Going West with Bear in Heaven Drummer Joe Stickney

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32 floors above the West Highway, I am standing with a view in all directions. To the west, I look over the Hudson and see New Jersey and the reflection of envy. The wind maintains its pace and curls around me as I spin to view all of The City. I can faintly make out the bridges to the east and south, as all of the buildings rise without conscience or apology. This is New York City. It is 5:30 on a Friday afternoon and I am waiting to interview Bear In Heaven’s drummer, Joe Stickney at 6pm, while Brooklyn breathes behind me.

I spent the afternoon taking turns listening to the Talking Heads Remain in the Light and Bear In Heaven’s I Love You, It’s Cool. Pacing around my apartment, I try to make connections between Brian Eno-inspired synth and the current era of electronics. In particular, I’m considering Bear in Heaven’s return to the scene with a thoughtful dose of electronic swagger in their latest release, I Love You, It’s Cool. The lead single “The Reflection of You” twists out of my speakers, hypnotically paced and with a dizzying effect like the soundtrack to every spindle top, floor drop ride across North America. With flashing beats and digital drama, “The Reflection of You” pulls the curtain back on the strobe light scenes of 1980s fantasies. The reality of the record is buried deep in Joe Stickney’s machine-like drumming in “Cool Light” and even more simply displayed in the peaceful haunt of “Sweetness & Sickness.” Jon Philpot’s airy vocals on “Space Remains” provide psychedelic dreams for Williamsburg’s tightly-stitched denim seams.  The staggered layers of “Sinful Nature” punctuate the record with the detachment and wah-wah hysteria of a nitrous balloon’s last breath and the ensuing disoriented wonder of coming to. I scribbled intently on white sheets of printer paper asking myself questions that I would ultimately ask Joe. The hands on the clock form a straight line, standing at attention, and the clock rings six times.

I had spent the better part of the day thinking about Bear In Heaven and their new album, yet was still no closer to answering the question I had been asking myself all day: How do I describe this band without the beaten-to-death descriptions of; pop (“The Reflections of You”), synth, ambient (“Sweetness & Sickness”), indie, rock (“Cool Light”), or electro (“Space Remains”)? Mother Jones credits Bear in Heaven with “techno-inflected indie,” Pitchfork can’t make up his mind and finally settles on “some combination of “indie, rock, synth, dance, and electro should work”, and Slant Magazine is just plain accusatory, citing Bear in Heaven for “chasing after the synth-fueled sweet spot.”

On cue, the phone rings from the west side of Manhattan across the red and blue states to the west side of Los Angeles. “Modern tropicalia mixed with some industrial music and throw in a spritz of crabcore,” says Stickney. What a response! Was it premeditated / rehearsed? Who cares? Either way, he immediately follows up his characterization of the band’s sound, cautioning that his summation is, “wildly inaccurate and it’s the music writer’s job to describe the music.”

Joe describes their Hometapes show at at Papi Tino’s and their Dead Oceans session at Mohawk during SXSW as  highlights “in between all of the walking and lugging equipment around.” After their stop in Austin for South By, Bear in Heaven has tracked towards the west coast. Loaded down in a van “making weird sounds and needing cables,” they drove through Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona accompanied by country music mix tapes of George Jones, Ray Price and Townes Van Zandt and the AM band overnight radio broadcast of Coast to Coast.

The diversity of their musical interests and entertainment choices hints at the soundscape of their recently released album. There’s is an expansive sound, full of wide open spaces like dark Texas highways and their unexplained phenomena. But a band does not exist in solitary spaces, and Joe notes that inspiration for the album was found “in response to the shows from the last record and reacting to what we were going to be doing for the next 200 shows.”

Amidst freeways, friends, and hot tubs in Los Angeles, Joe finds himself in a pretty chill position as he readies for round two at The Echo and a drive up the California coast (to the next episode). Is anything else that I should know? Smiling through the phone he quips, “Come out to the show, buy tickets, we have cool lights, and recycle.” Coast to coast you unlock this door with a key of imagination, beyond it, another dimension, a diverse dimension of sound…. and cool lights.

 

Bear in Heaven’s tour has headed back east and can be found around the Eastern Seabord before heading across the Pond for a full slate of shows.

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