Music: Hear Them Roar

Twenty years on, Cincinnati's Rob Fetters looks backward and forward at his life as a Bear

 
Michael WIlson


Trick or Treat! The Bears new album, Eureka!, shows an evolving band concerned more with making music with longevity than anything else.



It's a standard, blasé Wednesday late morning and a generic, East Side-corporate coffee bar is inundated with customers refueling as their morning fixes grindingly fade. The line stretches to the door, the baristas look like they're ready to kill someone and the faux-Ikea coffeetables and comfy chairs are full of people, some communicating, some silently reading or pecking on a laptop.

Everyone looks about the same — white, mostly upper-middle-class, dressed casually (which is formal to most people).

I miss Rob Fetters my first few glances across the head-tops of the seated assemblage. I miss him because his head is down as he hovers over a New York Times, reading intently. As I learn later (and have always suspected), Rob is a voracious reader. His bandmates in The Bears — drummer Chris Arduser, bassist Bob Nyswonger and avant guitar legend Adrian Belew — all read a lot, too. They talk about books. They give each other books on their birthdays. They read books and then write songs about them.

When I catch his attention, Rob's head pops up and I see that toothpaste-commercial-worthy grin. The Bears' debut album in 1987 featured a cover caricature drawn by Mad magazine's Mort Drucker; Rob's "exaggerated" smile isn't exaggerated at all. It might even be played down a little in the illustration.

"I'm a big runner and I go on long runs and that's where I dream up most of my schemes," Rob says, gesturing down at the cover of the Bears' new CD, Eureka!, their fourth in 20 years.

The photo on the front cover was conceived by Rob while on one of his lengthy jogs (he says he'll regularly go out for four-hour runs), inspired by an Aleister Crowley biography he was reading. The band members — clad in silly/demonic head-gear (witch's hat, devil horns, etc.) — are gathered around a mysterious bowl with some dry ice fumes misting the air.

Rob admits a fascination with religion, but he says the Crowley homage is also playing on the "silliness of it all — the photos of (Crowley) looking all demonic in robes and all that. So I think that's where that came from — the Halloween-ish group of wise men around something."

The album is an homage of a different kind, again reflecting a career-long, life-long passion for Beatles Pop. Rob says this is their most "Revolver-y" record. Like that other Fab Four, The Bears have evolved. Each member is a distinctive songwriter and each has honed his individual style in myriad side projects — Belew as a highly sought-after session musician, solo artist and member of King Crimson; and Fetters, Arduser and Nyswonger as teammates in psychodots, the band they formed when the Bears first ended in 1989 (each of the 'dots has a solo album or two under their belt, as well).

The personality of each songwriter gets more distinct with every album. The equal-share approach (everyone gets the same amount of songs on a record) has always given their albums charismatic variety. On the new record, Arduser offers up more of his organic, folksy flavoring; Nyswonger's quirky, funky Pop has never sounded better; and Belew sharpened-to-a-point Pop writing skills blaze.

Rob's songs continue to get more experimental, a streak most palpably showcased on his 2005 solo record, Musician. This record is the most adventurous the band has made, he says, but also the least complex

"It is the simplest Bears record," he says. "We've always wanted to try and just learn a song and record it really quickly. We did a lot of that on (2001's comeback) Car Caught Fire, but with a little more production after the fact. On this one, we just didn't do the layering. I also think we just don't want to look back. Nobody in the Bears expects us to be a big success. We really want it to be something we're proud of 10 or 20 years down the line. At this point we're looking at doing something interesting and long lasting.

"That's served us well," he adds. " It's like a very slow-motion success. I suppose if you condensed the whole Bears experience into two or three years, it would be a really good deal. Stretch it over 20 years, it's like watching paint dry."

The band's attitude has changed over the years. Though the music remains their lifeblood, they also have learned much about the business. While the industry paradigm was slowly shifting towards more artist-ownership and control, The Bears were ahead of the sovereign curve. With Car Caught Fire, the band was offered a "solid" deal from a reputable label. Luckily, one of them got a calculator out before papers were signed.

"We did the math and I'm very grateful that we decided, 'No thanks, we'll just sell it ourself,' " Rob says with a lilt of satisfaction in his voice. "Quite simply, we could sell 100,000 records through a label and not get paid. We sell 5,000 on our own, we're in the black. If we do that with this record, our wives go, 'Well, yeah, you can do that again.' We are absolutely free. We are as free as an artist who goes to a Day In Eden and sells their paintings. I just think it's a fantastic way to be. I think it's a really honorable way to do music or art or write books or anything."

Rob, also accomplished in the commercial music field, has amazing respect for music in general (though he's not thrilled with the over-compression of music in the digital age). He tells of seeing in his children the same reverence for music that he had as a child ("Music saved my life, I absolutely believe it"). So, unsurprisingly, he pauses and thinks intently when I ask him if he would be happy with the music he has already left behind if he couldn't make any more. It's clearly something he has thought about.

"I think that is what drives me to try and do meaningful, good stuff now because I know tomorrow isn't a guarantee," he says. "It would hurt and I would cry and I would be frustrated. At my point now, I'm 52 years old and I've made a living being a musician since I was 17, despite my dad telling me it ain't ever going to work.

"I could stop. But I won't. I'll stop when I can't hear any more."

But couldn't he then just pull a Beethoven and keep going?

"I couldn't do a Beethoven," he says with trademark, somewhat sarcastic self-depreciation. "I'm not Beethoven. He was a genius. I'm just moderate to average with a lot of desire."



