Interview: Polar Bear Club
Back in October Mind Equals Blown staff writer Zac Lomas caught up with frontman Jimmy Stadt of Polar Bear Club during their stop in Syracuse, NY. Stadt talked about lyric inspiration, the process of writing their third album Clash Battle Guilt Pride, his love of cinema and more.
So, today is, in a way, a homecoming for you. How does it feel to play to a legion of fans who in some ways are responsible for the start that you guys have had and propelled you to where you are now?
Uh, I don’t know, that question makes me feel different things. We love playing here, Rochester. Those [shows] to us are like hometown shows and so it’s always nice to play there because it’s not professional, it’s just fun. Not like we’re a professional band, and we are in some ways, but we don’t carry ourselves too much that way. Sometimes you’re doing something else for professional reasons, but tonight is for fun reasons. I’m not anxious or nervous or anything, we’re just gonna go on stage and have fun. It’s weird, also, playing Syracuse, because we’ve been a band since 2005 and we’ve grown up in this scene and the Rochester scene and so many people have moved away and moved here and so it’s such a small fraction of people we know, or played to when we were playing floor shows at the Westcott Community Center years ago, so it’s like those people at that show, going off then, are now sort of watching on the side of the stage, being like “Here are my guys doing their thing to some new people.” It’s really cool because a lot of the people who like us now are a little bit younger than us, personally, and I’m not used to that, I’m used to playing to my peers and playing to people my age, but now I’m gonna be 28 in February and now a lot of the people at the shows are 20 and younger and it’s cool, but it’s definitely a different thing. It’s like “What can I say, how can I connect to these people with such a huge gap between us?” And I think, especially since I’m from a weirder generation of people who could remember life before the internet and so on. What I’m saying is people five years older than me I connect with a lot easier than someone who’s five years younger than me because I’m right on the line of that, where people don’t remember being in high school without a cell phone or without the internet and I don’t know how, but that changes something. It’s cool because people who are our age don’t come to shows a lot anymore, or at least in big numbers, so it’s nice that we’ve been able to play to younger people and that they’re excited about going to shows.
I’ve noticed myself, and perhaps you can attest to this, allusions to what one might classify as an “upstate New York” mentality in a lot of your song lyrics, particularly songs like “I’ll Never Leave New York” and “Religion on the Radio.” How has your collective upbringing in this area affected your lyrics and music as a whole?
Well, the music, it’s definitely affected the music, because for a while when we were younger and going to shows the local bands, as different stylistically as they were, had certain things that we did, certain rhythms that we used, certain emphasis or syncopation that we did. Or chords too, that you weren’t really hearing other local hardcore bands doing, it wasn’t like New York City hardcore, it was different, it was quirkier and punkier almost. Lyrically though I’m totally a product of my environment in that we’re a little big city, we’re not a small town necessarily, but we’re not like a major market. And it’s weird to be in the middle like that, to be in a place that not a lot of people have heard of, but still have things. Like Rochester has three independent movie theatres. Places like Tulsa can’t say that. So much of our culture comes from being college towns and that was true of the scene I grew up in. All my friends, who were a little older than me at the time, went to RIT or U of R and they were from Boston and New York and they brought the bands they liked to Rochester. But I think you travel and you learn about how weird your hometown is, but there’s also a thing of pride there too. There’s this individualism to it. But I think the sense of my lyrics, that sort of sad and internal and self-deprecating tone, it just . . . when the winters are so long you spend a lot of time thinking about yourself or talking to yourself in your head and I think that tone comes across in my lyrics. Also, I’m really influenced by movies; movies are a major thing for me and there’s not much I love more than movies and Rochester is such a film town and I think that some way affects my lyrics, because I do have a very cinematic view of the world. I just think I’m walking around a movie right now, not like insanely thinking that, but I can see poetry in a landscape, which comes from that film upbringing.
Like the line: “The movie in my head is dragging on.”
