Interview Marisa Brickman
Photography Dan Wilton
Featuring an exclusive mix for ‘SUP by Solar Bears at the end of the article.
The first and only Solar Bears album, She Was Coloured In (Planet Mu, 2010) was on repeat over my holiday break – part of a playlist designed to help me chill out and decompress. On the long plane journeys between the UK and the States, at my mom’s house with the family, outdoors in Jamaica, or by the pool in Miami, Solar Bears provided the perfect soundtrack for escape. From ’70s psych to post-rock; from prog to dark cinematic synth-pop; the sprawling ethereal soundscapes of the album are best listened to from beginning to end.
Solar Bears are a duo from Ireland. Rian Trench is 23 years old and based a few hours outside Dublin in a town called Wicklow. Rian’s a multi-instrumentalist from a family of musicians who is well-versed in all aspects of playing and recording. Thirty-year-old John Kowalski (Kowalski being a nickname based on the ’70s film Vanishing Point) resides in Dublin and is a more intuitive type of artist who draws melodic maps on the database of songs he dreams up in his mind. Recording school drop-outs, they took what they learned and started making their own tunes within just a few months of meeting.
Solar Bears work fast and the way they operate is quite considered. The first time we met was when this interview took place, and I was immediately struck by how in-tune Rian and John are with the way the blogosphere works and they ways in which they can use it to their advantage. The second time we hung out, the guys were in town to play a ‘SUP party and do their photo shoot. They showed up an hour early for the shoot, were the first band to arrive for sound check and wound up spending nearly five-plus hours bouncing between rebuilding one of their keyboards that had broken on the drive down (yes, they drove from Ireland) and borrowing my laptop to see if a major blog had posted the Keep Shelly in Athens remix of their track “Cub” (they had). Solar Bears proceeded that night to rock a crowd of about 300 people at our party, getting everyone warmed up for Miracle and Blondes.
You guys met at sound engineering school?
John: Yeah we were doing the same course in Dublin at a college called Pulse. We did a one-year course. Everything to do with engineering and modules on songwriting, editing—
Rian: And production in general.
John: I was probably one of the worst students to be honest, as I didn’t go in half the time, but I probably should have in hindsight.
Rian: We learned more from discussing things with our classmates and the lectures.
When did you guys form, was it 2009?
John: Yep. We’re just a year old.
Rian: A year and a half.
Is She Was Coloured In your first album?
John: Yes it’s our first album and it’s my first experience in music. I don’t play any instruments; I’m more like a DJ or someone that makes collages with sounds. I listen to music non-stop. It’s just a question of trying out ideas that we hadn’t previously, each day. That’s why the album is quite extensive in influences and sounds.
Rian: John generally comes up with an idea or a basis for a track to work on, so that is the rough map and then we literally spend the time filling that with sounds. So it’s nice to know somewhat where you’re going from the start. It’s quite good work, it’s really fun.
John: We’ve got a raw framework, and we cherry drop in melodies or sometimes it goes wildly off course and you just follow it. Like certain tracks ended up completely different to what was in my mind but the end result is better than what I had previously, so in that respect everything is collaboration.
Rian: The same accounts for sounds. We’ll hear some keyboards sounds in a song and absolutely fall in love with it and go away and try and recreate it, just guessing and coming up with something completely different, but we love it anyway.
If you’re not a technical person but you’re creating a blueprint, what do you use?
John: I come up with track ideas and write the riffs that we work out together. Other times it is completely off the cuff from both of us. It’s pretty much all in my head. I program all the melodies, so it’s like a databank of ideas. So if we’re making a track, I instantly think of one that might fit. I bring them down to the studio to show Rian, then he kind of makes it work in the actual bar or arrangement of the song that we have. I’d just be dreaming stuff up on the train down to meet Rian and the track would be almost done in my head. Sometimes it doesn’t work, so we have to come up with new stuff. There’s always a plan A or a plan B. That’s why there are no delays. Everything we’ve done was done in a day.
Do you listen to a lot of other new music?
Rian: Yeah, we’re always on YouTube.
John: I’m on blogs almost all day, everyday, just looking for inspiration. I’m a total junkie for new music. It’s kind of like we’ve set ourselves aside from other Irish bands where we focus a lot on blogs ourselves. Like, the label would concentrate on big mags and people they have relationships with but we ourselves wanted to build up relationships independently with blogs. Because, number one: we love what they do, it’s an incredible thing to do with your time, such a service to communities in a sort of old school fashion.
You always think where bands could be from when you listen to albums, and although there’s no real stereotypical Irish sound, I wouldn’t have guessed you were from Ireland. But at the same time, I wouldn’t have guessed that Blondes are from Brooklyn. Electronic-based music is happening everywhere, guys making music with machines.
John: We kind of fell into the chillwave scene quite early on when we started making tracks that hadn’t really come to the surface yet. Neon Indian was someone I knew a long time ago and I was almost certain he or she or whoever it was, it was not new. I was really confident about them doing well. That took off, and then we were continuing to write and then we got tracks out there and people were like, ‘Oh that’s really chillwave.’
