Spring 2012 marked the second time I interviewed Brooklyn indie/electronic cross-over musicians Bear In Heaven. Though two years had passed, the main underlying tendency of the interview was the same: staying on topic was damn near impossible. Stand in a room with them for ten minutes, and you'll realize that the trio, consisting of vocalist Jon Philpot, bassist Adam Wills, and drummer Joe Stickney, have some sort of superhuman attention-diverting capability that can suck all journalistic integrity into a black hole of joking and bantering. Humor seeps into all that they do, though it may not be evident by listening to their music in isolation. Instead, it is found in their tangential actions.
Take, for instance, their latest record, I Love You, It's Cool. Its ridiculous title was taken in jest from a break-up letter written by the band's former fourth member, Sadek Bazarra. They also marketed the album with an ingenious tactic that involved stretching their entire record into an ambient drone track lasting a duration of three months, and their music video for "The Reflection Of You", directed by the force behind Wonder Showzen, John Lee of the PFFR art collective, can be unbearably nauseating with its incessant zooms. To sum it up: reactions to Bear In Heaven's sense of humor are polarized, and Stickney jokes that one person's comment on last.fm ("Fuck your ultra slowed-down hipster stream") summarizes many of the reactions to their experiments.
It seems easy for some to write off Bear In Heaven's conceptually-minded artistic approach as pretentious and disingenuous, but I'd argue that would be misunderstanding the band members themselves. Their approach to music is hard to understand because they take themselves very seriously when they need to, but swing to the other extreme when they don't. In the interviews below, we're talking ideas; some good, some bad, many completely unrelated to the original intentions. But the point remains that you will either like Bear In Heaven's ideas, or you won't. If only it mattered, though.
The brainchild of Portland musicians Joe Haege and Corrina Repp, Tu Fawning is a band with its fingers spread far and wide. Each member of the co-ed quartet is an accomplished musician; all are multi-instrumentalists, and all have played in multiple bands. And while the band's last EP was released through Polyvinyl, Tu Fawning decided to self-release its debut album, Hearts On Hold, this time around.
At the core of this decision was a two-month nationwide tour, in which Tu Fawning filled in as Menomena's main support. "It seemed like the perfect opportunity to give Tu Fawning some national exposure, as well as [to] get the new record out there," says Repp. Unfortunately, because of time constraints, all signs were pointing to a 2011 release if the band wanted to work with outside labels.
"[Polyvinyl was] willing to help us with Hearts On Hold, but on such a minimal level we decided it made more sense to try and put it out by ourselves and to be proud of our work, and not hand it over to someone who liked it, but didn't seem to love it," Repp explains.
While movie studios compete to outdo one another with the latest in 3-D technology and even pop stars like Jonas Brothers and Justin Bieber are getting a bite of the action with their own 3-D concert films, Austin's The Octopus Project is leaving them all in the dust by thinking in terms of eight. With the desire to expand their already kinetic, spacey sound, the band has cooked up an idea that plays with a number of dimensions and would actually be experienced in a live setting, involving eight speakers, eight video projectors, and eight video sequences synchronized to music. The concept places the band in the center of a tent with an audience encircling them and the speakers surrounding the audience. Projected images on the ceiling replaces the night sky and watches over the crowd.
Before writing a note of music, though, the band took the performance idea to the Whole Foods Market flagship store in Austin, proposing to perform the project in the store's parking lot during SXSW 2010, says band member Yvonne Lambert. Without knowing all the specifications, Whole Foods agreed. However, The Octopus Project was then challenged with the task of figuring out how to make the idea come to life and write music that would do justice to such a colossal endeavor.
"We had a little bit of a freak out moment after they said yes," says Lambert. "It was exciting and scary at the same time."
The band named the venture Hexadecagon, and the music that was created later went on to form the latest The Octopus Project album by the same name, which was released by Peek-A-Boo Records in Fall 2010. However, making the music for the two free live performances at SXSW and recording it for the album were two different undertakings.
The album art for SUUNS newest album, Zeroes QC, serves as an appropriate visual introduction to the Montreal band's music. Featuring a high-contrast black-and-white photograph of a woman dressed in a glitter top, one can just barely make out outlines of trees against the dark background, as their silhouettes drape ambiguously over her face and body.
If SUUNS' brand of mysterious art rock were to take on a visual aesthetic, it would certainly look like this -- living in monochromes and being sprinkled occasionally with bright flashes which hint at beauty in deep places. Obvious aspects of their music -- incoherent mumblings over grinding basslines and electronics -- embrace the darkness, while lighter guitar elements and steady beats seem to offset that heaviness. The resulting sound is brooding and danceable, and singer and guitarist Ben Shemie's own description of SUUNS' music might be the most appropriate visual and poetic accompaniment.
"There is a kind of sense of falling backward that I think the songs conjure," says Shemie. "Or blindly driving your car into a wall. A sense of sadness in all the amazing things in the world."
