Arguably, the borough of Brooklyn is putting out more exciting alternative music than the rest of America put together. And now, there seems to be a pipeline going from Connecticut’s privileged Wesleyan University to the Kings County hotbed. First there was MGMT. Then came underclass pals, Bear Hands. While jointly touring, the latter band gained the kind of heightened exposure only a major trend-setting headliner like their upper classmates could ensure. Subsequently, both bands thrived beyond all expectations.
Dylan Rau, de facto leader of Bear Hands, plus fellow classmate, guitarist Ted Feldman, and punk-fueled rhythm section, Val Loper (bass) and TJ Orscher (drums), shine a flashy white light on the red hot electronic rock scene, at times recalling their Wesleyan descendants, but always staying directly on target compositionally.
Though ‘mental illness’ and ‘intraband resentment’ nearly tore the band apart early on, Bear Hands managed to get their act together, taking more than a year to assemble the magical tracks making up one of 2010’s best long-play debuts, Burning Bush Supper Club.
Growing up just outside Hartford, Rau set forth on a musical journey during college. He’d rudimentarily compose ideas on acoustic and electric guitar, growing by leaps and bounds until Bear Hands ‘07 Golden EP arrived, catching nearly as much attention as their opening shows for MGMT (as well as respected Brooklyn indie scenesters, Vampire Weekend, Chairlift, and Les Savy Fav).
Abstractly bending Pet Sounds’ intriguing psych-pop designs into undefined new wave eccentricities and experimental odd mod fodder that’s strangely in line with Animal Collective or Miike Snow, Burning Bush Supper Club may borrow ample schematics, but it’s nonetheless a uniquely peculiar entity. Just check out Rau’s slightly treated, alto-ringing out sad serenades emulating from a dark chasm to get hooked.
Many Supper Club highlights, such as “High Society,” beckon MGMT comparisons. Yet despite the obvious unbridled eclecticism, Bear Hands ultimately succeed on their own terms. On the above-mentioned cut, Rau’s anecdotal message concerning ‘my friend Frank’ sinks in solidly above an ethereal synthesized orchestration and a warmly textured guitar-echoed bass-boomed foundation with one foot shakin’ on the dance floor and the other in a hip downtown record shop.
“Tablasaurus” brings sure-footed, disco-beaten embellishments to spellbinding, India-bound tabla rhythms and a drifting Middle East passage in a way Bear Hands contemporaries could easily comprehend. Similarly, “Wicksey Boxing” slips into the ether as effectively as “Tall Trees,” a vibrant curtail-called enchantment connecting wispy vocal surrealism (“I eat cats for their nine lives” and some nifty ‘third eye’ reference) to aerial guitar flanges and a melodic Rhodes keyboard swoop imitating an airy flute.
And, though familiarized affectations abound, Rau maintains a keen sense for tantalizingly classic pop songcraft. The blurted synth bloops, angular guitar arpeggios, and machinated syncopation of “Belongings” are akin to archetypal ‘80s new wave but in no way does that undo the beautifully detailed tunefulness.
Furthermore, alarmingly rasped confection, “Blood And Treasure,” would easily fit alongside anything Jane’s Addiction did in its ‘90s prime.
If that’s not enough for indie-minded heads, “What A Drag,” with its sinisterly dreamy ‘goddamn long nails’ chorus and chillingly primal rawness, convolutedly befits the seafaring folk waywardness of Port O’Brien.
Look for Bear Hands to break out in a major way over the course of a few albums. They’ve only just begun to live. I spoke to Dylan Rau one cold December night.
Were your parents into music? After all, they named you Dylan.
They are music fans that partially named me after poet Dylan Thomas and songwriter Bob Dylan. Neither played any instruments. My dad is tone deaf, my mom could sing. I took her generic gift. They adore Bob Dylan, but never had any musical interests.
Did you spend much time with MGMT at Wesleyan? “Tall Trees” and “Wicksey Boxing” are not far removed from their best electro-rock anodynes.
I love Oracular Spectacular. I totally played that thing out. But I’m influenced by everything I like.
What growth has there been since ‘07s Golden EP?
The EP we did three months into being a band. We were still in our punk rock electric guitar phase. We never played keyboards. The instrumentation was strictly guitar-based with drums. In the two years since, we began experimenting with drum programming and different sound affects. I think we grew as a band naturally. We started listening to different musical trends and genres. That just came out on the record.
What does the album title Burning Bush Supper Club try to convey?
I came up with that name while we were driving through Utah. I was thinking of the Mormons and messages from God, but I don’t ascribe to any organized religion.
Are your song lyrics usually based on personal affairs of the heart?
Some songs are more personal than others. Sometimes I find myself writing about a character I don’t know. But sometimes it’ll clearly be about me. I try to be empathetic.
Is there a loose thematic flow to the album?
I don’t think there’s a true lyrical narrative to the record. The songs were written through very different time periods. It’s a real compilation of many years of my life. I think that’s also indicative of how the record sounds. All the songs sound very different than the others and it sounds weird to hear them on the same record sometimes. But I kind of like that about it.
I read that “Crime Pays” is a personal true-to-life account.
I think it’s about the nature of our times. It’s almost impossible not to commit crimes. I do it everyday and pretend not to be doing it. I think that song’s universal. I used to be more of a criminal. It was a problem I had to stop.
What’s with the obsession with ‘long nails’ on “What A Drag”? Does it have to do with a romance ending?
I wrote that in my bathroom. Our heat got turned off and we were totally dead broke and we were bummed out. That’s where it came from.
Why do you use processed vocals throughout the album?
I’m self-conscious as a singer. And it’s a way to hide in my little cave. That’s part of it. Also, I listen to a lot of heavily processed music. I don’t feel a real allegiance to organic music or the halcyon days of real guitar bands. I don’t feel nostalgic for that. I try to do whatever sounds best.
“Blood And Treasure” has an Orchestral Maneuvers In The Dark or A Flock Of Seagulls ‘80s new wave vibe. Were you a fan?
I’d be hard-pressed to identify any new wave bands, maybe Duran Duran. But if Talking Heads are considered new wave than that’s one of my favorite bands. Our manger used to handle The Cure.
The Cure’s Robert Smith wrote intriguing melodramatic material not unlike yours.
Thank you so much.
Your climactic crescendos are oft-times reminiscent of neo-Classical music.
I’m not a technically trained guitarist. I can’t read music. Maybe I’ve learned to get emotion out of music in other ways that aren’t necessarily complex chord changes.
Do you draw inspiration from the Beach Boys multi-harmonies?
Absolutely. “California Girls” I can’t get enough of.
What does the future hold for Bear Hands? Are there different musical styles you’d like to explore?
We have a huge backlog of songs we’ve been waiting to record. We just wanna get back in the studio. I don’t think our technique is gonna change. I’m just psyched to do a new batch of songs.
Bear Hands will be playing Johnny Brenda’s in Philadelphia on Friday Jan. 28. Their latest record, Burning Bush Supper Club, is available now via Cantora Records. Find more info at myspace.com/bearhandsband.