Two bass players and one drummer seems a tricky recipe for a band: The image of a lumbering giant with his shoelaces tied together comes to mind. But when bassists Jay Ryan and Jason Harvey and drummer Kip McCabe formed Chicago-based Dianogah in 1995, they began crafting instrumentals with a graceful knack for winding together the highs and lows of two four-strings. After putting out their third album, 2002’s Millions Of Brazillians, the trio quieted down, still playing some shows but mostly dealing with serious changes in family life, jobs, and homes. Ryan, for example, kept running his own screenprinting studio, The Bird Machine, where he makes posters for rock shows and other events like the Illinois State Cyclocross.
Last year, the band finally put out a new album, Qhnnnl (pronounced kwin-ul). It’s as if that six-year gap pried the band’s sound open and gave it room to evolve. Songs like “You Might Go Off” flex the core trio into harsher, more distorted territory, but the graceful “Sprinter,” which you can stream below, is one of several tracks to feature fellow Chicagoans Stephanie Morris on vocals and Andrew Bird on violin. Before exhibiting the basic bass-drums-bass setup at The Frequency on Saturday, Ryan exchanged a few emails with Decider. (UPDATE: Dianogah has had to cancel.)
Decider: You've been a largely instrumental band so far. Do you think that makes you more flexible in your approach to lyrics and vocals when you choose to include them?
Jay Ryan: I guess we probably are freer, in some sense, vocally, as we have little in the way of a vocal tradition or expectations. That's not to say my vocals are good, just that I'm limited only by my vocal range (which is actually pretty limited, obviously). I guess I'd hope that any other band would feel like they could break away from whatever vocal style they might have developed, as well.
D: In the liner notes to Qhnnnl, you thank Stephanie Morris for singing the line "all this meat." Did you have a hard time getting her to sing the words?
JR: In the studio, I sang all the vocals, and then we had Stephanie come in to re-sing them, to make them sound like songs which people might actually want to hear. There were two lines I wrote, in different songs, which I think made Stephanie a bit uncomfortable. "The late morning sun falls around all this meat" [On “¿Es Posible Fuego?”] was a bit rough for her to sing with a straight face. It's actually a song about grilling a large meal at an off-season ski resort, which Dianogah visited in Chile.
D: Is it difficult to take the kind of lyrics you write and channel them through someone else's voice? Even back on your first album, As Seen From Above, the few lyrics you included (like on "Spiral Bound") seem kind of oblique and free-associative, for lack of better terms.
JR: I guess my lyrics are pretty oblique sometimes, though I had never thought of them that way. The songs are mostly about girls or about being in a band. They are very specifically personal, so I'm not going to opt for the cliché "ooh, baby, I love you, baby" crap. I have to admit there's some amount of self-consciousness in there as well—the idea that I'm aware that my friends will hear this song, and think that it's about a specific event in a relationship or something.
D: You've mentioned Meshuggah as a recent influence, which is interesting because their latest album has these really unusual, sharp bass sounds. How did you go about getting different tones and textures out of the basses while recording Qhnnnl?
JR: We bought distortion pedals and used them. We had never used distortion pedals on Dianogah songs until this record. We decided it was time to mess with the formula a bit more on this record than we had before—bring in someone else's voice, make our basses sound different, add more instruments like violin and keyboards, and put our faces on the record cover.
D: On your blog, you’ve mentioned eating a Bob’s Bad Breath Burger at the Weary Traveler. What do you think: Awesome, gross, or both?
JR: Completely awesome. Looking forward to another, sometime.