WORKING CLASS GUITAR HEROES Polvo

Yesterday’s active
musical lifestyles get an overhaul for today’s by the reunited alt-rock
pioneers.

 

BY
ZACHARY HERRMANN

 

Merge Records – the venerable Chapel Hill, N.C.
indie label that recently celebrated its 20th anniversary – has quite the hot
roster these days. During the label’s birthday bash, held from July 22-26 in Chapel Hill, M. Ward, Spoon, Destroyer, Conor Oberst, The
Magnetic Fields and many other Merge cohorts put in their appearances.

 

Though the aforementioned names may give Merge the current
weight they have today, none of them were around for the record label’s
earlier, formative years. Superchunk, Erectus Monotone and Polvo were also on
the Cat’s Cradle bill, representing the label’s veteran set, plucked in the
late ‘80s and early ‘90s from Merge’s figurative backyard.

 

By the time Polvo’s latest album, In Prism, hits the street, it will have been 12 years since the
band’s last studio effort, Shapes and
16 years removed from its previous Merge release. But after Ash Bowie, Dave
Brylawski and Steve Popson decided to reform Polvo with new drummer, Brian
Quast, over a year ago, it’s amazing to hear how little has changed.

 

Which, in relation to Polvo, is admittedly deceiving. There
are commonalities running through the band’s discography, but from album to
album, Polvo is anything but stagnant. They’re smoother and more controlled on In Prism, yet every bit as fierce as
they were nearly two decades ago.

 

A July 30 sold out show at Johnny Brenda’s in Philadelphia confirmed
Polvo is still a force to be reckoned with on stage as well as in the studio.

 

During a blistering 65-minute set, an enthusiastic crowd
lapped up the new tracks (“Beggars Bowl”, “Dream Residue”, “Right The
Relation”) just as much as the old favorites (“Fast Canoe”, “Feather Of
Forgiveness”, “Thermal Treasure”).

 

Before the show, guitarist Brylawski and bassist Popson
(both also of band Black Taj) pulled up on a stoop – a setting Brylawski noted
as “very Philly” in Johnny Brenda’s Fishtown neighborhood – for an interview
with Blurt.

 

Touring isn’t easy for a working band like Polvo – Brylawski
has a job at a mental institution as a clinical social worker in New York City and Popson works at Raleigh,
N.C.’s Museum of Natural Sciences.
But with dates planned through the end of the year, including a stint in Europe and talk of future studio material, the Polvo
machine truly is back in full swing again.

 

***

 

BLURT: How was [the
Merge party] at Cat’s Cradle?

 

DAVE BRYLAWSKI: It was a lot of fun. We didn’t have the
greatest show but it was fun seeing the bands – Erectus Monotone, a brother
band of ours, hadn’t seen them in, like, 17 years, so that was exciting. Saw a
lot of people I hadn’t seen in years. It was sort of like a reunion/wedding
situation where you just see a lot of people you haven’t seen in a long time.

 

Was it that Merge
family mentality that brought you back to the label?

 

DB: Yeah … it’s just, we know those guys. When Touch and Go
stopped putting out records, yeah … we weren’t presumptuous about it. But we
certainly hoped [Merge] would be amenable to taking us back. And we’re psyched.
They’re great people and the label has just blown up.

 

Last year there was a
lot of press on how you guys went back and revisited and reshaped a lot of the
back catalogue. How’d that influence what happened in the studio with In Prism?

 

DB: Huh.

 

STEVE POPSON: I don’t know if it did.

 

DB: Yeah. I don’t know if that really led to this. We just
knew one of the preconditions of us getting back together …

 

SP: It might have actually been vice versa. The very first
thing we tried to play before Dave came down – me, Ash and Brian – the very
first thing we tried to do was play a new song. So I think the whole tact of
playing again was to play new music.

 

DB: I think they are linked in this way. We knew we couldn’t
completely recreate our old songs the same way we have different equipment –
I’m not playing alternate tunings anymore – Ash still has four tunings. But I
only play in standard … and also as a precondition, we want to write new
material because we’re 17 years older and want to reflect where we are now then
when we were 21.

 

Also, there seems to be
the benefit in that you guys tend to sound like a different band on every
album.

 

DB: Maybe With the nuances, yeah.  Brian Quast is our new drummer and we wanted
to definitely take advantage of his skills.

 

How’s that changed
things in the studio?

 

DB: It’s been a lot of fun. He’s a great drummer. He’s super
professional and just a really nice guy. A good friend of ours, so it’s been
easy.

 

You, especially, have
talked about how each Polvo album was a result of the circumstances around it.
What were the circumstances driving In
Prism
?

 

DB: We had a lot more time to put it together and incubate
the songs. Usually, we have more of a deadline. And this time … we had nothing
on the front end, so we could just wait until we were ready and had a lot of
songs. Another thing is, I think we practiced harder for this, right?

 

SP: Mmm hmmm.

 

DB: Especially toward the end of Polvo, with Ash being out
of town, we’d get together pretty infrequently. But this time I’m the one who’s
out of town, but Brian, Steve and Ash – they would practice like two or three
times a week. So, a lot tighter.

 

What was the
recording process like this time – did you come in with a lot material?

