ABOVE: BEARSTRONAUT. IMAGE COURTESY OF CHRISSY BULAKITES
No matter how much we grow to appreciate electronic dance music, it still doesn't change the fact that standing in a room watching someone fiddle with a laptop is kind of ridiculous. It's much more natural to watch someone fiddle with an actual keyboard, right? That's why the new prevalence of crossover bands that straddle the line between electronic and more traditional rock is such a welcome change. Bands like Bearstronaut, who combine the euphoria of the club experience with the grounded humanity of a rock band.
Of course, drawing lines in the sand between what actually constitutes electronic music and what doesn't has become an increasingly futile pursuit; but when you can combine the best parts of both into one package, that sort of thinking becomes irrelevant anyway. That hasn't stopped the Boston four piece from landing atop the best-of lists as "electronic act" for the past couple years, however, including a recent Boston Music Awards nomination, for which they'll perform as part of the lead-up festivities tonight.
The four piece, who are set to release their Paradice EP tomorrow on Vanya Records, with another hometown performance on Wednesday, and a stop at the Rock Shop in Brooklyn on Friday, showcase a nimble sprint through tropical rhythms and beachside dance party revelry on songs like "Birds of Prey" and "Passenger Side," with falsetto-fronting disco glee, twitchy guitars, and handclap beats blending into the big room disco house momentum of "Entrapment" and "A Better Hand," which we're premiering here today.
Multi-instrumentalists and vocalists Paul LaMontagne and Dave Martineau (the band also includes Phil Boisvert and Nate Marsden) explained the method behind their process, and where they fit into the overarching genre landscape.
COLLEGE IS A TIME FOR LEARNING: LaMontagne: We met at college at UMass Lowell, and just messed around for a while. I don't want to say we were just joking or not taking it seriously, but we had a lot of member rotation and we kind of changed our sound a lot. The last two and half years, we've been fully formed, or at least trying to be fully formed. Before that, every song was anti- the last song we just wrote; we were trying to throw everything against the wall and see what stuck. There's just one song, "Wired," from our first album where we kind of hit something we like—the only one we still play from back then—and we kind of took it from there.
THE MISSING INGREDIENT: LaMontagne: Keyboard, basically. I used to play guitar, we were a lot of guitars, trying to be more like a dance-punk band like The Rapture, but then we started learning about keyboards and synths and adding that in. That was the first experiment that went well.
Martineau: "Wired" was the first song where we got more than, "Oh, you guys sound pretty good." We got, "You should stick with that, and hone in on that." We asked some good friends, and they guided us a little bit. A lot of friends we had in college, we still live with them, they've kind of seen the evolution, and between them and paying Boston a lot, that song carried over. I like to think of it as the first good song that we still keep intact.
ELECTRONIC VS. ROCK: LaMontagne: We thought we'd go for the more pulsed end of dance music. Somewhere between the new disco and house music that we like, and the more traditional rock setup. We try to be the bridge in the middle; not a lot of live bands fit in our genre. Somewhere between Roxy Music, and I dunno, like an Aeroplane remix or something. I'd like to think we [fit into the mix with Yeasayer]. I think they're great. I know we kind of like a bit of the '80s style, where there was live dance performance. We looked at a lot of '80s soul groups and funk groups and wanted to get a live setup that's as exciting as those bands were. We do have sequencers and arpeggiators and synth bass, but for the most part it's more of a live feel when we perform.
It has been hard to replicate the sound live for a long time. It was tough because we only had four of us, and sometimes we'd record songs with 100 tracks, so it was tough to cover all the bases. We had a minimal setup, with one keyboard player. I couldn't do most of the stuff that was on the track, so we kind of split it in the middle, with more samplers and sequencers, with Nate playing some synths, and samplers with the drums. We brought more of the electronic element in, so we could play the songs live.
STOP LOOKING AT US AND DANCE: LaMontagne: Since we're sort of like a rock band, sort of like a dance or DJ act, if we're in a setting where it's a rock club and people are standing around not dancing, not getting into it, that makes the show tough for us. Maybe a house-music crowd; they don't want to hear us either. That's really what determines a good show. If people want to stand around and cross their arms and watch, it's fine, but it's a lot easier for us to portray what we're doing if people are having a good time.
Martineau: It's a better show if people aren't looking at us, just hearing the song while they interact with other people in the room while we're playing, if people are using it more as soundtrack to dancing and not watching these awkward French Canadians play instruments.
SCORE!: Martineau: We're trying to work more on licensing and placement of our songs. If we can get some stuff in TV and commercials, maybe that can help fund us to get a little more on the road. That's what we're shooting for now.
LaMontagne: We wrote a piece of music for a first-date montage for a movie this year. We never did that before. Just kind of wrote a minute and a half for a movie—The Thing with Sarah, I think it's being shopped around to festivals next year. The song ended up turning into "Painted in the Dark," on this record.
Martineau: It pushed us to work differently. We learned a lot with this record creatively. This is our third time doing it, so we kind of have a regimen of: write songs, play them out live, then put them down as-is. This time, having to do this thing for a movie, we put ourselves in a position we were never in before, with a very specific set of parameters and timing. It pushed us in a way we'd never done creatively. It was cool—there were arguments and disagreements, but I think it helped us put together [one of] the best songs we've done so far.
LYRICS FOR FANS: Martineau: On the last record, and the one before that, it was just a lot of party talk, going-out stuff. But I try, these guys can tell you, I've written a lot of weird story songs that they've thankfully shot down. There's plenty of songs that might not see the light of day.
LaMontagne: Sometimes it's just like, "I'm thinking Civil War, I'm thinking disco."
Martineau: The song "Passenger Side" off the album was the product of this Kickstarter we did—if you gave a certain amount of money, we'd write you a song.
LaMontagne: We said we'd write a song for whoever would want to donate, and figured it would be friends and family and we'd write something nice for whoever did it. We ended up getting a generous donation from someone we'd never met. We were like, "Oh shit, now we have to write them a good song." I don't really know how we started, we tried to make up this plotline about these people we never met, while tying not to creep them out and be funny. We got a little information and kind of ran with it. It started off as something simple, but by the end, we had a lot of fun taking it to this whole story about getting picked up in San Francisco and getting drunk in a place we'd never been. We made this imaginary trip for ourselves.
Martineau: We got to meet them in Texas, and play the song for the girl in person, which was a really cool experience.
OTHER PEOPLE'S MIXES: LaMontagne: We have some friends doing remixes for us. We're going to have the whole EP remixed, and are going to put that out. People like Ben Adams, Dusty Digital, Vostok 1. We're not sure what they're sounding like yet so I don't want to say too much. I pretty much just want to hear what people do with our stuff. I just want them to be clever with it, and think of stuff we might not have thought of, just do it differently.
Martineau: It's kind of a really awesome way to kind of give another life to the record, after the first push, and keep focus on it. We've gotten some really cool ones already that sound awesome. We're excited to see how many we can get, trying to get as many different versions of a song as we can.
LaMontagne: We're interested in doing it for other people too. It's funny, if I think about a melody, we try to get it right for months, then we give it to someone else and they warp it, tune it, change a note or a rhythm, we're like, "Damn, I wish we thought of that."
BEARSTRONAUT'S PARADICE IS OUT TOMORROW, NOVEMBER 14. FOR MORE ON THE BAND, VISIT ITS FACEBOOK PAGE.