The Life and Times of Don Caballero

Don Caballero – the Pittsburgh band, not the SCTV character played by Joe Flaherty – changed the way indie rock bands sound now and forever. In nine years, Don Cab recorded five albums of imposing and challenging material unlike any underground band before them.

Unable to find a vocalist, the bandmembers focused all of their energy into their technically complex compositions. Their first album, For Respect (1993), is so dense that there is little room for a singer. Don Caballero returned to the studio in 1995 to record their second album, 2, and it was then that the band began stretching out … violently. The screaming and blistering guitars on Don’s second album have been known to put hair on people’s chests, both male and female.

Don Cab did not release another album for three years, and it seemed that they had reached their creative peak. Guitarist Ian Williams took time off to work with another enigmatic and sonically intriguing group, Storm & Stress.

However, in 1998, Don’s best lineup (guitarists Williams and Mike Banfield, bassist Pat Morris, and Damon Che on drums) released their masterpiece, What Burns Never Returns, without a doubt one of the most important indie rock records of all time. Although not nearly as heavy or antagonistic as 2, Burns is breathtaking, and suspends the listener cryogenically for its entire 47 minutes and 29 seconds. The guitar battles between Williams and Banfield are pleasantly unsettling. The two inventive guitarists and Morris’ subtle but steady bass have but one common enemy, Che’s schizophrenic drumming.

Don Cab’s insane live shows were truly a sight to behold, at times featuring cardboard cutouts of celebrities posing as their singer and Che’s occasional fire breathing. They also had a penchant for imaginative song titles, such as “Details on How to Get ICEMAN on Your License Plate,” and “You Drink a Lot of Coffee for a Teenager.”

This kind of brilliance could not go on forever and when the band released a collection of unreleased songs, Singles Breaking Up (1999), it seemed as though the band was stalling. Lineup changes, tension over the quality of their last album, American Don (2000), and a van accident during their last tour caused Don Caballero to break up in December of 2000.

Although their final album is perhaps less satisfying than previous material, American Don is truly a great work, full of astonishing compositions. In the absence of Banfield, Williams uses various looping techniques, resulting in panoramic soundscapes previously infeasible by a single guitarist. The last spirited and convulsive song, “Let’s Face It Pal, You Don’t Need That Eye Surgery,” is not only a finale for the album, but a perfect finale for the music of Don Caballero as well.