They come out at night. They travel alone, sometimes in small groups, and are part of no affiliated organization, follow no particular rules and don't even make the same kind of music.
They're the instrumentalists.
This unaffiliated, unconnected, diverse set of musical performers make music using a variety of instruments and outboard gear, including numerous digital and analog-effect pedals, sound generators and synths. They perform in a manner that circumvents the traditional rock-band-onstage antics and the music they make is largely instrumental.
They're in every city infiltrating all genres. In Chicago they are solo performers like TAL Sounds, Magas, Gel Set and Matchess, as well as band-type collectives like Good Willsmith and the Natural Information Society.
Music for an age of digital discovery: If this were the 1990s, these artists would be classified as post-rock. Popularized by Chicago collective Tortoise, the post-rock genre tended to use traditional instrumentation and performance style, and leaned heavily toward math-rock-ian show-off-itude.
It's tempting to view the instrumentalists as the offspring of those '90s post-rockers, but today's instrumentalists draw from much broader, more diverse pools of musical influence. Common sources of inspiration include, but are not limited to, the minimalism of composers like Philip Glass, Steve Reich and John Adams, German krautrock and ambient music — the genre named and guided by Brian Eno in the 1970s. Depending on a particular instrumentalist's scene of origin, there may also draw elements from techno, industrial, hip-hop, jazz or classical music.
Which isn't to say that post-rock bands didn't help pave the way for today's instrumentalist boom — Chicago artists like the Sea and Cake, Califone and Jim O'Rourke all pioneered different approaches to an instrumentalist sound. The current explosion of experimental artists, however, owes as much to the rise of the internet as the appeal of post-rock.
The main difference between the post-rockers and the instrumentalists is that in the 1990s, people still discovered music the old-fashioned way — via word of mouth, traveling from store to store digging through record crates, or retracing the pathways of musical influence. For instance, digging the Beatles and learning of their influences will lead one to Bob Dylan, Ravi Shankar and John Cage. For those born in the post-internet era, however, all styles of music have always been equally accessible; all the better for breaking down genre-specific elements and refashioning them into something new.
"Read The Manual," suggests Jim Magas, the man behind the one-man-band Magas. "It's all in there."
The Manual: How to Have a Number One the Easy Way is a 1988 treatise by influential '80s British electronic duo KLF that laid the groundwork for the post-band era, despite being written well before the internet forever altered the landscape of the music business. It's a wry, self-effacing bit of agitprop ("Be ready to ride the big dipper of the mixed metaphor. Be ready to dip your hands in the lucky bag of life, gather the storm clouds of fantasy and anoint your own genius," it begins) that purports to give the secret to achieving a No. 1 hit without having either money or talent.
In reality, The Manual is a guidebook for outsiders hoping to make their way through a music business dominated by traditional rock 'n' roll. It urges people to not only reject the formalism of the rock structure ("if in a band, quit now"), but the unquenchable desire for fame and fortune that drives many people into the music business in the first place.
Post-bro music: Another aspect of rock-era rejected by instrumentalists is the boy's club aspect. By rejecting rock tropes and rock presumptions, instrumentalism has made itself a gender-neutral playground where the only thing that matters is the sounds you make.
Gel Set, the solo persona of Laura Callier, uses an array of electronics to create beat-based music that, while dance-floor friendly, is full of aggressive, glitchy chaos. She uses vocals sparingly, and unobtrusively. For the instrumentalists, no single voice, be it human, instrumental, or electronic, takes precedence over any other.
Natalie Chami, aka TAL Sounds, on the other hand, uses analog synths and various effects pedals to create plaintive soundscapes composed of melodic snippets that build on themselves in swirling crescendos, blurring the lines between ambient and noise without ever seeming harsh or abrasive. Chami sings over some of her compositions, but the singing is just another thread in the rich tapestry.
Chami also performs as part of Good Willsmith, an experimental trio consisting of herself, Doug Kaplan, who also performs solo as MrDougDoug, and Max Allison, who solos under the moniker Mukqs. Chami plays keyboards, Kaplan plays guitar and other instruments, and Allison manipulates a full table top's worth of noise-generators, effects boxes and assorted other small boxes with knobs on them.
Going off-script: Although nominally a band, Good Willsmith's approach to their musical interactions are deliberately un-band-like. There's no leader, no main songwriter, just three people making music together. The trio composes using techniques borrowed from improvisation. Pieces are loosely sketched and plotted out, but with plenty of room for new ideas to blossom.
"We make a score, in which we kind of plot out the intensity and write in cues," Kaplan said. "We practice it together, play it multiple times, until eventually we are able to wean off the script."
Good Willsmith's sound is a dense, sometimes cacophonous sound collage, but the compositional nature of the music keeps it from ever sounding directionless or unfocused.
Instrumentalists tend to be musical envelope-pushers and fringe-dwellers, but while they definitely reside outside the mainstream, the music comes in varying degrees of what old-school industry types liked to call "listenability."
Cooper Crain, who leads two of the city's more popular non-vocal bands, has definitely attained the highest level of popularity that's probably possible for such nontraditional music, most recently as a result of his collaboration with Bonnie "Prince" Billie (Epic Jammers and Fortunate Little Ditties). Crain's music, while rock-based, is heavily influenced by canons of minimal, ambient and experimental music, at times bringing to mind electric-era Miles Davis, other times channeling works like Fripp & Eno's Evening Star, Alice Coltrane's Journey in Satchidananda or John Cale and Terry Riley's Church of Anthrax.
Guided by instruments: Crain has described his working method as "confronting the technologies of formative and outmoded machines," which is a roundabout way of saying they use analog gear, tape delays, reel-to-reel loops, organs and other non-computer based gear. Whether they prefer analog to digital or guitars over keyboards, the art of the instrumentalist is in the way they interact with their gear.
In traditional rock performances, the gear is as much prop as instrument. A rock band going onstage and performing its songs is acting out a tradition that goes back at least to Vaudeville — it's a put-on show, complete with lighting effects, stage movements and carefully planned sets.
Instrumentalists, on the other hand, aren't communicating with the audience in the normal sense. The conversation they're having is with their gear.
"Often I'll go on stage with half-formed pieces that purposefully leave room for accident and improvisation," Magas said. "You want to get to the point where you're not guiding your instruments, your instruments are guiding you."