ultimate outsider rock, five-album run at the turn of the century when the film was released; a band whose music took touches of the High Fidelity-approved idea of Beefheart and ran over them with a combination of styles cribbed from Sonny Sharrock, Jim O’Rourke and John Fahey, mixing it up with jazz and a keep-weird-shit-in-jars-in-the-basement-on-a-shelf-under-a-tarpaulin sense of creepiness.

They de-rocked rock music yet in their sound you can detect a love of classic rock. And if High Fidelity had been filmed two decades later and wanted to properly summon up the misery of dealing with music shop snobbery, it would have utilised the singer from IDLES being refused a copy of U.S. Maple’s Long Hair In Three Stages. The version in the handmade, numbered, die-cut, metal outer sleeve, naturally.

U.S. Maple began their backroad journey in 1995. Al Johnson and Mark Shippy were playing together in Shorty – whose Thumb Days LP is required listening for all who want to dig even further into the Maple story. Pat Samson and Todd Rittmann were in Mercury Players who have a couple of 7” singles that clearly display similar, if heftier, leanings. The four met at University in Northern Illinois and devised a plan for "reorganising" rock music. They released a couple of singles and then a series of albums, initially on Skin Graft, then later on Drag City. The trip lasted a dozen years, the corpse is beautiful, the influence is hidden in plain sight. The legacy is of a band that stumbled out of a scene of many into a room of just one, where they remained, alone. No other band has come close.

‘Letter To ZZ Top’ from Long Hair In Three Stages (1995)

“Give my bones to Billy Gibbons”. It’s tough to think of a better opening line.

Todd Rittmann: Our first album, Long Hair In Three Stages was put together quickly, in maybe eight months. We had already done a single and Skin Graft records gave us a modest recording budget. We were serious about doing something that broke away from the indie rock conventions we were all a little tired of: bombastic drums, distorted guitars, snaky baselines, fake-ass tough guy vocals, etc. It was go time, and we were out to blaze a new trail. We would all come to rehearsals with ideas and knock them together, or apart sometimes. If it made us laugh and sounded cool, we went after it and tried to squeeze the rock from it. Mark had this killer chord progression with all these inversions and strange fingerings, but there’s a beautiful little melody inside this. If Mark Shippy isn’t the world's most musical noise rock guitar player, he at least gives that aspect of his playing more thought than anyone I know of. I’m not sure why Pat and I resorted to such caveman simplicity but holy hell, that approach became a layer of our bedrock. The “chorus” and “bridge” were a real-time group effort just to create an arrangement we could play through. Al made it into a song though, those lyrics still make me laugh.

‘The State Is Bad’ from Long Hair In Three Stages (1995)

The three chords that roll around on this track are pure AC/DC.

TR: Pat was adamant about rethinking the drum sound he had going on our first single and Jim O’Rourke really captured that de-tuned, dead-as-a-bag-of-meat snare sound perfectly. Most of the music we were previously involved in had these lively drum sounds in huge, natural ambience, ping-y snare sounds, with lots of overtones. For us it was yet another chance to try doing the exact opposite [of what we were used to hearing] and to see what would happen. Mark and I were both plugging directly into amps and getting a lot of great results without resorting to using effects pedals, or even large amounts of gain or distortion. There were so many great bad ideas to explore with electric guitars that the use of effects would have distracted from. On the later records Mark might deploy an EQ pedal or a preamp, but mostly we were going straight into amps. It kept the live shows focused on performing some pretty difficult music with some passion rather than shoegaze pedalboard tap-dancing which seemed like a bore. Again, Mark came in with this incredible melody. It occurred to me to drone in A while doing his same melody in-the-round. It pissed off the rockers who were expecting more Chicago 90s rock. Oh well.

