My late introduction to Brooklyn-based band Bear in Heaven was just this past December, when they supported Mew at Webster Hall (and I can see why they were handpicked to do so). Not sure how I’d missed them before, but as singer and founding member Jon Philpot said, in this town, there’s so much happening in the music scene locally that keeping up with it all is like a part-time job.
The band, who have recently generated quite a following locally and plenty of buzz elsewhere, released their second full-length, Beast Rest Forth Mouth, on the Hometapes label in November 2009, and it made Pitchfork’s list of Top 50 Albums of 2009. The title is a reference to Earth’s compass points, and symbolic of being at a crossroads. The debut album, and first release as a full band, was Red Bloom of the Boom, in 2007. An EP, Tunes Next Door To Songs, was released in 2003, when Bear in Heaven was still Philpot’s solo project (though the EP was recorded with guest musicians).
The band’s live sets are known to be intense; whether its passionate tenor vocals or frenetic drumming. And sometimes there’s incense burning on the stage, lending a certain ritualistic vibe and ambience to the atmosphere.
Bear in Heaven was until recently a four-piece, with Philpot on guitars, keyboards and lead vocals, Adam Wills on guitar and bass, Sadek Bazaraa on keyboards and bass, and Joe Stickney on drums. With Bazaraa’s departure last month, the band has just regrouped as a trio. Bazaraa’s last concert with them was the sold-out show at New York’s Mercury Lounge in late January (with support from Denmark’s Oh No Ono, who’ve also opened for Mew). Now the guys are gearing up for an extensive tour, around the US (with fellow New York band Cymbals Eat Guitars) and then Europe.
I spoke with Philpot about recent developments with the band and their upcoming tour. There were cool sounds coming through the phone as he was in the process of transferring some from the synth to the sampler, which he’d been working on for “days and days on end” and was almost done with. “I can’t explain to you how exciting it’s going to be to finish this,” laughing, “it’s going to be exciting!”
How are you reworking things since Sadek’s departure?
I’ll be playing a little bit of bass guitar on the songs Sadek played bass on, and some of the songs we’re reworking a bit where I’ll be playing synths instead of guitar, and I’m doing a lot of stuff with the sampler. And I’ve made my set-up smaller, which will be good for the road. It’s been pretty crazy and a big a learning experience, and I’ve done it all very, very quickly.
How does it feel now being a trio? To me it seems a bit sad.
It is sad, and to be honest I’m a bit bummed about it, but it’s not like we’re not going to play with him anymore. It’ s just that with the amount of touring we have to do now and for the future, he can’t do that much touring (Bazaraa runs a graphic design firm in New York). So it just makes sense for us to learn the songs this way and go for it. And actually it’s kind of given us a big kick in the ass to do a lot of fixing of things in the live set that we probably wouldn’t have ever done otherwise. It’ll be a nerve-wracking experience for me, but once we get over this, I think it’ll be cool. And some of the songs are going to sound a little bit different, which is exciting actually, for me, and maybe for the audience, too, we’ll see. It’s going to be an interesting ride for sure though. I think you’ll be surprised.
Did you at any point consider getting a new keyboard player or is that just too much to deal with right now?
Yeah, we did, and we actually had a new person, but he saw the light and was like, ‘Oh, dang, you guys are really gonna be doing a lot of stuff and are really gonna be touring a lot!’ and we were like, ‘Yeah, we weren’t lying!’ [laughs] and so he backed out. And with that experience we thought are we going we take the chance that it‘s going to happen again, or do we take the same amount of time that it would take to teach somebody how to do what we would need them to do and just figure out how to do it ourselves. And we decided, well, let’s just do it ourselves. We can. It’s totally possible. Hopefully the deal is we’ll learn how to do all this stuff this, and when Sadek can go on the road with us again, it’ll be just another like added crazy thing. Maybe he’ll just dance and he’ll be like a hype guy or something [laughing].
Your sound has been described as having a familiar feeling but being difficult to pinpoint, and I agree completely. There are elements of psych, prog, drone, Kraut, electro, tribal and pop, and I’m not sure what else, but it’s quite an interesting mix and blends together nicely. Do you guys have similar influences?
We’re definitely influenced by Native American ritual and their music a bit, so that’s come into play. And also, that drive is, I don’t know, something that’s been kind of a big thing for us. I’ve started listening to International Harvester (Swedish psych-prog band) a lot, and I’ve always been into drone music, which is really about, you know, the spirit, and sometimes it’s just chants. And that kind of stuff just sort of eeked it’s way in without our really even being conscious of it.
