Minus the Bear have always avoided easy classification, preferring to tread their own inimitable path defined by energy and invention. “OMNI,” the Seattle-based band’s fourth full-length recording and debut Dangerbird Records release, sees a stunning evolution to their sound and vision. As evinced by the album’s all-encompassing title, Minus the Bear have merged their myriad influences into a sweeping collection marked by its slinky and sensual melding of city-stomping rock and deep funk grooves. That spirit of sonic lasciviousness is mirrored in the album’s raw take on human sexuality – a theme as intricate and elaborate as the band’s extraordinary music. Boldly experimental yet instantly accessible, “OMNI” is Minus the Bear’s most provocative and potent work to date.
“I think it’s a real leap forward,” singer/guitarist Jake Snider agrees. “It’s an impactful sounding record.”
Founded in 2001, Minus the Bear earned immediate attention with their distinctive spastic prog-pop hybrid, all serrated rhythms, swirling synths, and guitarist Dave Knudson’s multi-layered, pedal-hopping acrobatics. Prolific from the start, the band let loose with series of EPs and albums, each drawing escalating acclaim and a host of new fans. 2007’s “PLANET OF ICE” was followed by the band’s most intensive touring thus far, repeatedly traveling the US, as well as Europe, Australia, and Japan. The non-stop roadwork served to increase the band’s kinetic power and intensity – a mindset they were determined to bring with them when they returned to the studio.
“One of the things we wanted to do was capture more of the live energy,” says Knudson. “We feel like the live show is really where you get to see what we’re doing.”
Work officially began on the new album in mid-2008 as the band reconvened to begin shaping and developing Knudson’s early demo tracks. This time out MTB wanted to collaborate with an outside producer and began interviewing potential candidates. Joe Chiccarelli (My Morning Jacket, The White Stripes, The Shins) flew up to Seattle for his meeting mere hours after accepting a Grammy Award for his work with The Raconteurs and the rapport was immediate, with producer and band in agreement about how to proceed.
“We played the songs for Joe in our rehearsal space and he had a ton of ideas,” Snider says. “He had a great sense of where things could be trimmed, so he was a good set of ears to help us edit what we were trying to get across.”
On April 27, 2009, Minus the Bear began sessions at Seattle’s Avast! Recording Studios, opting to take a more organic approach towards recording. A conscious effort was made to play together as much as possible, eschewing the usual scratch tracks and overdubs whenever possible.
“He was really awesome about wanting to find the perfect sound before we even started tracking the songs,” Knudson says. “That was a big thing for us, changing the way we record, trying to keep as much of the performances that we were doing in the studio together to maintain the energy.”“Joe kicked a lot of us in the ass more than any of us had ever been kicked in the ass before,” Knudson says. “We were doing 10 or 12 takes, more than any of us had ever played, but obviously all those takes paid off. He broke us down and made us evaluate what we were doing and maybe made us think of it from a different perspective.”
Where “PLANET OF ICE” was deeply informed by the band’s unified passion for classic prog-rock, “OMNI” sees each member bringing a diverse tableau of individual influences to the table, with keyboardist Alex Rose, bassist Cory Murchy, and drummer Erin Tate expressing a significant interest in jazz, hip-hop, R&B, and 70s funkadelia.
“Those underlying elements seeped through,” Knudson says, “whether or not we were cognicent of the fact that that was happening. There’s a lot more groove, a lot more soul, a lot more feeling that comes across.”
The new music’s pulsating energy inspired a kind of sensual sprawl and carnal abandon. “Secret Country” features MTB’s most propulsive riff to date, inspired by Knudson’s purchase of a baritone guitar while on tour, while “My Time” – the album’s first single – is a rush of pure electro-pop lust, built around the glorious sound of another of the guitarist’s new toys, a vintage Omnichord synthesizer.
“The music just lent itself to dealing with these erotic themes,” Snider says. “There wasn’t a conscious idea to keep it all that way, but I didn’t really fight anything that came up when I was trying to put something to the music.”
None of which is to say that the quirky time signatures, hyperactive riffs, and prodigious hooks have left the building. The eddying tri-climax solo of “The Thief” and the album-closing “Fooled By The Night,” with its flowing arc and song-with a-song structure, reveal that MTB’s trademarks have simply been morphed and molded to fit a more straightforward – though no less ingenious – songcraft.
“We always wanted to see just how weird we can make a pop song,” Snider says, “but I think at some point we abandoned that and just started wanting to write really good songs.”
With “OMNI” finished by summer’s end, the band’s next step was choosing the right label to put it out. Fortunately, the band ultimately united with the Silverlake, CA-based independent label, Dangerbird Records.
“We really care about this and whoever was putting out the record had to be a cool, awesome, artist-friendly, happening place to be,” Knudson says. “Once we met up with (Dangerbird co-founder) Jeff (Castelaz) and those guys, it was just kinda like, ‘Why would we pick someone else? This is exactly what we’ve been looking for.’”
The brazen and irresistible “OMNI” will undoubtedly bring Minus the Bear to scores of new listeners, keeping them on tour for the foreseeable future. The band are now ready to return to the road, knowing that their ever-increasing fan following awaits. Having built its base in no small part due to their exhilarating live shows, MTB have an advanced appreciation for the intimate connection between band and their audience.
“We’ve got a lot of fans that really care about us,” Knudson says, “that just love the music and keep coming out to show after show after show. I think about it every day, I think about how fuckin’ lucky we are.”
“The main thing we try to accomplish is putting together something that we’re going to enjoy playing forever,” Snider says. “We always make sure that we want to hear the song as much as anybody else.”
Produced by Joe Chiccarelli