Disappears has made four albums in four years with three different drummers. It's a prescription for chaos, but founding guitarist-singer Brian Case says the acclaimed Chicago quartet has used the personnel changes to its advantage.
When a drummer is about to leave, "it's tough to take," he says. "You know you have to teach someone new, and how do we make the transition? But each time we've taken the opportunity to tweak the formula, to reinvent the band a bit. It's been instrumental in keeping us working hard and motivating us. We try to turn it into something positive, and every time it has worked out."
It's not that the drummers have been slackers. Founding drummer Graeme Gibson was not only a key part of composing the music but producing it as well. After Disappears' first two albums, "Lux" (2010) and "Guider" (2011), Gibson left for the Pacific Northwest to join the band Fruit Bats full-time. He was replaced by Steve Shelley, the longtime Sonic Youth drummer, who stepped in for a year and the recording of "Pre Language" (2012) before calling it quits.
"With Steve there was the white-elephant-in-the-room quality: 'That's Steve Shelley and he's sitting across from me and we're about to play a song!'" Case says. "That has its own challenges. But he wanted to be here and we were able to figure out each other's vibe and how to talk to each other about music. It was natural with Steve, but he was touring with (former Sonic Youth guitarist) Lee Ranaldo at the same time and us. He said he couldn't commit to anything more with us because he was exhausted. We wanted to write new record and it was time to start something new."
Case and bandmates Damon Carruesco and Jonathan Van Herik quickly agreed on the next candidate for the job: Noah Leger, a fixture in local bands and a longtime acquaintance.
"His style of drumming up until joining us is a lot busier than we are — he's pretty adventurous," Case says. "But I knew he has the ability to do what's right for the song. With his personality, we knew he'd fit in great."
Leger has helped push the band in its most radical direction yet. The previous three albums rocked by emphasizing minimalism, drone and repetition. But Disappears' fourth studio album, "Era" (Kranky), goes deeper in these directions; after the hammering opener, "Girl," it's more deliberate and spacious, building off the advances made earlier this year when the reconfigured quartet recorded the EP "Kone."
"That was a good left turn for us. It was something we hadn't really done before, and neither had Noah, and we were able to connect on this new spot," Case says. For the new album, "we were interested in putting more space in the songs, using the heaviness of dub, the repetition and minimalism. We gravitated toward stuff like P.I.L. It may have been Noah, or just wanting to get away from where we were with 'Pre Language." Once we were communicating on the same wave, the songs came fast."
The band brought in John Congleton, the respected producer who has worked with everyone from St. Vincent to the Roots, to oversee the recording. "He was great at keeping things moving with new ideas," Case says. "On (the song) 'New House,' we had never played it all together. It was a slow and moody, but we couldn't figure out how to start it. We just couldn't get into the zone as a band. Then John told Jonathan to makes some noise with his bass, turned it into a loop, and we based the song around this snippet of sound."
The more experimental edge makes "Era" the most adventurous and in many ways the most accomplished album in the band's career. It sets Disappears apart, somewhere between post-punk and experimental music.
"How do we identify ourselves, what are we a part of? That was part of the thinking since the start," Case says. "We did an Empty Bottle show a few years ago where we played all covers, and played them relatively straight. But afterward people told us we made the songs sound like us, and that's when I realized that I guess we do have a 'sound.' "
That individuality explains why they are one of the few bands with a rock pedigree to be signed to Kranky, the Chicago label noted primarily for its electronic and experimental releases. Disappears headline a 20th anniversary concert for the label Dec. 12 at the Empty Bottle.
"I guess we're the token rock band – us and Implodes – on the label," Case says. "But the mentality of the band fits in exactly with what Kranky does. I don't think any label would let us do what they do. Four albums in four years? That doesn't fit into the marketing plan of any label I can think of. No one is going to let us do that. This band still exists in large part because of them."
Greg Kot co-hosts "Sound Opinions" at 8 p.m. Friday and 11 a.m. Wednesday on WBEZ (FM-91.5).
When: 9 p.m. Dec. 12
Where: Empty Bottle, 1035 N. Western Ave.
Tickets: $12; emptybottle.com