Q&A: Disappears’ Brian Case On Krautrock, Sonic Youth, And Ascending Rapidly And Metaphorically Into The Stratosphere


As a sobriquet, Disappears strongly implies some sort of vanishing point: stillness, quiescence, minimal house music. The reality, of course, is different the way a sledgehammer differs from a ball-peen hammer. On record, this Chicago quartet is all presence: a shuddering combustion-engine surging forth with rocket-launch intensity, throbbing, lashing guitars and autistic, swarming drums celebrating Krautrock’s in-and-out-of-focus drift and motorik pulse while concurrently saluting Spacemen 3’s fried-cerebellum dirges. There are bits and pieces of other bands in the stew, too: Wilderness’s hoarse swirl, Public Image Ltd’s proclaimatory verve, even the Strokes’ garage-rock strut; elements of “Guider” are even suspiciously reminiscent of “Barely Legal.”

Right now, though, the throwback-derived sound guitarist Brian Case and drummer Graeme Gibson built Disappears on—and perfected on 2010’s Lux and this year’s Guider (both Kranky)—is evolving into something different. Gibson left the band on good terms earlier this year, and Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley joined Case, guitarist Jonathan van Herik, and bassist Damon Carruesco on tour and in practice. A follow-up to Guider is due later this year or next.

Sound of the City emailed with Case about discovering Krautrock, parenthood, and working with Shelley.

Can you remember when and how you first encountered Krautrock, and what your initial reaction to the genre was?

My friend Rob Lowe—we were in a band called 90 Day Men together—played me Faust at some point, I remember that for sure. This was probably like ’97 or ’98. I definitely knew Kraftwerk, but had yet to really dive into their whole thing; I guess I was more familiar with them because Big Black aped The Man-Machine for that single.

I think when I really “heard” it though was when I was working at Reckless Records in Chicago around ’99. I got a copy of [Can’s] Ege Bamyasi because someone was playing Vitamin C while we were working. It sounds silly, but it really did blow my mind; it was fluid, but had all these things coming in, and out. I really loved it. From there I followed the natural Krautrock progression and checked out Neu!, actually listened to Kraftwerk, and then went deeper into the Cluster and Harmonia stuff, then La Dusseldorf, et al.

As far as the genre itself goes, it was pretty eye-opening. I guess it was the first time I really heard the more free, expressive “noise” element anchored to something solid; no one at that point was doing anything really Kraut-influenced; repetition wasn’t really a part of the musical vocabulary with the people I hung around with. I mean, Tortoise was certainly filtering that stuff into their music, but the source material was really fresh. Still, it hadn’t had its “re-birth.”

When I listen to you sing, I don’t think of Krautrock at all, but more of Public Image Ltd and Wilderness: this blustering, ecstatic howl that’s almost carnival-barker primal; it almost seems at odds with the motorik pulse, which has a robotic cast to it. Singing that way would seem to be taxing; have you ever blown out your voice?

No, although I did lose it completely for a few days before a tour. I really wasn’t sure how I would be able to sing—I was drinking tons of hot water and lemon and honey and it was like a week; I was pretty nervous.

But yeah, I really can’t “sing” so I kind of have to just let whatever comes out come out, and that can kill your voice if you have a loud night where you’re going for it or something. It’s kind of like barking really loud and trying to get the vocal delay to react or act up, so it can be pretty harsh.

A lot of Disappears songs make me think of ignition, of space shuttles lifting off, but two major differences appear to me between Lux and Guider: Guider seems less sweet, less ingratiating melodically, maybe more astringent, and the songs seem longer and more concerned with making more out of less, if that makes any sense. Did you approach the writing and recording if the two albums differently?

That’s exactly what we were going for: trying to distill the songs and really focus on the best bits, really think about what’s necessary and what’s not in the song. All of this with the idea of propulsion or momentum in mind; it kept things really lean and focused on exactly what you were saying, making more out of less. The recording situation was similar, just three days to track and three days to mix, but in terms of sonics I can’t be very specific.

Is the conception-to-studio turnaround time pretty swift, or do you guys live with new songs for a while before committing them to tape?

