Maps & Atlases had been wandering a lot. They'd been touring -- traveling the U.S., going venue to venue -- and then roaming their home base of Chicago when the tours wrapped. And closing in on a decade of creating celebrated technical rock together, the band-mates were still stuck with odd jobs, like dog-walking.
Then all that wandering revealed its purpose: "Beware and Be Grateful," the band's second full-length album. "After a while you just kind of get used to that wandering, and part of the record comes from that place," says guitarist Erin Elders.
Beyond the obvious -- the once dumbfoundingly technical group easing into a more relaxed, mature version of originality -- is the audible sense of Maps & Atlases seeking out their true identity as a band, sonic explorations drawing them closer to the heart. Think of a group like Thrice, who sound markedly more like their raw selves on their last few ambient rock records than they did as just another post-hardcore act in the early aughts. Or the Beatles, who began with almost rote Chuck Berry facsimiles and and wound up with "I Am the Walrus."
"A band or artist's identity is always going to be a fluid thing, but we definitely have found more of what we like doing together," says vocalist and guitarist Dave Davison. Part of the progression has been deliberate, a search for something "more potent every time." There have also been plenty of miniature discoveries that have allowed the band to pare away the layers and influences and locate the refined version of Maps & Atlases.
For example, a recent tour was the band's first time trying improvisation and locking into grooves together, which influenced the writing of the new album. "We wanted to allow space and looseness and create something new but at the same time continue on the path of pursuing the newness versus fun-ness," Davison says. "We've always wanted to make something that's new and interesting and expressive, but we also want to make music that's fun and relatable, that's not over anybody's head."
The Talking Heads and David Bowie have been mutually admired artists since Maps & Atlases, comprised of four guys from all over the U.S., formed in art school. On "Beware and Be Grateful," without specifically copping styles of either act, "we definitely thought about the ways in which those artists were innovative and just the way that they were constantly moving forward." Every song came with a new mandate: Get something fresh and exciting in there.
"A lot of these songs arose from walking around in Chicago and sort of contemplating that environment," Davison says, adding that the album's subject matter ping-pongs between alienated outsider-ism and "feeling really interconnected with your environment." What does connectivity mean to a group this heady? "I think it's the feeling of observing things and wandering around and trying to figure out a purpose and trying to understand your environment and create art in that," Davison says. "There almost seems to be two ideas in opposition, between being expressive and being an artist and just being content and a part of your environment."
So the band hunted for a balance between experiencing and observing and documenting. Going through something, then working to understand it. It's audible on the album: There are long stretches that juke through styles and thoughts and emotions, and then there's a flat-out rocker called "Vampires." But even a rollicking jam like that one happens to include philosophic moments like the repeated line, "the sounds you have put your faith in will only let you down."
Maps & Atlases set out to have some fun with the release of the record, with Elders helming a two-minute short film-as-album-trailer, a simple pensive monologue with the anthemic new tune "Remote and Dark Years" swelling gently in the background. But as unique as the execution is, album trailers are de rigueur in 2012. What's less common is releasing a coffee to complement your record.
"Dave and I are both pretty big coffee drinkers," Elders says. Hunting for coffee is an integral part of each day on tour. "It's a little sense of normalcy. You can be somewhere, and if you can manage to get a good cup of coffee, you're somewhat grounded to your normal life."
So they partnered with Intelligentsia, "pretty much the Chicago coffee standard," set up a blind tasting, made a gameplan, and offered a bag of single-source Rwandan beans available along with purchase of the album.
"It's challenging to think about ways you can branch out that are really genuine. Ways to do things that are new that we like, that express our angle," Davison says of the belled-and-whistled norm.
[The partnership worked: It appears they've sold out of coffee already.]
On that front, Maps & Atlases enjoy tweeting about restaurants they hit on tour. Being a fan becomes more of a rounded experience, less a music-exclusive pursuit. "The dialogue between you and your audience is so direct. We're definitely a band that welcomes that," Elders says. "Doing the Intelligentsia thing is a way to offer a little more of yourself that's not just, 'Okay, we did a record, now you can buy it, listen to it, and come see us play.' It adds to that dialogue between you and your audience."
The band has no commercial expectations for "Beware and Be Grateful" beyond a hope that it allows them to grow. "We're definitely a live band. We want to keep performing for people and hope the shows grow and with the shows growing we can kind of further the creative side of the live show," Davison says. "We obviously hope each record does better, but besides that there's no specific, 'Oh, we hope it sells this many records.'"
At the moment, they're headlining a European tour, then returning to America for a full tour with a few festivals peppered in. "This is the most thought-out set that we've had. It may take a while for it to fully develop, but we're trying to be really conscious of creating a specific set and environment for the show," Davison says. It's developed from a "let's get up there and play the songs" to playing a specific show.
And aside from all the coffee and touring and million small things that go with being a band today, there's still a single mandate at the center: "When we started we were totally just doing it without any concept of any of this stuff being possible," Davison says. "We try to stay as focused on that initial impulse to create music together as we can."