Interview: Polar Bear Club

Polar Bear ClubFor the record, 2013 has been a calendar year for music. It’s been consistent and competitive, and while it might not represent “The Year That Punk Broke (Again)”, it will be noted as a year where bands detoured from stereotypical expectations so they could make a more natural and less forced transition. A fine example of one of those bands is POLAR BEAR CLUB. For most of the 2000s’, the New York five-piece disrupted punk/post-hardcore scenes, ran circles around festival circuits and unquestionably released “one of the most organic and genuine albums of 2011”.

In turn, they’ve come to realize the past doesn’t always shape a perfect future as entering the studio with three new members (guitarist Patrick Benson, bassist Tyler Smith and drummer Steve Port) has created room to revisit their instrumental approach. According to singer Jimmy Stadt, the process certainly tested their abilities but it also forced them to write a hard-nosed album that breathes positivity. With Death Chorus set to be released this fall via Rise Records, we churned out a trademark “long read” with the frontman that discusses adulthood, why punk rock won’t hold hands with the mainstream, and how Polar Bear Club have written their best-sounding album to date.

As a band you guys have released three albums and you’ve been in music since 2005 – do you ever worry about feeling aged in your genre?

I think naturally… yes, but it’s not the type of thing you dwell on. It’s sort of like a two-sided coin because I’ve noticed that there’s younger people doing similar things to what we do – and sometimes you can have doubts and feel afraid of that – but there are times when I actually like it. I feel like I have a different perspective and the ability to say something I couldn’t have even said when I was 21 or 22 and I can do that in a genre that I think generally has different point of views about the same thing. Anything you view as a challenge sort of scares you to a degree, but I like the ability to take on a challenge to say something new or something that someone younger than me can’t say.
How does navigating adulthood affect your creative side?

Oh God, I mean sometimes I think that’s the singular effect on my creative side. Sometimes I look at the songs I’m writing and I tell myself I need to try and write about something else besides navigating adulthood. You write what you know, and that sort of standard of adulthood brought on by your peers, your family or whoever, highlights which parts are true and which parts are bullshit. To me, that is the sole fuel for songwriting to an extent. Navigating adulthood is such a wide umbrella – it’s relationships, it’s introspection, it’s stress and financial pressure… it’s just life. All of that to me is fodder for songs.

“Creating Death Chorus  was difficult, but without a doubt it’s our best-sounding record. Whether or not you’re going to think its our best album, I really don’t think we’ve made a record that sounds better than this one.”

Genres that were previously thought of as underground have found their way into the hearts of mainstream audiences. Why do you think this has yet to happen with punk rock?

I don’t know… it seems to have its little bubbles here and there, and you and I even discussed this when we spoke to Chris from Anti-Flag and he talked about Green Day. When Green Day blew up, it gave bands like Anti-Flag and Rancid an opportunity for major distribution because these companies said they needed more Green Days and they were willing to take chances on bands they wouldn’t take chances on in the past. I think that’s definitely not the case for us now. Sometimes punk rock or just loud rock seems to be the least cool kind of music to be making right now. But that being said, we don’t do this because it’s cool or because we’re trying to be mainstream – we do this because it’s what is in our hearts and what we came up on.

We have our own little pocket of the world and that’s really all we want. Is that good financially? No, but we kind of got into this to not be good financially and to avoid the normal issues of everyday life. I think punk has the potential to be mainstream again and that actually really excites me because what is it going to be like when it happens again? When you think about it, the first bands to be in the mainstream were The Clash, The Ramones and the Talking Heads, and the last time was with Blink-182 and all of the bands that branched out from there – the Simple Plans and the Good Charlottes of the world. Aside from a few exceptions such as Rise Against, punk bands haven’t really been on the minds of audiences and it’s exciting to see what it will be like when it does cycle back around.
Do you think there’s an ideal set of subjects tied to punk rock?

I don’t think there’s anything ideal or set in stone but it’s just changing and people incorporate elements of punk rock into different genres. Like we’re really talking about a band aesthetic – a loud collective sound and delivery. The ideals have already sort of carried into rap and some mainstream pop while the idea of challenging and pushing the envelope perspectives is apparent in art in general. The aesthetic is just sort of niche right now. The people that like it, like it, and the people that don’t, generally don’t. It’s not like it’s taking over and it seems like we have smaller hills to climb in punk rock. Like for example, a band that’s getting bigger right now is The Story So Far.

Though they maybe could branch out into the mainstream radio world and play stadiums, I don’t think they necessarily want that to happen because they’re focused on headlining House Of Blues venues and selling those out. That’s a totally sustainable lifestyle and that’s really all any of us want or hope for (laughs). We don’t really want the stress and pressure of fame and wealth – we just want to live off what we do.

I know you guys went through a big change recently as you signed to Rise Records, a label that’s known for pushing bands to a successful extent. Since you’ve recently said that the band doesn’t want to be “just treading water”, was the switch because of their similar mindset/work ethic?

I think so. You could definitely think of it that way. The switch to Rise was really because of a couple things. They had done good things for bands in the past that were similar to us and we like that. We had also known from talking to those bands that the label didn’t really expect anything creatively from them and they just let them do their own thing. Also, it was a good deal and it was a deal that worked for us. It was a shorter deal than what a lot of labels give out these days and it allows us to sort of test out the waters with them. I think the “treading water” remark was more of a creative thing. We were always making the same record over and over again, and not taking risks, and albeit failure or success, we’re concentrated on taking risks and pushing ourselves when we can.

