Bear in Heaven

Smooth Moves:
Bear in Heaven Turn Down the “Crazy.” And It’s Cool.

Going into the studio to record its new record, the members of Bear in Heaven knew what they wanted.

“We needed somebody to take our crazy and turn it down a little bit so people can put on the headphones and not feel like they’re going to have a heart attack listening to the record,” says Jon Philpot, onetime Atlantan and frontman for the Brooklyn indie-rock act, now on the road to promote it fourth album I Love You, It’s Cool (Hometapes). “It’s the best document of us ever.”

Once a noisy six-piece (which also featured David Daniell and James Elliott, likewise adventurers on the Atlanta experimental music scene, before lighting out for brighter territories), the band has morphed as it has dwindled. Recorded as a quartet with former bassist Sadek Bazarra, 2009’s Beast Rest Forth Mouth was a breakthrough, driven in part by its catchiest tune yet, “Lovesick Teenagers.” But the new disc isn’t far behind. The shimmery wash of synths and pillowy vocals that float through I Love You tracks like “The Reflection of You” – and its invitation to “dance with me” – recasts these onetime racket-makers as unabashed love merchants.

The band, now a trio with Philpot and Adam Wills on guitars and Joe Stickney on drums, laughs about the smooth moves. “Noon Moon,” for one, may be the most straightforward thing they’ve ever done. “A lot of people have said it sounds like a Don Henley song,” Philpot says, as the gang convenes for coffee one afternoon on the fringes of Williamsburg. “It’s an odd one, but it works with the whole thing.”

And then there were three…

Jon: If we follow the trend it’s going to be a two person record next time.

Joe: All of a sudden it turns into Jon wearing his boxers in his bedroom.

Adam: It’s like a long, sad Survivor where no one wins a cash prize.

Joe: I guess we are on an island. A cold island. A cold, angry island.

Describe the band’s sonic evolution.

Jon: It started off noise and turned into sweet whatever it is now. What is it now?

Are people still dropping the “P” word?

Joe: I feel like people throw around the world prog to describe us and I don’t think that’s applicable now. You get described as something at one point in time, and most writers are just pulling quotes from other people’s descriptions.

Adam: You’re only able to enter your three genres on MySpace and that stuck. It was like…Pop Reggae Prog.

Joe: Dub…reggae …

Adam: …And then, boom.

Jon: We defined ourselves.

Adam: We could make a rap record next and it would be “Art Rock Drunk Prog Rap group Bear in Heaven.”

Do you still have a MySpace page up?

Jon: It is. It’s so neglected. We should make a vague attempt to change it. I don’t know. The new stuff is definitely easier on the ears. It’s more for the masses, but not in a selling out kind of way because it’s still not for the masses, just a few more people.

There’s nothing wrong with playing pretty.

Jon: You can make stuff that’s odd, and still your own, and play it in a room with people and have people not cringe.

Adam: In a way it’s more challenging. We can clear a room in a heartbeat.

Jon: It’s very easy to play loud and freak the hell out of somebody. It’s sort of hard to woo somebody. It’s like getting a hot girl.

Throw some candy out there!

Jon: Rose petals.

Adam: Lots of dinners.

Jon: Lots of dinners…then you put on the baby-crying music.

I had read an earlier interview that implied the new record was inspired by Sadek’s departure. Is that true?

Jon: It played a part. We were on the road. We had to figure out all the music we played as a four-piece and play it as a three-piece. We learned a lot of tricks, and tried writing music that way. And that’s where we’re at now, playing music that is what we are. One of the things that we learned is it’s possible for these guys to play synthesizers with parts of their bodies. You don’t necessarily need one synthesizer player. You can have bass, guitar, drums and have synthesizers all around that.

The vibe is very lush!

Jon: The new stuff is sweeter in a way. It’s smoother. We actually had a yacht-rock remix done. It pulled an essence of the music that I wasn’t aware of and highlighted it in a weird way. There’s something about how we wrote this record at one time that works together like a one-song kind of thing, with lots of variations. It is sweeter. You can also dance to this shit.

Joe: The first track we put out is the danciest thing we’ve ever done.

People liked Bear in Heaven before, but things got a lot hotter with the last record. What happened?

Jon: Playing all those shows definitely affected things. We were on tour for most of 2010.

Joe: We did more shows touring for Beast Rest Forth Mouth than we had in the previous seven years combined.

Jon: People wanted us to come and play shows.

Was it the magic of Pitchfork, whose staff appears to worship you?

Adam: There were other elements, but that was the most weird overnight black and white effect.

Jon: Grizzly Bear helped, and Pitchfork. They were vocal fans.

If your band was named Dog in Heaven, things would have been different?

Joe: Then it would have been Three Dog Night.

Jon: I think Grizzly Bear have reservations about liking us because we have “bear” our name.

You’re the only other bear right?

Joe: Two of the guys from Hot Chip just started a group called Two Bears.

Jon: Shut the fuck up!

What was it with the Williamsburg animal bands?

Jon: It was the thing for awhile and then it stopped.

And before that you had “The” bands and one-word and three-word bands, like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.

Adam: Now it’s all “youth” and “young” and “crystal.”

Jon: And “magic.”

You’ve outlasted the first and second waves. Congratulations!

Jon: We did.

What is Bear in Heaven?

Jon: It’s a constellation, for one thing, but it’s also a drawing my friend Jeff did. He gave me some artwork for the first EP. I said, “What is that?” He said, “It’s a bear in heaven.”

Adam: It’s a theme with you and the name shit.

Joe: Be careful what you call something if you give it to Jon.

Jon: You just got to call it something really crappy.

Adam: Wait ’til you see the birthday card [former guitarist/keyboardist] Sadek gave Jon.

Jon: The craziest thing about it is there’s a cat on a tree limb. And it’s sitting on a tree limb like that…[makes obscene gesture].

Adam: Phallic…like an obvious giant cock.

Joe: A cat with a huge dick is a funny idea.

Jon: Cat with Huge Dick is the next record.

Think about T-shirt sales.

Jon: T-shirts!

There are indie bands that are just indie bands and then there are indie bands that have more interesting stuff going on. You guys certainly seem to be among the latter.

Joe: A lot of the bands that were going on when we first started playing have the same background as us. The shit that’s going on now seems to have less. In New York, all the bands we were playing with at Tonic, they were all listening to the same stuff.

Jon: I was trying to think of bands that hold onto their weird. Wilco has its weird side. Sonic Youth. But they’re from another generation.

Joe: Gang Gang Dance.

Jon: They are definitely waving their flag.

Joe: Psychic Ills. Animal Collective.

Not to lump you in with anyone, but are there bands in this little universe that you feel a kinship with?

Jon: We’ve made good friends in the indie rock world. I would venture to say the guys in Yeasayer have more cool artistic leanings than they would want people to know about. But they tend to make pop-oriented music. There’s tons of band friends but most of them are not in the “out” music.

You guys were flying solo for a long time.

Jon: We were playing shows when we were the aliens. We were the alien band around here for a long time. We had no scene. It took a long time. We were alone. It’s alright. It made us strong.

Photo by Shawn Brackbill.