 

DB: Nah, I think Ash came in with a couple things and I came
in with one thing.  And then, as we
played together and practiced more, more stuff sort of … just popped up. One
big difference too, which was sort of a technological difference that wasn’t
available to me when Polvo first started playing. With MP3s and stuff, they
would write stuff (our practice space is our studio as well … Brian, the
drummer’s studio) so they could record the practices and then send up the MP3s
to me. And I’d sit there in my New York apartment with my headphones and
practice by myself, but it was really helpful. I don’t think I could’ve have
done it.

 

Do you find your
experiences in Black Taj might have spilled over into this album?

 

DB: I think people might say that because I think especially
my contributions to In Prism, people
might say, “Oh, that sounds a little Black Taj-y.” Which is like, maybe a little
more straightforward rock. But I just think the fact that Steve and I kept
playing together made it easier. It wasn’t like I hadn’t been on stage with him
in 15 years.

 

SP: I don’t know if Black Taj influenced Polvo directly. I
think it’s just how Dave matured as a guitar player.  I mean, that’s a natural lineage of what he
went through. His interests were his interests regardless of…

 

DB: It was more my own personal guitar growth.

 

Were you listening to
anything in particular at the time you cut In
Prism?

 

DB: I don’t know – I can’t speak for Ash. At least,
personally, I go through a phase where I don’t … want to listen to anything
else. I just get really focused on Polvo. I actually wasn’t listening to a lot
of stuff in the lead up.

 

SP: I think for me, my personal listening habits are I’ll go
through this cycle where I’ll listen to three or four things a lot. But the
band really dominated a lot of our time. … At some point or another, you’re
just like, “I don’ t know, we’ve had a lot of music overload this week.”

 

In the past, what do
you think was the benefit of not having a lot of rehearsal time?

 

DB: Well, I mean, what are the albums that that sort of
happened with? That would be Today’s
Active Lifestyles
and Shapes. And
those are two different albums, so let’s just take Today’s Active Lifestyles, because that was a little more well-accepted…

 

SP: Well-received.

 

DB: Yeah, more well-received than Shapes. Maybe a spontaneity – you don’t get as much spontaneity
when you’re well rehearsed. But that wasn’t, you know – as you alluded to that
I alluded to. It was just a different context. 
Today’s Active Lifestyles was
a great album but of its time and of its circumstances.

 

Why is everyone so
down on Shapes?

 

DB: Oh, a lot of reasons.

 

SP: You know, I think, now, the reaction is a lot different
now.

 

DB: No, not particularly.

 

SP: Yeah.

 

DB: I don’t think so.

 

SP: You’d be surprised dude. You’d be surprised.

 

DB: Because it’s so out there that people don’t like Shapes, that people who don’t mind it
come up and are like, “Oh dude why do people hate on Shapes? I sorta liked it.”
 My own opinion is I think that like Today’s Active Lifestyles, it does have
a more thrown together feel, but I don’t think that’s in a bad way. This is my
own personal read – I think people might have reacted to my personal shift to a
more rock, like less weird, more straightforward rock. Polvo fans, some Polvo
fans, react to that.

 

SP: I guess my point is, though, there are more people now
who have discovered Polvo who didn’t have that perspective of what came first
and what came second. So I think, when it came out, there were people whose
reaction, who had been listening to Polvo for five, six or whatever years … I
think now that the catalogue is more complete, and that’s the first record that
you pick up, some people are like, “Oh that’s cool. ” … I don’t it’s a negative
reaction so much as a surprised reaction.

 

When you talked about
going back through the old songs, did you go back to the actual albums?

 

DB: No, not really.

 

Never, no?

 

DB: It’s just again, more from a very practical perspective
– I played really cheap old guitars and had alternate tunings, and now I have
better guitars and standard tunings. … And, Ash, I guess he felt it was an
opportunity to retrofit some parts that he wasn’t as crazy about and write some
newer parts that reflect where he is now.

 

There are probably a couple songs where we did go back, but
some of the songs we were like, no, we’re just going to go back and start from
scratch basically.

 

Obviously, I’m on the
younger end of things – I was like four when you guys started …

 

DB: Dude, oh my God. That still shocks me.

 

SP: Four when what? When Shapes came out?

 

 

No, no, no, when you
guys first started playing … Sorry, I forgot where I was going with that.

 

DB: Just making us feel old.

 

Well, like a year
ago, either you or Ash was questioning if you’d be raking in a younger crowd.
Have you seen the newer, younger faces coming in?

 

DB: Yeah, I’d say there’s some younger faces and some people
who are like, “Yeah I saw you guys in 1993” in like the Casbah club or
whatever.

 

SP: There’s plenty of people who’ve seen us before. And
then, just working the t-shirt booth, there’s plenty of, “I never thought I’d
get to see you guys, I was in high school in whatever, I was 10 years old when
this record came out.” We’re like, OK, same thing. But it’s cool.

 

DB: When I stop to think about it, and I try not to think
about it too much, yeah, I really didn’t know if young people would be into it.
I’m not quite sure what young people listen to, sort of, what kind of rock they
like.

 

SP: Or how they find the music. I found music from my older
brother, and then you kind of go off of that. 
I don’t know how they find music now. Maybe they listen to their older
brother’s MP3 player and go, “Hey, what was that?”

 

Dad’s CD stack is
getting to be a thing of the past.

 

DB: Yeah exactly. It’s funny – In Prism is coming out on vinyl and CD, and I wonder if we’ll do
CDs the next album we do.

 

 

[Photo Credit: Ashley Worley]

 

 

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