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Ninja writesCHIRP Radio Interview: Dianogah

This article was written based on a conversation for our CHIRP Artist Interviews podcast. You can also listen to that episode here

Chicago’s Dianogah, named after the garbage-loving monster from the original Star Wars film, never left. They just morph into other bands.

Jay Ryan plays bass, Jason Harvey plays another bass, and Kip McCabe plays drums. Dianogah most recently released remasters of all four of their full-length albums and a collection of singles and soundtrack tracks, reissuing them on vinyl pressed at local pressing plant, Smashed Plastic. Preorder is open for this reissue. 

“Jay and another friend of ours who is a great artist are reimagining all the artwork that includes a book with more information than anyone would ever want to know about the band Dianogah,” Harvey said. 

Ryan and Harvey first met at the University of Illinois playing in other bands in Champaign. They used to joke about starting a band with just basses. When they moved to Chicago, they formed a band in 1995 with two basses, a guitar, and McCabe on drums. Their guitarist left soon after the band formed, after McCabe’s first practice with the group.

“We had a sort of irregular schedule of playing shows, going on tour, making records—slower than some of our peers,” Ryan said of their early days. “But certainly, it matched up with what we could do at the time, because we were all working jobs.”

As they got more involved in their professional careers and started families, they stopped touring. And then what?

Dianogah’s amazingly tongue-in-cheek Bandcamp, which describes the band as “mortgage-core pioneers,” also declares, “We still exist.” The average listener may be confused, because they’ve been playing shows, both as Dianogah and in various mix-and-match groups with fellow musician Tom Fitzgerald, on and off for 28 years. 

They specifically took a break from playing as Dianogah and started a new outfit with Fitzgerald called Whelms, which incidentally played a CHIRP Radio Factory Sessions show in 2018, produced by fellow Chicago music contemporary, Mike Lust

During the pandemic, Fitzgerald and Harvey remotely recorded an album together called The Most Distant Object. And for the live version of that band, Ryan—and sometimes McCabe—have been drafted in to help round out the lineup. 

Also, when Dianogah plays live, Fitzgerald sometimes plays guitar or keyboard. He recently sang vocals for a Dianogah cover of Phoebe Bridgers’ “Kyoto” at a warehouse show.


Instrumentation and Vocals

When Dianogah first started recording, they experimented with spoken word vocals on a handful of tracks, but ultimately, their tracks remain primarily instrumental. “I think at the beginning we were just sort of figuring out what the sound of the band was going to be,” Harvey said. “We were writing music faster than writing vocals, and it just sort of naturally happened.”

Ryan said it also had to do with the music they were hearing at the time. “Some of the music that we were heavily influenced by as we were going into this was probably light on vocals, and what vocals there were, were not overly musical, thinking of bands like Slint or Seam that had perhaps more of a very plain delivery.”

Ryan, who is the main vocalist when there are lyrics, says he was also getting comfortable figuring out how to incorporate vocals and bass playing at the same time. McCabe is quick to point out that the songs that do end up with vocals are sometimes a surprise even for other band members. “Jason and I would go get lunch for everyone, come back, and lo’ and behold, two or three of the songs would have vocals on them. Because Jay had been developing an idea, maybe without sharing it, and did it alone with the engineer.” 

McCabe noted that was particularly the case with Dianogah’s first album, As Seen from Above and the sophomore Battle Champions. Ryan agreed, saying the recording studio time finally gave him the tools to work on vocals that he didn’t have in a typical band practice. “There's a practical side of, we didn't have a PA to practice vocals at band practice. I may have had eight lines of lyrics written, but there's no microphone for me to practice singing that when we're practicing at full volume.”

They say the construction of two bassists and a drummer just naturally occurred because they like playing music together, and those are the instruments they play. “We were aware that there were a few other bands that had a couple of bass players,” Harvey recalls. “But I distinctly remember thinking like, ‘Wow, it's really easy to schedule practice with just three people.’” McCabe admitted the lineup also brings drums more front-and-center than most bands, which can be unnerving. “It gives the drummer, maybe more of a brush on it. I think that just comes out of how naked I often feel with the basses and me, sometimes." “Not always metaphorically, sometimes literally,” Ryan quickly jokes.

McCabe said the first time he practiced with Ryan and Harvey, he was impressed with how much aural space they were able to fill with two basses. “It seemed impossible that there'd be enough high-end, low-end to make it work, but you guys did."  