Exactly, I just grew up watching movies and that has to come from that long winter, being inside and watching those bad, but awesome Comedy Central movies. I remember there was a long time when I was a kid where I just could not sleep at night; there was like a whole four year span of my childhood o pre-teen where I just could not sleep. I was up till four or five every night, just watching TV, watching the late night movies and it just affects the way I express myself, the narrative that I see.
On a side note I just want to mention the line: “Too many nights, in the Greyhound station of North Syracuse / And the departure screen, was lookin’ at me like it was talkin’ shit just as I walked in” always brings a smile to my face. The use of personification is just so clever, could you talk about that line and that song as a whole, in my opinion it’s one of the hidden gems off of Clash Battle Guilt Pride?
I’m glad that you like that line. What it’s referencing is getting home from tour and getting dropped off. ‘Cause I have always lived . . . I mean I’m from Rochester, but I’ve lived in Rochester, I’ve lived in Connecticut, I’ve lived outside New York City and every tour that ended I’d have to get on a bus and go home, so we’ve just driven across country for 42 hours, everybody else is home, I’m getting on a bus for another six. So I’d always walk into the bus station and I’d just pick the next bus that was coming and a lot of times I’d get there at midnight or one A.M. and your next bus is at seven. I’m glad you like that line, because I was weirdly proud of that one and no one really talks about it.
Yeah, when I saw you guys at the Darien Lake (Buffalo) stop of Warped Tour I was hoping you’d play “I’ll Never Leave New York” or “Religion on the Radio” because of the local connections.
Well, that is harder to translate in an outdoor setting, On Warped Tour we just try to play the most amped up positive set we can and still be unique and still be Polar Bear Club and express our voice. Songs like New York and Religion, they’re more introspective and plus we only have half an hour to play and we have three fucking albums to choose eight songs from, it’s rough. When you’re doing a set like that, Warped Tour is super fun, but there’s also a more professional aspect of it like we were talking about earlier. It’s weird when you say it, but it’s somewhat true: we don’t expect, if you’ve never heard us before, and go see us on warped tour, to get it until you take the album home, which might be bad, but I don’t know any other way to do it. I think if you really want to get Polar Bear Club, and this is true of a lot bands, is you take it home and you look at the lyrics and you internalize it, which is getting harder and harder to do as people listen to an album once and decide whether or not they’re ever going to listen to it again. Whereas when I was younger I remember listening to an album once and being like “Ugh, what is this?” And I had the CD of it, so I was like “I guess I’ll listen to it again, I’m in the car.” I mean one of my favorite albums of all time is the third The Weakerthans record Reconstruction Site and when I first listened to that record I thought it was a piece of garbage, I thought it was trash. I listened to it once, put it in my old CD booklet and I didn’t listen to it again for five months and I put it back in one day and it was just there for me. I just got it. That’s an idea that is so hard to express on Warped Tour, so we’re just like let’s hit ‘em hard and hook ‘em and then they’ll come and figure it out and then, if we’re lucky they’ll come to a show like tonight and get it.
That reminds me, I’m a deejay for my college’s radio station and last fall we got two albums in that I had to review. One was Clash Battle Guilt Pride and the other was Daybreak by Saves the Day. And the interesting thing was at first I was totally blown away by Daybreak, but as the year went on I kept listening to your album a lot more and hearing your lyrics in my head all the time and didn’t go back to Daybreak as often.
It’s hard, because it’s those kinds of albums that are our expression, it’s who we are, those are the types of records that influence us, inspire us, but it’s weird, because a lot of times a record that I like a lot on first listen I don’t listen to for very long. It is those slow burns that stay with you and become classics and we always have shot for that and it’s not the fast road, it’s not the fast road to the top. We’re still, after almost five years of touring and even longer of being a band, still climbing, very slowly. But we always wanted it that way, because we knew if we made that type of record that you need to sit with for a little and get inside and get behind we knew people would be coming to our shows for longer and like us for longer, as opposed to making the most accessible, most poppy, coolest record that people would like for a year and then all of a sudden: no one cares.