THE BEARS perform Friday at the Southgate House. For more of this interview, check out

 
Michael WIlson


Trick or Treat! The Bears new album, Eureka!, shows an evolving band concerned more with making music with longevity than anything else.



It's a standard, blasé Wednesday late morning and a generic, East Side-corporate coffee bar is inundated with customers refueling as their morning fixes grindingly fade. The line stretches to the door, the baristas look like they're ready to kill someone and the faux-Ikea coffeetables and comfy chairs are full of people, some communicating, some silently reading or pecking on a laptop.

Everyone looks about the same — white, mostly upper-middle-class, dressed casually (which is formal to most people).

I miss Rob Fetters my first few glances across the head-tops of the seated assemblage. I miss him because his head is down as he hovers over a New York Times, reading intently. As I learn later (and have always suspected), Rob is a voracious reader. His bandmates in The Bears — drummer Chris Arduser, bassist Bob Nyswonger and avant guitar legend Adrian Belew — all read a lot, too. They talk about books. They give each other books on their birthdays. They read books and then write songs about them.

When I catch his attention, Rob's head pops up and I see that toothpaste-commercial-worthy grin. The Bears' debut album in 1987 featured a cover caricature drawn by Mad magazine's Mort Drucker; Rob's "exaggerated" smile isn't exaggerated at all. It might even be played down a little in the illustration.

"I'm a big runner and I go on long runs and that's where I dream up most of my schemes," Rob says, gesturing down at the cover of the Bears' new CD, Eureka!, their fourth in 20 years.

The photo on the front cover was conceived by Rob while on one of his lengthy jogs (he says he'll regularly go out for four-hour runs), inspired by an Aleister Crowley biography he was reading. The band members — clad in silly/demonic head-gear (witch's hat, devil horns, etc.) — are gathered around a mysterious bowl with some dry ice fumes misting the air.

Rob admits a fascination with religion, but he says the Crowley homage is also playing on the "silliness of it all — the photos of (Crowley) looking all demonic in robes and all that. So I think that's where that came from — the Halloween-ish group of wise men around something."

The album is an homage of a different kind, again reflecting a career-long, life-long passion for Beatles Pop. Rob says this is their most "Revolver-y" record. Like that other Fab Four, The Bears have evolved. Each member is a distinctive songwriter and each has honed his individual style in myriad side projects — Belew as a highly sought-after session musician, solo artist and member of King Crimson; and Fetters, Arduser and Nyswonger as teammates in psychodots, the band they formed when the Bears first ended in 1989 (each of the 'dots has a solo album or two under their belt, as well).

The personality of each songwriter gets more distinct with every album. The equal-share approach (everyone gets the same amount of songs on a record) has always given their albums charismatic variety. On the new record, Arduser offers up more of his organic, folksy flavoring; Nyswonger's quirky, funky Pop has never sounded better; and Belew sharpened-to-a-point Pop writing skills blaze.

Rob's songs continue to get more experimental, a streak most palpably showcased on his 2005 solo record, Musician. This record is the most adventurous the band has made, he says, but also the least complex

"It is the simplest Bears record," he says. "We've always wanted to try and just learn a song and record it really quickly. We did a lot of that on (2001's comeback) Car Caught Fire, but with a little more production after the fact. On this one, we just didn't do the layering. I also think we just don't want to look back. Nobody in the Bears expects us to be a big success. We really want it to be something we're proud of 10 or 20 years down the line. At this point we're looking at doing something interesting and long lasting.

"That's served us well," he adds. " It's like a very slow-motion success. I suppose if you condensed the whole Bears experience into two or three years, it would be a really good deal. Stretch it over 20 years, it's like watching paint dry."

The band's attitude has changed over the years. Though the music remains their lifeblood, they also have learned much about the business. While the industry paradigm was slowly shifting towards more artist-ownership and control, The Bears were ahead of the sovereign curve. With Car Caught Fire, the band was offered a "solid" deal from a reputable label. Luckily, one of them got a calculator out before papers were signed.

"We did the math and I'm very grateful that we decided, 'No thanks, we'll just sell it ourself,' " Rob says with a lilt of satisfaction in his voice. "Quite simply, we could sell 100,000 records through a label and not get paid. We sell 5,000 on our own, we're in the black. If we do that with this record, our wives go, 'Well, yeah, you can do that again.' We are absolutely free. We are as free as an artist who goes to a Day In Eden and sells their paintings. I just think it's a fantastic way to be. I think it's a really honorable way to do music or art or write books or anything."

Rob, also accomplished in the commercial music field, has amazing respect for music in general (though he's not thrilled with the over-compression of music in the digital age). He tells of seeing in his children the same reverence for music that he had as a child ("Music saved my life, I absolutely believe it"). So, unsurprisingly, he pauses and thinks intently when I ask him if he would be happy with the music he has already left behind if he couldn't make any more. It's clearly something he has thought about.

"I think that is what drives me to try and do meaningful, good stuff now because I know tomorrow isn't a guarantee," he says. "It would hurt and I would cry and I would be frustrated. At my point now, I'm 52 years old and I've made a living being a musician since I was 17, despite my dad telling me it ain't ever going to work.

"I could stop. But I won't. I'll stop when I can't hear any more."

But couldn't he then just pull a Beethoven and keep going?

"I couldn't do a Beethoven," he says with trademark, somewhat sarcastic self-depreciation. "I'm not Beethoven. He was a genius. I'm just moderate to average with a lot of desire."



THE BEARS perform Friday at the Southgate House. For more of this interview, check out blogs.citybeat.com/spill_it.

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