The String & Return show on Friday during Ink’s Middle of the Map Fest technically isn’t a reunion show.
It will be the band’s first live performance in more than three years, but it hasn’t reunited. You can’t reunite if you never officially broke up.
“We’ve played so many farewell-reunion shows we’ve concluded that we should never declare a show as either one,” said Andrew Ashby, the band’s founder. “We just say we’re on hiatus.”
Ashby started the String & Return in the late 1990s. After years of writing and gathering songs, he decided it was time to form a band and start playing those songs live. So he enlisted guitarist Matt Wolber and bassist Dan Weber and started rehearsing. His songs weren’t mainstream or radio-ready.
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“We were influenced by Sonic Youth and bands like Slint and Codeine,” Ashby said, citing groups in the slowcore, post-rock, indie-rock genre. “But we were inspired by a lot of local bands like Panel Donor, Shiner, Dirtnap, Giants Chair, the Regrets, Boys Life and Zoom.”
Those songs averaged six or seven minutes in length and were filled with lots of abrupt shifts and time changes. Ashby wrote all the lyrics; the music was composed collaboratively.
“They’re songs that begin one way but by the end, they sound nothing like the beginning,” Ashby said. “Halfway through, there’s a change and the song never returns to its original theme. That came really natural to us, throwing together different parts.”
For a while, the three practiced as a trio while they searched for a drummer who could navigate the songs’ complicated architecture. They went through several tryouts.
“We looked for a drummer for a long time,” Ashby said. “We’d have guys come in and try to change the tempo, but we’d play right over him.”
In 1998, they found their drummer — Mike Myers, who had just left the band Everest. He was advised by a fellow record-store employee to get in touch with the trio, figuring he would be a good fit.
“He knew what kind of music I was into: slowcore, shoegaze-y stuff, like Codeine, Slint, Rex, Bedhead,” Myers said.
And that fit in with what Ashby was going for. Myers auditioned in October 1998 and fit in immediately.
“We played this really slow song with time changes, and we didn’t warn him or give him any pointers,” Ashby said. “The song completely changes halfway through. But all the parts he played sounded great. After that, we were sold.”
The band would play its first live gig in February 1999 on a bill at the Replay Lounge in Lawrence with Dirtnap and the Creature Comforts. Between the first rehearsal and the first gig, they had decided on a name. Ashby wanted to call the band the Placidyls, because of the band’s narcotic sound. But they decided instead on the String & Return, resurrecting the name of a band Myers had been in with high school friends.
“We got the name from some instructional that came with a yo-yo,” Myers said. “We thought it had a cool, Chicago-y sound to it, like the Sea and Cake. I checked with the guys in the old band and they were fine with it. They were all in other bands.”
The String & Return would release two full-length albums, “Invisible City” in 2001 and “What Cheer” in 2005, the year the band took its first long hiatus.
For Ashby, the band was the vehicle that inspired him to bring his songs and himself onstage.
“I was crazy-shy back then, without much confidence,” he said. “I’d been writing a lot of songs but hadn’t been showing them to anyone but friends. Once we started playing shows, the local scene was so supportive, I felt like, ‘Why haven’t we been doing this the whole time?’”
The band also developed a following in St. Louis and Chicago, where they recorded their first album. Some of their fans were their influences and peers. One of those was Billy Smith, whose resume includes Dirtnap and Season to Risk. He and Ashby went to high school together and shared similar music tastes and showed up at the same shows.
“I went off to college and formed Dirtnap, which had a lot of the hard edges and angular rhythms I had in mind after being influenced by bands like Germbox, Drowning Incident and Season To Risk,” Smith said. “I came home one weekend and I saw Andrew and (Wolber) in a band called Hubble, which had a cool space-rock vibe that was outside of the normal aggressive sounds that we were all making at the time.”
When Smith saw the String & Return for the first time, they also left an impression.
“I fell in love with how quiet and melodic the songs (were),” he said. “For the first time, you could really hear Andrew’s vocals. This was also my introduction to Mike Myers’ drumming. I’ll never forget the show they played at the Madrid Theater for Spitfest. The room was like walking in a dream sequence.”
Myers, Ashby said, became a focus of some of the band’s hardcore fans.
“At a lot of our shows, we’d get these guys standing up front and watching real attentively,” he said. “I’d be thinking, ‘They’re really getting my song.’ But they were watching Mike, nudging each other. Drum nerds.”
They’d play some sold-out gigs, opening for Shiner and other big local acts, then headlining their own shows. But, Ashby said, there were never any grandiose plans to sign a record deal and become famous.
“We’d play Davey’s (Uptown Ramblers Club) and it would be packed with a lot of people we didn’t know,” he said. “But I always thought we were an acquired taste. I was kind of surprised we did as well as we did.”
Myers considered the band a family. “I never really felt like anything big was going to happen,” he said. “This has always been a chance to play with my best buddies.”
After they released “What Cheer” in 2005, band members became involved in other projects. Myers joined In the Pines, which would attract interest from an overseas label. Ashby was writing songs for the band that would become the Caves, with music more straightforward than the String & Return’s. So amicably and of its own inertia, the String & Return came to rest.
But every once in a while they would get the urge or a request to perform again. In March 2011 they played a First Friday show at Midwestern Music Co. Their most recent show was in January 2012, at RecordBar, for a birthday celebration for longtime fan Michael Byars of KCUR (89.9 FM).
In the meantime, Wolber has joined Federation of Horsepower, In the Pines broke up, and Ashby released an EP and a full-length with the Caves, who broke up last year. The demise of that band set him back emotionally, he said, but it also revived interest in the String & Return.
“I really like playing loud again,” he said. “There are some acrobatic time signatures I hadn’t done in awhile so I had to go back and listen again to figure out what was going on.”
Restarting the band was “magical,” he said, and it reminded him that the band will always be together, no matter how much time passes between shows. In December, the String & Return released another EP, “Lost Songs,” and Ashby said more material already in the can may be released.
“It never gets old,” he said. “We all live in the same city, and we all love each other, so we’re always going to play again, sometime.”
The String & Return performs at 11 p.m. Friday at Ernie Biggs, 4115 Mill St. in Westport. The show is part of Ink’s Middle of the Map Fest. Go to MiddleOfTheMapFest.com for a complete schedule and ticket information.