In downtown Durham on a recent sunny Saturday afternoon, the usual business of the bar The Federal idled. A couple leaned in close to chat at an outdoor table, hiding away from a motorcycle's passing blare. The tune of Alan Jackson's ode to making music, "Chasin' That Neon Rainbow," drifted onto the patio from some distant stereo. Seated on two benches parallel to one of the bar's long, brown picnic tables, though, the band Maple Stave fretted, noticeably uncomfortable and unfamiliar with the situation.
"What a great question," said Andy Hull, one of the trio's two baritone guitarists, flatly after a pregnant pause. Everyone laughed with a moment of relief until the drummer, Evan Rowe, sighed and continued. "We're not good at good questions. We've got a list of things we're not good at."
Maple Stave has been a band since 2003; across three EPs and a handful of tours, they've steadily ratcheted the tension and muscle of their maneuverable math rock. From the outset, they seemed a band with a good idea of how they wanted to sound—that is, a fiery mix of Midwestern indie rock titans like Shellac, Slint and Shipping News. Over the last seven years, they've just gotten better at sounding that way by adding nuance and new twists. Those baritone guitars allow for swiveling lows and muscular highs; Rowe, a former marching band drummer, is a mathematical dynamo. Now, though, out here on the patio, Maple Stave is stuck trying to explain the variety and movement of its first LP, Like Rain Freezing and Thawing Between Bricks Year After Year, This House Will Come Down—or, more conveniently, LP1. As a band, they're better than ever before on this album. As analysts of their own music, they still struggle.
"I'm going to end up talking now and then stop talking, without actually making a point here probably," Chris Williams, the band's other baritone guitarist and songwriter, offers sheepishly. The band laughs again, but he presses ahead. "Somehow, all the songs—no, actually, that's it. I don't know where I was going with that. I'm going to go to sleep."
Part of the problem seems to be that Maple Stave isn't used to talking about the songs as a band. Friends for a decade who've been in each other's weddings and stood by as kids have been born and as relationships have bloomed and fallen apart, Hull, Rowe and Williams agree that they understand each others' lives. When an angry new song surfaces in the practice room, they don't have to talk about what it means.
"You can definitely tell where people are coming from," says Hull. "I think it's great that we can do that, that we're friends in that way."
"It's shit that happens to us, and it gets turned into songs. There's a lot of weird desperation and unhappiness on this record, but not hopeless unhappiness," Rowe—at 34, the oldest of the three—says, finally finding a thread in the album.
They don't need to speak, really: On LP1, those experiences translate into 40 minutes that exude action. During "SCOTT!," Williams hurls invectives and orders above a march as precise as the military, his damaged, buried howl the perfect foil for the band's Teutonic clip. "Cole Trickle" is breathless and anxious, musical mimesis of an instant where something has to happen if you're going to survive. "If They Are Brave, They Will Fight" seizes on the sort of glory and grandeur that made Explosions in the Sky famous, except it understates its climax, teasing expectations of conquest with what feels like a quiet escape into defeat.
"This record feels more desperate," says Rowe. "In a way."
Across the table, Hull looks up, smiles and quips: "Now don't oversell it."
And, again, they all laugh.