Profile: Damon Che (2019)

At the time, everybody in Pittsburgh knew Damon Che. But few really knew him.

Che, who now lives an uneventful life in the Amish countryside 15 miles southwest of Punxatawney, Pa., was the octopus-armed drummer for Pittsburgh-bred experimental rock pioneers Don Caballero, a singular percussive force in indie-rock circles. But even Che himself talks about misunderstandings and bruises in the Don Caballero story that have sullied his larger legacy.

“Every Don Caballero record was a struggle to bring into the world, every Don Caballero record almost miscarried and it was usually because I had to coax people into making something,” Che told me this summer. “It was a constant barrage, getting people not to leave to get out the next record. I’m still bitter about it to this day, that it had to be like that.”

Though Che released a record in 2019 – a collection of old odds and ends by his other band, Thee Speaking Canaries, out this spring via Chunklet – he has embraced the sunsetting of his musical career.

“Maybe I’ve done all I can do – a grave only needs to be six feet deep,” he said. “If I have one regret it’s I don’t feel I ever got to play with musicians who were up to what I was up to at the trap set.”

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I first met Che around Memorial Day this year at the Bloomfield home of the late Karl Hendricks, a local indie icon who, in addition to leading his own trio, played bass in Thee Speaking Canaries. Che stood tall – he is broad-shouldered, long-armed and has to be pushing 6’5” – and had a kind of lumber to his walk, but was otherwise unassuming. He tapped his hands in his lap, as if he were rolling out a line on a snare, when he sat still for too long. We talked for some three hours, all of it on the record, and I could count on one hand the number of times we made eye contact.

Che, at 51, is quick to confront his demons. He admits he drank too much booze during the Don Caballero heyday – though, to clarify, he says: very little while recording the band’s considerable discography — but he’s sober now, and has been on the wagon for several years. He knows he had a particular, maybe even erudite, vision for the way things should work, and makes no apologies. These days, though, he’s more into meditation than confrontation or squabbling with the past.

“I had a lot of energy going in a lot of different directions,” Che told me, “and a lot of it probably made people uncomfortable.”

As a drummer at his peak, he was peerless. Che utterly battered his kit – characteristically, while only wearing boxer shorts – and inserted more polyrhythms and fills into an off-kilter time signature than most conventional rock drummers would imagine possible. He was more proficient, better at keeping time, than any drum machine – way more inventive, too.

Though he recognizes his talents, Che also likes poking fun at himself. He glowed as he told me a story from a Don Caballero tour that stopped somewhere deep in Eastern Europe, where he downed a fifth of vodka before his live set and peppered between-song banter with whiskey and more (and more!) cocktails. He approached a couple of young women after the set. They were not impressed.

“We have seen this before,” Che deadpanned, imitating the girls in a faux-Soviet accent, “where the drummer drinks the wodka and plays explosively.”

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Damon Che Fitzgerald always has been an exile.

Che spent most his formative years bouncing between distant parents in the orbit of Indiana University of Pennsylvania, and grandparents who settled in the blue-collar Pittsburgh neighborhood of Greenfield. He got his first drum kit at 14; his father was a blues guitarist of some local renown.

Around ’83 or ‘84, after leaving Taylor Allderdice High School in Squirrel Hill for Swissvale High School, Che found a home for his new-wave haircut and formed Pynknoys. It was the first in a long list of adventures. At 16, he joined Burgh hard-core stalwarts Half Life, playing as an opener for The Descendants at the fabled Electric Banana in Oakland. (The band’s Under The Knife EP, released as a 7-inch in 1986, became his recording debut.)

Mike LaVella played bass in Half Life when Che joined the band. Even in the mid-eighties, he told me, people recognized Che as something unusual in punk, a whiz kid, maybe, a kind of musical polymath.

“It was hard to keep up with him,” laughed LaVella, 54, who now lives in California. “I took the challenge. I was like, ‘If I’ve gotta play with Damon, I’ve gotta do this.’”

A stint with garage rockers The Heretics followed Che’s tenure in Half Life. Then came the all-too-brief noise-rock band Punching Contest, and sessions with guitarist Ian Williams in the band Rocco Rocco. (If you want a sample of the latter band, listen to “Stupid Puma;” it’s a Rocco Rocco song, Williams said.) Che was nothing if not energized to make a serious go at a career in music.

 “Damon has always been an outsider.”

That’s Dave Martin. He met Che in the mid-eighties when the drummer, then maybe a sophomore in high school, played a local talent show.

“Even then, he was just light years beyond any kid who considered himself a musician,” said Martin, 50, who is now a music-label executive living in Queens, N.Y. “It was a real ‘Holy Shit’ moment.”

