Bear in Heaven gets stripped
Atlanta expats explore time and space
After building his career off of bombastic pop songs that pierce the atmosphere like the New York skyline that surrounds him, Jon Philpot is stripping down. Not just in the musical sense: The lead songwriter and keyboardist for psych-rock trio Bear in Heaven is shedding physically. He has decided to sell off a smattering of synthesizers and pedals in order to make room in his cluttered apartment. His decision isn't out of financial necessity. His apartment can't match the space of his former digs — from growing up in Atlanta — but Philpot still values the solace of his tiny urban oasis. "The clutter starts becoming oppressive quickly," he says. "It gets in the way of my creativity and happiness in a lot of ways."
Though his instruments were cast off with a clear intent, the reductionist vibe of Bear in Heaven's latest LP, Time Is Over One Day Old, came together completely by chance. Philpot alleges there was no predetermined manifesto, no overarching concept, and no clear intent. This move directly opposes the concise ethos of the group's third release, 2012's I Love You, It's Cool, on which Philpot made a conscious effort to cast off the growling edges of the group's Pitchfork-approved release, Beast Rest Forth Mouth. "We definitely listened to music that freaked you out and fucked you up," Philpot says. "But I became more interested in livable music."
While he may have difficulty explaining what "livable" really means in a tangible sense, he defines it on his latest release without even realizing it. "Drifting on a feather made of stone," he sings over a soft bed of gleaming synthesizers on "The Sun and the Moon and the Stars."
That anomalous image of the stone feather encapsulates Bear in Heaven's accidental intent. Many of the tracks on Time Is Over One Day Old come snarling out of the gate, driven along a furious path of destruction by drummer Jason Nazary and guitar/bass player Adam Wills' pounding rhythms and relentless energy. Yet the songs are often torn apart by their own ferocity, leaving nothing but beautiful emptiness as the only logical conclusion. Philpot's reductionist mindset becomes more and more audible as the album draws to a close. The ferocious tom-toms drop out, the chugging synthesizers give way to expansive chords, and the Bear gives way to the Heaven.
Even the album's cover art embodies this shift, displaying an image of a universe scrawled out on a piece of paper, folding in on itself. "That cover is like us in a crazy nutshell," Philpot says. "We're guys making music that speaks to this big vast outer space, and all we can do is take a photograph of it, put it on our walls, and look at it. But we'll never understand it."
He stresses that Bear in Heaven is a band that doesn't always know the intent of its own songs, a fact that has often brought them criticism. But that doesn't bother him. "We use music as a place of discovery," he says.
Time Is Over One Day Old sounds like a musical sandbox wherein the band constantly plays around with sounds to create deeper intents shrouded in obscurity. Like the sprawling universe drawn on the cover, Philpot likes creating themes that are clear enough to evoke powerful emotions, but abstract enough to unveil a different meaning to each listener. He is even reluctant to discuss the meaning of the album's title, saying that "it's one of those things that you need to decide what it means to you."
Philpot's love of abstract, nonlinear song structures partially stems from his creative roots playing drone music in Atlanta. One of his first groups, Presocratics, reveled in the types of noisy textures that find meaning through deafening ambiguity. "Drone reaches for something beyond the immediate," he says. "It was romantic playing in that particular noise scene in Atlanta, and that's still a part of what we are."
It's been well over a decade since Philpot left Atlanta and put the drone of Presocratics in stasis. But on Bear In Heaven's latest, the band comes full circle to find meaning in the vague noise of its youth. Whether it's clearing more space in Philpot's apartment or stripping away superfluous sounds, Bear in Heaven has discovered a new joy in creating more with less.