"We are definitely influenced by visual art, and I suppose art of all kinds," he continues. "On a conceptual [and] intellectual [level,] many of our friends work in that medium, whether it be film or painting or whatever, so there is definitely an interest in what they are doing and what trends are happening in the visual art world in general...
"You can definitely draw parallels to composition in a visual format versus a musical format. They draw upon the same tastes and impulses. None of our songs are 'based' on a film or picture or whatnot, but in some cases, I hear our songs as little plays, or films."
One look into SUUNS' own interpretation into their music lies in their video for "Up Past The Nursery," which was directed by Ben Shemie and Petros Kolyvas. The video is slow and complemplative, not unlike the song. Alternating between shots of the band standing idly in the woods and being suspended motionless in watery atmospheres, the video's subtle off-kilter color treatments and occasional overlays of fireworks serve as bursts of action in stillness.
One would think that a band like The Fresh & Onlys, which has relied on a home tape machine to record material for two full-length albums, more than five 7" records, an EP, and a few cassette tapes, had found a working formula for their recordings. However, when it came time for the San Francisco band to record its third album of effervescent garage tunes, the band members were left unsatisfied with working from home, instead desiring to try something different.
"We got really concerned about being too redundant, at least sonically," says Shayde Sartin, the band's bassist. "It's kind of good to challenge yourself with a new environment."
In the hopes of expanding their spectrum and making the music sound bigger, the band--which also includes Tim Cohen on vocals, guitar, and keys, Wymond Miles on guitar, and Kyle Gibson on drums--turned to Tim Green and his San Francisco-based Louder Studios. Green is a member of the band, Fucking Champs, and also played in the renowned punk band, The Nation Of Ulysses. His work behind the recording boad is just as impressive, having included clients like Tristeza and Sleater Kinney . However, it was Green's work with The Melvins and Lungfish that most impressed Sartin.
"I love how he records sonically," Sartin says. "I like how he records guitars. I like how he records vocals. So, it seemed like an obvious choice. I felt really comfortable to go work with a person who had some kind of acquaintance."
The Fresh & Onlys is still a young band, having been formed in 2008 as a project between Cohen and Sartin. So, it is nice to hear the band members already wanting to expand their horizons. For the third album, which is entitled Play It Strange and will be released on In the Red Recordings on October 12, the band really wanted to focus more on the production aspects , starting with recording the songs on their own, allowing Green to become familiar with the material before recording anything at Louder Studios.
"By the time we got in there, he knew the songs, and he knew that we like to work fast," Sartin says. "He likes to work fast. We had the songs figured out. We kind of wanted to get in and get the physical parts done and then work on the sonics a little more. He was really good at facilitating working on the color of the songs."
Menomena have always seemed like a happy-go-lucky bunch. With an arbitrarily-chosen band name reminiscent of The Muppets and lighthearted album titles like I Am The Fun Blame Monster!, the Portland band established itself early on as hard-working yet fun-loving. The band members worked tirelessly towards their success without sacrificing their artistic integrity; they employed DIY promotional methods and remained loyal to Pacific Northwest record labels when they probably could have gone to "bigger and better" ones. They took pleasure in simple projects, buffering their live shows with innovative ideas and devoting their second full-length as an instrumental accompaniment to an experimental dance performance. As Menomena constantly pushed the limits of what it meant to be a creative indie rock force, all pieces pointed to a well-functioning musical machine.
Fast-forward to nearly a decade since the band's first live performance. During that time period, Menomena has released four albums and signed to three different Pacific Northwest labels. The band's long-awaited fourth full-length, Mines, was released in mid-2010, more than three-and-a-half years since their previous release, Friend And Foe. On record, the time seems hardly to have made a difference. Menomena sound as united as ever, the same thoughtful songwriting and complexity one finds on their previous albums present on Mines.
A deeper look, though, reveals that the three musicians behind Menomena – Danny Seim, Brent Knopf, and Justin Harris – aren't actually quite as compatible as they might seem. In fact, they've openly admitted that the creation of Mines was punctuated by countless soul-crushing arguments, and it seems remarkable that they were able to complete the album at all. Despite their obvious creative quirks, the members of Menomena are actually quite serious when dealing with one another; it seems the musical relationship they operate within is a gnarled one.
In their self-crafted statement for Mines, percussionist Danny Seim describes the creation of the album, saying, "Nothing holds up a process like an indispensable band member being both a perfectionist and a control freak. Especially when your band features three of these types. And we certainly haven't gotten any more agreeable in our old age – quite the opposite. However, in the wake of brutal disagreements, unrelenting grudges and failed marriages (not to mention a world full of modern terrorism, natural disasters and economic collapse) somehow this band is still standing."
Mines is the silver lining on a cloud that represents years of creative stagnation, difficulty, and compromise.