Somewhere in the vacation slides of Canasta's trip to Mongolia, there's a small epiphany.
The six-piece Chicago group -- a celebrated stalwart of "orchestral pop," meaning big ideas in small packages, often produced with a lot of gear -- landed the unusual gig via the Arts Envoy Program from the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (and part of a wider initiative to celebrate 20 years of U.S.-Mongol relations). The weeklong tour began Feb. 3 in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia's capital, and continued to the highland towns of Sainshand and Dalanzadgad.
Mongolia. In February.
"It was freezing," recalls Canasta's singer-violinist Elizabeth Lindau, adding for emphasis, "freezing." She knows freezing. She once spent a season working at a research station in Antarctica. Mongolia, she says, was colder.
with the Ghosts of Canasta Past, Wooden Rings
• 9 p.m. June 2
• Schubas, 3159 N. Southport
• Tickets: $12; (773) 525-2508; schubas.com
"Negative 22 during the day, negative 44 at night," adds singer and multi-instrumentalist Matt Priest. "We had to borrow appropriate clothes. It was insane. ... I found it difficult to sing, too. The weather, combined with the elevation and, you know, the capital city is one of the most polluted on the planet because they burn coal. You can taste it in the air. It's not the best singing environment. But then, they have some of the most amazing vocalists in the world, so they don't seem bothered by it."
As indie-rock ambassadors, Canasta often performed for Mongolian school children in the mornings and curious, often bewildered adults in the evenings. The culture clash was pretty stark. In a republic of Tuvan throat singers and horse-head fiddlers, here were half a dozen Chicagoans plugging in and performing intricate, delicate, sometimes deeply emotional pop music.
And in a land of limited related resources, at least by comparison, the members of Canasta began to notice the contrast of their American-informed music sensibilities.
-- They had hauled a lot of gear with them. "Well," Priest explains, sighing, "a lot of the keyboards have patches and tones specific to a song."
-- Thus, they had certain electricity needs. "One night, all six of us were plugged into one extension cord in a room with one exit," Lindau recalls, shuddering at the miracle of their survival.
-- What they didn't transport, they acquired for each gig. "It was a crap shoot, every time," Priest says. "The drum set would show up, and it would be, like, a children's drum set. With holes in it. You can't blame them, because you've asked for a drum set and this is a small town in Mongolia; they've brought you the best drum set they have."
So one night, when the cultural exchange reversed direction, Priest and Lindau had a moment.
"We were out in the country, setting up all our gear, and they said, 'These local musicians want to play for you,'" Lindau says. "They just walked in, picked up some instruments -- an upright bass, the horse-head fiddle, hammer dulcimer, a horizontal harp-like thing -- and just played, and it was totally amazing. We were like, 'Holy crap!'"
"They pull off a lot of beauty with minimal gear," Priest says. "It's kind of humbling."
Later, when the two founding members start talking about a third Canasta record -- the follow-up to the wonderful 2010 set, "The Fakeout, the Tease, and the Breather" -- that Mongolian revelation begins to resurface. They talk about songs in progress with music but no sound sketched out yet. They talk about wanting to try new instrumentations. They talk about seeking surprises for themselves. They talk about stripping down.
"I mean, I was really taken by the fact that [those Mongolian musicians] can just pick up an instrument and play a song, and it's really gorgeous without all the extra bells and whistles," Priest says. "We don't write songs like that. We often start with an organ riff or a violin part, and in the studio we'll move this part and that part around within the song, and by the time it's done the song is dependent on all that. It doesn't make sense if you remove a part. I'd like to see us work with songs that are more standard structures or at least have a traditional song at the center of them."
Think the Decemberists -- a band initially known for its carefully composed, often grandiose pop concepts, but which scored highly with "The King Is Dead," their latest album that's stripped-down, basic rootsy folk-rock.
"There's something to be said for stripping a song down," Priest says. "This isn't surprising to other bands, but it is to us."
Canasta has enjoyed a revolving lineup in its first decade, but they've managed to play nearly every show with all six members, including Mongolia. Still, Priest acknowledges it would nice to have a catalog that didn't crumble when, say, the pianist had an emergency that night.
All that time and all those members is the focus of Canasta's show this weekend -- a 10th anniversary celebration, featuring the complete current lineup -- including guitarist Jeremy Beckford, keyboardist Ryan Tracy, pianist Sarah Kneebone, drummer Brian Palmieri -- as well as former "ghosts of Canasta." For the occasion, they'll be back at Schubas, site of their first gig together (a Belle & Sebastian tribute night, June 3, 2002, also featuring members of Chicago bands Scotland Yard Gospel Choir and Brighton, MA).
"It's a milestone," Priest says. "At the same time we think how lucky we are, though, we're also going, man, why are we not farther along?"
Two albums, two EPs, some great gigs and a song in a movie ad ("Slow Down Chicago" was used in the trailer for the 2008 Chicago-set film "Diminished Capacity," starring Matthew Broderick and Alan Alda) -- it's a good showing. Plus, they made that huge impact on Mongolia.
"Well," Priest chuckles, "I'm not expecting a Mongolian indie-pop revolution."