Minus the Bear first turned ears back in 2002 with their debut album, Highly Refined Pirates. Over the 15 years since that record’s release, the band has gone through a number of changes, but has never stopped evolving. Now they are releasing their sixth studio LP, VOIDS.
With each new Minus the Bear album, new sounds and thoughts have been added their diverse catalogue. It’s almost as if, despite their popularity, the band continues to search for something new.
ARTISTdirect’s Christopher Friedmann caught up with keyboardist and singer Alex Rose to discuss their new record, why the band changed record labels, and the role of the artist in today’s society.
Christopher Friedmann: We’re talking because you have a new album, VOIDS, coming out in March and you’re also getting ready to head out on tour. How is the mood in camp?
Alex Rose: It’s good. I think for the most part we are very excited just to have this sort of fresh set of songs to put out into the world because obviously it’s been a little while.
We had a lot of internal things to deal with over the last couple years, but we’re very excited about the music we are about to release, so it’s good.
CF: You originally worked as the sound engineer on Menos El Oso, before taking over for Matt Bayles…
AR: …Yeah, I was the live sound engineer and then when they were making that album I kind of hung out in the studio and did a little assisting here and there and recorded some over dubs. I wasn’t the main engineer, but I was their touring engineer, so I was sort of in the camp before then and then so when Matt quit, it was sort of a logical step to say, “Oh,I can try that.”
CF: What’s it like to go from behind the boards to the front of the stage?
AR: It’s definitely way different. The reason I got into audio engineering anyways is because I was a musician. It seemed like a little more of a steady job or career, so it was great to be like, “Oh, I feel into playing music from engineering.” That’s kind of happened in reverse.
I did engineering because I wanted record music, but I also have always been a musician of some sort, started on saxophone and learned guitar, then had some basic piano classes in college, when I studied audio it was a music degree, so they had you take music classes as well.
CF: Has your background in production and engineering been helpful when it came to self-producing the band’s records?
AR: Yeah, since I’ve joined, I’ve definitely been sort of the care-keeper, the caretaker, of all the demos and when we are in the practice space. It has evolved from me recording a real rough microphone in the room, to now – where we’re multi-tracking all of our practices so we have mics on everything and we are just recording as we go. I can take those [recordings] home and edit them into what they become, but that ends up being part of the writing process.
On this record we have a new producer, so I’m kind of the guy that facilitates the files, and I’m definitely breathing down the producer’s neck sometimes, but the whole band is pretty involved in what we want to hear. It can be a double edged sword because I kind of know just enough to be dangerous, so I try not to meddle too much. I always end up somewhat involved, there will be snippet from the practice space that maybe ends up on the record or something like that.
CF: You found yourself taking over lead vocal duties on a few tracks for this record…
AR: … Yeah because we were pushing ourselves to make this kind of – well we just want to make a great record, and do things we haven’t done, and because we kind of had the lineup change, so we just wrote a ton of music.
We threw out a bunch of old stuff and then wrote about 40, well maybe including the old ones it was like 40 pieces of music all together, so it was just a bit much for Jake to do all of it, so we all just sort of took pieces that we liked and wrote to those, and some Jake and I wrote together just because it was a pile of material and it just kind of worked better that way.
CF: Did that change and has it made you nervous in any way? How did you deal with it?
AR: Yeah, I think I’m going to experience the final change on tour. It’s making me nervous now because we’ve never performed those songs, but when we do I think it’ll be a lot of fun because it’s just different for me.
But yeah, I can’t help but be a little bit nervous, sort of the same thing as when I jumped on keyboards in 2007. It was the biggest project I’d ever been involved in, knowing a lot of people were going to hear it. SO yeah, I’m nervous but I think this time it’s in a good way. I’m just very excited to play the songs.
CF: Guitarist David Knudson said, “There was a lot of change and uncertainty. I think the general vibe of emptiness, replacement, lacking, and longing to fill in the gaps was very present in everyone’s minds.” How did you channel that type of energy into the creation of this album?
AR: It just sort… that was the mood when writing lyrics. I think the way we channeled it was maybe we wanted to fill that void. That’s why we wrote so much music, and why I was eager to put lyrics and vocals to songs that didn’t have them. And I think we just really wanted to move on and keep going. I think it did fuel the energy. We wanted to fill the vacuum.