And, for what it’s worth, our influences are very similar. We’re not just listening to one type of music, you know, but we do agree on a lot of things. We can all basically agree on what is good and what is not good, whether it’s a house song or something metal or whatever.
Any favorites for you?
Whew, there are so many, you’re putting me in a corner here! A few random things from my CD collection: The Byrds, Dr. Dre, Lungfish — they’re great, Medicine, Funkadelic, Captain Beefheart, Nicodemus, The Scientists, Curtis Mayfield, Neil Young, Brian Eno, Kraftwerk, Giorgio Moroder, Burt Bacharach, the Velvet Underground. Oh, I could go on for days, man!
Another thing I wanted to ask about is your writing process, crafting the songs. How does it work – joint effort, jam sessions?
Well, it works a few different ways. For the last four years we’ve been recording just about every practice session. So, usually we just get these things going on and then we go back and pull ideas from that, and we kind of use that as a starting point for song ideas. Then sometimes someone will come in with like a riff or something, and then we can build on that. So, it is kind of a joint effort of free playing, which is fun.
Do you have your own studio set up then?
We have a shared practice space in Williamsburg. And it’s truly a great thing to have. It also makes getting in and out of shows a lot easier. If we didn’t have that I don’t know that really we’d be doing what we’re doing.
I know the new album has only been out a couple of months, but have you started working on any new material yet?
No, normally we would have. After every record I’ve worked on, we’ve pretty much started doing new stuff immediately after. But we’ve been so busy playing shows that it’s been sort of impossible. And now with having to adjust as a trio, that’s taken more time as well.
You’re headed to SXSW, across the U.S. and then Europe. Will this be your first international tour?
This will be our second SXSW, we were there year before last – a totally, totally good time! But yes it will be our first international tour, and it will also be the longest that I’ve ever done personally, going from the US and pretty much straight into Europe. I have high hopes that all the work that we’re putting into it will be good for us in the band, and hopefully I’ll be able to see some nice places in the world. And hopefully not eat too much fast food [laughing].
Oh, that’s a good one. I recently heard a nutritionist on the Internet talking about how bands can try to eat well and stay healthy on tour, and one of the things she said was to try to not eat too much fast food, but she also threw out a few suggestions on how to stay healthy on the road. I don’t watch Super Bowl, not really a football fan, but I heard that one of your songs, “You Do You,” was played during a pre-game thing.
Yeah, it was, and we’re still trying to figure that one out! And it was during the segment on CBS where they were talking about Drew Brees, the New Orleans Saints quarterback. I’d like to know why they used our song without first asking permission. I’m excited that it got out there, but it was kind of just weird that they just used our track.
I never dove into the whole football thing either. Joe (Stickney) and Adam (Wills) are usually watching Alabama games during college football season, so if I’m hanging out with them on Saturdays, then we’re usually watching a game. But I have to admit that the older I get the more I actually sort of enjoy watching it. And nearly everybody in the South watches football, even the punk rockers!
I think it’s pretty funny that all of you are from the South and started the band here in New York.
Yes, Adam and I knew each other when we both worked at a film studio in Atlanta. He was an intern and I was an editor. We’d see each other at the office, and I was kind of like, ‘Who is this dude, what the heck, he’s always in my face!’ And then when I went out, he was always at the shows, and I was like, ‘Why is this guy always everywhere I’m at!’ [laughing] And slowly but surely we just became good buddies, and here we are today. Joe and Adam knew each other at college.
Are you all around the same age?
I’m the oldest, 36, which is the reason why I’m the most responsible. Just playing with you [laughs], those guys are pretty responsible! But I do tend to get to bed earlier and get up earlier that they do. Joe and Adam are around 32, or maybe 34, I can’t even remember for sure. I’m a little bit older, probably, than I should be to be doing what I’m doing [laughing].
One thing that really annoys me is perception of some that if you haven’t had success in music by the age of 25, then you shouldn’t still be doing it. That’s bullshit. I think if you’re doing what you love and having whatever you consider success, then that’s all that matters.
Exactly! I’m with you, and that’s the flag I’m flying right now. Give me a few more years and I might feel differently. But if people are turned off by how old I am, then that’s their problem. I think that if anything, maybe I’ll be an inspiration for other people, for senior citizens in the music world [laughing].
But it’s definitely keeping me young, too. I’ve had two jobs for pretty much the past 10 years, and when I’m not editing (film and video), I’m doing music, which also takes up a lot of time. I’ll always wonder if I had only done music would I have been more successful in music more quickly, but I’ll never know. You just have to chase your dreams, and get a little bit of sleep if possible. –Teresa Sampson, Photos by Teresa Sampson