“In high school, I was a metal kid transitioning into punk and I had a lot easier time than Damon,” Martin added. “He always looked different. Damon really stuck out and he would get a lot of flak. And he’s an oddball. I mean that in the best possible way.”

Che formed Don Caballero – his father said the name would never work, he told me – with guitarist Mike Banfield and bassist Pat Morris in 1991, shortly after starting to helm Thee Speaking Canaries, in which his weapon of choice is the guitar. (It’s been said, and Che himself says it, that Thee Speaking Canaries is equal parts Sonic Youth and Van Halen. Its Joy of Wine LP remains a blueprint for the intersection of post-rock and classic rock.)

Martin, who played alongside Che in Punching Contest, was blown away by Don Caballero live sets from the get-go.

“They were amazing – it was perfect. It was full-on Damon,” Martin said. “I always tell people Damon played lead drums. When [Don Caballero] came out, they just attacked. It was a sensory experience. There was nothing like it.”

“Don Cab pulled off the incalculable feat of making music that is very complex sound very musical,” quipped Eli Kasan of The Gotobeds, a Sub Pop Records indie-rock quartet leading a new generation of Pittsburgh artists. “No easy feat as I hate math!” 

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Henry Owings, a York, Pa. native, was pursuing his MBA at the University of Pittsburgh around 1990 when he became aware of Che. While studying, he would go to underground rock shows almost daily; the cup overfloweth in Pittsburgh in those heady days of alt-rock. Owings’ fanzine, Chunklet, later published a vitriolic, blow-by-blow account by musician Fred Weaver of Don Caballero’s final tour, which Che told Space City Rock in 2006 “was pretty much an accurate, true account of how things went.” Owings’ record label, which borrowed its name from the zine, has released collections of Don Caballero and Speaking Canaries rarities.

“There’s not another city that could’ve made Don Caballero,” said Owings, 50, who has lived in Georgia since leaving Pittsburgh in 1991. “Only Pittsburgh would obsess over Bitch Magnet. Only in Pittsburgh is it difficult to find a Bastro record. It’s the city where Nice Strong Arms sold records – goddammit, it’s as obvious as the nose on your face.”

Owings knew Williams, who “disbanded” Rocco Rocco and joined Don Caballero as a second guitarist around the time Owings left Pittsburgh, as the drummer for the band Sludgehammer. To take it from him – though Don Caballero “was a profoundly inspiring thing to see” and “was even greater than the sum of its parts” – Che was, early on, the central driving force to the Pittsburgh band’s voice.

“I’m just happy to share, for further reinforcement, that this guy is a fucking genius,” spat Owings. “Even his demos are better than most people’s polished stuff.”

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The iconic Chicago indie Touch and Go Records released Don Caballero’s full-length debut – For Respect, recorded by Steve Albini – in 1993. But it wasn’t until its second record, titled simply Don Caballero 2, that the band exploded in the public consciousness outside of the Steel City.

The record was explosive stuff, a kind of mutant extension of Slint’s mathiness and Bastro’s aggression coupled with a post-industrial edge that tended to pummel listeners’ ears. Compositions, all of which were instrumental, were like mountain ranges. The band had little time for filler. At the center of the cacophony was Che, who frequently deployed his drum kit blitzkrieg style, notes flying to and fro and back again like so many bats out of hell, as guitarists Banfield and Williams laid down a more linear percussive foundation.

Though the band never toured to support its biggest hit – more band tensions, which to this day irritates Che – Don Caballero 2 lent the band its mythos.

“The liner notes speak it plain – ‘Don Caballero is rock not jazz, Don Caballero is free from solos.’ But not from complex, ever evolving compositions that never, ever forget to crank up the amps and riff along,” Ned Raggett wrote in an AllMusic review of the LP. “Music with a brain that rocks, full stop.”

He wasn’t the only breathless one.

“Between Don Caballero 2 and What Burns Never Returns, the awareness of Don Cab had grown to the point where the New York shows sold out and the shows were super-packed – there was just an audience that wasn’t there before.”

So says Eric Emm, nee Topolsky, who joined Don Caballero on bass during this period, after a stint with Williams in the experimental noise-art trio Storm & Stress. He outlasted most of the band’s bassists – the door, at times, revolved swiftly; one bassist lasted one week – and added immeasurably to the band’s sound, especially after Don Caballero became a trio. (Guitarist Mike Banfield departed for the last time in 1998, leaving Che behind as the band’s only founding member. When I contacted Banfield, he said he didn’t want to talk anymore about Don Caballero.)

