Interview: Polar Bear

Bearded talked to Polar Bear band leader, much-lauded drummer and serial collaborator Seb Rochford about the new album and what’s changed since starting the band.

Posted on May 11th, 2015 in Features and Interviews, Polar Bear, Leaf / By Ian Stanley
Polar Bear As Polar Bear, Seb Rochford has been releasing albums to critical acclaim since 2003, a continually shifting and turning project, the latest album, Same As You, changed once more. With the growing electronic influence of Leafcutter John, this latest album has taken a slightly electronic turn. Mixed in with the traditional jazz undertones of Polar Bear and a different producer, Ken Barrientos, Same As You still retains the roots of where Polar Bear began in 2003 but by adding part of the Morongo Desert. Rochford describes Barrientos as bringing “the way that things are very close and Saxes are like birds. When you listen to that album out there (in the desert), it really feels, it feels very natural.”

It’s this sound that Rochford wanted to push on with, and something that “I felt like he (Barrientos) could achieve it. And I didn’t feel like I could” so he “just got in contact with him over the internet and asked if he would be up for mixing an album.” All in all, the story of Polar Bear’s latest album, and current tour, is one of Rochford’s desire to constantly learn, embrace new styles of music and produce something different. It may not be entirely surprising that this includes working with other artists given his long, and growing, list of collaborations including Pete Doherty, Brett Anderson, Brian Eno, Corinne Bailey Rae and David Byrne to name a few. The surprising part of it is the turn which the album and the live show takes. So, when Bearded met up with Rochford in the knackered up back room at the Hare and Hounds, Kings Heath that’s exactly what we asked about. And in lucid, considered and calm Scottish accent he told us quite a lot.

Bearded: You said with the last album, In Each and Every One, you took yourself away and produced a lot of the album alone. Was this album a bit more inclusive?

SR: Well, it was, but not with the band. This time we rehearsed, me and John (Leafcutter John) rehearsed a few times just the rhythms. And then we had a rehearsal with Tom, this was all in my house and then I gave the music to Pete and Mark the day before we recorded, but I didn’t want them to solo. So we rehearsed the melodies, but we didn’t do any soloing because I wanted to capture their reaction to it on the album. So the album was literally the first time they solo’d.

So was the album more of a skeleton, with improvisation around it?

Yeah, loads of improvisation on that album, just little sort of bits to map points I guess. And then I worked on it at home for a bit, and then I went to California. That was because I came across this producer, a musician called Ken Barrientos, who is really amazing. I was really blown away by the sound that he mixes on peoples’ albums so I just got in contact with him over the internet and asked if he would be up for mixing an album because he could give it something that I wouldn’t be able to. And he totally did that and we had fun. We spent two days in his place in L.A. and then went out to Morongo Valley (California) in the desert and spent a week there.

Did he give you the stuff that you expected he was going to give? Or didn’t you know exactly what to expect?

I didn’t know. I was quite shocked by the some of the stuff that he did first. And then the more that I was listening to it, I was like “Oh, of course! That’s what the desert is!” The way that things are very close and Saxes are like birds. When you listen to that album out there, it really feels, it feels very natural.

With that, the album does sound quite sparse, even in a smaller venue like this (Hare and Hounds, Birmingham) is that something you wanted, or do you think that’s just something that he has brought?

That’s definitely something that I wanted, but I felt like he could achieve it. And I didn’t feel like I could – because he lives out there as well so he’s got this kind of thing I like. He’s got this invisible psychedelic thing that he does on records.

Going back to 2005 with Held on the Tips of Fingers, this latest release seems a lot more electronic - especially with John’s influence. Was the electronic side of things something else you wanted to explore?

Yeah, definitely. I feel there’s still loads of possibilities with John like how he can expand the music sonically, or rhythmically (addressing John) and I guess what you do on this album is quite a lot different to what you do on the last album.

Leafcutter John: “Yeah, it changes the role each time.”

To Leafcutter John: with the electronic side of things, you used an instrument in your support set which you made yourself controlled by bike lights. It looks, and sounds a bit like something Aphex Twin would use. What do you find the audience reaction to that is?

LJ: Actually, I got a comment from someone in Liverpool about that. He said, “I bet Aphex Twin hasn’t got one of them.” It’s really interesting, I’ve never done gigs where people tweet immediately afterwards, I’ve never had that, and I’ve just looked and I was really shocked. I’ve had about five or six people have all tweeted about tonight, and I thought maybe the audience isn’t going to be that into what I do, but I was wrong. I did the gig and thought people weren’t really that into as they didn’t seem to be giving much back. But it seems people were getting into it and that’s why they were being quiet. It’s worth reminding yourself of that.

With so many members of the band being in Acoustic Ladyland do you find any of that style slips back in to what you do with Polar Bear?

They were always separate bands, I think we all felt that. And Polar Bear was together before Acoustic Ladyland. The two things had ran in parallel, but even though it was me, Pete and Tom that all played in Acoustic Ladyland, Pete wrote the music for that band and I wrote little bits. But then in this band I write the music for it. For us it always felt like a separate entity, like whatever would happen to one didn’t necessarily happen to the other.

You’ve collaborated with a lot of musicians, who has influenced the most recent work of Polar Bear?

I was asked to do this recently, I think there were a number of albums. There was one which was by Ajoy Chakrabarty.

And then this drum and bass single that I like by Bungle. And Iman Omari’s album which Ken (Barrientos) mixed. It’s funny really because I think this album is definitely influenced by more indian music than any of our other albums. I think they’re all influenced by it, but this one more.

Have you any plans for the summer, are you off to any festivals?

We’ve got a few festivals in the summer. We’re playing in Italy and we’ve got a couple of festivals in Holland. Yeah, we’re doing stuff! *Laughs* It’ll be nice because the more you play the music when it’s new, the better it sounds, well that’s the idea anyway. It’s good to just play as much as we can.

Polar Bear’s new album is out now on Leaf