‘Sin City’ from Sides 1-4 2x7” split with Shellac / Big’n / Brise-Glace (1995)

TR: Our origin story is the four of us were in two different bands that were winding down. Mark and Al were in Shorty, Pat and I were in an outfit called Mercury Players. We were all active in DeKalb, Illinois where we were going to college; both bands having recently relocated to Chicago. Al approached me sometime in 94 about starting up something new and I was eager to try that. When the time came to put the rest of the lineup together, he suggested Mark. This stressed me out a little as Mark is a virtuoso player and I was still building my confidence. I was concerned I’d be relegated to bass or rhythm guitar and recede into the background of this new band. After a false start with Jim Kimball (Mule, The Jesus Lizard), Al suggested Pat as drummer. Again I was hesitant as I was hopeful to not fuck things up with some new friends, but once we gave it a shot, there was some noticeable chemistry. The kind of thing that you are almost obligated to submit to. We were fortunate enough to start the band with a small budget dedicated to recording an AC/DC track for a compilation. So our mission was simple: get the cover together and write one or two originals to smuggle into the session. I was still goofing off with bass but I wasn’t grooving on being just a bassist. I did have this ugly-ass Carvin guitar with stereo outputs dedicated to individual pickups and it was easy to modify. On a whim I strung it with two bass strings going to one pickup and four guitar strings going to the other, and then did my best to intonate it. I brought it to a rehearsal and plugged into a bass amp and a guitar amp. The reaction from my bandmates was emphatic – this was our sound. Problem was, it was a total bitch to play. Those limitations quickly turned to assets though as our mission was to chart a new course. We went to Memphis to record for two days at Easley Recording studios. We didn’t have much of a P.A. in our rehearsal space at first, so we actually never heard what Al’s vocals sounded like until he started tracking there. When we heard the playback it didn’t sound like the aggressive yelling stuff he had been doing in Shorty at all. It sounded like fucking Snagglepuss on a bender! What the fuck? I remember hearing the mixes of those three songs and being totally unsure if what we had done was going to be loved or hated. Turns out it was both in equal measure. That became one of my very favourite places in music to be.

‘Coming Back To Dammnit’ from Sang Phat Editor (1997)

TR: A glutton for punishment, I chopped together a second, even harder to play, guitar/ bass hybrid. I had an old Telecaster which I converted to stereo, then cut a nut so it had five strings – two bass and three guitar. Then I took it to a local luthier – the late, great Bob Gorny – and asked him to put quarter-tone frets between the regular frets, on just the guitar half. Bob was a great builder, but he was also an unbelievable character with a giant heart and a passion for weird stuff. I was surprised he took on the job with some enthusiasm. The guitar is an abomination, but through sheer determination, a handful of songs were written and performed on it. This is the first one. Every song that uses this guitar was inspired by a riff that came from it, as opposed to trying to fit its sound into ideas someone else had.

‘Songs That Have No Making Out’ from Sang Phat Editor (1997)

TR: Our second album, Sang Phat Editor, and our debut, Long Hair, were each tracked and mixed in six days with Jim O’Rourke and Phil Bonnet at Solid Sound Recording studios, Hoffman Estates, Illinois. Making a record start to finish in six consecutive days is gruelling to say the least. You work for over ten hours per day with no days off. Jim was also always working on his own music after our sessions ended despite having a cold. One night he asked if Phil could take over with some aspect of the overdubbing while he took a nap. He laid down on the hard industrial carpet under the console, pulled his jacket over himself, and was instantly asleep. We continued to work. At some point his snoring became intense and exaggerated. During each of our recording sessions there would be a couple half-baked ideas that got tracked; sometimes they would get used, sometimes they would be forgotten. We had one of those half-baked ideas on the reel so someone had the idea to record Jim's snoring over it. By the time he woke up we were already working on a different song. A couple of days later we were mixing late into the night and someone suggested playing him the "new vocals" we tracked with Phil. He sat down and listened intently to the whole song. He started into a very diplomatic but negative critique of the idea before he realised what was going on.

‘Go To Bruises’ from Talker (1999)

TR: Another Telecaster song. I wasn’t trying to be smart with those quarter-tone frets, I just wanted another option for ugly in my hands. It forced me to play very simply if I wanted anything listenable to happen. I’m still grappling with that idea. We went to B.C. studio in New York for Talker with a slightly bigger budget and were able to book ten days. It was still intense work, but a little less gruelling. Michael Gira was the only producer we ever credited that offered suggestions for overdubs and took stock in the energy and groove of the takes we were laying down. He was always the first one to say we had to do another take. I think we all really enjoyed that perspective. We were ridiculously confident of what we were doing, but we also benefited from an outsider's opinion. Michael is definitely an outsider’s outsider.

