Purpose, Plus…: An Interview With Minus The Bear

Right from the get-go, Minus the Bear’s first-person narrative-driven math/prog/indie rock and seemingly random, idiosyncratic song titles (i.e. “Thanks for the Killer Game of Crisco Twister,” “Lemurs, Man, Lemurs,” “Spritz!!! Spritz!!!”) made them easy to spot on MySpace-era sharing platforms, even easier to skip to on your iPod shuffle (or, let’s be real, a AA battery powered MP3 player), and very hard to ignore. From the shimmering “Pachuca Sunrise” to the glitchy urgency of “Knights,” every Minus the Bear song listens like a classic, inspiring nostalgia for places you’ve never been and the desire to drive too fast around lakes at night.

We also hadn’t seen an album from them in five years. Released earlier this month, VOIDS is Minus the Bear’s sixth and latest full-length effort, the first without founding member and drummer Erin Tate and the first working with producer Sam Bell (Snow Patrol, Bloc Party, Silversun Pickups). A return to the Seattle-based Suicide Squeeze Records, the label on which they released their very first LP Highly Refined Pirates in 2002 and Planet of Ice a decade ago, VOIDS is Minus the Bear at once coming full circle and starting from scratch.

But Minus the Bear starting from scratch is still Minus the Bear. VOIDS opens with mathy riffs and wimey synth on “Last Kiss,” bursting into the syncopatic “Give & Take,” bringing us to the pretty and haunting “Call the Cops” (vocally fronted here by keyboardist Alex Rose, who also lends leads on “Tame Beasts” and “Robotic Heart”) to the catchy as hell “Invisible” to the sweeping yearning of “What About the Boat?” all the way through to “Lighthouse,” a layered sonic crescendo that builds to jam the hell out to a frenzied, satisfying end.

Waxing convex into the concave of loss, Jake Snider (lead vocals, guitar), Dave Knudson (guitar), Alex Rose (keyboards, vocals) and Cory Murchy (bass guitar), along with Kiefer Matthias (drums), are filling its space with room to expand. Just finishing up a run at South By Southwest, Minus the Bear is taking VOIDS on tour with Beach Slang and Bayonne this spring. I talked to bassist Cory Murchy ahead of kickoff.

Hi Cory. Where does everyone call home nowadays?

Well, I’m in Seattle. When you called earlier, I was right in the middle of driving through downtown, which is kind of chaotic…better to have called back. (Laughs) Everyone’s kind of all over the place, really. Dave and I are in Seattle; Jakes is based out of Tacoma, which is just south, about an hour, 45 minutes or so. And then Alex is kind of spending tie between Seattle and London.

Were you born in Seattle?

I was born up here, but I really grew up in Santa Fe, N.M., which is actually where I know Alex Rose from. We both went to high school in Santa Fe.

What was the music scene like growing up there?

Um, well, in Santa Fe it was pretty small and pretty localized so we kind of made it our own. We’d throw shows…stuff like that. Not dissimilar to most places, usually the scene is what you make it and especially in your teenage years, it’s definitely kind of in your hands I think as far as indie rock and punk rock that we all grew up out of.

Did you guys have a local record store that you went to every weekend?

You know, in Santa Fe not so much, but up in Seattle there’s definitely Singles Going Steady, Fallout Records, stuff like that, that were absolute mainstays as far as picking up new records and new stuff

VOIDS is Minus the Bear’s first album in five years, and by the time this interview goes out, you’ll have toured the album a couple dates. But you do have a special show planned for the album’s release on March 3.

Yeah, well we’re playing out at Sonic Boom Records here in Seattle, which we’re really excited about. Doin’ a little record release. They’re a great record shop here that’s been around for long time and we’ve played some shows here before. We’ve had a lot of good times in that store, picking up records. They’re great. We’re really looking forward to it.

Are the songs that ended up on VOIDS the work of the past five years in both a literal and figurative sense? Were they written over a span of time, or are these songs a sort of bunching of the accordion of more recent work?

Some of it. There were a whole batch of songs written five years ago or so, or at least started, and those were kind of scraped, really, in a lot of instances, if not most of them. I think we just needed to start fresh, and we have a new set of ears as far as, you know, a different drummer than we’ve worked with and I think it was important to kind of burn the fields and plow fresh, if you will. So I think it was a good thing for us to be able to do that.

Expanding on that, besides the stark fact that we’ve got new ears (and new arms, I guess), how was writing this album different than writing previously recorded material?

In a lot of ways, it was a lot of the same. You know, Dave is definitely the sort of the nucleus in the creation most of the songs as far as bringing a guitar riff or parts to the table, and everyone sort of fleshes them out. Lyrics are oftentimes written at the end. So there were certain things that were done the same, but I think the biggest thing and the biggest change for us was…kind of being open to change and being open to new ideas when it came down to recording the songs and really being open to new techniques, all sort of different things that we weren’t maybe open to before. We trusted Sam as a producer and as a guy with different ideas and it was pretty cool, and I think it was definitely fruitful, having done that.

How was working with producer Sam Bell (Snow Patrol, Bloc Party, Silversun Pickups)?

It was definitely a little bit of learning curve, just because it was someone we had never worked with; he had never worked with us. It’s weird to come into a situation for anybody, anyway. We’re all pretty close, a tightknit group of folks that have an understanding of how we communicate for the last 15 years, so when you bring in new character, there’s a certain amount of learning, like, “What does he mean by that?” or how we’d all react.

