Pitch a tent

Bear vs. Shark seeks inspiration in the backwoods

With a month-and-a-half European tour just three weeks away, Detroit-area band Bear vs. Shark decided to go native. Its 2003 Equal Vision debut, Right Now, You're in the Best of Hands, was a surprisingly adept mix of post-core fury and indie-rock melodicism, like Pavement gone screamo. Two solid years of touring later, the members needed to get some music written. So they snuck into the backwoods of the Michigan's Upper Peninsula (think Canada with a touch of Deliverance and no universal health care).

"One of the reasons we went was just so we wouldn't have anything else — like jobs — as a distraction, and certainly no cell phone coverage," says singer/guitarist Marc Paffi. "Where we were at, the nearest pay phone was 35 to 40 minutes away. We would make this trip into town almost every day for two weeks to get supplies and beer."

Though the European tour was eventually canceled, they wrote three-fourths of their sophomore release, Terrorhawk, while in the woods and finished it when they returned home. According to Paffi, besides the music-making, the trip was highlighted by the reception they got from the locals.

"You can't hide a van with five dudes that obviously aren't hunters or hikers, so we definitely stood out, and once people found out that we were out there in the woods, there would be nights where people would just show up. I would walk out there out of the cabin and there would be these strange people around the bonfire," says Paffi. "There was this Mennonite kid on a dirt bike that would sneak up to the cabin and trade his mom's pies for cigarettes. People would drive up in their trucks and want us to shoot their guns. It was insane and a great fucking time."

Such an equation (insanity = a good time) is a good approximation of the quintet's musical approach. Driven by a chunky, angular guitar attack that owes more than a little debt to D.C. post-punk acts like Shudder to Think, the members manage a rough-hewn sound with the choppy, textural pulse of math rock. The songs are keyed by effective use of loud/soft dynamics and Paffi's versatile vocals, whose often impassioned sing/scream recalls the Minutemen's D. Boon. While Paffi's vocals thrash and guitars chaotically churn, the hooks offer the listener something to hold on to, like a roller coaster's shoulder harness as it winds through a sonic corkscrew.

Terrorhawk is tighter and more cohesive than the debut, something Paffi credits to both touring and the circumscribed writing period. Another key is the group's growing comfort on different instruments: The lineup switches several times during the evening, with the bassist migrating to rhythm or lead guitar and vice versa. It also has a direct influence on the songwriting, as each guitarist brings a different style to the music.

"Each of the guys has a set of sounds they like. John [Gaviglio] is definitely a low and Mike [Muldoon]'s a way high Fender sound; Derek [Kiesgen] is definitely a mid. That makes it hard, too, because now they're starting to want their tone live and to not play on someone else's guitar setup," Paffi says. "We're trying to get it down so it's much more fluid, because not everyone can have a bass guitar setup, so everybody's got to continually move."

Like the futuristic novel from which the guys take their name, Bear vs. Shark is an "age-appropriate" spectacle seeking to ramp up entertainment values like gas prices. Judging from the terrific Terrorhawk, Bear vs. Shark is well on its way.