I'm a sucker for how smart lyrics can transform a song—the way Johnny Cash paints his rough-and-tumble characters or how Bonnie "Prince" Billy takes a sharp lyrical turn in the middle of the seemingly optimistic "Hard Life" to sing, "But I ain't breathing/ Let me breathe/ Let me go/ Let me drown." Quoting provocative lyrics is one of the great joys of writing about music, so it was with some surprise that I recently found myself lured in by a live set from the spastic-yet-tidy instrumental band Chung Antique. The Seattle trio was among the lineup of Missoula's inaugural Plus One Music Festival in September, for which the festival committee picks a handful of bands and those bands get to offer a slot to a group of their choice—their "plus one." (Chung Antique was the only band to receive an invite from two bands: Seattle's Freeway Park and Missoula's Magpies.)
Chung Antique mixes angular post-hardcore riffs with mellow psychedelic interludes. They evoke 1990s bands such as Unwound and Fugazi, but with a softer edge, like if you turned the dreamy songs of Halo Benders or Built to Spill into instrumentals and added a math rock element. Watching them live feels like witnessing the fast-motion construction of a building. The layers of sound and changes in time signature stack up in a palpable way. These aren't musicians instigating a mosh pit or trying to rock-star their way to visibility. They're worker ants putting the pieces together with precision. The lack of lyrics doesn't appear to be a detriment. In fact, singing would only detract from the unfolding instrumental acrobatics.
Drummer Whitney Bingham, especially, plays what look like complicated rhythms with furious exactness, though she never seems to break a sweat.
"She's our secret weapon for sure," says bassist Mike Bernatovicz. "Or our not-so-secret weapon. People comment on her all the time, like, 'It looks like she's cooking dinner or shelving books, like it's no big deal.'"
Over the last week, the band has been touring the East Coast and is now heading west back toward Seattle. Missoula will be their final show of the tour. Bernatovicz talks to me from a Brooklyn street corner where he's found the best phone reception after dealing with several instances of static. As with most music buffs, sound is a holy thing for this band.
"Lately, we've been trying to practice with parts that are more prewritten," Bernatovicz says. "Sometimes there will be a bass line we stumble upon on accident and that spurs a song that's done in three practices. And there's some riffs from five years ago that we're still trying to find a place for."
If you ask Chung Antique what they like to listen to for fun or what influences them, the answer is as complicated and weirdly organized as their music.
"We're all pretty geeky, and if you get us going about a certain band we'll talk your ear off," Bernatovicz says. "We've been listening to bands from the places we're in at any given time."
That means Television and Sonic Youth on their way into New York. They put on Helms in Boston, The Jesus Lizard in Chicago and Compound Red on their way out of Milwaukee.
"We have a new tradition we established from last time we went through Louisville," Bernatovicz says. "We timed it out so that we started Slint's Spiderland right when we're 40 minutes out from the venue, so we get there right when it ends."
Chung Antique formed in Olympia at Evergreen State College, alma mater to members of Sleater-Kinney, Bikini Kill and Unwound. The band's origin was not neat and tidy. Bernatovicz befriended guitarist Charlie Zaillian and Zaillian invited him to practice with his band.
"I come to practice and it's like six people—two drummers, two guitarists and a girl screaming into a microphone on the floor," Bernatovicz says. "We started playing together and slowly pared ourselves down."
They officially started Chung Antique in 2009 as a quartet with two drummers, and in 2011 became a trio with Bingham as the sole percussionist. In the style of true-blue music fanatics, their first release was on cassette, and their second, the 2014 full-length album Sweater Weather, came out on double-mint vinyl with full-color artwork and a CD insert. Their latest release, a two-track 7" record, showcases a heavier sound that sometimes veers into the same lane as rawer hardcore instrumental bands like The Fucking Champs.
What Chung Antique does with its instrumental phrasings isn't far off from what a clever lyrical turn does: upends your expectations. Their song titles are playful ("Stop Making Synths" and "Norse Code") and the music, even though it sounds so put together, is full of emotional surprise.
"Precision is really important to all of us," Bernatovicz says. "There's something impressive about a band playing a complicated five- or six-minute song and nailing it. But it's also about having fun. Someone once described what we do as cartwheeling through an obstacle course. We set up all these elaborate things and then, wee!all the way through them."
Chung Antique plays Stage 112 Mon., Nov. 7, at 9 PM, along with Magpies and Charcoal Squid. $5.