Toronto-BASED indie-rock collective Do Make Say Think is enchanting the audience at its November show at the Echoplex. Cheers erupt between songs. But the crowd is otherwise quiet. Fans sway gently, eyes closed, listening. But no one sings along.
There aren’t any lyrics to sing. Trumpets blare, drums pound, a violin wails. It’s a rock show all right. And yet, the mood of hushed attention recalls a Quaker church service, people gathered silently, seeking communion, but encouraged to find their own meaning.
The scene might seem unusual if Do Make Say Think wasn’t one of dozens of increasingly popular bands making equally arresting instrumental rock. This year’s Coachella music festival saw well-received main stage performances by Austin, Texas-based indie-rock emotionalists Explosions in the Sky and Brooklyn, N.Y.-based electro-rock duo Ratatat, which opens for Bjork on Dec. 12 at the Nokia Theatre with a set of its ecstatic dance-rock anthems. New York’s avant-rock quartet Battles is earning buzz for its playfully cerebral electro-rock romps, while Los Angeles-based quintet Red Sparowes has performed its powerful ambient rock epics around the world.
Instrumental pop music has been around since the dawn of rock, from Perez Prado’s mambo hit “Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White” in 1955 and Acker Bilk’s clarinet-driven “Stranger on the Shore” in 1962 to Walter Murphey’s “A Fifth of Beethoven,” his 1976 discofication of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, and Jan Hammer’s synth-heavy “Miami Vice Theme” in 1985.
But never before has it been performed by musicians with such varied influences and objectives. They’ve been inspired by early ’90s instrumental practitioners including Tortoise, Slint and Godspeed You! Black Emperor, which attracted legions of fans with a style often dubbed post-rock. Meanwhile, indie-rock bands such as Sonic Youth brought vocals down from their pedestal, manipulating them like any other instrument.
For fans like information architect Kathy Mirescu, bringing her own perspective to songs is what makes the genre so captivating. “It’s almost like a musical Rorschach test,” Mirescu said before the Battles show at the Henry Fonda Theater in October.
For the musicians themselves, anything goes — up to a point.
Unlike jam bands, which often improvise extended instrumental solos based on blues chords, these indie instrumentalists carefully craft their songs so each instrument does the work usually reserved for vocals.
“We’re trying to let go of the structure of blues rock,” says bassist-trumpeter Charles Spearin of Do Make Say Think. “We’re trying to let go of the structure of even free jazz, or prog rock. We’re trying to find something composed that carries emotion in a bit more sophisticated way.”
Spearin credits Tortoise with giving his band the guts to go instrumental when it formed in 1996. For Efrim Menuck of Montreal-based Godspeed You! Black Emperor, the decision came out of playing music with strong-willed musicians not interested in having a single front person.
Menuck has found it impossible to remain totally instrumental with new band Silver Mt. Zion, however, after becoming enraged by the Iraq war.
“The limitation of making instrumental music is it’s always going to be a little vague and a little abstract, which I think is the beauty of it,” Menuck says. “I just reached a point where it seemed to make sense to start speaking clearer.”
Nothing against lyrics
None of the current instrumental bands has sworn off vocals completely. Do Make Say Think had two songs with lyrics on its 2007 album, “You, You’re a History in Rust,” and Battles had a breakout hit this year with the song “Atlas,” which boasts incredibly catchy, effects-laden vocals.
“The sort of revolutionary idea of a rock band without a singer started to fade, and it started to become actually somewhat of its own solidified genre,” says Battles guitarist Ian Williams, a founding member of mid-’90s instrumental band Don Caballero. “Trying to be impressive within a seven-minute time frame without using your voice ended up . . . feeling like a tedious exercise.”
If anything, many of these bands feel like they’ve had to overcome the stigma that instrumental music is weird, aggravating or just plain bad.
“When you leave people to kind of have the experience themselves without being told how to feel, for some reason, they find that alienating, because maybe there’s not the instant gratification of the message,” says Battles’ vocalist-keyboardist-guitarist Tyondai Braxton, son of experimental jazz musician Anthony Braxton.
In some instances, however, bands in the genre are composing songs that are relatively traditional, other than their lack of lyrics. Ratatat eschews jam rock’s extended improvisations and experimental music’s lack of structure.
“They’re really just pop songs,” says bassist-programmer Evan Mast. “It’s all about a melody and the progression of the song from one thing to another.”
Even without lyrics, all of these bands want to engage their listeners, and without a singer for the audience to focus on, they entertain in different ways. Red Sparowes projects dramatic images onstage that tell the story of the band’s second album, “Every Red Heart Shines Towards the Red Sun,” based on the famine caused in part by Mao Tse-tung’s extermination of China’s sparrows in 1958. Ratatat also uses projections, including a giant shadow of guitarist Mike Stroud shredding and flipping his hair with classic-rock panache.
The use of visuals is not surprising, given the cinematic quality in much of this music. Explosions in the Sky first gained attention for composing the soundtrack to the 2004 film “Friday Night Lights,” which inspired the critically acclaimed television show.
The band also has released four original albums, including this year’s “All of a Sudden I Miss Everyone,” but the musicians admit that writing instrumental music without a storyline is challenging.
With each album, members have thought the band would break up for a lack of ideas. Inspiration has often come in a nonmusical form.
“A lot of times when we write songs, there are little stories or little short films in our heads, and we say, ‘This is going to be the soundtrack for that little story,’ ” says drummer Chris Hrasky.
Clearly, these bands favor creative freedom over commercial success. And they want their listeners to be independent thinkers too. That’s why they write songs open to many different ways of understanding and experiencing them.
“If you’re singing about something, the lyrics are kind of dictating what the song is about,” says Red Sparowes guitarist Andy Arahood. “Whereas we maybe come at it with vague titles, a loose idea, and I think that leaves a little room for interpretation, which is good.”