‘Nothing is too stupid’

With Dianogah’s instrument lineup, experimentation and having fun are key. The band is testing out a new technique that utilizes bass harmonic notes—not even fully playing the frets.

Ryan said Dianogah is at the beginning of a cycle of writing more songs, still testing the waters with their new compositions. “None of which I think will probably last the test of time...but I think Jason and I have some parts that we're sketching out, and I can see some new music put together in the coming months.”

On the track “Maria, Which Has Had Her Heart Completely F*cked Up,” the band opened with what McCabe describes as, “ A stupid, masturbatory beginning of a song that starts with broken measures that end up coming to a beat that really has nothing to do with the rest of it and might be unnecessary altogether.”   “We've always been super pro-gimmick,” he said. “If we can pull off fun-and-exciting, or stupid-but-hilarious, we're all for it.”

“There was awhile where we had a motto that was, ‘Nothing is too stupid,’” Harvey added. “We don't take ourselves too seriously.”  The genres of music Dianogah gets lumped into tend to be serious, emotional, or academic. And they’ve tried to counter that potential perception by keeping the songs a bit lighter and more whimsical. “The song titles are often humorous—to us at least—and I think we've always tried to add a little bit of levity to the music".

“Maria…” for example, was titled after a fan emailed them in broken English and signed her note that way. Another track, “Pinata Oblongata,” was a nonsensical title the band thought up because it sounded to them like a song or LP by The Police in their early career. “That was a riff on their first couple of records – ‘Regatta,’ ‘Zenyatta Mondatta,’” Harvey said. “That was the joking reference.”

Dianogah’s band setup is also prime for collaborations. And they have a history of many, including Mark Greenberg, Billy Smith, Rachel Grimes of the Rachels, John Upchurch of The Coctails, and fourth album “Qhnnnl” collaborator and tourmate for multiple tours, Stephanie Morris.

Also featured on several tracks of 2008’s “Qhnnnl,” is local violin great Andrew Bird. “We did a handful of live shows with him playing some of his songs and some of our songs,” Harvey recalls. “And he's much more of a school musician than we are. So playing with somebody who's got a totally different music vocabulary, where ours is kind of rudimentary and pointing at the fretboard—he has a degree and he's much more of a musician, whereas we're like three dudes in a band.”


The Early Days of Dianogah

Dianogah recorded their first two albums with legendary Chicago producer and engineer Steve Albini, at his home studio for their first album, and at Albini’s Electric Audio recording studio for their second, becoming one of the first bands to record at EA. For a newer band, catching the attention of the audio engineer for Nirvana, Superchunk, The Pixies, PJ Harvey, and aforementioned math-rock contemporaries, Slint, still seems to be perceived as a bit of good luck to the band.

McCabe had a mutual friend who introduced Albini to the band at what they still say was their favorite venue to play shows: Lounge Ax, an iconic Lincoln Park music venue that closed in 2000. “He had expressed some enthusiasm for what we were doing, which was mind blowing,” McCabe muses. “Recording in his house was a blast. It was super low key. He had a studio—the board was up in the attic with a camera on the basement where he had a live room for the drums and the dead room for guitar. He's got the best bedside manner in terms of keeping it light and an unbelievable working knowledge of everything audio; anything from tuning up a drum set, to the way he thinks it'll sound good, to a ton of different approaches to capture sounds.”

McCabe called debut LP “As Seen from Above” the easiest recording they ever did. “Those songs were pretty fresh, and we were excited about them." Steve almost refused to let us get too bogged down in second, third, fourth takes. To me, the that record in particular sounds like that. It sounds like how those songs felt at the time. And it's still one of my favorite audio recordings I've ever been involved with. I felt that the laid-back nature of his house on Francisco kind of lent itself to such the experience.”

Ryan agreed they knew that material inside and out when it was recorded, which also made a difference. “We had very complete songs that we played out a lot before we went into the studio. His strength is capturing the live sound of a band in the studio. And I think we were primed for that.”

Through the 2000s, the band got out and toured quite a bit, including in Europe. They say Italy was their favorite place to play because an average show in Italy tended to be bigger and more unique than other places. “I feel like we had a higher percentage of good, enjoyable shows in Europe and Italy than anywhere in the U.S., very in tune with what was going on here,” Harvey recollects. “There are a lot of different things that I think we all look back as like really exciting experiences, like getting to play in Iceland or getting to play in Spain, small towns in Belgium, or the Netherlands or France,” Ryan said. “We can still make jokes about some of these really weird, tiny bars that we've played.”

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