INTERVIEW: Polica (SXSW 2012)

The beautiful aspect to South By Southwest is although the helter-skelter festival stages hundreds of artists, thousands of people will unknowingly witness their new obsession(s) perform for the first time. One of this year’s breakout acts, Minnesota four-piece POLICA (prenounced “poe-lisa”, also stylized Poliça) have become one of those with the release of their debut Give You The Ghost, a blues-dripping LP scripted by vocalist Channy Leaneagh and instrumentalist Ryan Olson that feeds indie rock with the magnetic personality of R&B and shoves into a well of moody electronica. On their way to play 10 different shows in the heart of Austin, Texas, we spent a few minutes talking to Leaneagh about the group’s conception in the past year and how it attributes to their live performance, something even NPR declared at their SXSW day party this past week to be “a welcome jolt of beauty and power”.

Around this time last year, Polica didn’t really exist at all. How did you guys form?

It sort of came out of me sending Ryan songs that I had made. Every time we went on the road with Gayngs, he would always say we should work on them and it wasn’t until we came back from South By Southwest last year that we picked out 12 tracks we wanted to work on. There were things that he came up with that kind of scratched what I had done, and the beats he had at time really interested me.

It kind of just came out of touring together and getting to know each other.
And it just made sense to a point where you guys clicked?

Yeah, we did. I didn’t really know that we clicked until we starting working on it. I’m pretty quiet and we have different personalities but when we started working on the music, it worked.
Since then the buzz has come at you a lot faster than it would for a new band. It does also kind of help when someone like Justin Vernon says you’re his favourite band too.

It would have made me sad if he had said that before when we weren’t getting any attention, and it started helping us get attention. I really appreciate that but nobody wants to have people like their music because someone’s told them to like it. You want people to like you because they think you’re interesting. It has been really crazy but it also feels natural because we put out the record ourselves. It’s a pace we can handle because we have a great team.

It’s great to have that kind of support group so you can lean on each other during times like that.

It’s interesting because Ryan kind of went through the same thing a couple years ago with Gayngs. It took off really fast and though bands are different and go through different experiences, people who went through that similar process were able to help out.
With bands having their own experiences, what’s it like performing in two different groups?

Well, in Gayngs I was a back-up singer and sometimes I’d maybe come out and sing my own song or sing a song by myself but I was usually just hiding in the back. Like really, really behind-the-scenes. It gave me a chance to try out big stages and back up people on harmonies and be a part of a large band. We went on a lot of tours in the past, which for me was with a lot of guys, and it prepared me for what I’m doing now. I was also in another band called Roma di Luna and as a group you’re there for each other as you sort of melt into one, and now, I’m at the front as the lead singer. I’m still very supportive despite the new role and I also still need the three people on stage with me as they’re very important to our band’s sound.
Is it a collaborative effort when you’re writing as well?

It wasn’t with the last record as it was Ryan, myself and three other guys discussing the basic idea of what Ryan wanted. The drums were recorded in a day and the bass was recorded in a few days and now it’s a little bit more collaborative. There’s something wonderful about the last record though in the sense of having our drummer hear the record for the first time. It provided a sense of improv as Ryan had laid out parameters and the kind of beat that he wanted and they were able to lay down something similar to it which created a really different energy. It’s funny because some people know us as the band that plays with two drummers. This band is a combination of Marijuana Deathsquads – a group Ryan’s also involved with – and my aesthetic, and it really is a first project, like a baby that has two drum sets. It does separate us a bit from other artists and vocalists though.

Do you find that it lends to your live show, giving you more energy and intensity?

It makes it very exciting and also the reaction isn’t what you’d expect. I really wanted a band with a rhythm section because it’s my favourite part of music.
Is that why there’s a very distinct R&B undertone to the music?

Yes, definitely. I wanted to make an R&B record, or something along those lines, and when the tracks were first completed, it was just my vocals and Ryan’s beats. It sounded sort of like that type of music and drums give it a little bit more of a complexity that I relate to a lot; it’s darker, it’s a little bit more aggressive and it’s a nice contrast. The bass is a good thing to follow and it kind wraps around it all… sorry, I’m not very good at describing the music I make.
The good thing about it is it does have a unique element that’s indescribable which is good in a way because people won’t label your music which allows it to change and be surprising. As you’re an experienced classical violinist, does that play into your music at all?

Not really with the music but I’m sure it does as I do have classical melodies swimming inside my head. I did play the violin on a few tracks on the record but I really do suck at the violin and would rather move away from it (laughs). You have to do what you like and this band is that.

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