But it was smooth, and his ideas were very, I think, beneficial for us to take to heart and kind of try out. Yeah, working with Sam was great, I really learned a lot. He’s a new friend.

There are a few new things on this album, but the thing that comes full circle is its release on Suicide Squeeze. Why the return? What was it like working with other labels?

Well, we’re back on Suicide Squeeze because they are the best label in the world. It’s really not hyperbole to say that. David Dickinson cares so much about his label and the bands that he puts records out for and it shows in every aspect of his business. He is a man of his word, and he doesn’t bullshit you. I dunno, it’s just refreshing to work with someone who is a straight shooter and honestly puts everything into this record label and it shows.

And it’s awesome that he’s a couple miles away and he gives the best hugs in the world. He’s just a good dude. So without anything about any other record label, it’s just a pleasure and just an honor to work with him. He’s worked with amazing people and his label has integrity.

VOIDS is coming out on cassette in addition to the other formats, which I think is really cool. How do you think the way that the music industry has changed the way an artist markets their music, and the consumer interacts with it?

Minus the Bear is a band that has been around since the internet, and we have definitely seen how that hurts or helps or dilutes or promotes or ignores the bands. You kind of have to learn to work within those parameters, because regardless of how you feel about the internet, digesting music, that’s just the way it is. Those are the realities of it.

It’s been interesting to kind of learn how to be a band in that climate or situation because everything is up in the air, there is no real guidebook on it. So, it’s interesting, but there isn’t really a fucking guidebook on life, so, (laughs) sock it up to you just gotta figure it out and carry on with it.

I will say that I did find out about you guys through DeadJournal, which was this weird, defunct blogging service from years ago, so.

Yeah, that’s the thing: so many of our fans have been able to be turned on to us because they were able to go to a website and access the songs they wanted to. And it made a difference, it made that person want to go to a show, or buy a shirt. So, it gets people engaged, it’s just another aspect of getting music out in the media, so.

VOIDS is kind of sad, but very much Minus the Bear. There are songs about a myriad of topics I can hypothesize about, but did the theme of the album emerge from the victors of the cutting room floor, or was it the other way around?

We didn’t really go into it knowing what it was going to be, but I think upon reflection and sort of spanning back little bit, realizing where… fuck, the four of us were and what we were dealing with in our personal and professional lives. It kept coming back to this central theme of dealing with loss and dealing with some emptiness in our lives for whatever reason and for many different reasons, and kind of deciding that it’s up to you to fill those voids. We decided to do it with carrying on and being a band and working things out between us that maybe needed to be worked out.

We’ve been together for 15 years, so you either have to work on things or break up, you know? And I think we all kind of dealt with a lot of those things and dealt with feeling a void in our lives about a lot of things. So I think that we were able to look at it afterwards. And the funny part is, it sounds sad and it sounds kind of dark, but we were able to look at it from the other end. Like, we made it through that void and we made it through that storm so we were able to kind of see what we had just done.

’Cause we’re all stoked! (Laughs) We’re really excited about this album, and we’re excited about these songs and we’re super happy with how it all sounds. So now it’s time for us to not sit back and enjoy. It’s time to celebrate that process that we went through and, “We made it!”

Minus the Bear’s lyrics have always been very concise, narrative driven. Do you guys read a lot? What’s the last thing you read?

Yeah, I think that we all go through reading spurts. Jake has a degree in English, so he’s definitely well-read. We all have our things that we definitely get into. Last thing I read was The Sisters Brothers by [Patrick] deWitt. Great, great book. I highly recommend it. One of my favorites that quickly became by favorite. It’s a novel that’s set in turn-of-the-century, Gold Rush era.

One of my favorite songs on the album, “What About the Boat?” is one of the only songs on VOIDS with the sort of seemingly nonsensical song title thing that Minus the Bear established early on. Where did this sort of style thing come from?

(Sighs, and laughs) Yeah, you know…I wonder…I can’t really speak to that because I didn’t write the lyrics to that but I almost feel like that one might have started as kind of a joke, but then ended up that way. But there again, some of those are some of my favorite lyrics because they ended up being pretty poignant. It might’ve started out as a joke but, then it’s like, “Well, yeah. Look at that.” So it’s one of those that worked that way.

We live in some troubling times. Before the election, we had an album 30 Days, 30 Songs speaking out against the potential of our current president, and now, artists and other public figures are speaking out. How do you think music might play a role in the climate today? Is it simply a balm, or a punk-rock force of mobilization?

Music has always filled that role since music started, it was talking about life and talking about what was going on. It’s a reflection of the times. It’s something that reflects and also informs, or has the ability. It can be a powerful…it is a powerful thing. Times are crazy, they are always crazy. I’m a big fan of history, and we would be very egotistical to think that we live in these times that no one else could ever understand as far as certain issues, and that’s true to a point, except that there’s always going to be a struggle.

I think forgetting that that is the case is what gets us into moments like this a lot of the times. You get kind of fooled into thinking everything is copasetic. Some of this shit has been brewing for a long time, so…yeah, I think music can be really instrumental. (Laughs)


Minus the Bear performs March 28 at Webster Hall in New York City and March 29 at the Music Hall Of Williamsburg in Brooklyn, NY. VOIDS is available now through Suicide Squeeze Records. For more information, visit minusthebear.com.