“Bass was the last instrument I wanted to play – I did everything I could to not play bass traditionally,” said Emm, 44, who now lives and plays music in New York. “I used a lot of effects. I was tapping on the bass, which is a cue from the Don Caballero tradition. I was more of an anti-bass player and I think that really started to work when we were a trio.”

Digital delay and looping also became central to the highly textured sound.

“That changed everything for us. Ian saw it. It was like, ‘There’s a path here,’” Emm said. “When we started experimenting with the loop pedals? The abyss texture-wise was because of that.”

Around 1998, Williams consulted with Tortoise drummer (and Bastro alumnus) John McEntire about building guitar loops. McEntire recommended the Akai Headrush. The pedals and Williams instantly clicked, as they constructed texture in what Williams, only half-jokingly, called “zero time signature.”

“By ’99, I was really good at it,” laughed Williams, 49, sounding almost surprised. “I could play all of our songs by just stacking the loops.”

“American Don” became the sole document of that experimentation.

 “Wild rhythms and guitar textures blast off as tracks veer from warm beauty into angular riffage and killer rawk epiphany,” Ian Danzig wrote in Exclaim! on Oct. 1, 2000. “While previous outings have focused on blowing the doors off the joint, American Don exposes a more subtle touch, using the dynamics of style, energy and tempo to make an even bigger sonic impact without even breaking a sweat. Not only does Don Cab experiment with rhythms that conflict and confuse, but the melodic segments of their music travel an equally unconventional path, defying expectations at every turn.”

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The “first” Don Caballero broke up after a traumatic tour-van crash ended the group’s “American Don” tour. If you look on Wikipedia and most websites that are sourced, in part, from speculation and second-hand sources, the culprit was the battles between Williams and Che.

But Don Caballero left behind a blueprint. And Che, who had grown into his role as the octopus after wetting his whistle in punk and hardcore, stayed on the radar.

“It all just kinda made sense,” said Arthur “Dan” Allen, 51, of Pittsburgh’s East Liberty, a former WRCT disc jockey who toured with Che as Half Life’s roadie on the band’s myth-making 1987 tour. “Damon’s style just kept evolving so Don Caballero sounded like the next stage of that evolution … The difference about Don Cab is that now you had these really dedicated players. It was more of a shared vision.”

After the band’s break-up, there was a lot of radio silence. Williams, a Johnstown, Pa. native who had left Pittsburgh for Chicago years earlier, moved to New York City. So did Emm. Around the same time Williams formed the experimental outfit BATTLES, Che made a move some thought unthinkable – he re-formed Don Caballero with an entirely new line-up, anchoring himself on the drum kit.

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Jason Jouver is a busy guy.

In the 1990s, one year out of high school, the Brentwood-bred musician played in the Pittsburgh rock band Liquid Brick, then went on to play in Jumbo, which seemed influenced by Drive Like Jehu as much as it was by local heroes like Che.

In 1996, he helped form Creta Bourzia, which went on to define math- and post-rock in Pennsylvania’s second-largest city after the demise of Don Caballero.

About six years later, Che himself came calling. Jouver went on to play the Pat Morris and Eric Emm role on bass in the “second” incarnation of Don Caballero, which started around 2003. The band’s first show took place at the Smiling Moose; much touring followed.

“It was great – it was like playing with the best drummer I’ve ever heard or seen in my life,” said Jouver, 44, now a sound man and engineer who works some of the time at +/- studios in the South Side. “And I never knew what was going to happen.”

There was, briefly, an alternative. Che told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2006 that he approached Pat Morris and Mike Banfield – who made up the rest of the original trio – about playing again.

“I asked Mike if he’d be interested,” Che said. “And I told Pat he’s always welcome ’cause he seems to be the one who’s most upset about the fact that I’m doing the band without him. We’re still friends and everything, so I told him, ‘Hey, if you want to play bass in the band, we’ll just move [Jason] Jouver over to guitar or something.”

They both declined, and the new line-up – Che on drums, Jouver on bass, and Gene Doyle and Jeff Ellsworth on guitar – was born. To say expectations were high for the new Caballero is a like saying Che’s style of playing is a little extroverted.

“It was a harsh environment, for the most part – there were a lot of people who were upset Damon was doing this,” Jouver said. “But I didn’t get that sense as much in Pittsburgh.”

Jouver estimates half of the audiences as the band toured in the mid-aughts were reliving their memories of the “first” Don Caballero line-up and the other half showed up to rubber-neck a travesty. Neither urge was really fulfilled, he said, neither itch scratched.

