Away with words

February 27, 2009



The best instrumentals function like great soundtracks, setting the scene for an imaginary movie that screens only in the listeners’ minds. Witness “Sagarmatha,” the recently released, largely vocals-free seventh album by Lawrence, Kansas-based indie-rock cult heroes the Appleseed Cast.

“At first, we were just planning on doing an instrumental EP,” says guitarist Chris Crisci. “I don’t know why we wanted to do that, but that was in our head. Then, as we were working on it, we realized that it should be a full-length album. We still wanted to keep it pretty much instrumental, but there were some parts where it felt like it could benefit from some vocal lines and lyrics, so it developed that way.”

Crisci thinks the band’s previous two albums — “Peregrine” (2006) and “Two Conversations” (2003) — were not vocally driven, either, although they had plenty of vocals on them.

“They were what I would consider straight-ahead rock songs,” he says. “We never really intended to pursue that course for two albums; we just felt that we wanted to do some rock albums, and we thought we could do that better. But we definitely exercised that demon.

“This time, we just wanted to make something that retains our interest, but there is a little bit of selfish reasoning there. When we play a live show, it’s really nice for me to take a break. The more songs we have that are instrumental, the more I get to rest my voice a bit!”

Not that the Appleseed Cast is lazy. The group has quietly but steadily been building its reputation for adventurous recordings and entrancing live performances through 11 years of dedicated touring and recording, since it was first formed by Crisci and guitarist Aaron Pillar in Southern California in the late ’90s. (Numerous lineup changes later, the group is now completed by bassist Nathan Whitman and drummer John Momberg.) Along the way, the band relocated to North Carolina before finally settling in Kansas, and it evolved from a heavy emo sound ala Sunny Day Real Estate or Braid into a more progressive style of post-rock in the mold of Chicago’s Tortoise. These changes have left some fans constantly scratching their heads.

“It’s kind of funny: We’ll play shows and play new songs and get some polite applause or positive feedback, but nowhere as much as when we start the opening riffs of [an] old song,” Crisci says. “Then the next album comes out and it’s the same thing, except this time [the reaction is] for the song people weren’t ready for the last time around.”

But more adventurous listeners have come to expect the unexpected from the band, and Crisci says they embrace it.

“We learned the lesson a long time ago that if you do something you like, there are going to be people who come with you. There will be people who, no matter what you do, that’s going to happen. So you really just have to do something you like.”

Taking its name from the Nepalese word for Mount Everest, “Sagarmatha” is marked by longer, more hypnotic tracks such as “Raise the Sails” and “The Road West” that unfold like a lazy afternoon sail on peaceful seas. These expansive canvases put the focus on the intricate, intertwining and often electronically altered guitar parts at the heart of the group’s appeal.

“The way we recorded this album, we went through two or three different stages where it really took on a whole new shape from where we began,” Crisci says. “We write everything as guitar, bass and drums, the same way as we perform it. Yet the album is more than just guitars, bass and drums. … As we went along, we wanted more variance in the sounds, and it really was a make-it-up-as-you-go procedure.”

However casual the disc’s development, it’s hard to argue with the results, or with the Appleseed Cast’s longevity in an indie-rock underground obsessed with the new.

“You know, I’m often amazed,” Crisci says of the band’s long run. “When we go to a show and see people enjoying it, I’m still just amazed that these people show up to see us when we show up to play. I think back to seeing bands when I was in Southern California, being so excited about getting into the show and thanking the band for playing. Now people come up to me and express that that’s the same way they feel, and that’s really pretty heartwarming for me.”