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Polar Bear: Raw and Spontaneous

By Published: February 8, 2010
The core Polar Bear quartet was now established. The final addition was John Burton, known as Leafcutter John, who joined after the release of the first album and whose previous musical career had encompassed electronic, acoustic and folk. John plays guitar and electronics in the band, and he uses numerous original pieces of equipment to create his sounds—game controllers and balloons included. Rochford originally read an interview with John, then spent a year trying to find one of his albums. "He sounded like a really interesting person," Rochford says, "but we had completely opposite tastes in music. I remember reading the interview and thinking that I hadn't heard of any of the acts he liked." Rochford then met a sound engineer who also liked John, and a few months later the engineer contacted Rochford and asked him if he would like to play drums for John to record. "I went down to the studio, and we really got on," Rochford declares. "When I went to see his show I realized that he had a very tactile approach to playing—his electronics were improvised, very spontaneous—and I thought that could work really well within the band."

It's clear from both Rochford and Herbert that Polar Bear is a collection of individuals who fit together personally as well as musically. Rochford's decision to invite the other musicians to join the band was informed by how he felt he related to them as people. This may well at least partly explain the band's comparative longevity as a unit. The partnership between Rochford and Herbert, as the band's rhythm section, sounds particularly intuitive. So how does the Rochford/Herbert partnership function? Rochford pauses to consider his answer, and Herbert responds first. "I don't think we really think about it; we never discuss it," he answers, emphatically. Rochford concurs: "I think that's one thing I love about playing with Tom. ... You don't have to think about that because it just feels so natural. Sometimes we talk about concepts or ideas that we have, that we can expand, but the fundamentals never need discussing."

Herbert goes on to talk about the space that Rochford gives Polar Bear's members through his approach to writing and arranging. "Seb gives us a lot of freedom to interpret his music," he says. "A lot of the time, he might have written just a sketch or an idea for a bass line"—Herbert and Rochford both laugh—"a starting point that I'll play around with. Then he'll tell me it's great, or he'll suggest something completely different, and I'll try to find what that might be. ... Often the stuff will change in the course of a tour or a series of gigs. Stuff will morph into something different, and if it's not in character with what he's hearing, then he'll let us know."

Peepers is a quintet album, but earlier Polar Bear releases have featured guest instrumentalists and, on one or two songs, guest vocalists. Live, however, the band rarely involves other musicians. "We played with Julia [Biel, vocalist] two or three times," Rochford explains. "Ingrid Laubrock
Ingrid Laubrock
Ingrid Laubrock
has played with us quite often, when Mark can't do a gig. She's almost part of the family," he says, laughing.

The idea of bringing in other musicians when regular band members are unavailable leads on to the thorny problem of organizing Polar Bear activities. When all five members lead such active professional careers, just how do arrangements get made? "I think if things are all good and working well, then they work in harmony together," suggests Rochford, somewhat enigmatically. "Everyone's got a certain understanding. If someone has a clash (of commitments) then you have to let it go, try to think what is best for that person and let them do it."

Rochford's approach to leading such a popular and in-demand group is, to his credit, sanguine and altruistic. His attitude has helped all of the band members (including himself) carry on with individual projects and develop as genuinely influential players. Most recently The Invisible, in which Herbert plays bass guitar, gained a 2009 Mercury Music Prize nomination for its first album. As a result, The Invisible's profile has risen on the UK music scene.

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