You’re not trendy in that way, you’re trying to appeal to the fans that are going to invest their time and it is an investment to get an album like that and understand it, so that by the time you’ve listened to it 30 times there are so many emotions connected to it that when you hear Polar Bear Club is coming to town, you’re going to go see them.
That’s the type of record that we all love and that you invest yourself in, because, and I’m not comparing my band to the greatest television show of all time, but it’s like The Wire is a television show that is sort of like a novel. You get out what you put in. So yeah, you sit through maybe seven to five hour long episodes where not a lot happens and then you get to that episode nine or thirteen and all of a sudden something huge happens out of nowhere and the reason it affects you so deeply and it’s so profound is because you, just by
mistake, fell in love with these characters and these stories and you invested yourself in it, you invested your time and your patience into it, and then you got that much more out of it when the reveal comes. I’m not saying we’re like The Wire of music, but it’s that type of mentality of at first “What is this?” and then you come back to it and give it your time and you’ll like it.
You guys worked with producer Brian McTernan who has a pretty impressive, working with such bands as Texas is the Reason, Hot Water Music and more recently Balance and Composure. How was working with him different than your previous albums, did he push you to step out of your boundaries and hone your sound or was it a more laidback approach?
It really was a different experience. A lot of times people ask you “How is this different from your last record?” and you just make something up because a lot of times recording a record is not that different from the last time. But this time around we just focused so much more intently on the songs being there, being right, as subjective as that may be. We had never done a pre-production process like that; we had spent two weeks just talking about the songs. Two weeks: working all day. We had recorded demo versions of the songs; just throwing out ideas, throwing out changes, re-working some songs more than others, re-writing bits of songs and then re-recording them again. So, we recorded a demo of all of those songs, then we recorded another demo at Brian’s studio and then we recorded the actual songs, which we had never done before. We just went in and recorded songs. But this time it gave everyone a more complete picture. Everyone knew everything that was happening during the song and we could work together that much better. He is a songwriter’s producer at first, he really believes that it doesn’t matter what equipment you’re using, what it’s gonna sound like. If the song sucks, it sucks. So let’s get the song, that’s the most important part. Let’s get that good and then we’ll worry about all that other shit.
You guys haven’t made a big deal about it, but you’ve mentioned that you’ve started working on a fourth album, can you give us an idea of how far into that you are and what producer you’ll be working with or if you haven’t arranged one yet what producer you’d like to work with.
We’re still talking about that and we’re getting into that time where we have to settle in and we’re just kind of taking this really easy approach to everything right now, like “Let’s just write some songs and work out the other stuff when we have a more complete picture of it.” But Brian is definitely on that list, it was an amazing experience. But we’re still entertaining other ideas too, just who knows. We like to switch it up. But Brian and I have a great working relationship. I loved tracking with him and I’d go back to him in a second.
To me it seems that a lot of the bands that encompass the modern day “pop -punk” scene, such as Balance and Composure, Title Fight and yourselves are going back to a more 90s back to basics approach, but when I listen to you guys I hear some more complexities, are there any influences that wouldn’t be obvious that affect the way you guys write?
Well, when we first started, like our first demo, I think it was highly influenced by bands like: The Casket Lottery, Small Brown Bike and Braid and Hey, Mercedes and bands like that. Actually, everybody suspects us to be really big into Hot Water Music but that almost happened after Polar Bear Club. The sound of the vocals I think makes people think “These guys have a huge Hot Water Music influence on them.” But it’s not as big as people think. The way I sing just sort of happened. It came out and it worked and so we really didn’t think about it too much. But the early stuff is very much influenced by that tech-post-punky-hardcore. Weirder time signatures and weirder chords and as we grow a little bit older the influences change and meld around that. We’re such different guys that individually everybody would answer this question differently. But this sort of rift between all that, where it all comes together is sort of where our songs come from. When we first started we talked about Third Eye Blind a lot and people started hearing that in our music and there was some stuff . . . we all loved that band’s first record . . . where we were like that totally sounds like a Third Eye Blind guitar lead, that’s totally cool. But I think people just took it and ran with it because we were talking about it in interviews. So, all those bands, but also like Refused and At The Drive-In and Jimmy Eat World and Get-Up Kids, all of it just together . . . and Sunny Day Real Estate . . . it’s hard to pin it down. I still don’t know what we sound like.
