Sometimes you just need to make a change. Shake things up. After more than nine years mining icy prog complexity, Seattle quintet Minus the Bear sought a new direction, enlisting a big-name producer and joining a new label. It led to last year’s Omni, arguably the most galvanizing of their four full-length albums.
“There was more backlash on this record than there was on the previous ones, but it’s not like there wasn’t a ton of backlash on the previous ones,” admits drummer Erin Tate. “Every record we put out, we lose fans and we gain fans, and there’s really nothing you can do about it.”
Each of their releases has explored new territory, finding dramatic new expanses in their shimmering, often labyrinthine and somewhat remote arrangements. They formed in 2001 behind former Botch guitarist Dave Knudson, bassist Cory Murchy, keyboardist Matt Bayles, and Tate (from Minneapolis’ Kill Sadie), and Sharks Keep Moving singer Jake Snider. On their 2002 debut LP Highly Refined Pirates, they dabbled in electro-glitch, 2005’s Menos el Oso explored dreamier textures, and on 2007’s Planet of Ice they spiraled into jammy territory.
They retain the same basic elements through each of those releases: arty, knotty arrangements informed by King Crimson and their peers; an airy atmospheric feel that provides not just rich texture but a sense of distance; and slashing, at times experimental, guitar intricacy intertwined with wafting plumes of undulating synth like a double-helix bond.
The groovier, more succinct, and soul-inspired Omni changed the formula enough to provoke outcry and the worst critical reviews of their career. Though much of the blame has been credited to producer Joe Chicarelli (Poco, the Shins), the direction was etched long before Chicarelli put his fingerprints on the project, propelled by Knudson’s discovery of funk and Tate’s fascination with Genesis’ combination of ’70s prog and ’80s pop. The result is a polished soul-pop sound with a grooviness like Hall & Oates filtered through Steely Dan.
“The vibe of this record was to make more immediate songs and stuff that hits you right away, as opposed to taking 12 listens like some of our other records,” Tate says. “We wanted to make songs that were more concise and immediate.”
Part of the approach involved writing together as opposed to the past where Knudson and Tate would work out skeletal arrangements in advance before presenting them to the band to flesh out. The other wildcard was Chicarelli. Every album prior to this had been recorded with producer Matt Bayles (Mastodon, Isis), a member of the band until 2006. (Bayles was replaced by keyboardist Alex Rose when higher profile record offers forced him to concentrate on producing.) After interviewing a number of producers, they chose Chicarelli, who proved more challenging than they anticipated.
“That was a very big issue with us, the whole having someone else tell you your take wasn’t as good as you thought it was. Just having a sixth head in general, which was really the main goal of the record. To have someone else to help us capture our thoughts and not just be dwelling in our own Minus the Bear–ness,” confesses Tate. “It was definitely a power struggle at certain points.
“There was a song that we spent 12 hours tracking and then came in the next day and he was like, ‘You know what? We didn’t get this.’ And we spent another 12 hours tracking it the next day,” Tate adds. “It was a bit maddening for us because we had never done anything like that, but in the same sense it was kind of cool because we had never done anything like that.”
The entire process was very involved. They’d spend hours getting sounds, finally do some takes, then stop and get more sounds. Chicarelli’s goal, according to Tate, was to spend so much time getting sounds that the song would almost already sound mixed when they finished. “It was like a kick in the ass,” he says.
Minus the Bear also recently left their longtime label, Suicide Squeeze. After taking more than a dozen meetings and flying all over the country, they settled on the next-to-last label they met with, the up and coming, L.A.-based Dangerbird Records (Fitz & the Tantrums, Hot Hot Heat, Silversun Pickups).
Perhaps unsurprisingly, after all that change, the band seems to have rediscovered an older sound on their latest recordings. They’ve already cut an album’s worth of demos and recruited a different producer. They intend to keep writing, hoping to come up with another dozen songs to choose from. Though Tate wasn’t specific about the sound (“They’re only demos … who knows what will happen?” he says), he did note that the writing process recalled Menos el Oso.
“I really don’t know how to define it, but it definitely feels like some of the sound that we were feeling years ago is exciting us again,” he says.
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