For a good idea of how life has changed in the past year for Bear in Heaven, one need only consider the band’s two very different experiences at Austin’s South by Southwest music festival.
Supporting its 2007 debut album, Red Bloom of the Boom, the Brooklyn-based quartet made its first showing at the annual Texas blowout two years ago.
“We played a few times, a few different showcases, and nobody cared,” guitarist Adam Wills says with a laugh when reached on his cellphone at SXSW. “Nobody cared at all.”
What a difference a second album can make. Bear in Heaven’s seemingly-out-of-nowhere sophomore release, Beast Rest Forth Mouth, was deservedly raved about as one of the best records that no one heard in 2009. The hype started with an all-out gush on Pitchfork, and then spread viruslike to every self-appointed tastemaker with an iMac, an opinion, and a blog.
As a result, Bear in Heaven headed to Austin this year as one of the festival’s buzz acts. And sure enough, it seems like everyone suddenly wants a piece of Wills and his bandmates—singer-guitarist Jon Philpot, drummer Joe Stickney, and guitarist-keyboardist Sadek Bazaraa.
“Reality set in yesterday,” Wills says. “We played our second show yesterday evening, got off-stage, and things got strange. For the next three hours we were having our photos taken and doing interviews and whatnot. It was like, ”˜Holy shit—something is going on here.’ ”
Much of the interest might stem from the fact that Beast Rest Forth Mouth is one of those increasingly rare records that make you think maybe you haven’t heard it all before. Bear in Heaven has cited the likes of Rush and Genesis as big influences, and a quick MySpace scan adds Talk Talk and R. Kelly to that list. None of that begins to describe what they’ve accomplished on Beast Rest Forth Mouth.
The band has taken its various influences—left-leaning prog rock, ’70s-vintage electronica, experimental noise-pop—and forced them together to create something new, smothering the whole in 16 layers of analogue fuzz. The result is often as disorienting as it is hypnotic. The tribal “Beast in Peace” conjures up a male Chan Marshall fronting a Paxil-doped Black Angels, while the epic “Dust Cloud” suggests a gorgeously unholy alliance between Henryk Górecki and Dead Can Dance.
Things hardly happened overnight for the guitarist and his bandmates. Born and raised in the American South, Wills and Philpot ended up in New York City last decade, determined to find work in a medium that wasn’t music.
“Jon and I are both filmmakers and video editors,” Wills says. “He moved up here a year before I did. I went up to make movies and wound up being a commercial video editor. Music came after. I’ve been playing music since I was 14 years old, but I’d never been in a band before. All of us got together in Jon’s apartment with some music gear, and six years later, this is where we’re at now.”
And where, besides a starring spot at SXSW, exactly is that? With a laugh, Wills suggests a place that sometimes makes him wonder whether he’s focusing on the right career.
“I once did a commercial for Pepsi where I did a voice-over as Sammy Sosa,” he says. “I literally said, ”˜Yes—I ween,’ and got paid $15,000. Being on tour is a big pay cut for Jon and I, but, I got to tell you, it’s a lot more fun.”
Bear in Heaven plays the Biltmore Cabaret on Monday (March 29).