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Polar Bear: Raw and Spontaneous

By Published: February 8, 2010
Peepers shows just how much range Polar Bear has as a band, from the beauty of "All Here" to the immediate danceability of the deceptively simple "Bap, Bap, Bap." All the songs are Rochford compositions, with the exception of two short improvisations—"Bump" and "Scream," both credited to all five band members—creating an overall sound that he already imagined before beginning to write. "The way my mind works is that I get a sound in my head of what I want an album to sound like. I feel like my subconscious goes, then I sit down and write the tunes based on what I've been thinking about for the last year or whatever, and the songs seem to come out in a certain mood," he says. "Definitely one thing I wanted to do was to explore different feelings of harmony. I also wanted this album to be as raw as possible, really spontaneous and live." All of the tracks were written and recorded specifically for the album, although not all at once. "We did two recording sessions, one in December 2008 and one in June 2009, because I wanted to record the tunes when we hadn't been playing them for very long," he says.

The song titles on Peepers are notably descriptive of the tunes themselves. "Bap, Bap, Bap" describes that tune's sax riff almost exactly, while "Drunken Pharaoh" sets up mental images of a returning late-night reveler that match the tune's fractured, uncoordinated sound. While many writers choose titles for tunes almost arbitrarily, Rochford often takes a more considered approach, although not on every occasion. "I didn't have a title for 'Bap, Bap, Bap,' so I called it that because it describes the sound. 'Drunken Pharaoh' is someone we know, who was a bit drunk at one of our gigs. He said we should call the tune after him." Herbert interjects to clarify the details. "He was being quite rowdy in the audience, and I don't think he realized that Seb was gonna attach the drunken aspect," Herbert says.

Rochford explains that most of the other tunes are about specific things. "I remember the event and write the tune while I still have that feeling. 'Happy For You' is written about Pete and his new baby. ... I quite often write tunes that are influenced by people who I know or have met." One of the more unusual sounds on the album is on "Finding Our Feet"—an eerie, evocative and mystical sound that could be purely electronic or could be a sample. Leafcutter John was responsible, from start to finish, as Rochford and Herbert both explain. "It's John singing and sampling himself," Rochford says. Herbert offers some more details: "John does all of that stuff very much in the moment. The possibilities he has at his fingertips are incredible; what he can do with electronics is amazing. He's a very creative individual."

Herbert's own double bass playing is a distinctive part of the Polar Bear sound, but with The Invisible he plays bass guitar. The decision to concentrate on the acoustic instrument with Polar Bear is a conscious one. "It suits the sound; it just feels right," he says. "Also, for quite a while I was playing electric bass in Acoustic Ladyland
Acoustic Ladyland
Acoustic Ladyland

[a band led by Wareham and featuring Rochford] as well ... so the double bass gave even more differentiation between the two bands."

Polar Bear's popularity in the UK and Europe is established, but the band has not yet performed in North America. "It would be great to play America," Rochford says. "I'd love to play there. I go over quite often to New York, but it's mainly the financial stuff that stops the band going over. Also, our albums are only just being made available in the States—so maybe this is the time for us to go over there."

For Peepers, the band signed with Leeds-based Leaf Records. Once again, Rochford gives personal as well as professional reasons for the decision. "I met Tony [Morley, the label boss] a couple of years ago, and I really liked him. He used to come to gigs when we played up in Leeds. I really like the music he puts out, and I've always found him to be an honest person, so asking him if we could join the label felt like the right thing to do." The Leaf roster is small, but eclectic—an attraction for Herbert, who declares, "We fit right into that roster. There are a lot of bands on the label that you can't pigeon-hole ... bands like A Hawk and a Hacksaw and Wildbirds and Peacedrums, who are fantastic." Such diversity seems to reflect the label's ethos, which also appeals to Herbert. "It's an attitude, stylistically, that shows what Tony wants from his label," he says.

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