Sunday, September 11, 2011

Polar Bear Club

Earlier this year, after a string of tours supporting bigger bands on bigger stages, Jimmy Stadt and his band Polar Bear Club returned to play some smaller shows on smaller stages. “I can't remember if it was a headlining show or not,” Stadt says, “but I remember feeling really strange at the first club show back because I was doing things as a front man that only work on the bigger stages—stupid things, like 'everybody put your hands in the air'-type things, crowd participation things like that, where you're trying to get people who have never heard your band to participate in some way.

I had been doing it at this one spot in a song, and it was so engraved in me to do it,” he continues, stopping only to snicker at himself. “So when we got to that point at the small club show, I started to say it—not as weird as 'put your hands up,' but something like that—and I stopped mid-sentence. I didn't even finish what I was saying! I was like, 'No, that doesn't happen here.’

And I was just like, 'Yeah, I get it now. It's different,'” he concludes. “I was playing to my peers whereas, on those support tours, I was playing to potential listeners. It took a while to learn that.”

This is the sort of story that can only be told by a band like Polar Bear Club—one that, after paying their dues for so long, might be finally feeling the fruits of their frustrations. But, as the band readies itself to release its third full-length, Clash Battle Guilt Pride on Bridge Nine Records, Stadt wonders whether or not these fruits, which seem to be sprouting in surprising places, are the ones for which they've been waiting. “I was thinking about this today as I was looking through the newest Alternative Press where our album review was,” he explains. “I was reading it to see what they said when I stopped to think, 'Man, that's my face in this magazine on the shelf in this store that I've been coming to my whole life.' It's very strange and weird and cool. Someone from the outside might see that and think, 'Woah, Jimmy Stadt, he must be doing well.’”

Despite these promising signs, something inside Stadt doubts that they've turned this proverbial corner; to him, it seems that they're still paying dues. After all, Polar Bear Club spent most of 2010 and 2011 in supporting slots on the AP, Take Action, and Warped Tours Stadt is still waiting to determine where his band stands, and whether or not it matters. “I think we're right on the cusp of seeing if we're still paying our dues,” he admits, “but I say that loosely because, even the bands we've been supporting—bands like Bayside that can play the House of Blues-level—even those bands feel like they're paying their dues. I wonder if I'm just always going to feel that way, and if it's just about the next thing, the next step.”
Stadt and the rest of Polar Bear Club address some of these doubts on Clash Battle Guilt Pride. “A lot of the songs on the record have to do with ambition,” he explains. “I have all these dreams about this band, but what if they don't happen? I've never really thought about that, about the other side of the coin.”

Pawner” captures this ambition (and its counterpart uncertainty) with subdued intensity. Crisp, steely chords, struck and held for whole measures, make up most of this song's melody. The other half is comprised of Stadt's coarse wail. “I've to take my grab at something great,” he repeats between verses, his voice hopping from chord to ringing chord in intensities ranging from real to raw and fierce. From this uneasy silence, the song builds suddenly into something that plods powerfully, forcefully; groaning, agitated guitar riffs bounce around Emmett Menke's simple, pummeling drum part and Stadt's growl. The song seems to build until its final chord, from which the rest of the record rises.

In the song's initial melodic emptiness, Stadt explains, there's no where for its message to hide, which is part of the reason why “Pawner” encapsulates Clash Battle Guilt Pride. “That song brings to the forefront all the subtleties of the rest of the album,” he says, “and sort of shows you what the whole album is about. Everything else has those themes and motifs sewn into them, whereas, in 'Pawner', it's all right there for you. It's really one of the most different songs we've done.”

If Clash Battle Guilt Pride is a record that weighs the risks of ambition and questions the band's status in a dubious music industry, it's also one that displays a band pushing its sound in courageous but consistent directions. “Killin' It”, which rises from “Pawner”'s dust, is about as heavy and hard-hitting as Polar Bear Club gets. Throughout it, Chris Browne's guitar grunts alongside Erik “Goose” Henning's bellowing bass as Nate Morris' snarling leads add a depth to this din; these instruments stalk and pounce in time together like animals hunting in a pack. Still, the song's focus remains melodic, reinforced by the “woahs” that float in and out of each chorus.

For Stadt, “Killin' It” suggests that, perhaps, Polar Bear Club has taken that next step, at least musically. “It was the first song we wrote for the record, and had been written for quite a while,” he shares. “I think that song had such a new energy for us. It was really driving, and heavy, but not heavy, and sort of groovy. We were just really into that song, and it helped us write the whole rest of the record.”

Still, it's difficult for Stadt to tell where his band stands in the grand scheme of this dusty industry. Is Polar Bear Club a big band or a small band, and does it matter?

As Polar Bear Club prepares for its first headlining tour in support of Clash Battle Guilt Pride, Stadt is desperate to resist any assumptions about what its success might mean—or what might happen if this record doesn't sell as well—and in what direction they may move as a result. No two bands have the same trajectory,” he says, “so I don't want to say that, 'If this tour or record doesn't “work out,” then we're done.' People still like our music and it's not stale to them yet. We're still doing new things and getting new listeners. I think as long as we're doing that, we'll always be a band.” Maybe that's the criteria for assessing a band's standing; maybe this means that Polar Bear Club has “made it”.

This may explain Stadt's discomfort and confusion—why it felt strange to play to an audience that already appreciated Polar Bear Club, or to see himself in a magazine. For him, it doesn't feel like his band is doing anything different than they were last year, or the year before.

But maybe, if success is acquired with integrity and talent, that's how success is supposed to feel.

Stadt recorded these songs at his parents' house in Rochester, NY on one of the first days of the autumn. After bringing the phone to the garage, he decided his mom's piano room, where she gives piano lessons, would be best. The next day, Stadt and Polar Bear Club were set to start their headlining tour in support of Clash Battle Guilt Pride.

"Religion on the Radio" appears on Polar Bear Club's 2011 record titled Clash Battle Guilt Pride. "Building" is a Embrace cover; the song originally appeared on the band's 1987 self-titled record.

This is the second session that Stadt recorded for the Switchboard Sessions. Read and listen to the first 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 Two for a track from this and other sessions recorded in 2011. 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.

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