Thursday, December 31, 2009

Polar Bear Club

Jimmy Stadt is finally home. His band Polar Bear Club has spent the past three months on three tours, including a short tour supporting Thrice and The Dear Hunter, two relative heavy-weights in the world of underground music. “The tour with Thrice was good exposure, for sure,” Stadt explains from his parents’ house in Rochester, New York, “but bad for us too. Kids don’t know if it’s cool to like us. The kids that do like us don’t know if it’s okay to show it in that setting. And most of the kids that like us aren’t willing to pay that money to see us, which I understand completely.”

But Polar Bear Club is used to tours that seem simultaneously successful and unsuccessful. Though their songs are a complex and moody combination of hardcore and rock, their live set is tight and intense, and they seem to have all of the necessary ingredients to succeed in an industry upturned and undermined, they are still “paying their dues,” so to speak.

“We’ve done support tours where we’re lucky if half the kids are in there watching us,” Stadt says. “We did a tour with Face to Face and their fans were not there to see us. We played a House of Blues to 20 people and, by the time Face to Face played, there was about 800.”
“It definitely wears on us,” he continues. “That Thrice tour was only ten days. If it was six weeks, I probably would have been pretty depressed.”

This wear and tear is chronicled in Polar Bear Club’s recent record Chasing Hamburg. Though consciously rawer and less complicated than 2008’s Sometimes Things Just Disappear, Chasing Hamburg seems to express a more focused and meaningful message about the ups and downs of being in a band.

The lyrics in the liner-notes, in fact, read a lot like Stadt’s tour diary. The song “Take Me to the Town” alternates between slow, seemingly anxious verses and manic, chaotic choruses. In it, Stadt sings about the tug between the road and his home. In “Light of Local Eyes”, a bouncy and almost optimistic song, Stadt laments the loss of the sort of scene of which he belonged when he was young; during the choruses, he cries, “There was no place we didn’t own or deface / The grooves in the road would spark for us, / but that memory will rust.”
“The album definitely about being on the road,” Stadt explains, “but it’s also about doubting what you do and if you should keep doing it. It can eat away at you. Having a bad night, playing a shitty show, is the worst thing for morale. We say, ‘Oh tomorrow will be better,’ but when tomorrow sucks too, that’ll bring those doubts up really quick. I’m emotional; when I have two shitty shows in a row, I’m like, ‘Jesus Christ, I should go back to school.’”

Starting with only Stadt’s voice and a single distorted guitar, “Drifting Thing” perhaps best expresses this sense of doubt. Stripped down and straight forward, the song feels honest—almost apologetic—and sad, especially when Stadt sings, “But you didn’t see my face when all the kids dancing brought down that place / I was more Alvy Singer / Each time you put me on the train and less and less sure you’ll do it again.” The song builds up subtly to an ending that is hopeful, but still feels like a “goodbye” to someone that Stadt cares about.

“It’s hard to be away from my girlfriend,” he says. “We’ve been together for six years. And it’s hard to be away from family, let alone explain—especially to extended family, your grandmother and aunts and uncles—what you do and why you do it. They see you in a magazine and say, ‘Wow, you must be making a lot of money! You’re in a magazine!’ It’s hard to explain to them that I make about as much money as I would at a very, very, very shitty part-time job.”

But Chasing Hamburg also captures the excitement and pleasure associated with pursuing one’s passions. One such success is Polar Bear Club’s evolution into an entity that’s actually capable of touring full-time. “Our guitar player Chris [Browne] laid this out for me when we were talking about the albums one day,” Stadt says. “Sometimes Things Just Disappear was a lot about being stuck in one place, in a very small town, and wanting to get out. Chasing Hamburg is almost the exact opposite; it’s about being a permanent touring musician.”

More importantly, though, Chasing Hamburg is about overcoming one’s doubts and finding happiness in the struggle of seeking one’s dream.

The record’s title track may demonstrate this best. A slow and somber track, the verses on “Chasing Hamburg” have a beat, driven by drummer Emmet Menke, that seems to endlessly bounce back and forth. Guitars, strummed by Browne and Nate Morris, shimmer like fireworks before fading behind bass player “Goose” Henning’s nimble plodding. Here, Stadt’s words seem to tell the story of a night on the road: “I watch the shows / from behind the players / a voyeur to the smiling payers / I live this night until my end / The lows are low but the highs are home / and tonight the chase is on”.

Then, during the chorus, everything that was bouncing and shimmering and plodding comes together as a curtain of chords, a backdrop for Stadt’s voice. “You think there’s no more room for love,” he sings, “And then, the lights go up.”

“‘Chasing Hamburg’ is the most certain song on the album,” Stadt explains, “and why we named the album after it. We have our nights, where we want to give up and go home, but this song explains how and why we want to keep doing this. It’s sort of the end of the emotional rollercoaster of being on tour and being in a band.”

For now, though, Stadt is home, waiting for that emotional rollercoaster to begin again; this time, though, the band is headlining a tour in Australia. But despite the occasional discomforts of pursuing his passions, Stadt seems comfortable, even content, with where he is and where he’s headed.

Stadt recorded these songs at 7:15 on a Saturday morning before he had to go to work. Because he was unable to find a quiet place to record, he sat in his car with his phone resting on his leg while he played.

"Drifting Thing" appears on Polar Bear Club's 2009 album Chasing Hamburg. "Lucky Denver Mint" is a Jimmy Eat World cover; the song originally appeared on the 1999 album Clarity.

This is the first session that Stadt recorded for the Switchboard Sessions. View and listen to the second session here.

Visit the band's Facebook page for more music.

Sorry, but these songs were taken down due to space constraints. Please download The Switchboard Sessions, Volume One for a track from this and other sessions recorded in 2010. If you're desperate for a copy of these tracks, please see the "About the Switchboard Sessions" page for info on how to contact the author.

To download these tracks, click on the song titles and download them from the player at