‘Open A Rose’ from Acre Thrills (2001)

This starts with a beat that Dilla should have sampled. There’s a 30 minute short on Youtube by Hardeye Films which documents the making of the band’s fourth album, Acre Thrills. For those asking: “I wonder if Al, the singer, scored all the moments in a song indicating where his throat should be more closed or open while singing, or where he needed to deploy a certain vocal tick, or to denote where the emphasis of each syllable should land? I wonder if this is all planned or if he just jams it out and lets it land where it lands?” The answer is yes. It’s entirely planned out. The lyric sheet that comes with the record even has a visual score relating to this.

TR: After the Talker album we toured with Pavement for six months as their opener, getting shit thrown at us and relentlessly heckled night after night. After the first two shows we settled in and started enjoying being hated by over 2,000 alternative rock fans and appreciated by less than 75 weirdos per night. It was never our aim, but being the “heel” was something we related to in that context. It was essentially the theme of Talker anyway. "The haunted house of high school” as Al put it. So we hunkered down to write more. Once again we were offered a little more budget. Once again we ratcheted up our little machine. We recorded Acre Thrills At Pachyderm Recording Studio in Minnesota with Brian Paulson. Pachyderm is an incredible facility, it's where In Utero was recorded, and Paulson had made records we all knew sounded fucking incredible. It wasn’t like “it" was “paying off”, but we were on a mission, and by god, we were getting somewhere, day jobs and all. Patrick Samson’s singularity is in full effect here, even if it is still a mere rendering of what it's like to hear him play in person. He synthesizes jazz rudiments, rock rudeness, and artistic slapstick, all into a band new, deadpan groove.

‘Troop And Trouble’ from Acre Thrills (2001)

TR: Oh shit, more Telecaster. Mark really pulled a melodic rabbit out of my dunce's cap on this. We had an empty bridge to contend with and for some reason I ended up overdubbing it with a solo. I rolled the volume down on the guitar to the point of the tone collapsing into a wiry glitch. This is a good example of one our event-based songs. Our music was always composed and arranged. We would sometimes hit a part in a track where we would wait for one person to play a particular sound or sequence before we all changed to the next part; and occasionally a few of these events would be strung together. We were always conscious of making “rock music” even though we were aware most listeners would have a hard time understanding it. Oh well. Though we have been accused of deconstruction, I think Al’s descriptor of “rearranging rock” is much more apt.

‘Dumb In The Wings’ from Purple On Time (2003)

Purple On Time is the band’s last album and this is the song I play to anyone I’m trying to convince that U.S. Maple are needed in their life. This tune has such a wild melody and groove. The band’s love of classic rock is alive and kicking here with the Blue Oyster Cult-esque guitar lines and the broken apart ZZ Top swing.

TR: After an absolute shit-ton of touring, while holding down day jobs, things started to fizzle out. Pat and Al were roommates at this time, which was another point of friction. One day I had a message on my answering machine from Pat that he was quitting the band. Back around 1992 opening for Snailboy [a DeKalb group that featured 3/4 of Mark and Al’s band Shorty] I thought I was hot shit in my little college band scene. I was amazed and appalled by what I witnessed. [I realised that] Alan Johnson is a frontman incarnate. He is the real deal. Fucking brilliant. He is the most charismatic and funny motherfucker you could hope to meet. ‘Dumb In The Wings’ is bittersweet. Even though Adam Vida did a heroic job of sidestepping Pat’s enormous shoes, the band was cursed by its own ambition. The lyric seems to be about a bird who just can’t fucking fly. I love this whole album. Adam truly made this record his own and I want everyone to listen to it.

U.S. Maple live at Supersonic Festival, Birmingham (2006)

Are U.S. Maple the Velvet Underground of the 90s to early 2000s? Each of the few records sold went to someone who tried to pick apart the DNA, guitarists started having second thoughts about power chording their way through five minute riffathons. I saw the band once, on this tour, at Bardens Boudoir in Dalston, London. Of the many things that blew my mind was the lack of bass. It had never occurred to me through my time listening to the band that they were minus a four-stringer. It was their last ever show.

TR: This is one of the last shows we played. We were going for absolute fucking broke, again. Oh Well.

Todd now plays in Dead Rider who release records on Drag City