Bear in Heaven

Music Features Bear in Heaven
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“It almost killed us!” says Adam Wills, bassist-guitarist for Brooklyn electro-psych trio Bear in Heaven. He’s referring to the track “Cool Light,” a trademark synth-drenched prog-rave workout from the band’s heavily anticipated new album, I Love You, It’s Cool.

“That was the first song that we wrote for this record, and it literally went through like 45 versions,” Wills sighs, speaking from his Brooklyn apartment. He’s currently in a rush, heading out to borrow a friend’s van to drive out to a show (one of their first behind the new album) that night in Philadelphia.

“Every other song probably saw like 20 versions, but this one—we wanted to record the original version of it. I think it’s better, but it’s jazzy as shit. It’s not like this four-on-the-house house thing. It’s this jazzy folk song. Jon [Philpot, the band’s frontman/chief songwriter] had written the lyrics, and when we wrote that first, I was like, ‘Oh, my God—what kind of music are we writing?’ It just felt like we were getting something off of our chests. But ‘Cool Light’ drove us fucking crazy, man. It literally went through the whole treatment. I’m glad people like it, but I’m still not 100 percent happy with it. I wish we had another month to work on it. That was the first song we wrote and the last song we finished in the studio.”

I Love You, It’s Cool, the band’s third album overall, proved to be rejuvenating, despite its labored origins. But then again, Bear in Heaven are used to the struggles of band life: Each of their releases (dating back to the 2007 debut, Red Bloom of the Boom) has seen at least one member jump ship from the project, leaving the rest of the band scrambling to re-configure their collective dynamic and re-learn freshly written songs before hitting the stage. It’s been a scramble since the beginning, when vocalist/instrumentalist Jon Philpot formed the project as an outlet for his solo tracks. Their 2009 sophomore effort, Beast Rest Forth Mouth, cemented their status as indie-rock’s proggiest, druggiest sonic explorers, unexpectedly launching the group into the critical spotlight—and just as they made their big break, bassist-guitarist Sadek Bazarra quit, leaving the band a trio (Philpot, Wills, drummer Joe Stickney).

Since Beast Rest was far from a minimal album—layered with synths, guitars and electronics—it was a struggle to pick up the pieces as a live unit, particularly as they faced their most grueling tour schedule to date, promoting Beast Rest from late 2009 until March of 2011.

“It was a bitch, man!” Wills laughs, reflecting on the band’s live adjustment to playing as a trio. “And it’s funny—we’ve shed a member every time we’ve put a record out. It’s just coincidence or whatever. So it was nice to record an album and start playing it live. It’s much easier. With the last record, Sadek left the band as the record was starting to do well, so we had to re-learn how to play all the songs with the three of us, and Jesus, that was a headache!”

But with I Love You, It’s Cool, Bear in Heaven entered and exited the studio with the same number of members—for the first time.

“The transition between the last record and this record was that we’re all in now,” Wills says. “The last couple records or whatever have just been like a project or a creative outlet. Everybody had day jobs. We never sought out to be successful; we were just wanted to have fun. So when the opportunity arose and the door opened with the last record, it was like, ‘Well, why don’t we sit down and actually become a band now?’ So it’s absolutely like the first time we sat down and wrote a record in one sitting. The last record was kind of scattered about around two years. Just write a song here, record a song, re-write a song. It was along with that influences or whatever is going on with you emotionally in that nine-month period, it just shows up on the record. It’s cool that people are noticing.”

Knowing where they stood as a band worked to their advantage sonically: “It’s been a lot easier this time around to make it work post-making a record,” Wills says. Which isn’t to say it’s been easy. At this point in the promotion of their new album, Bear in Heaven have only played a handful of “low-pressure practice shows” (mostly to intoxicated college students), where they’ve been forced to experiment with the songs’ arrangements and presentation.

“There’s a lot of technology going on, basically. We’re all connected via MIDI, so Jon’s got a bunch of samplers, so we have little sampled, triggered parts, and Joe and I both have the ability to control the samples with little MIDI controllers on our sides. So if Jon doesn’t have his hands free, I play the synth with my feet, basically. The other day, I was saying, ‘Guys, we are playing the devil’s music! God never intended for music to be like this with all this shit. It just doesn’t make any damn sense! I swear to God, whenever we break up, the next band is just going to be acoustic guitar and bongos. It’s just too complicated! [laughs] It’s so complex.’”

