Celebrate the New Dark Age
by Kevin J. Elliott

Even in their youth, the men of Polvo were an anomaly amongst the pantheon of indie rock stalwarts with which they were often associated. It’s not what they were missing that excluded them from the club. Though they lacked the slacker tropes of Pavement, the working-man gruff of Archers of Loaf, the accidental pop bliss of Built to Spill and the power punch of Superchunk, they still hang around with the best of them when it comes to waxing nostalgic over the ’90s. Polvo provided a clear-cut alternative, even if they were really just dissecting stock classic rock riffs and experimenting with the Maharishi. Purists will swear by the band’s 1992 debut, Cor-Crane Secret, but the group really gelled by the time the double Exploded Drawing was released in 1996. Perhaps what kept them on the tip of everyone’s tongue was their chameleon charm. With their music, which itself was a mutated take on Sonic Youth’s deranged tunings and seismic shifts, they pleased post-rock indigents who only baked with instrumental monoliths, math junkies who only got off on their algebraic calculations, caustic grunts who repped for the Butthole Surfers and the Cherubs, and all those who split the difference between bands that explored world sounds and tape manipulations. Polvo did it all without sounding like any of those cliques. If there’s a testament to their survival, looking back and surveying their body of work, they are likely the most unique and twisted of all stalwarts of the era.

Now, 12 years after the release of their poorly received break-up album Shapes, Polvo have returned, at first to only play a handful of reunion shows culminating in an All Tomorrow’s Parties set (at the request of Explosions in the Sky, again with the instro-nerds), and now as a fully functioning circuit band again with a new album, In Prism. What you’ll discover in my interview with Dave Brylawski is that In Prism was written in the scant amount of time the band had in rehearsing for their first return tour, but what you’ll realize in listening to the record is that Polvo is a band completely in sync with that original sound. In Prism eschews the standard “reunion” album by showing that what they had was special, and in their long absence, that sound was stewing, maturing, growing extra legs, and basically fortifying itself for the moment when it was resurrected. No one could have expected the aggressive near-metal riffs that coil in “Beggar’s Bowl” or the heady expanse of softer “Lucia.” Some might even remark that In Prism is the record Polvo were always destined to make and I for one, a long time Polvo devotee, have quickly found it becoming a favorite.

A few weeks back, following their triumphant return at Merge’s 20th Anniversary party, I had the chance to talk with guitarist Dave Brylawski. What follows is his interpretation of where he thinks Polvo fits among the rubble of the ’90s and where they are inevitably headed in the coming months.

While researching a bit today, I was reading interviews that you were giving back in March and April about reforming for these shows, but there was no mention of a new album. All of the sudden In Prism is a reality. So was this something you had stashed the whole time? Was one of the stipulations of reforming to record together and make new music?

Dave Brylawski: No. One thing we decided before we did ATP was that we didn’t want to just play old songs—we wanted to write new material. We weren’t going to say we were going to do an album, we didn’t know how that would work. We wrote the whole time we were rehearsing for ATP, and when it came time, we had seven or eight songs written. So we decided to record it. It wasn’t pre-meditated and it wasn’t spontaneous, so it was somewhere in the middle.

In Prism doesn’t sound like an album that was rushed, it sounds like you crafted it over some time, so I’d be very surprised to hear that these songs and the album were created in such a short time.

DB: In the past we had deadlines. If we had to record an album in a month, we worked much better. This one we didn’t have deadlines, so we took a little more time with it, at least with the actual creation of the songs. ?

Being away from this catalog for almost 12 years had to take some practice once you got back onto the proverbial horse again. So did you have any ritual when returning to these songs in order to relearn them or was it pretty natural?

DB: We took songs we enjoyed playing before and retrofitted new parts to them to make them more comfortable now. I’m old, and I’ve been playing standard tuning because I don’t have nearly as many guitars as I used to. So I relearned all of my parts in standard tuning and that necessitated a lot of changes.