Rian: And we were like, ‘what’s chill-wave?’
I love that everything is getting a bit more experimental. It’s strange that it’s becoming the norm.
John: There are no rules anymore. Some of the bands that I really look up to and are doing well, they don’t adhere to anything apart from what they’re into themselves. Which is like what we do. When we go into the studio it’s literally just Rian and I, and if we’re getting a buzz off something and willing to get it to the label, that’s the priority for us – to make something that’s really spontaneous.
Now it’s about getting your music to as many people as possible, not really selling it. And building up a fan base who will come to pay to see you live.
Rian: Publicity is free, for everybody.
John: Lots of things have changed from how it used to be. The label would get the music to magazine after magazine after magazine – word of mouth is a bit more prevalent these days where blogs and radio stations add to what’s happening at the moment so it’s kind of like free-form where people are getting a track done in the day and getting it to a blog the same night, getting reaction then getting back to work. It’s like getting instant feedback where people would have had to wait six months to a year.
In terms of the way you make your music, it sounds sort of patchworky—
Rian: Like a tapestry.
Can you see yourselves doing more traditional songwriting, with traditional hooks, vocals and melodies?
Rian: We’d like to work with a vocalist.
John: We’ve got a few in mind. We just did a remix for Keep Shelly in Athens – who are on Forest Family. They sent us the vocals and we just had to write a completely different track. We sent it over as we had it done in a day or two and they were really happy with it. The experience of working with her voice, we could have done 10 tracks with them.
What are both of your backgrounds in terms of creativity and past projects?
John: I have no experience whatsoever!
You just like to read blogs.
Rian:(Laughing): He’s an enthusiast to the nth degree. I’ve been playing in bands since I was very young. My dad is a composer and my mum’s a singer. It’s in me blood. My brother’s a drummer. So I’ve always been playing in various projects. And maybe about four years ago I started doing a live sound and getting into studio-based engineering and production. I just opened up a studio at home, The Meadow, where I live in Wicklow. And I’m really proud of it.
What’s in there?
Rian: It’s a secret (laughs). At the moment it’s still waiting to be filled but our focus is on analog equipment and to have a full analog set up. We find it more intuitive.
What about computers?
Rian: Computers are great for manipulating sounds and in post-production but they kind of present you with so many options that sometimes you don’t know where to start. And working with analog, you just have to concentrate on recording the sound as quickly as possible and manipulating it later.
It’s interesting that on the one hand you have the distribution and the medium of blogs, which is so digital and immediate and so transient. But a lot of the music that’s being made is so analog and old school in its process, and then fed back out through this totally digital means.
Rian: Absolutely, it doesn’t seem to belong to an actual time zone, it seems to be like a collage.
John: It’s like a digital platform, and a lot of the stuff they are channeling or servicing is lo-fi recordings where people are recording right onto a cassette, then onto a cassette again. That’s something we do, we record onto VHS tape.
Really? Just the sound part of it.
Rian: Yeah, exactly.
John: Just to change the timbre of it.
Rian: It’s like a regular studio tape.
It sounds fun though. It makes the product of dealing with all these machines and computers, it makes the process feel a bit more organic and it’s yours.
John: Absolutely. It’s more personable.
Rian: There are a lot of times when you go ‘What if I put this through here and that through there?’ and whatever. It’s risky ’cause you spent 15 or 20 minutes or whatever setting this elaborate thing up and it might sound shit. But you might discover something that really turns you on, and then it’s a great experience.
John: We’ve used handheld recorders, like a Talkboy and My First Sony, which is a really primitive recorder from 1986. They were just lying about, and if they weren’t lying about, I suppose the album would sound completely different. They were there, and we just grabbed them and tried them out. We have a track called “Primary Colours At The Back Of My Mind” and that’s literally over-dubbed with a cassette and fed back in again. People just assume that we have all these crazy analog machines the size of a wall, but it really changes the coloring of the individual parts. Like, the guitar hook on that track sounds totally porno, like blaxploitation. Initially it’s just a guitar with a plug-in, but with the tape sound, it’s completely transformative, so it’s a big advantage.
The album is more like a whole body of songs which is better to listen to as a whole, rather than a series of single songs, which I guess makes sense if you made it in a concentrated period of a couple of weeks. It’s almost like a timepiece.
Rian: Absolutely. And a lot of the track listing is almost close to the order in which we wrote them and recorded them. I think from a sound perspective it’s purely the relationship we have when we’re working. With somebody else I wouldn’t feel like I have different ideas or different techniques or something, so it’s always different. I really think it’s down to the collaboration a lot.
You never know what’s going to happen. You just roll with it? You’re not specifically trying to do a specific thing?
Rian: (Laughing) Yeah, I think that would be valid. It just takes a lot of the enjoyment from it.
So really the only parameters you are setting for yourselves are the kind of equipment you are using?
Rian: Yeah, absolutely.
