Mon, Mar. 17th, 2014
Hmm, where should we start here? The part where Miniature Tigers stay up all night with Neon Indian, fine-tuning the laser-like synths of their new single, “Gold Skull?” Yeah, that sounds about right.
“I won’t forget that experience,” says frontman Charlie Brand. “I remember the sun coming up and everyone in the room singing along. [Drummer] Rick [Schaier] was almost asleep on the floor as he did harmonies.”
While that part was captured during the Manhattan-bound mixing stages of Miniature Tigers’ second album (Fortress, out July 27 on Modern Art Records), the rest of the record was tackled at Dreamland, a converted 19th-century church that’s hosted everyone from Beach House to the B-52s. As you might imagine given its location—deep in the woods of Upstate New York—this led to some other late nights, ones that involved abject terror. But hey, that’s what happens when you decide to watch The Shining in a place that could double as a Friday the 13th set.
“That movie put us in a weird headspace,” explains Brand, “so we decided to go nuts on ‘Mansion of Misery’, starting with the drums. We also wailed on the guitars, making everything as loud as we possibly could.”
The result is one hell of an curtain-raising cut, as heavenly harmonies and tension-building effects segue into a sudden explosion of crushed cymbals and powder keg chords. So while it’d be easy to draw the usual reference points here (the two B’s: Brian Wilson and the Beatles), something’s a little off about Miniature Tigers’ indie pop presentations, whether we’re talking about the delirious chorus lines of “Bullfighter Jacket,” the hooting and hollering of “Lolita,” or the ’shroom-munching waking dream of “Coyote Enchantment.” And reigning in all the chaos, why, it’s none other than Chris Chu of the Morning Benders, applying the same widescreen approach that worked wonders on his own Big Echo LP.
“We like to push what doesn’t work sometimes,” says Brand, “and he helped balance that out for us. Chris is also very organized, focused and serious, which is nice, because we aren’t at all.”
That’s not totally true. After all, the band’s come a long way since Rolling Stone named them one of MySpace’s 25 best artists in late 2006. For one thing, Brand and Schaier finally have a steady lineup now, rounded out by guitarist Algernon Quashie and bassist Alex Gerber. The band played over 200 dates last year supporting their debut albumTell It To the Volcano with the likes of The Morning Benders, Bishop Allen, The Spinto Band and then there was the Ben Folds tour where Brand figured out what not to say onstage in front of their biggest crowds yet.
“I made a weird joke about being on acid at this college basketball arena,” he says. “I don’t even remember what I was talking about. I was dying up there.”
He won’t be any longer.
Bear Hands are a textbook example of contrasting personalities uniting to craft something more than the sum of their parts. Vocalist/guitarist Dylan Rau, the Brooklyn-based quartet’s self-confessed musical Luddite (“I can’t read music, but that’s ok because I’m more of an ideas man,”) peppers his supersonic chatter with an infectious collection of witticisms. By contrast his songwriting partner, guitarist Ted Feldman, grew up playing the cello and carefully selects his answers, admitting to being “a bit of a control freak.”
Together, these contradictory characters have combined their strengths to deliver their sophomore albumDistraction – a collection in which their love of pop hooks is filtered cohesively through an eclectic collection of genre elements ranging from psychedelic to punk. “Giants” is perhaps the track that best encapsulates everything that makes Bear Hands special, as it flows from a manic verse full of hollered stream-of-consciousness lyrics into an infectious chorus, in which the universal emotion of “I’m loving you more” is set to a cascading riff.
Rau and Feldman first met as film students at Connecticut’s Wesleyan University, an institution that has become well known for turning out a steady stream of talented musicians due to its focus on the arts. They became fast friends, bonding over a pot brownie and a shared taste in music. However, as Feldman was already in another band at the time, it would be several months before the two would begin to collaborate musically.
After going through an unpleasant breakup, Dylan discovered that his ex-girlfriend had taken up with one of Ted’s bandmates. When he found out that the band had also been offered a record deal, Dylan decided that they would not ride off into the sunset with both his ex-girlfriend and the guitarist he wanted to join forces with. “I said, ‘this isn’t how I’m going to go down.’ I confronted Ted and said, ‘Alright, that’s it – we’re starting a band!’” Once Ted had been convinced to abandon his previous band and form a new one with Dylan, it was time to complete the lineup.