You were quite different with every record, but distinctly Polvo in mood and tone. So I’m most interested to know, if you can dial the way back machine to when you first started, what it was exactly that prompted you guys to sound the way you do.

DB: We definitely thought of Sonic Youth as a huge influence, in many facets. One facet especially was learning how two guitars can fill spaces and interplay and that’s something we took from Sonic Youth. The uniqueness that you’re alluding to, I think, though Ash may not agree with me, has to do with when the two of us started playing guitar. Ash didn’t start playing until he was in college, but I grew up playing trying to learn Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughn. When I was 13 and 14, I wanted to play blues. I liked Rush. Where Ash didn’t start until later, when his tastes were a little more evolved and kind of developed his own language. Ash wasn’t trying to learn anyone else’s songs, he was tapping into his own thing.

In retrospect there was a lot of comparison to Sonic Youth and a lot of affiliation with “math rock,” both of which I see as stigmas that are more or less pigeonholes for journalists. Do you get tired of that membership?

DB: Yeah, that bothers us. We read about “math rock” and it’s tied to our name, which I don’t think is even close to what we are. If there weren’t so many math-rock bands that I like and we all like, then maybe we would take it with a grain of salt. But there are so many bands that do what people say we do a lot better than we do. We have twists and turns and stops and starts, strange time signatures, but not that much—not as much as other bands that put more weight towards things like that.

And now, at these reformation shows, are you finding the younger fans more in tune with those specifically strident post-rock bands—like Explosions in the Sky—or are they discovering you as an entity solely based on your body of work?

DB: I don’t know, I don’t have my finger on the pulse. I don’t even see our audience as skewing younger. I see them as I always did. They are the same, growing old with me.

In the ’90s, you were a fairly polarizing band for many people, and I have to say when I first heard “Beggar’s Bowl” it was polarizing. I feel it is completely different than anything you’ve ever done and it almost sounds like something that could play on a radio station called the Blitz alongside Alice in Chains. Can you elaborate on what exactly influenced this? Was there an effort to make something aggressive?

DB: I anticipated that myself. Merge really wanted that to be the stand-out track. I loved that song, but there was nothing else like that on the record. I didn’t want to indicate the illusion that we had turned into some prog-metal band. It’s funny—the reaction has been good, so I think in retrospect it was a good idea. There’s nothing else like that on the record. I think Ash likes to bring leftfield stuff over and mess with different flavors.

At the same time “City Birds” and “Lucia” are like aged Polvo songs, like fine wine of course, where the quirk has mellowed but the melodies are more buoyant and massive than before. How has maturity, family and age factored into how you make a record?

DB: Well, we are older, so we’re not reaching for the nether regions. We’ve never been a band that assesses where we are or where we’ve been or what we should sound like. We haven’t really stopped playing—we haven’t stopped writing songs—so it’s really just a matter of where your head’s at. We tried to be organic about it and this is what came out.

From my perspective, Shapes was a great album, but also a great departure for you guys. For some reason in most re-evaluations of your band, there’s some kind of conspiracy to deem it unworthy of the rest of your catalog. Do you have any idea why this is?

DB: Critics and Polvo fans had a pretty strong reaction to that record. I think some of the criticisms of it are valid. It was the only record we could have made at the time. We don’t try to do X, Y and Z. We write and then we play it. There were definitely factors that kept us from spending as much time together as we did before. By that time, we had different drummers. I didn’t have a problem with that, but that kind of feeds into the record. We knew we were breaking up, so there’s some melancholy in it. In Prism is not redeeming ourselves from Shapes, but we purposely incubated more for this record. And we practiced our asses off for this record.

Do you plan on keeping this up—being in the band, writing new music and touring?

DB: Yeah, for now. But we don’t look too far in advance because we all have families and careers. I can see us doing it until we don’t enjoy it anymore. We are writing even past this album, so I think we’ll take it into the near future at least.