At a time when so many bands are dogged by comparisons with Animal Collective, Bear in Heaven have the distinction of being incomparable.
On the Brooklyn quartet's second album, Beast Rest Forth Mouth, pulsating synths and deep rhythms evoke the landscape of Mars. Guitars float like trails of colorful smoke, sounding nothing like guitars.
In a conference call, guitarist / keyboardist Jon Philpot and guitarist Adam Wills couldn't easily explain why or how they cultivated the album's otherworldly sound—other than to say that it was no easy feat.
“I think really what people should know, first off, is that we're a really slow band,” Wills says. “We don't write songs in a day. And that's been a frustrating thing, to be in a band like that. But if we had jammed this record out in two months, I think it would be half as good.”
Philpot, who started Bear in Heaven as a solo project in 2003, says he's attracted to “processes”—“twisting knobs and running things through things,” doing “fun things” with vocoders, square waves and modulation matrixes and “messing around” with feedback loops. Accordingly, Bear in Heaven's songwriting process moves at a glacial pace. They record their practices and spend lots of time in post production editing the material, sometimes going so far as to chop out whole sections.
“We'll record a little stuff, Jon will take it home and just hack two parts of a song that we've been used to for the last two months,” Wills says. “And the first listen, we're like, ‘Dude, you just ruined the song.' And then two more listens, we're like, ‘Holy shit, this is so much better.' We established really early on that no one gets too miffed about things getting switched around or stuff like that.”
In the end, all of their painstaking work has paid off. Compared with the far-reaching, prog-inflected sounds of the band's 2007 debut, Red Bloom of the Boom, the electro-rock on Beast Rest is tighter and more singularly Bear in Heaven—which helped win the album a positive review from the powerful music website Pitchfork after its release in November, launching the band to “surreal” heights, Wills says.
“Even before the Pitchfork review, we were getting good write-ups from different things,” he says. “But the Pitchfork review just blew the ceiling out.”
Before, the band was touring irregularly and struggling financially. Now, they're still stressed financially, but they're about to go on their first European tour. On a recent tour of the Midwest, more people than ever before flocked to their shows. Some were Pitchfork haters who went to the show just to say the band sucks. Others were curious listeners wooed by nothing more than the infectious single “Lovesick Teenagers,” in which Philpot's boyish vocals soar over space-age synths.
“It was a song about us driving in a van, driving it off a cliff. In the air, we're kind of asking for a flock of birds to grab us and help us fly,” Philpot says. “We wrote the song and people responded to it in this way that, like, that's actually the band flying right now.”
As spacey as Bear in Heaven sounds, it's a sound that fits within a hyper-connected society, where samplers and music software have become the folk instruments of the 21st century. In Brooklyn alone, countless bands—ranging from Animal Collective to unsung heroes like High Places—have taken up synthesizers, samplers and loop processors, often forgoing conventional rock instruments entirely.
“If you're the average band age right now, if you're like 21 or 22, at this point in your life you've had a computer since you were like 2 years old,” Wills adds. “If you have a laptop and download a crack of Reason or something like that, all of a sudden you don't have to ask your parents for a guitar like I did when I was 13. You just, like, download some software, then you can start making music pretty easily.
“The future's just going to be even crazier,” he continues. “Our friend Tim doesn't know how to play guitar for shit, but every time he comes over to my house he takes his iPhone out and samples me playing guitar and cuts it all up.”
Of course, even this futuristic musical world is haunted by the age-old specter of copycats—but that doesn't seem to bother Bear in Heaven.
“From going on tour and playing with bands, it sounds like there's a bazillion bands out there that are so mega-influenced by Animal Collective specifically. And I think that's fucking the raddest thing ever,” Wills says. “It's really hard to stand out when you're kind of doing these Beach Boys vocals and mimicking them a little bit. But, man, I'd rather hear, like, a thousand Animal Collective bands than a thousand Ryan Adams bands.”
Bear in Heaven plays with Cymbals Eat Guitars and Freelance Whales on Tuesday, March 23, at The Casbah. www.myspace.com/bearinheaven.