The new line-up released a “debut” of sorts in 2006.

“While drummer Damon Che has always been Don Cab’s main attraction, guitar duo Ian Williams and Mike Banfield were a crucial part of the band’s signature sound– best represented by 1998’s incredible What Burns Never Returns,” Matt LeMay wrote in Pitchfork on July 26, 2006.

“Unfortunately, the Don Caballero we all know and love broke up in 2001,” LeMay continued. “Aside from Che, the band responsible for World-Class Listening Problem is entirely Non Caballero, assembled instead from fellow Pittsburgh natives Creta Bourzia. Given that band’s metal leanings, and the fact that Relapse is releasing this record, it’s not surprising that World-Class Listening Problem is harder and crunchier than its predecessors.”

After some positive and some luke-warm reviews for LPs World Class Listening Problem and Punkgasm, the “second” Don Caballero line-up went on hiatus after a show in Spain in 2008.

And, again, silence.

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As much as Che might hate it, his legacy is, in no small part, intertwined with that of Williams, with whom he played – and famously feuded with – for the better part of eight years in Don Caballero.

When I talked to Williams, as he prepared to release a much-anticipated new BATTLES record, he was fairly clear on his feelings about Che. He reminisced about jamming before Rocco Rocco with Che and a bassist in Che’s grandparent’s garage, surrounded by odd antiques and a legit Model T. He even expressed some levity recalling how Che illustrated what he wanted out of Williams’ sound by jumping head-first and crashing into his drum-set, Kurt Cobain style.

“No, you’ve gotta rock, fuckin’ rock!” shouted Williams, imitating Che at the time.

“It was like, ‘Yeah we’re trying,’” Williams remembered responding timidly. “We were like, ‘That guy’s crazy.’ And he was like ‘Those guys suck.’”

But he also paused for reflection.

“I honestly think Damon’s the best musician I’ve ever played with, honestly – I still feel that way,” Williams told me.

“With the distance of 20 years, I think I can say the guy had a lot of personal baggage he brought to the band,” Williams said. “And he’d attack everybody he was in a relationship with. He’s a fascinating and hilarious person. He has a really magnetic charisma, maybe even repelling but it was fascinating … he was a fascinating car crash.”

Che remains jaded about the relationship – and the attention given to it.

“I can guarantee there are so many things about [Battles drummer] John Stanier he’d put up with that he wouldn’t put up with me,” Che said. “He did sort of treat me like I was some sort of yinzer, which is kind of bogus.”

And, by extension, Che lashed out at those who listened.

“For a band such as Don Caballero, they almost went out of their way to treat their fans like shit,” said Owings, the fanzine and label head. “And they were tremendously mentally unhealthy towards each other.”

Emm, a younger brother figure and often a mediator between Williams and Che, was more matter-of-fact about the nature of the conflict and what led to Don Caballero’s disintegration.

“In the end, we’d already made [American Don] and we were all drifting off in our personal directions,” Emm said. “I don’t think back on the band stuff. I can’t say why things were the way they were.”

“Damon is a singular force; he’s a genius,” he added. “He’s on another level. But I don’t think he ever did a good job of compartmentalizing and coming to terms with his talent.”

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I never got to see the “first” incarnation of Don Caballero. But I did catch the “second” incarnation live at 31st Street Pub in the Strip District shortly after moving to Pittsburgh in 2006. That night, they didn’t play a single song off Don Caballero 2.

“I probably did always find myself on the fringes,” Che told me. “As far as bringing my ideas to fruition, I was pretty alone.”

And what does Che hope people will walk away from this article thinking about him, his skills as a drummer, the Don Caballero story?

“I only want people to get the truth out of it,” he said. “’Damon’s a success, everyone says so’ – I wouldn’t want to see that. That’s not true.”

“I always felt strongly that time was running out when I was 20 and 30 and now it’s undisputed,” he added. “I feel like I’m 79 now – I just can’t undo that feeling.”

Williams says one image comes to mind when he tries to describe Damon Che. One day in a nondescript Pittsburgh autumn, Che was driving a beat-up, old car. It had been raining but, even though the rain had stopped, Che’s windshield wipers were still swiping, back and forth, furiously. Thwick, thwack. Thwick, thwack. The heat was blaring out on full-blast. And Che was playing an Amphetamine Reptile-style record, with the volume on his car stereo turned up so high it was shaking the car and barely distinguishable from roars of white noise.

“That was Damon,” Williams said. “And, to him, that was just a normal day. Such raw energy — he was so intense all the time.” – Justin Vellucci, MusicTAP, Sept. 2, 2019

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