Rau quickly identified the ideal rhythm section for his new band: bassist Val Loper and drummer TJ Orscher of Glastonbury, CT’s In Pieces. “TJ was definitely one of the best drummers in the area,” explains Rau. “I remember Val playing a show at my school, and him spinning around really, really fast and getting his bass stuck in the ground, and then he tripped over it and knocked over a PA speaker. It was super boss.”
Knowing that he’d need to recruit them as a team, Rau used some mini-Machiavellian tricks to convince each member that the other was already interested. Once they’d come around to the idea, the first session together displayed an almost telepathic connection. As Feldman remembers: “Everyone was pretty surprised at how easily it came together. We put four songs together in the first two rehearsals. In retrospect, it was our honeymoon period."
After Rau’s master plan came together (“You’ve got to poach people from other bands – you scout them and pick people off like weak antelope”), Bear Hands signed to indie label Cantora Records. Bear Hands’ debut albumBurning Bush Supper Club was released in 2010, but their progress faltered due to legal complications and daily distractions. This, combined with some inspiration from Jonathan Lethem’s novel Chronic City, led to the band naming their new album Distraction. “It’s about losing touch with reality,” states Rau. “Many things distract us: doing drugs; drinking; reality television; good food; the Internet.”
Frustrated by this protracted hiatus, Bear Hands decided to take the initiative and fund the making of Distractionthemselves. Working on a tight budget meant that Feldman, already the director of the band’s videos, would also take the role of producer, with engineering assistance courtesy of their friends Yale Yng-Wong and Jake Aron. To record the drums and the basic tracks, they headed to Feldman’s parents’ house, which was transformed into a makeshift studio for a week. “Luckily my parents weren't there because they probably would’ve freaked out. It looked awesome to me, but maybe not their style,” laughs Feldman. Overdubs and vocals were completed at Yng-Wong’s studio, Doctor Wu’s, in Brooklyn.
Numerous songs on the album are based on real life experiences. “Agora” addresses Rau’s experiences with agoraphobia. “Mixed with a couple of other mental health issues, it was pretty bad,” he admits. “I still have trouble and I have to force myself to leave the house. Socializing and exercise are the two things that I’m trying to work on improving. Sometimes I have little interest in either.”
Another common theme is failing romance. “Thought Wrong” is based upon a time when two of the band members were simultaneously involved in intense break-ups, while “Vile Iowa” reflects Rau’s experiences visiting his ex-girlfriend’s family – conservative, teetotaller Mormons. “I don’t think they really liked me and I don’t think they trusted me,” he sighs. “I have a history of dating girls from the Midwest whose families don’t like me. It’s a habit I need to get over.”
With character, creativity and pure songmanship in abundance, the global appeal of Distraction should ensure that Rau will have a new chance to broaden his horizons way beyond the Midwest. “We’ve always aimed to write pop songs because that’s just what we like, but we also like all sorts of different styles,” affirms Feldman. “There hasn’t been a huge paradigm shift in genres. I think it’s been an evolution of quality.”
Beyond casual American dining, Total Slacker has a thing for the 90s. But rest assured, their new record Slip Away, which comes out 02.11.14 on Black Bell Records, isn’t the sort of hack revivalism that’ll make you want to burn your copy of Bleach. For the album, Total Slacker dug deep into the crates, and came up with something that sounds like Hum and Skywave a bunch of other bands that’ll draw blank stares from nu-gaze numbnuts. Most importantly, they retain their original ethos—to blur the lines between the genuine and the satirical, the earnest and the sarcastic… the shrimp and the scampi.
The band was incubated in New York City, after Tucker met bassist Emily Oppenheimer at a local Laundromat. The pair considered being in a band as an end goal in itself, and began their career without much direction or professionalism. The group released their lo-fi debut, Thrashin’, on Marshall Teller Records in 2011, earning a reputation as a vicious live act by playing more than 350 shows—which often feature flaming guitars, smoke machines, and smashed instruments—in under three years. In the wake of the album’s local success, the band was struck with tragedy following the death of their drummer, Terence Connor, who was struck by a hit-and-run in early October of 2012. They went into the studio within two months, laying down tracks that dealt with that confusion, transposing vague childhood angst into tangible, real-world issues.
Throughout the album’s 11 tracks, the quartet (rounded out by guitarist David Anthony Tassy and drummer Zoë Brecher) makes a potentially futile stab at a life lived in harmony with gargantuan multinational corporations. But don’t worry - recorded with care by Daniel Schlett (DIIV, the Men) at Strange Weather Studios in Brooklyn, Slip Away also features songs centered around the Kennedy assassination, ThighMasters, and fighting your babysitter’s boyfriend.
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