Name: Bear in Heaven
Progress Report: Brooklyn’s finest synth-rock dreamshapers put the finishing touches on their forthcoming spring release.
Bear in Heaven’s last album — Beast Rest Forth Mouth — was one of 2009’s most pleasant surprises. For many, that album — and the ubiquitous single, “Lovesick Teenagers” — was their first introduction to the band, even though Bear in Heaven has been recording music in one incarnation or another since way back in 2003. The somewhat unexpected success of the last record not only sent them into what would become nearly two years of touring, it has enabled the band to set up shop (for the first time ever) in a fancy NYC recording studio. This is where I met up with them to talk about what the new Bear in Heaven record is gonna sound like.
STEREOGUM: Were you surprised by the reception to the last album?
PHILPOT: Oh yeah. We did not expect that to happen at all. I mean, we actually lost a band mate because we were so surprised by the reception to the last album.
STEREOGUM: How so? It was all just too much with extended touring?
WILLS: Yeah. You know, he owns his own company and stuff, so the thought of leaving for one month was hard enough — we’d never toured for more than two weeks prior to that — and suddenly we’re basically gonna be on tour for a year and a half. Totally unexpected.
PHILPOT: It was great though in that it really opened up a whole new world for us … and it really allowed us this time to make a proper record. Not that our last record was improper, but this time we can actually go into a studio. Our last record was recorded almost entirely in our practice space.
STEREOGUM: Did all that touring change the dynamics of the band? Did it have a big influence on the music you are making right now?
WILLS: That’s an interesting question …
PHILPOT: Hmmm. It definitely changed things. We definitely figured out what audiences enjoy and what we enjoy. We thought about that going into the studio, for sure.
WILLS: It’s interesting how much the songs changed the longer we toured. At first it was just about playing them the right way, but after touring for so long, you get a lot more loose … and then you’re really able to just freak out on stage and go a little crazier. We definitely got better as a band.
STEREOGUM: How long have you guys been working in this studio?
WILLS: A month?
PHILPOT: Yeah, this is our fourth week here.
STEREOGUM: How has the experience been so far? You guys are almost done, right?
PHILPOT: Yeah, almost done. The experience has been very different from anything we’ve ever done before. We have someone else recording and engineering for us, so that’s very different … and I got to sing my vocals in some place other than my bedroom. It’s a weird thing, singing in this dark room into a very expensive microphone while these dudes are watching me through the window.
WILLS: It’s been way more efficient.
STICKNEY: You have to learn how to just sort of fly by the seat of your pants and cross your fingers. Being in a studio like this, the clock is always ticking. You know, the last record we were sort of recording and writing at the same time … and we had the freedom to change our minds and make radical changes to the songs while we were recording them. We had months to just record things ourselves and basically just do whatever we wanted. In this scenario we spent about six months writing the songs and then once we enter the studio, everything else just happens really quickly.
STEREOGUM: It’s a much different thing.
PHILPOT: It’s a totally different experience. I think the work is much more concise as a result.
STEREOGUM: Did you have a self-imposed deadline to meet? Like, we have six months and at the end of that time we need to have written a new record?
WILLS: We set some personal goals.
STICKNEY: Like, be a better person. Recycle more.
PHILPOT: Be kind to strangers. And write songs.
STEREOGUM: How many songs did you write for this album?
PHILPOT: About 10. There are some scraps of things that never quite materialized fully, but we came to the studio with 10 finished songs.
WILLS: We wrote a record. Those 10 songs represent a fully realized record. Some bands might write 25 songs and then sort of cherry pick the best ones in order to “make” the record. We kind of did the same thing except each of those 10 songs went through about 20 versions before it became the final song.
STEREOGUM: How do you guys usually work? Do you all write together or does everyone come in with his own ideas?
PHILPOT: It varies. This time it was easier because we had a practice room available 24/7 where we had all our gear set up at all times. I guess we mostly worked together. We’d just start working on an idea and keep pushing at it until it became something. Songs went through lots of different versions and transformations … particularly the first song that we wrote. Songs tended to shape-shift many times. I have a hard time giving up on songs, especially if I’ve already written lyrics for it. In fact, I don’t think we’ve ever just totally thrown away a song….
WILLS: Yeah, we have. Remember that one song? We recorded it with the cymbal on the floor? We finally abandoned that song. It was like a Bauhaus song. Now that you mention it, that song is kind of good…it could still be rescued.
STICKNEY: We used to play that shit live as well. It used to kill!
WILLS: We had the songs locked down, but we came into the studio with the freedom to change things if we needed to … or experiment with different sounds. We aren’t very rigid in our process as far as those things go.
PHILPOT: I like working subtractively. You know, piling lots of things on and then figuring out what doesn’t really need to be there. You just carve it out.
