By Zach Schonfeld
On a quiet Saturday night last month, I drove to Hamden, Conn., to see Bear in Heaven. The venue—more easily mistakable for a swimming pool snack bar—was called The Space. The openers were a trio of Twisted Sister-lookalikes calling themselves Slam Donahue. There were only about 20 people in the audience when Bear in Heaven took the stage—an odd confluence of sullen high-schoolers and confused seemingly baby boomers—but no matter; the band retained all of the freakish energy, percussive muscle, and relentless melodicism from its packed performance in Eclectic in 2010.
The band’s excellent sophomore effort, I Love You, It’s Cool, has been streaming online for about six months now—albeit slowed down 400,000%. The real version, a wholly singular fusion of dizzying synths and shimmering melodic triumph, came out on Dead Oceans just last week. Recently, I called up drummer Joe Stickney (he was in the middle of building lights for an upcoming gig—no joke) to talk about the new record, South by Southwest, and playing behind the Iron Curtain.
The Argus: You just got back from South by Southwest. How was this year compared to previous years?
Bear in Heaven: I mean, this was pretty similar to the last time we went—we played like 10 shows; it was a lot of chaos. A good time overall. All the shows went well; they were well attended. We were definitely working out more kinks in our live set this time than last time around. Last time we played, we toured down there, so we were already pretty well-oiled. This time we’d only played the new stuff like five times live before.
A: How are the new songs going over live?
BiH: Really well! People are dancing, people are moving.
A: About four months ago, you began streaming your new album I Love You, It’s Cool on your website slowed down 400,000%. Where did this publicity idea originate and what is its intent?
BiH: We had wanted to do an ambient record as a companion piece to the new album. And everybody was on board—our label was down with it and everything—but we just ran out of time. We’re always kind of over-stretching ourselves for the amount of time that we actually have. We’re leaving on Wednesday, and I’m still in here building these lights right now. We’re a down-to-the-wire kind of band. We didn’t have time to do a full ambient record, so that was our solution. As close to the same idea, in less time.
A: You described the stream as a “comment on the current state of album promotion, hype cycles, countdowns and all the marketing ploys that we accept as a reality of existing within an internet age.” Can you elaborate on that?
BiH: The idea is just, you know, there’s so much hype that gets built in releasing your record exactly the right way, and you have to drop this track at exactly the right time, and everybody has to put this up at the same time…It’s a very, like, hyper-organized system that’s going on these days. Everybody does everything in exactly the same way, basically. I think there’s something kind of fun in releasing the record, but playing it slowed down it to such a degree that it’s completely unrecognizable from the finished product.
A: You’re selling a $350 “super-deluxe bundle” that comes with a hard drive containing all 2,700 hours of the drone. Has anyone bought that?
BiH: Oh, I dunno! I haven’t gotten the figures on that. We also have little USB drives that are going to have, like, five hours of a random section of the drone.
A: What are some of the major influences that went into the new record? Any newish artists you’re excited about?
BiH: A lot of the major influences were just our experiences with a lot of the bands that we played with on the last record cycle. We definitely were picking ideas from our friends and stuff like that—what we saw was working with bands like Twin Sister, Lower Dens…We toured with a lot of good bands last time around. That was definitely influential.
A lot of it is just what we saw that worked from our own style. Like, we don’t really go into a project trying to sound like another band. We actually kind of do the opposite. Like, any time we recognize that we’re starting to sound like something specific, we tend to change it. It’s more distilling the elements of our own sound that we’ve been working on and picking out the parts that work best and tightening those.
A: Much of I Love You, It’s Cool sounds more overtly synth-based than the last one (i.e., “Warm Water,” “Space Remains”). Was that a conscious decision, or did that just happen?
BiH: Well, [singer] Jon [Philpot] has just been constantly improving his synthesizer skills. He’s been working a lot with Ableton and learning a lot about how to better build more complex synth sounds. So it’s really part of our natural evolution of becoming more familiar with new instruments. It’s not so much a conscious decision as a natural progression, I think.
A: Any especially memorable shows since you started touring the new record?
BiH: Well, like I said, we only played like five shows before we went down to South By Southwest. And then South By Southwest was kinda memorable in that it was just a crazy blur; we did ten shows.
A: Are there any shows on this tour that you’re especially looking forward to?
BiH: Yeah, we’re just psyched to be back around the country. We get to see a lot of our friends in Chicago and LA and Portland. We’re psyched to get back out on the road. But once we go over to Europe, we’re playing some countries we’ve never been to, so we’re really excited about that. We’re going to play in Moscow, which is gonna be amazing; we’re doing a few shows in Italy, which we’ve never been to. I think this whole tour is gonna be cool. It’s crazy, we’re playing behind the Iron Curtain.
A: The album is named for a drawing inadvertently left in the studio. Can you clarify that?
BiH: Our last record we wrote as a four-piece. Our buddy Sadek Bazarra was in the band. He had to stop playing with us because he couldn’t do all the touring that we were doing—he runs a graphic design company. But we’re still really close, you know, and at one point we came by the practice place without him to listen to the demos we were working on and he did some weird little drawings for me and Jon, and one of them said, “I love you, it’s cool.” And we were working out our album title and that one just kind of popped into the mix. And it just felt right. It felt like a nice way of keeping Sadek on board and it represented what we were feeling as our mentality behind the record.
A: He did the cover art as well?
BiH: Yeah, Sadek did the cover art. He did all the design for the record, regardless. Some of the drawings that he did were pretty strange—guys with extra elbows and stuff.
A: You’ve already released a few remixes of “Reflection Of You.” Do you have any more planned for the future?
BiH: Yeah, we’ve got more coming. I can’t say exactly which ones are coming up. I’m super stoked about the ones we’ve got so far. Did you hear the Lovelock remix?
A: No, I haven’t.
BiH: It’s pretty awesome, man! They made it a slow jam—you should check it out!
A: I certainly will!