Maps & Atlases Find Their Way

Published May 18, 2012

Pop music is a malleable and expansive genre. There is a lot of space to play around. Chicago natives Maps & Atlases know this and enjoy its full range of possibilities. Their new album, Beware and Be Grateful, brings together a collection of songs that touch on everything from U2’s stadium rock sound to the Dirty Projectors’ artfulness. And, in support of the album, this month the band began a long North American tour.

During a brief respite in his hometown of Chicago, we caught up with Maps & Atlases’ chief songwriter and lead vocalist, Dave Davison. He graciously offered his time while walking around the city and spoke to us over the phone about living a nomadic existence, writing the new album, and what music the band plans to listen to while on tour.

JARED LEVY: Hey Dave, how are you doing?

DAVE DAVISON: Doing pretty good; walking around in the sun. [laughs]

LEVY: [laughs] Nice. In Chicago?

DAVISON: Yup.

LEVY: Do you and the band currently live in Chicago?

DAVISON: Yeah, basically. We have been touring so much and a couple of our leases are up. We’ve only been back from tour for a couple of days, coming back from Europe. We’re getting ready to do this tour. Me and one of the other members of the band, our apartments have expired, so we’ve kind of just been floating around for a little while.

LEVY: It’s generally a nomadic existence that you and the band have? [laughs]

DAVISON: [laughs] Yeah, but it’s fun too. Mix it up.

LEVY: When you’re touring, where do you usually stay? Do you stay with friends? Do you crash in a van? Is it a van that you’re touring in?

DAVISON: Yeah, we just ride around in a van. We used to always try to crash with people, but we kind of stay in a mix between hotels and crashing. It’s definitely important—especially on a tour of this length—to get a good amount of rest and to have some time to just chill. When you’re crashing at peoples’ houses all the time, then it’s party time.

LEVY: Is Maps & Atlases a party time band?

DAVISON: I don’t think I’ve ever really been a party time kind of person. I like hanging out with people, but not necessarily super into partying too much. I think as a band we’re hanging more than partying. I guess that can be a party itself. [laughs]

LEVY: More of a chill party…

DAVISON: Yeah, more chill party. Party down.

LEVY: Do you find that you usually write songs on the road or do you have to be in one place?

DAVISON: I think it’s kind of a mix of both. Obviously whatever environment you’re in is going to yield really different kinds of results. You have a different need to express different things then whan you’re just hanging out and tired of being in the same place all the time. I tend to write all the time, regardless of whether we’re on tour or not.

LEVY: Is Beware and Be Grateful the result of writing on the road or in Chicago?

DAVISON: I think it’s a result of being in Chicago, mostly. A lot of the songs are older. A lot of songs from this album and the last album arose from a time period of really wandering around Chicago. I had a job walking dogs in the city, so whenever we weren’t on tour I’d just be walking around all day, pretty much, [laughs] walking dogs—which I really enjoyed a lot. So, I think there is a real—at least to me—super distinctive reference point in every song that makes me think of different places in Chicago.

LEVY: Do you think there is a unifying theme or a thematic thread that runs through the album?

DAVISON: Going into it, I didn’t have a solid idea of what themes would be in the album. I think after listening to it and thinking about it, there is a real feeling of alienation in some of the songs, a feeling of contemplating situations on the outside from the outside. At the same time there’s a sort of back and forth between that feeling and being really in the moment and really focused on being a part of something and being connected with your environment. I think it’s interesting after talking about writing a lot of it while kind of wandering around, aimlessly somewhat, how an album like that could easily come to existence, when you’re sort of just wandering around by yourself. [laughs]

LEVY: Listening to the album and looking at the lyrics, I noticed a lot of reflections on aging, either specifically referencing age, like on “Be Three Years Old,” or evoking aging generally on “Winter” and “Vampires.” Is that something that was on your mind at the time, age and aging?

DAVISON: I don’t know if I was necessarily conscious of it at the time, but I think it’s something that, while I don’t necessarily feel that concerned with aging, I think that I am really conscious of it—I think people in general are conscious of memory. I think that on this particular album it was an interesting time that it grew out of, having just finished college and wandering around; being in this interesting limbo and having a lot of time to think about things and trying to understand where are you in the world and where you’re going and whatnot. I think there is a real consciousness of where we’ve been and where we’re going. That’s definitely something we’re conscious of, for sure.

LEVY: There were a few EPs that came before you made your debut LP, Perch Patchwork. What is your reasoning for focusing now on LPs rather than EPs? Is it a change in approach?

DAVISON: We made our first EP when we were in college, and we did our first touring in support of that in college too. I think that both of those EPs were mostly a documentation of what we had been doing live. I think that we were really conscious [that] when we were going to make an LP we wanted it to be a full piece of work. I think that there was a specific energy to both EPs that captures well in a shorter amount of time, and I think that when we made an LP we wanted it to be interesting: to have a wider range of songs and themes and make sort of a full album. I still think that we felt we were finding ourselves musically and—definitely our first EP, for sure, and our second one as well—we were touring and developing and growing. We’d already grown from releasing an EP and touring in support of that, so I think that by the time we made an LP it was a deliberately full and connected body of songs. It took a little while. [laughs]

LEVY: You have a unique sound: experimental, but within the pop realm. Does the band discuss musical ideas a lot, or do you think that you are just musically attuned to one another?

DAVISON: That is one of the really great things about playing with people who you’ve spent such a long time practicing with and playing songs together: you develop. Listening to every album you own together over and over again in the van and having a lot of the same musical reference points, I think that you develop a more intuitive relationship, musically. At the same time, obviously, we do have discussions about what we’re doing, but I think mostly we try to capture that intuitive energy.

LEVY: What do you anticipate bringing on the van this time around?

DAVISON: I don’t know. I guess we’ll see. I just got a bunch of new albums. I purposefully haven’t listened to them. One of my friends made me a bunch of mixes. Our van actually got stolen a month ago, so we got a new van. We can’t listen to our iPods, which is kind of a blessing in a way. We’d exhausted everything any of us had on iPods. Not that it’s a blessing to have the van stolen, because of that [laughs] but I like the fact that it doesn’t have an iPod player and just a CD player. We’re just going to be listening to CDs and it should be fun.

LEVY: Any CDs in particular that you’re looking forward to?

DAVISON: I saw a little bit of a live performance by Grimes and I’ve heard a couple of songs off that album. I know I’m going to like it, so I want to listen to that a lot this tour. An album that I have listened to that I have on CD is the new Future Islands. We have a bunch of mixes so I guess we’ll see. I’m sure by the end of the tour we’re going to have a lot of new musical things to talk about.

MAPS & ATLASES WILL PLAY AT GLASSLANDS TOMORROW NIGHT AND THE WEBSTER HALL STUDIO THIS COMING MONDAY. FOR MORE ON THE BAND, VISIT THEIR WEBSITE. BEWARE AND BE GRATEFUL IS OUT NOW.