Drummer Joe Stickney of Brooklyn-based “experimental rock” band Bear In Heaven talks us through the best and worst moments for them at this year’s SXSW, changing their song-writing approach and how they intend to locate a favourite a cider bar on a boat in Bristol when they visit the UK this May.
Bear in Heaven is a trippy name. Where did it come from? There’s already a lot of acts with “Bear” in their names out there: Grizzly Bear, Bear Hands, Bear Driver, Panda Bear, etc., was that a concern?
Trippy is good, so no problems there. The name was originally the title of a pretty trippy drawing by our friend Jeff Sims from waaaaaaay back in the day when Bear In Heaven was just a twinkle in our eyes. This was prior to the glut of bands with the name ‘Bear’ in them so that wasn’t a problem either. We’re fine with the company, though… ‘Bear’ bands are good folk.
You recently played a flurry of shows at SXSW, in venues as varied as the outdoor patio of Club de Ville to one of Austin’s beloved indie band hangouts, the Mohawk. Which did you think was the best performance you had, and why?
Tough to say, picking favourites is risky business. If I were to narrow it to two I’d say the Dead Oceans / Secretly Canadian/ Jagajaguar showcase at the Mohawk (super cool crowd, super cool company) or the Friend Island show at Papa Tino’s (best folks, last show delight.)
What was your worst (or maybe most challenging?) performance? And what happened?
Most challenging was our show at Pure Volume House. We had already played two shows that day and were pretty well wiped. By the time we worked out our initial set-up problems, though, we were fiery and loud in our temperaments and playing and the performance felt good. SXSW can turn into a weird beer-fueled trip when you schedule as many shows as we did, but if you just roll with change and keep your expectations in check as far as gear and club organization and all the like, you can sort of check out mentally and just enjoy the ride.
What kind of people did you find took to your brand of experimental rock best? Are these the same kind of people who normally show up for your gigs in America?
I wouldn’t try to pigeonhole our fans or relegate them to a certain category because they seem to be pretty diverse. I’m surprised by the variety regularly. I will say that people respond better at late shows than day shows and better at places that sell booze or are smoke friendly than places which aren’t. I guess the readers can draw their own conclusions from that…
Touring-wise, it looks like you’re headed over the Atlantic in May for tour dates and loads of festival appearances, including Liverpool Sound City and Hultsfred Festival in Sweden, just to name two. What are you looking most forward to?
We’re majorly looking forward to playing London again, we had some great shows there on our last trip overseas. We want to go back to this rad cider bar on a boat in Bristol and hopefully find Jon’s dad’s doppleganger playing trumpet there. We’re super psyched to play Moscow, to see what life is like on the other side of the Iron Curtain. We’ve never played a bad festival on your side of the Atlantic, so every one of those is going to be a highlight… Italy… we’ve never played there. Shit, everything?
I’ve read that your second album released in 2009 in the US, ‘Beast Rest Forth Mouth’, was a play on word on the four directions (east, west, north, south). Why was it important to you to touch on maps and navigation?
Maps didn’t have anything to do with our thinking, but the cardinal directions had vague relations to what was going on for us personally and psychologically at the time. To try and put a fine point on these things is to take away some of their power, though. It’s important for us that people react and respond to everything we do in their own way and not have their minds made up for them by us explaining the details behind a title or a lyric.
Were you (pleasantly) surprised by Pitchfork’s 8.4 rating for ‘Beast Rest Forth Mouth’ and them naming you under the category “Best New Music”? Has the positive critical response helped or hindered your success?
Does positive critical response ever hinder a band’s success? I’m not sure I can think of an example of that. Pitchfork is huge here, certainly, and there was a drastic shift in how our band was perceived and treated by almost everyone after positive reviews started coming in. We’re happy for the critical support, of course, but what’s more important is the support we received from our label Hometapes and our booking agent Shannin and all of our friends who were supporting us prior to the reviews.
In contrast, your new album ‘I Love You, It’s Cool’ almost has a hippie vibe to it. Is this a reflection of a change in direction or approach? Are the echo effects and nearly psych rock guitars still present in the new album?
Did you get a hippie vibe because there are bongos? We changed our approach to writing the record (we change every time we write a record) but we still like the same things. We like psych music, we like krautrock dance beats, we like unexpected chord progressions…We aren’t throwing out the things we think work, that work for us, but we are always interested in trying to add new ideas to that and chisel away the parts we aren’t feeling, so there is naturally an evolution but hopefully a recognisability and familiarity as well.
Even though many classify your genre as “experimental rock”, I was pleasantly surprised by all the synths and electronic gear you employ in the live experience. People generally don’t think of “experimental rock” as especially dancey, how would you explain Bear in Heaven and your music to someone who’s never heard you before?
People classify something as ‘experimental rock’ because it isn’t fitting neatly into a genre, because it is hard to describe. We quite intentionally keep our music outside of specific genres because we don’t want to sound like other bands, but we still like to make people move and see people having a good time so if we remain experimental and dancer then we’re totally happy with that. I’m not in the business of describing our sound, though and usually just try to play the record rather than start throwing around halfway made up words like kraut-rocky or psychedelicish…
Ok. How would you describe yourselves live?
I’d say we try to bring it with the synaesthesia in a live setting. We want our show to be a sensory overload in the best way. It’s loud and banging’ and the lights will flip you.
‘The Reflection of You’ was a song you released a while ago as a taster to ‘I Love You, It’s Cool’. It sounds anthemic, with a dreamy vocal and equally dreamy synths. How would you compare this song with your previous efforts?
It’s not so different.
If you could only pick one song off the new album that you thought epitomises the entire album, which would you pick and why?
I’d go with ‘Sinful Nature’ because it’s a grower-banger. I just made that hybrid word up. That song, to me, crosses between the two somewhat distinct feels that are happening on the record. It has some dreamy psychedelia to it and has some thumping beats. It has hook and lines. That’s my pick. That’s all.
Bear In Heaven’s new album ‘I Love You, It’s Cool’ is out now via Dead Oceans / Hometapes.