John: There’s a lot of instrumentation we haven’t tried, a lot chord progressions, a lot of rhythms we haven’t tried, a lot of keyboard sounds we haven’t tried, a lot of guitar tones. The fact we’re aware of the stuff we haven’t done makes it so that the next record will probably sound different. I don’t know if it will be a drastic change. We’d like to make an up-tempo dance record, as it’s quite a challenge make a dance record with last-ability. Off the top of my head, someone like Leftfield achieved it twice.
Rian: Yeah, something a bit more tempo and perhaps a bit more full on.
Would you want to tour more, record more or what?
Rian: At the moment, we’re all about touring more. We’ve spent the last three months developing a live set and we’re very happy with the system we’re using at the moment, so it’s just about booking the gigs.
John: We’d like to get our set up to 10 or 12 tracks. Up until recently, we weren’t rehearsing at all. We were asked from very early on to do gigs, even when we were just getting demos out. It was a studio-based project and we realized we wanted to get it to as many people as possible. Plus, it’s always cool to get out there and meet people that you’ve been speaking with online, get to meet them in the flesh. To get that human feedback in the flesh is the ultimate test. It’s a totally different ball-game though.
Yeah, I still prefer the human interaction to the online interaction! It still freaks me out how much power blogs can have. I see it at my day job, how everyone panders to blogs. The democratization of this platform has allowed a lot of people to have a lot of influence who wouldn’t normally, and who don’t have any qualifications, just because their blog gets a certain number of hits or they have a ton of friends on Twitter.
Rian: It’s so true. I heard a music journalist saying on a review show recently that in his heyday there was just under 150 reputable pop journalists and now there’s millions of them.
Anyone can be a journalist now, regardless of whether or not they have any qualifications or training.
John: That’s the flipside. Some of the writers on blogs are quite irresponsible.
Rian: Or not informed. People might not know the references anymore.
John: They might have a certain following and it kind of goes to their head a bit. I suppose one way for a critic to make his or her name is to be hyper-critical or be extremely abrasive. But they don’t realize how that can affect someone’s career or how it affects their weekly life. Someone could put their heart and soul into a record and it could be panned by a big blog or a big news site, and the next thing you know they’re dropped and they have no tour dates. And that could have been done by just one person who might have a stack of CDs to get through in a week. I wish they were a just a bit more careful, you know? It’s not just the wording, its like throwing a number up on a graph and saying, ‘I’m marking you down for the following reasons.’ We’ve been kind of lucky critically, even though we do countless genres. Some people might be like ‘Oh, I wish they were a bit more ambient,’ or ‘I wish they did the harder stuff,’ or ‘I wish they’d just do post-rock.’ I mean, I’ve seen it happen to some people I know where they’ve put a year or two of their life into a recording and the next thing someone’s giving them a four out of ten or five point six and it’s their career, at the end of the day. It’s pretty precarious for musicians. But the same goes for films. We’re big fans of Aronofsky. His film The Fountain got booed and hissed at Venice Film Festival. There were actual fist-fights in the screening, which might be a director’s dream to have such a polarizing effect, but the fact is he found it very difficult to get financing after that. But he made The Wrestler, went back to Venice again and got a standing ovation. It could go either way. It could deter someone or just make them work even harder. Two of our tracks are an homage to Aronofsky. “Forest of Fountains” and “Headsupernova” are references to his films. We reference films quite a bit, like Dolls is a Japanese film by Takeshi Kitano.
And your name is inspired by a Russian film, right?
John: Our name is inspired by Andrei Tarkovsky. We wanted something that references nature and science fiction. Obviously it’s a play on words and nature is dying out in a rapid way, so.
All the polar bears are being solarized!
John: The polar bears are swimming out to the former hunting grounds and the ice caps they’re familiar with aren’t there anymore so they are literally swimming out, running out of energy and drowning.
It’s so sad. Polar Bears are so cute!
Rian: It’s horrific.
Besides music, what’s your common ground with each other?
Rian: Film. We constantly watch films together and discuss films.
Aronofksy’s one of your favorite directors?
Rian: Yeah, Von Trier is another one of our favorites.
John: Polanski, Studio Ghibli, all the music by Joe Hisaishi, the composer, he did the score for Dolls.
And for fun?
John: (Laughing) Rian’s like a die-hard wino.
Rian: Yeah, I am a bit of a die-hard wino (laughs).
John: Beer, beer, beer. I’m just mad for it.
Rian: He’s gagging for a pint right now.
Spoken like a true Irishman!
Blondes – Hater
Solar Bears – Dream Valley (Young Montana? Rework)
Summer Camp – Nobody Knows You
Camp Wanatachi – Lets Ride Bareback (Machinedrum Remix)
Com Truise – Brokendate
Letherette – No Point
Solar Bears – Perpetual Meadow
Thundercat – Daylight
John Maus – Streetlight
Ford and Lopatin – Too Much MIDI (Please Forgive Me)
Nosaj Thing – Fog
Sebastien Tellier – Le Long De La Triviere