We definitely did that with this new record as the album has been a complete uphill battle and more than half of the band is made up of new people. That alone comes with its own set of low times and doubts, and all of a sudden you’ve got existential, negative thinking that you have to write through. Writing this record was a challenge for sure, but towards the end we realized challenges are a good thing.
I know you to be a pretty positive dude so how does the title of your new album, Death Chorus, connect with the band’s current mindset?

Well, to me, Polar Bear Club has always had a positive delivery of darker thinking. We’ve always been a band that has used colour and we’ve never wanted to be just a band that had black t-shirts with white print, and that’s why all of our album artwork has been pretty colourful. Our new album is the best example of a delivery of a song that’s melodious and sort of a pop sentiment, but when you start reading into the lyrics, you’ll start to notice a darker underlining. Like pop art was kind of dark but it wasn’t presented to you in such a dark manner and that’s a similar idea that defines Polar Bear Club. The title Death Chorus came about from the fact that a lot of new songs talked about death or dying, and while I was writing these songs, I said to myself, “Jesus Christ, not another death chorus”.

That just sort of stuck with me and we thought it would be a cool title. The album artwork for it sort of resembles a tarot card that says “Death Chorus” – and if you know tarot cards, you’ll know that the Death Card has a double meaning and can be a positive thing. So when we talk about these themes of death and dying, we mean it in that sense and the sense of letting some aspect of yourself die so a better part can be born. That’s not to say the album isn’t dark as well. I remember that when I was in school for acting and performance, one of my teachers said that before Japanese performers go on stage, they say “I hope you die” instead of “break a leg”. The phrase meant that one hoped the other’s negative aspects would die so a positive performance could be born.
As you guys set aside six months to write Clash Battle Guilt Pride, did you do the same this time around so you could develop Death Chorus to a certain extent?

I think we did. It wasn’t planned as much as Clash but we’re a band that always has such a hard time writing while on the road. First of all, we’ve been opening shows for so long so we don’t really get a soundcheck to do it whereas other bands get an hour and half on stage where they can just fuck around with their gear and write music. Like if we were to headline a tour, it would be at smaller clubs that don’t allow you to use the stage beforehand so we usually set time aside to write. For me personally, I’m just not good when it comes to writing lyrics on the fly so I spend time in my bedroom working on material. We took some time in the winter and wrote some songs, and a lot of really came together in this two week period between two European tours we were doing. And of course, we always set up a good amount of time for pre-production in the studio so we can work on songs some more.

When it comes to writing songs though, I like to get up, make coffee, and sit down all day and work on them by myself. From there, I’ll take it to someone else or take it to the band because I love doing that, but I just really like to be by myself when it comes to getting the song out or getting the canvas out. It’s strange to watch someone write and I feel very self-conscious when I’m writing songs because I’ll repeat things and madly hum to myself.

I imagine it’s also an introspective and private process and something that you’d maybe want to do by yourself and not with the band or other people watching you.

The start of it definitely is – like the spark of it, the ideas, and where everything starts. For me, I just benefit from it being an introspective process. But once it’s on the paper, good God, we can tear it apart and build it back up, we can start it over or switch it around and really do whatever the fuck you want with it. Getting it on the page though for that first time is just something I’d rather do by myself.
Does the recording process ever get easier after experiencing it multiple times?

We sort of support the unpopular opinion where we do really enjoy the writing and recording process of an album. The scales are a little out of whack because the thing you do the most is play music – and you sort of get burnt out on that – and the thing you do the least is write and record because most of the time you’re on tour because that’s where the money is. It’s an element of being in a band that you don’t get to do very much so it makes it fresh and fun, but I think my main strength is being a writer. I’m not really a great singer; I have a voice that has character, I guess, but I’m not technically great so singing is not my favourite thing to do.

In that respect we love being in the studio – but that’s also not to say it wasn’t really hard this time around. For me personally, this was one of the hardest records to make. I was really melody-minded and I knew I needed my melodies to be better and more specific, and a lot of times that means they have to be harder to execute. I told Will Yip, the producer, that I hadn’t had this hard of time recording a record since our first EP where I essentially had a nervous breakdown while doing that release. I remember I was doing vocals and it wasn’t really going that great, so we took a break and I just locked myself in the bathroom and I sat on the floor and stared at the wall.

Like I just couldn’t… move. I had no idea how I was going to finish the record, finish well or even finish that day. I just stared at the wall in this weird state where everything inside of my body was going 100 miles per hour but physically I just couldn’t move. As I told Will, going through that with the first EP made sure I didn’t have a nervous breakdown this time around and allowed me to power through. Creating Death Chorus was difficult, but without a doubt it’s our best-sounding record. Whether or not you’re going to think its our best album, I don’t think we’ve made a record that sounds better than this one.
Well as an artist its important to have a definitive point of view. Would you say Polar Bear Club has found theirs or is that something you still work towards?

God, that’s something I think about all the time. It’s hard to answer yourself… like I would love to ask someone else to tell me what our point of view is (laughs). It’s something I think about and it’s maybe been something that’s held us back in the past – like “What is our point of view?”. I think when you’re young, breaking your whole set of artistic ideals down into one sentence like that seems limiting but what you learn as you get older is that from there you can branch out in so many different ways. So that sentence that you just asked me has been on my mind for years and years, and I think now it’s hard for me to define, but I know what it is. It’s loud but sort of with quiet words.

I’ve always considered our words to come from the style of bands like The Weakerthans or The Hold Steady, but the sound is just loud, heavy, and hard pop music. It’s bright and it’s upbeat and it’s fun, but the words sort of contrast that. It’s like the idea of dancing around in your misery and maybe faking it until you make it. I think that’s part of our point of view. It’s hard for me to say it exactly but a music critic could probably sum it up better than me.

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