Minus the Bear have released five albums and eight EPs since launching the band in 2001. Their new release, Acoustics II, features eight stripped-down versions of favorite MTB songs, plus two new tracks, “Riddles” and “The Storm.” The project is a follow-up to 2008’s out-of-print Acoustics EP.
Their 2010 album, Omni, marked some changes and firsts for the Seattle-based group. Their fourth full-length offered a unique sonic journey, merging diverse influences and styles. Vocalist/guitarist Jake Snider, guitarist Dave Knudson, keyboardist/vocalist Alex Rose, bassist Cory Murchy and drummer Erin Tate were at the decade mark in the band’s history when it was released, one of many things that Tate reflected on during this 2011 interview.
This is your fourth album. How is each one a different chapter in the band’s career?
We strive to make each record a little different than the last and it works out well. On the first record, we were all in other bands and this was a side project for fun. On the second record, it was our band and our job. The third record was a continuation of that, and we were listening to different kinds of music. Omni is us trying to do something totally different and break out of our comfort zone. We had a different producer at a different studio and we moved to a new label.
How did you break out of your comfort zone?
Every record we’ve done before was very much a product of what we were used to doing. With this record we were without a label. We, and our manager, decided to do it that way and it was very stressful. It was an ordeal. None of us had ever recorded something not knowing whether it had a home and hoping this is good and hoping somebody wants it. We strived to make it the best we could, and there was a lot of bigger inner pressure we put upon ourselves trying to make it different and cool. I guess it worked.
In your ten years together, how has the band changed musically and personally?
The first EP was released September 20, 2001, and it’s all hitting us this year. It definitely feels like ten years when I think of every record, every tour and every song we’ve written. Time flies by. Time changes everything. It deepens relationships. You go from your 20s to your 30s, some of us are buying houses, you listen to bands you didn’t think you’d like when you were in your early 20s and more aggressive. We concentrate very hard on what we do when we’re home. We rehearse five days a week and treat it like a job, but we go home to wives or girlfriends now, so it’s different in that sense, too.
This album was a couple of years in the making. Were you concerned about maintaining your fan base in this age of short attention spans?
It has to be a concern in this day and age, and at the same time, what are you going to do? You can pump out crap and not work on decent songs or you can roll the dice and go with it. This band always had a two-year cycle of writing for a good chunk of the year, putting out an album and touring for a year or year and a half. We don’t write songs thinking about their future; we write something we think is good and hopefully people like it. It’s a concern if it leaks three months early, because when it comes out, nobody cares about it. But again, you have to roll with the punches.
Is it difficult to find a place for your music when the sound is so unique that it doesn’t fit anywhere?
That’s probably part of the reason why I’m renting a house and not buying one! I don’t know. We’re not the kind of band that can write the same pop song over and over. We strive to make interesting music, we can’t be categorized and I think that’s great. No one can say, “You sound like this band or that band.” I take great pride in not being categorized. We can’t describe what the music sounds like, but it’s cool. Who does something different these days? Everybody sounds like band X or band Y.
How far can you push without becoming too different?
I don’t know. I feel we lose fans with every record and gain different fans. The new record caught a lot of flack from fans who said it was too polished and pop, and the previous record they said was too weird, so you can’t base what you do on what people say. You will always win people and lose people. I would record 102 minutes of instrumental avant-garde if I could. We do what we do and hopefully people like it. If they don’t, then I’ll rent an apartment instead of a house! My life’s work is not to please other people. That said, I haven’t had a job since the cash register was around, so what else am I going to do?
What is the songwriting process like, and are you sometimes surprised by what becomes of the original idea?
Yes, 100 percent of the time. The process is always different. Generally, we have a basic idea. Dave will come up with some riffs and we work on that. It all depends on who is there. It’s usually Dave and me putting down ideas and drumbeats. The last record was more a product of all five of us in the room, and when you have too many cooks, the result is either delicious or you butt heads, so it depends. We’re working on a new record now, and Dave and I are working on the skeletons of the songs that we’ll pass on to the guys to work on. What we come up with versus what ends up on a record is drastically different. One nice thing about writing together is that we’ve been doing this for so long that we know what works collectively, so there’s not a lot of arguing or discussion.
How difficult is it to duplicate the sound of the album live, or does it matter in that situation?
We’ve been discussing that a lot lately. On the first couple of records, what you heard live was the five of us playing the actual songs. The last record had a lot more sequencing and overdubs, which is fun to do but it’s also not as fun because you have a click in your ear. Now we wanted to do something different, and with this record we tried to put ourselves back in the zone and make it more about the songs.
Is there a lot of jamming in the practice room?
There is so much jamming going on that it’s unbelievable. I’ve been sorting through thirty hours of jams and alternate versions of songs from the last two records. We’re trying to be more focused, because we tour so much that we have no time to sit and write.
Has jamming become a lost art?
Yes, absolutely. It’s disheartening and sad to see bands that are formed by labels and producers. Lucky for us, there are tons of bands that are still doing it. I was talking with Nate from the Foo Fighters — they recorded their new album in Dave Grohl’s garage and got back to “We’re going to jam.” They have their first Number One and it’s so exciting for them. It’s inspiring to know that there are still bands out there that jam and do what they do. These cookie-cutters are signed to major labels, never played their first show, the producers write the songs for them, they’re eating steak and living in nice houses and other people are putting in the hard work. Successful bands still try hard, but they’re definitely becoming a thing of the past. It must be nice to walk into the studio and have someone say, “Here’s the material,” and they write you a platinum record, as opposed to working five days a week and trying to sell it yourself.
That said, I can’t take what we do for granted. I live off of this band, our fans are amazing, I get to travel the world playing music, and there are people who would kill to be in our position. Everything has its ups and downs. The music industry is going to s*** and it’s only going to get worse, but all we can do is pull ourselves up and keep trying. It’s really hard and disheartening, and sometimes it’s also incredible. Going to Tokyo, hanging out, playing music — life could be worse. It’s different everywhere. We can play for 2500 people in New York, 100 in Japan, 700 in Australia, and never have we been to one place where we’ve not said, “This place loves music.” If it’s only 50 people in Osaka, all 50 of them are stoked. With the uprising of the Internet, pirating has hurt the industry everywhere, but that doesn’t mean fans aren’t coming to shows. They don’t buy a record, but they will buy a ticket and a T-shirt.