CF: It seems like there is a lot of uncertainty in the world right now, and you must be feeling it a lot going back and forth between the U.S. and Britain. Did you find that the outside world added more pressure onto the work that was going into this album?
AR: Yeah, I think there was definitely some anxiety that was happening from that angle as well, across the world stage. I woke up in London the day Brexit happened as well, and yeah, every sort of feeling, the energy outside… When it comes down to it, London and Seattle are very liberal bubbles. I have a feeling that when we go on tour we will get to sense even more of that, just going to more places.
CF: How do you see the artist’s role in turbulent times?
AR: I think art has a responsibility at this point, to be involved. I know a lot of people when artists or entertainers try to speak up, they are told to stay out of it or “do what you’re hired for and stay out of politics,” but I think historically, art’s role has been to challenge the establishment, and raise light to issues that need to be uncovered and have attention brought to them.
I think that’s been art’s role, and it’s weird to me that people would say, “Stay out of politics,” because if you write honest stuff, you can’t help but putting some of yourself into that, and your beliefs are going to come out whether it’s subtle or not.
CF: You are heading out on tour with Beach Slang and Bayonne in March. We actually caught up with both bands last year. How did you decide to go out on tour with them?
AR: We just put the call out, and we sort of have a choice of who’s available or who’s interested or who, our manager Chase has been involved in that and I know our booking agent, so it’s kind of like we see who is around at the time and who fits best. We wanted to make a bill that was not super same-y. We wanted to make it a cool and diverse show all the way through. We go to shows too and we want it to be something that would be kind of undeniable, so i think it’s a great lineup.
CF: The band is back on its original label, Suicide Squeeze Records, where you released your first three albums. What inspired the return?
AR: We only had two album contract with Dangerbird, the B-side album Lost Loves had some Suicide Squeeze tracks and some Dangerbird tracks, so that was a bit of a co-release. So we are done with our contract, but I think anytime we’ve done anything outside of Suicide Squeeze, we always wonder why. Not to talk badly about anybody, we just really love David and Suicide Squeeze, and it’s always great working with them.
I think in our time with other labels, it changes and you don’t quite get what you expect sometimes or there are staff changes or people leave that were the main reason that you went there in the first place. Suicide Squeeze has been a rock over the years and we couldn’t be happier to work with them again.
CF: Each of your last three albums have climbed higher and higher up the Billboard charts. But success can’t only be measured in numbers, so I was wondering what would make VOIDS a success in your eyes?
AR: I think we always want a lot of people to hear it. I know a lot people in the early 2000s file traded our songs and things like that. I think… sales numbers are one thing, but I think we just want to make songs that connect too.
We want to play these songs live and people to connect and lose their minds a bit or freak out or dance or whatever, so we just want to connect on a musical level and hopefully an emotional level too. A lot of times that will go hand in hand, if people respond to the music, a lot of the time they will buy it. From my perspective, you just want songs that connect.
CF: Over the course of your career you’ve have had a fair breadth of experiences, but I was wondering if you could tell us of the most grounding moment that you’ve had so far, a moment that reminds you why you do all this?
AR: It’s interesting because sometimes you have those moments, like Jake and I went to play with Daryl Hall on Live from Daryl’s House and I’m not sure that was a grounding moment, but that certainly was a reminder of, “Wow. That was one of those music experiences that I won’t forget.” It’s just amazing that you were around because such a talent, and I guess it was a bit humbling in a way because you realize how actually good people like that are.
Sometimes we get experiences where… we get caught up in the business of it or the mechanics, or just wanting to do okay and making sure everything runs smoothly and then you run into people…
We had a fan and he passed away, and now his whole extended family comes out in Northern California and we hangout with them. Things like that make you take a step back and realize, “Oh this music that was the main bond between this kid and his mom and his family.” Just realizing how important it is to some people, just makes you want to keep doing it and try harder and not get caught up in the bulls*** that can happen with being in the music business. So things like that, where you realize, “Oh, it’s about the music,” is great. I’ll take all those I can get.