On a Sunday afternoon in Williamsburg, the humble Brooklyn foursome Bear in Heaven is in the midst of a phone interview about an upcoming show in Atlanta (the hometown of three-fourths of the band), when it becomes clear these grown men are mostly excited that their parents might see their names printed in the local paper, the universal signifier of success to progenitors everywhere. Later, over dinner at Enid’s, a nearby restaurant that dishes up Southern favorites from grits to collard greens, bandleader Jon Philpot reveals his amazement about the group’s sudden ability to embark on a two-month tour more than a decade after his earliest proto-Bear-in- Heaven efforts.
“It’s like I go back and forth between terrified and really, really excited,” Philpot says, following up with a typically understated assessment of his current situation. “We’re playing some pretty neat places in Europe. Our second show is in Majorca.”
Philpot quietly started Bear in Heaven in 1998 as a solo home-recording project in Atlanta, but after he moved to New York, he assembled a group of ex-Atlantans to get together and improvise—making noisy krautrock, mostly. After reaching a maximum density of six members at one point, the band slimmed down to its current incarnation, a lean, unfettered quartet that unfurls densely layered, synth-heavy, avant-pop psychedelia.Though the psychedelic bent and avant aspects have long been part of its musical constellation, the emphasis on pop sensibilities is relatively new. But you wouldn’t know it from listening to the lush, undeniably catchy anthems of Beast Rest Forth Mouth, Bear in Heaven’s second full-length record, released late last year.
“It took us a while to kind of get out of our prog-rock and experimental tendencies, and I think we’ve hit a decent middle ground,” Philpot says. “I don’t consider it a compromise… music is social, and we want people to feel good about what we’re doing.”
And Philpot’s gotten his wish. Critics have justifiably raved about what the modest lead singer calls a “decent middle ground.” The opening track of the album, “Beast in Peace,” immediately reveals the shift from the slightly amorphous melodic noise of 2007’s Red Bloom of the Boom, the group’s first full length, to the intensely focused efforts of musicians who have hit their stride inside a pop idiom. Pounding tribalistic drums and angular guitar intertwine under Philpot’s reverb-soaked falsetto, which soars verse-chorus-verse over the ensuing wall of distortion. Later, the anthemic “Lovesick Teenagers” offers the perfect distillation of Bear in Heaven’s ability to encapsulate the inexpressible with dead-on lyrics and a pulsating synth/drum combo. And a reference to the cryptic album title and its origins comes in the ceremonial-sounding “Drug a Wheel,” which begins with hypnotic, throbbing percussion overlaying a spooky bed of faraway guitar noises, over which Philpot sings, as if in a trance, about a woman coming back to life.
Adam Wills, Bear in Heaven’s guitarist who is also a video editor/filmmaker, originally conjured up the album’s title, Beast Rest Forth Mouth, for an unrealized film script after reading about the Native American concept of the medicine wheel, which represents the cycle of life, the four cardinal directions, the elements and bringing all of these into harmony.
“The four directions are really important, so I was constantly reading East,West, North and South over and over again,” Wills explains.
And his play on words seemed fitting for the band’s transformation from a sixpronged collective that included James Elliott (who left Bear in Heaven to focus first on working with the shoegazey School of Seven Bells, and later on solo electronic projects) and David Daniell (an experimental guitarist who turned his attention to his solo work and collaborations with Rhys Chatham and Douglas McCombs among others), to a four-spoked wheel.
“It’s the trajectory of the band going from six to five to four,”Wills says, explaining that it wasn’t as if the other members were superfluous. Instead, the reconfiguration of Bear in Heaven as a more compact unit necessitated some changes that turned out to be for the best, musically. “Now all the songs make sense.”
Prior to landing on Pitchfork’s Best Albums of 2009 list, Bear in Heaven had only toured twice, and only on the East Coast. But the band’s dance card has suddenly filled up, with a two month tour beginning in March, which includes stops across the country (and at the Music Hall of Williamsburg April 9) and in far-flung European destinations. “It’s nice to work hard on something and have people appreciate it, because we really did bust our ass,” Philpot says. “It was a big surprise to me. Still is.”
Bear in Heaven
Jan. 27, Mercury Lounge, 217 E. Houston St. (betw. Essex & Ludlow Sts.), 212-260-4700; 7:30, $10.