You sound like Polar Bear Club.
And that, I think, is what we always wanted, we always wanted to be our own thing and we always wanted to be a little bit ambiguous and un-peggable, which is why . . . I don’t consider us a pop-punk band. I just think we happen to be here when pop-punk is getting big and I’m not saying we haven’t done tours like that or we don’t get along with bands like that or we don’t have a lot of crossover and people who like Man Overboard or New Found (Glory) or stuff like that, but I’ve never thought of us as that. I think we just happen to be touring when the time where that is big and we took those tours because that’s where kids are going. And, God, we have no regrets about that, some of those bands are our best friends in the whole world, but the bands who influenced them never really influenced us. Like, I don’t know, Blink-182, New Found Glory and stuff like that. I liked those bands, but we never thought about sounding like them.
Alright, transitioning my focus towards the live aspect of your work; you have a background in theatre and acting, how does that affect the way you approach a live performance and prepare beforehand?
Well, it’s to the point now where that was so long ago that that doesn’t even feel like me anymore. I feel like it helped me, in a lot of ways, perform. I’m very comfortable on stage. I mean I was doing full length plays, I was doing Shakespeare and that compared to this is just not threatening. I was memorizing like two hour plays of Shakespeare and going out, night after night, performing it and this is not as scary as that by any means, but it did make me really comfortable on stage. A lot of times you see a band and they are very introspective performers, they’ll maybe not face the audience, sort of bring it in, but I’m just out! Here I am, I face you with no fear and let’s go. People notice that too, like when they find that out about me it clicks in their head, they’re like “Oh, that’s what’s wrong with you.”
Your vocals often enter a liminal area between singing and screaming, how do you control this in the live setting or is it more a case of letting go and seeing what the situation calls for?
It’s hard live, to sound exactly like you do on record, for a myriad of reasons. One is that my voice will go through stages on a tour. I always have to plan a day off early on because if I do eight or ten shows in a row in the first week of a tour I’ll lose my voice. So generally the first couple of shows back my voice feels good, I’m starting to get a little hoarser and it’s starting to hurt and at the end of that stretch take a day off and then I’ll be good to tour for like a month. But it seems as tour goes on I get more in tour shape and I beat my voice up a little bit more and it’s harder to sing than it is to do this raspy scream, so I of course try to do it like it is on the record, but a lot of times you’re just incapable because the shape your voice is in. And that sound really comes from a lack of skill, like I make those sounds when I sing because I can’t sing clean as well as I would like to, I have a lyric about it! But this is just my voice, it’s what I have so I’m gonna use it the way I’ve figured out how to use it and be confident about it and express myself like that. I think it’s interesting too because so much of the tone of the lyrics is introspective and self reflective and sad or hopeful . . . emotional. And I think the context of my voice is interesting in that realm, being so emotionally heightened about these sort of small emotions.
I definitely hear in your vocals a certain sense of honesty, as if you’re just doing what you want to instead of what’s expected of you.
Yeah, I remember seeing the Talking Heads film, and I love the film so much, it’s an amazing concert DVD, it’s an amazing film and there’s like a bonus feature of David Byrne interviewing himself, it’s really weird and funny and very David Byrne, but he asks himself a question like “Why does your voice sound so weird?” And he gives this response where when I heard it I was just like “Yes! That’s it.” And he said something to the effect of “I just don’t think you can trust someone with a perfect voice.” You don’t trust them. My voice is shaky and trembly, I wish I could sing better, but I sing this way because I’m really excited to be on stage and I can’t bring myself down to sing well, but it lets people trust me, it gives me some imperfection that people can relate to. I mean him, Paul Westerberg, Greg Finn, those singers are who I respond to because they have voices so rich in character and individualism. That’s always what I strove for, just to be able to pinpoint my voice from a mile away, good or bad.
