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Do Make Say Think

Catching up with Canadian instrumental wizards Do Make Say Think

The moment music is rediscovered after being buried alive can be just as important as, and far more personal than, the moment it originally came to life. Post-rock has already suffered one of these untimely deaths, but a few bands — Toronto's Do Make Say Think chief among them — have managed to steer clear of the funeral procession, while forging something surprising from post-rock's rusting remains.

The genre was born in the late '80s and early '90s, when Louisville band Slint began turning out dark and sparse, yet hardcore-sounding, rock. Spiderland, the group's 1991 Touch and Go LP, is considered the seminal post-rock record, honoring both the anarchy of punk and the structure of prog and math rock. Slint's David Grubbs went on to form Gastr del Sol with Jim O'Rourke of Chicago sound collagists Tortoise, another touchstone for post-rock enthusiasts.

Do Make Say Think rejoice this church made a handy practice space.
Do Make Say Think rejoice this church made a handy practice space.

However, the "greatest recording by a human being," in DMST guitarist Justin Small's estimation, is another 1991 album, Talk Talk's Laughing Stock; he says its song "New Grass" brings him to tears every time. He loves Neil Young's ultra-bleak 1975 album Tonight's the Night, but says DMST's real catalyst was the 1995 release by English space-rockers Spiritualized.

"Pure Phase hit us like an atom bomb," says Small. "It was so full of heartbreak and soul. That moment clearly defined a certain musical milestone for us, and there was no looking back. It was apocalyptic."

From there, Small, bassist Charles Spearin and drummer James Payment recorded improvised sessions on an 8-track, and the fledgling band took their name from signs posted on the walls of an empty schoolroom. Within a couple years they began to polish their sound and play around Toronto. Constellation Records released DMST's self-titled debut in 1998, and it remains their most psychedelic album, dominated by reverberating synth, drones and spaced-out guitar effects.

The band needed more personnel to harness their expanding sound, and ­classically-trained Ohad Benchetrit came aboard to spar with Small's hardcore background and intuitive guitar sensibilities. Second drummer David Mitchell came into the mix to augment DMST's rhythmic backbone of jazz and psych-rock. Their friend Jason Mackenzie also played drums and keyboards, but left after the group's first few records. The five-member core of remaining players still exists today.

Second LP Goodbye Enemy Airship the Landlord Is Dead marked a more classic arrangement, as DMST refined its signature sound of soulfully paced guitar melodies, atmospheric distortion and subtle electronic elements. "The Landlord Is Dead" shows how Benchetrit and Spearin phased in saxophone and trumpet influenced by modal jazz, but the band eventually stopped recording its improvised sessions and retreated to rural Ontario to woodshed ideas. They took scores of disparate recordings back to Benchetrit's studio to be assembled, deconstructed, glued back together and mixed for months on end.

& Yet & Yet (2002) is arguably the band's most beautiful work. Perhaps the track with the clearest connection to early Tortoise, "Chinatown" pulsates and hums with modestly modulating synth and swatches of sliding bass and minimal guitar. The instrumentation unfolds inside playgrounds filled with children's voices and traffic-clogged streets, presumably captured near the Chinatown apartment several band members shared. Elsewhere, an exceptionally tight buildup distinguishes "End of Music," while "Soul and Onward" captures a haunting strangeness with wordless female vocals and treble piano notes.

Winter Hymn Country Hymn Secret Hymn, released the next year, brought a more reserved, almost hermetic tone. The mixing console became DMST's primary instrument, creating free-form, enigmatic shapes and compositions with noticeably more acoustic guitar, brass and strings on tracks like "War on Want." Today, the band looks on with philosophical resignation as contemporary post-rock groups like Austin's Explosions in the Sky or Japan's Mono are lavished with attention even as they follow a more formulaic path.

"At some point, post-rock standardized itself," sighs Small. "But if we're doing our jobs as music lovers we can avoid the trappings of certain categories and hopefully push beyond that."

DMST's newest recording, this year's You, You're a History in Rust, shifts again into a warmer, securely acoustic hybrid. It's something like free psych-folk, with vibes and marimbas, more brass and other obscure instrumentation. It has a feeling of great breadth and heart — and lyrics, too, sung by fellow Toronto artists Alex Lukashevsky (Deep Dark United) and Tony Dekker (Great Lake Swimmers). Akron/Family's entire lineup contributes oohs and ahhs, and the DMST members join in themselves on closing track "In Mind."

The Rust cover art is an old piano case with rusty strings intact that had been half-buried in Small's garden, and inside the album is a picture of an old rusty bike. DMST are hardly gravediggers — their sound has far too much integrity and ingenuity — but they're still tied to a genre that is, for the most part, in decay. Small says the images are a reminder that everything goes to rust, but that even these things can be resurrected, "taking on a new beauty."

However little their sound resembles fellow Northerners Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Broken Social Scene — though Benchetrit and Spearin occasionally record and tour with the latter — DMST often gets roped into that official league of stage-crowding Canadian "collectives." But the five core members retain sole control of DMST's writing and live arrangements, so while there may be anywhere from eight to 14 people onstage, it's only because of the inherent complexity of DMST's universe.

"If you've got more than eight people on stage, people want to call you a collective, but I don't consider us a collective at all," says Small. "I think we're a band."

 
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