STICKNEY: Working within certain parameters actually helps. It forces you to make decisions quickly and really work on instinct.
STEREOGUM: What stage are you at now with the recording?
WILLS: We’re officially at the “losing our minds” stage, I think. We only have five days left in this studio and still a lot of stuff to finish up.
PHILPOT: We seem really cool and mellow, right? You’d never guess how freaked out we are.
STEREOGUM: So you are down to just the mixing?
WILLS: Yeah. Just mixing. Just a few odds and ends left that we might record.
STEREOGUM: In comparison to the last record, what can you say about the vibe of this one? Does it sound a lot different?
PHILPOT: Shit, what is it? It’s a bit more up-tempo. It’s a bit faster.
WILLS: I think it’s a lot bigger than the last record, but it’s a little less masculine. It’s a little less “testosteroney.” Though, who knows if anyone else would listen to it and think that.
STICKNEY: I think there’s a little less “moody-broody” on this record.
PHILPOT: Yes, we sound way more comfortable on this record. We went in thinking that we were gonna mix Motown and Acid House. I’m not sure if that actually happened or not, but there are moments … there are some very soulful things and some very dancey moments.
STICKNEY: It definitely sounds like us. It doesn’t sound like any other band. People who have heard it have said the same thing.
WILLS: That was a concern. I was afraid that we’d be wearing our influences on our sleeves too obviously, but in the end is just comes out sounding like us.
PHILPOT: As much as I’d love sometimes to sound like some of our friend’s bands a little bit, it always just sounds like us. It’s good.
STICKNEY: It’s like, “Fuck, I guess we made another Bear In Heaven record, guys.”
STEREOGUM: When will the record be out?
WILLS: Spring. April-ish.
STEREOGUM: Now that the record is done, do you have a stronger sense of what this record is really about? Are there any recurring themes jumping out at you?
PHILPOT: Lyrically there is a lot of relationship stuff. I took a lot of liberties that way. I felt like I could really take this moment to talk to some people, if you know what I mean. It feels good.
WILLS: Just to clarify, we aren’t necessarily talking about boy/girl relationships.
PHILPOT: These aren’t “love” songs, per se.
WILLS: Some things might be interpreted as love songs, at least on the surface, but that’s not really what it’s about. In the same way that “Lovesick Teenagers” was generally interpreted in exactly the opposite way it was intended. Which is cool, actually. People can look at it any way they choose, but the poppiest love song we have on this record sound really upbeat, but thematically it’s very dark.
PHILPOT: There are definitely some heavy themes happening here. It’s about people. It’s not a very esoteric, vague record.
STEREOGUM: So it’s a lot more straightforward.
PHILPOT: Yeah, I think so. I think that’s reflected in the music as well. I also think these songs have a much more ‘familiar’ quality than our other material … but that may just be because we’ve listened to them a million times at this point.
STEREOGUM: That’s cool. I think the most successful pop music often works because it manages to feel instantly familiar — it resonates as something you already know — without doing so in a literal way.
WILLS: Yeah, I think so too. That’s an insane feat. Sometimes it just happens subconsciously, or entirely by accident. You manage to tap on something universal, even without meaning to, and people can hear it and feel like “They wrote that song just for me.”
STEREOGUM: “Lovesick Teenagers” was like that for a lot of people. It must be cool to see something take on a life of it’s own.
PHILPOT: Oh yeah, definitely. You realize that a song is taking up time out there in the universe; it’s become a part of someone’s life.
WILLS: Yeah, like seeing the homemade fan videos for that song. It’s so cool. You realize that someone has taken this thing you made and attached their own meaning to it. It’s great. At the same time, now that we are so close to the end I find myself losing sleep over the details … because once it’s done, this version of these songs exists forever. You can’t take it back.
STICKNEY: Well, we could always go back and George Lucas that shit.
STEREOGUM: There are so many ways to look at it. I just interviewed a punk band that recorded their new album in three days and they originally wanted to do the entire thing in one day. For them, the album is just a document and the songs best exist in a live setting. Then you have the old-school studio perfectionist approach, where you might spend a week getting all Fleetwood Mac and trying to capture the perfect cymbal sound.
STICKNEY: I wouldn’t mind being in that punk band.
WILLS: Yeah, that sounds fun as hell.
PHILPOT: Yes, especially right now….
STEREOGUM: Now that you’ve spent four weeks doing nothing but listening to yourselves for 10 hours a day!
WILLS: Yeah. And even after we wrap this up, we immediately go into other kinds of work — figuring out the artwork, rehearsing the new songs, trying to figure out a lightshow and visuals for the next tour.
STICKNEY: Merch! We need merch!
PHILPOT: We also need a new website. Do you know anyone? We need the help.
[Photo by Shawn Brackbill]