You recently put out Live at the Montage and that album was released on vinyl, which is something a lot of the younger punk and hardcore bands have been doing a lot of lately. With what seems to be a dissolution of the digital music industry, how do you think the re-emergence of vinyl as a medium is going to play in the sales of records and what is your experience with vinyl?
I’m actually just getting into vinyl now, at 27. When I was going to shows and just as a younger person, I never bought vinyl. All my friends did, I just didn’t have a record player and I listened to music in my car when I drove. So I always bought CDs. But I think the reason it’s important for us to do it and why it’s important now is because it really is an ideal format. There’s just something mental about picking it up, touching it and seeing the grooves of the record, putting it on, doing the needle and letting it play. Hearing that sound makes you feel like you’re in a real life room with a real life band. The reason it’s important for us to do it is because it’s important to the people who like our band. I think people who buy music are just a conscientious consumer; they make a decision to buy music. Nobody, really, on a whim just buys a record. Record collectors do, but just modern fans of music know if they’re an illegal downloader or a music purchaser and I think for the people who conscientiously choose to buy music it’s important for them to have an option for vinyl because A: It looks awesome, you get the artwork in the biggest available option and it’s that thing we were talking about first, it’s that investment of yourself in a band. You have to give yourself a little bit to get something out of it. The problem with the music industry today is not illegal downloading, it’s illegal downloaders and I’m not putting myself above them. I download music illegally; everyone does, but as I become more of a purchaser of vinyl I’m releasing how important it is to invest yourself in your content. It almost makes you hear it differently. It sounds weird, but that’s what’s missing from the modern young music culture. They’re hearing music from an attitude of wanting to be impressed. The modern musician . . . I saw Billy Corgan do this amazing interview about this and he said the same thing where he said the modern music musician is almost considered to be in the service industry and we’re not in the service industry, we’re artists. We make choices in how we wish to communicate with you and express ourselves to you. That’s not the same thing as handing you a hamburger or making you a hamburger at McDonald’s, that is the service industry. I’m not trying to say it’s better or worse, it’s just different. So when you don’t buy music you almost come from that serve me something good, band, mentality. Impress me, I’m gonna put your record on or I’m gonna download your record and listen to it and sit here and you better impress me because if you don’t I’m gonna turn it off and move on to the next thing. But when you buy a record you start from the place of liking it because you’re like “Shit, I paid money for this I might at least try to like it at first.” And starting with that open positive mind you hear it differently and you feel like “Damn, I invested myself in this emotionally and monetarily. I’m gonna try to like this.” And I’m not talking down to anyone who does it the other way, I’m talking to myself! Because I was that person who on a whim was just listening to downloaded records and being “This doesn’t do anything for me I’m just tossing this out.” But when you buy it, you really are invested, that’s where the term comes from! You’re emotionally invested and it’s much more fulfilling as a fan of something. So many people, I feel, would rather hate something than like it and why would you ever rather hate something? I like a lot of movies, a lot of bad movies, but I’ve found something to like in this bad movie. Why would I want to hate it? Maybe that’s stupid and ignorant but I just would rather like it than hate it. Just always start in a place of yes and it takes that much more work to get to no. A lot of people start at no and it’s so much harder to get from no to yes. To get from that place of not liking to liking it. But that idea of buying a record, it just puts you there with more ease. I don’t mean to sound like I’m talking down to anybody, I’m talking about myself. I have found, in buying records, listening to them in a way that’s more fulfilling for me.
Alright, Jimmy, thank you for taking the time to do this and I hope you have a good show.
No problem, thanks!