Minus the Bear

At times, it sounds as if songs from Menos el Oso are unraveling at the seam, losing all sense of time in the slightest, smallest of ways.

As I sit on the beach of this forgotten island, watching silvery shards of moonlight skitter across the black waves of the horizon, I am reminded of the quiet ease of our life together. I cannot know if we will ever meet again, but as I look into the constellations, I am reminded of your eyes.

I believe I’ve been here for one month, though it feels as if I have never been anywhere else when I am lost in the daily routine of survival. The rhythm of each day has become a dance of instinct. The task of gathering and preparing food consumes nearly every hour. It is only at times such as these, when I recline next to a dying fire with pen and journal, that I taste memories of the convenience and relative luxury of the world of men to which I am accustomed. When the sun rises, the dance begins again; I will be no less an animal than the creatures who tolerate my presence here.

If, like so many, you’ve ever wished that someone would figure out how to get the clean, vibrant flavor profile of impeccably executed sushi into recorded musical form, you’re reading the right page. This month, music history will enjoy a moment of crisp clarity when Seattle’s indie-math-sparkle-pop kings Minus the Bear release Menos el Oso, the long awaited follow-up to 2002’s Highly Refined Pirates. Engineered in part by MTB’s sleepy-voiced crooner/guitarist Jake Snider, Menos el Oso is the product of a leisurely work rhythm the musicians enjoyed while recording and producing the album themselves in their own studios. According to Snider, the freedom the band had to explore, edit, and mangle its own sound is the album’s most defining attribute. For the most part, MTB went into the studio with mere sketches of arrangements.

“I’d say about 80 percent of the music was finished, and at least the skeletons of the songs—drums, bass, guitar—were, for the most, part done,” says Snider in a roundabout way. “Then it just evolved while we were in the studio. A lot of stuff did end up changing once we got into it and had the time and leisure to try a bunch of different things out. Then, obviously, we kind of took advantage of [the freedom to experiment]; we were able to move past what our first idea for a certain piece might be and then hopefully make it better. There were a couple of times where we’d record a track and think it’s a good take. Then somebody would have an idea for an arrangement change and we’d do it, like changing a bass line entirely for a whole song even though we weren’t used to it, rewriting it to give the song a totally different feel. About 80 percent of the vocals weren’t written by the time we were done tracking the stuff, so I wrote all the lyrics and melodies for the record while I was able to listen to the recordings that we’d done.”

My mood swings unpredictably and is difficult to explain in words, but generally my thoughts are dark. I occasionally fear for my sanity. The natural beauty of my surroundings does, however, lift my spirits from time to time.

I bathe in a small cove roughly 500 meters from my encampment on the shore. Yesterday, as I lay next to the water, drying in the sun, a small pod of porpoise swam into the cove to socialize and frolic. As I watched them shoot from the water and into the air one after another, their high-pitched barks and squeals of childlike delight soothed my heavy head and caused me to forget my lonely plight. As if to join the porpoise in cheering me, hundreds of small, bright red crabs scrambled across the sand and into the water. For a moment, I believed I could hear each of their footsteps distinctly. There was a collective meter to their gait, but its rhythm challenged my strict notions of order.

At times, it sounds as if songs from Menos el Oso are unraveling at the seam, losing all sense of time in the slightest, smallest of ways. It’s as if drummer Erin Tate adds and subtracts microseconds between beats while still confining his sharp style to the time constraints of the measure.

“I’ll have to listen to it again and see if I can figure out what that is,” says Snider quizzically. “He’s a pretty weird drummer. One of the things that kind of formed the foundation for the tone of the record was the way that we did the drums. I think that was the most specifically different set-up of all the recordings I’ve been involved with. Instead of just micing the drums up in a big studio room, we had the drums in the studio. They have a good-sized live room, but we built a little, teeny room out of baffles and furniture blankets and whatnot. It was maybe six feet tall and not very big—just big enough to fit the drums and the drummer and get a tight, upfront drum sound. The guys that ended up doing a lot of the drum engineering used different microphone choices than they normally would, and different microphone placement. We had multiple drum kits set up. Throughout a song, Eron would play up to three different drum sets in one arrangement. He’d do the whole song and then he’d go back and kind of play over it with different sets and different sounds.”

The result is percussion that quantifies and interprets the lazy melodies of Menos el Oso with brisk 32nd note hi-hat assaults, profound bass drum stomps, and the whiplash of one or two very well tuned snares. In other words: rhythmic wasabi.

It seems like only hours ago that we shared Chianti on the plaza in Barcelona, chatting breezily about art and the theater over tapas. How I long to feed you squid with my fingers again…

“Our first tour in Europe was only Spain,” reveals Snider. “That was a couple years ago, but it was definitely influential. Spain just has a freer feeling about it than most other countries. You don’t feel like you’re ever really doing anything wrong, even if you’re wasted and puking on the street. Doesn’t matter. So it’s this air of freedom that they enjoy, and beauty in everything. The coastline, where we spent most of our time, is pretty phenomenal in terms of just the setting and all that. Pretty inspiring place for someone who plays music or writes anything at all.”

It’s now that all of Snider’s frequent lyrical references to shorelines, ocean waves, and boat rides reveal their origins.

“Spain didn’t seem to really make it into the lyrics, oddly enough. I just found it really hard to write about. But, yeah, the water thing… I live in Seattle, it’s a port town, so there’s water everywhere and I’ve spent a good deal of my life around it. It’s hard to describe settings around here without having water creep in somewhere.”

Snider’s lyrical text conveys a sort of casual insistence on nothing but the good life. Wine and women figure prominently into the scenarios he weaves into word, painting sonic vignettes of romance and longing—but not longing too hard. All in all, Menos el Oso is a vacation from dreary, brown everyday existence to the cool, blue, energizing waters of some untouched oasis. Snider admits to a minor apprehension about touring in support of an album that was written and created largely in the studio, partially in the digital domain. Verily, the Northwesterners have their work cut out for them in recreating the exuberant beauty of the album live.

“We don’t really know [what will happen onstage] yet,” he confesses. “A lot of these songs we haven’t played, and some of them we’ve never really played the finished version together at all. I’ve never sang and played guitar on most of these songs. So, between now and the time we hit the road, we’re going to have to work all that stuff out.

“Even if we have new songs, we usually do just a few practices before we leave for tour,” the singer continues. “That may have worked in the past, but we don’t think it’s going to work for this one, so we’re going to rehearse and figure out how to play these songs. A lot of them have never been performed. I think that it’s going to make for an interesting month and a half come September.”

I cannot foresee my fate. Aside from my solemn prayers to be rescued from this lonely place, my only hope is that if we never meet again, my words are found and sent to you straightaway. For now, my every muscle aches for respite just as my soul longs for your soft touch. My hand grows belligerent toward this pen, my love. If God is merciful, He will send dreams of you in the sleep that I must now succumb to.

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