Equally complex was Bear in Heaven’s recording process for I Love You, It’s Cool. After finishing up their tour behind Beast Rest Forth Mouth in March of last year, the trio immediately jumped into the studio—their own personal space they rented in Brooklyn. Having their own space provided a sense of freedom: Choosing to take a clean break from the stage (despite pressure from their booking agent), the trio wrote and recorded for a solid nine months, working uninterrupted on their own schedule, with all their instruments, cables, microphones and computers dialed up and ready to record as inspiration struck. But with that newfound freedom came indecision, which (as evidenced by their tumultuous struggle with “Cool Light”) nearly drove the band into the ground.

“With this record, there was zero jamming,” Wills says, “which is weird for me and Joe. Because me and Joe like jamming. But, you know, Jon didn’t really want to do that. Because you can really waste some time just fucking around playing whatever for two hours, and nothing comes of it. Every other record was written from jamming. We always recorded our practices. We would show up, and whoever showed up first would wind up playing something, wherever it was drums or bass or keyboards. And the next person who showed up, and they would start playing together. And all of the sudden, everybody is set up, and two hours later, we have this big chunk of ideas, and we would flag little moments and turn those into songs.”

“It was a really fun way of doing it,” Wills continues, “but this time, we had saved up enough money to have our own practice space for this time, because in New York, you have to share practice spaces because it’s really expensive. But this time, we had a space that was ours 24/7, everything was set up—mics were set up, the computer was in there. A whole little mini-studio. We never jammed, but we always recorded hi-fidelity stuff. Joe would come in and say, ‘I got an idea for drums.’ Mics were already up, and we would record some drum loops, and Jon would do keyboards over that, or more drums would be done. And I would come in and say, ‘Here’s 20 different bassline ideas.’ We very much worked within a computer—always recording, and any idea was already committed to tape, basically. So there was a lot of opportunities to A-B things. And with basslines, just changing things. So with an up-tempo thing, changing it to a down-tempo thing. Jon steered the way because he’s kind of a genius when it comes to production and computers. And that’s kind of a one-man job—you can’t have two people sitting at a computer. So he’s definitely a leader in that pack, for sure. But it was…a lot of work!”

Embracing technology to such a degree was a bit frightening for Wills in particular, who relishes the band’s euphoric, interactive surge—the high that results from all three members writing a song together in a room.

“I would like to not do that again. I don’t think there’s much to be said about. With every record, you should come up with a formula and not repeat it. It was nice to have a room to write in 24/7, but it was also frustrating. The scary thing is that we were never playing these songs together. We weren’t rehearsing, so you never know how the songs are going to feel. I was probably the most concerned about that, more than anybody, like, ‘Dudes, we could write all these songs that sound good, but playing them, they might feel weird, and we might not get that indescribable body rush from playing a music part or playing off a drum part.’”

But I Love You, It’s Cool, despite its labyrinthian genesis, never sounds like a patchwork. In fact, it feels like a continuation—and in some ways a refinement—of the template they trademarked on Beast Rest Forth Mouth. That tribal, hallucinogenic sound remains intact, with towering synths dancing in clockwork around Stickney’s massive tom-tom fills and Wills’ pulsing basslines. But at the center is Philpot’s radiant voice, unburdened from Beast Rest’s absorbent reverb, now floating to the songs’ surfaces with clarity and melodic precision on gems like “Kiss Me Crazy” and “The Reflection of You.” Philpot’s emotional lyrics are also far more direct this time out (“If you could dance with me, I think you will like my moves / If you get next to me, I will have nothing left to prove,” Philpot sings on lead single “The Reflection of You”)—another hurdle to jump for a band known for its psychedelic mystique.

”’The Reflection of You’ one was the scariest to us because that one’s the kind of fruitiest track on the record, lyrically, you know? It’s very much…it’s not literal, but to anybody, some kid listening to it, it’s very much this love song, dance song kind of thing. Literally, Jon says, ‘Dance with me.’ And coming off the last record, which was a lot darker—we were like, ‘Oh, man, any fan of the band who likes metal but also dips into liking this kind of music…Anybody from that world who hears this is going to fucking drop us.’ Like, ‘Fuck these guys!’ So it was scary.”

But if I Love You, It’s Cool finds a musically mysterious act shedding some of their weirdness, well—it also finds them maturing as artists.

“It’s one of those things,” Wills reflects. “People say you have to trust your instincts about writing music or doing anything in life, but you should actually question your instincts. Because if you feel crazy uncomfortable about something, you’re probably doing something right.”