We try to test songs out in a live setting as much as possible. Our songs are pretty open, so it’s nice to play them before recording, to let them find their nuances and energy. That said, “Revisiting” off Lux was a song we’d played maybe once or twice. We ended up using the first—and only—take on “Guider”; it was 20 minutes edited down to 16. It’s pretty different live, but I think that’s important with a song like that.

When you’re coming up with lyrics, do you pursue and develop ideas based on the songs or song sketches they accompany, or separate from them?

Sometimes I’ll sit down with an idea in mind and try and write the two together. Usually, though, I’m starting with a phrase or vocal pattern and I’ll attach it to a guitar figure that’s floating around. I don’t try and match up moods or anything like that though—if anything, I prefer that the two are in contrast—although as the band progresses, the two are naturally becoming darker or more singular.

One of the most intriguing songs on Guider, for me, was “Superstition.” Is there a specific meaning behind or significance to that song? In a sense it seems to come from the mouth of a myth or legend, some phantasm of the mass imagination daring the audience to believe in him or her—sort of like “Sympathy For The Devil” in a way.

Yeah—it was an experiment, trying to write from someone else’s perspective. I guess it’s got that “Sympathy” thing going on; I remember it all kind of came out at once. I wanted it to be tough and mysterious, but kind of otherworldly as well—like someone who’s been around forever, not necessarily religious, but observing time. I never really thought too much about how it made sense to someone else. I just liked the way it all came together and how the words worked together.

How has incorporating Steve Shelley into the mix been, given the differences between his drum style and that of departed drummer Graeme Gibson?

The transition was pretty seamless. One of the first things we did when we started playing with Steve was to start working on new material immediately. It gave us the chance to get into his head a little in terms of writing, and hopefully made him feel like he was more involved in the band than just learning someone else’s parts. We gave him free reign over how to interpret the older stuff as well.

You’re right, though: Graeme and Steve are very different drummers. But they both come from the same place that’s about doing what’s best for the song, so that instantly eliminates a lot of “translation” issues, so to speak. There were a few songs we had to drop out of the set as they were clearly songs made for Graeme’s style, but a lot of the new stuff wouldn’t be suited to how Graeme plays, so it’s just another step in evolution of the band. We’ve been lucky to have two really strong, distinctive drummers.

Are you writing new material now?

We’ve got a new album written; we’ll be recording in October, so I guess whatever we come up with between now and then will be considered. It’s pretty different from Lux and Guider. We’re all really excited about the direction it’s headed in.

Most underground musicians or fans are at least aware of Sonic Youth, but are you fans? Do you have a favorite SY era?

Yeah, I’m an embarrassingly huge Sonic Youth fan. The other guys are into them as well. I like all the eras really, but the one that connects with me the most is probably EVOL. I have a lot of memories attached to that one: driving around with my friends looking for something to do, hanging out in parking lots, etc.

I got into them right around when my friends started driving and I took some of the first steps towards independence, so they remind me of a really special time. They were also one of the first bands where the red flag went up and I started to discover this whole other thing going on.

“Halo” puts me strongly in mind of The Catcher In The Rye, with a twist—its speaker seems to want to protect the innocence and well-being of another person so intensely that he winds up overwhelmed, to the extent that by the end of the refrain, he’s lost control of himself. When you wrote “Halo,” did you have a specific image or feeling in mind?

Wow, you nailed it: it’s about my son, and trying to protect him from everything that’s all around us. It’s tough; he’s going to kindergarten next year, and I do get overwhelmed. But it comes more in fits, and overall I’m really excited and proud of him. It’s just nerve-wracking; so many things are out of your control, but you want to create this safe place and it feels like you can’t a lot of the times.

Has he been on tour with you, or to any if the shows? What does he think of all this stuff?

Yeah, he’s been to see us play. We’ve done some outdoor shows during the day and he’s been to one or two gigs that we’ve played first or something, when it’s not too late. He’s into it, for sure. Proud parent alert: he’s been taking piano and guitar and even recorded songs he’s written with the voice memo on his iPod. We listen to a lot of music together; it’s really great.