Music: Minuses and Pluses

Minus the Bear has dealt with plenty of ups and downs during their relatively short run

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Robin Laananen

When Minus the Bear's second album came out last year, pre-release downloading hurt sales, but boosted the attendance numbers at their concerts.

When Minus the Bear coalesced just over five years ago, the Seattle quintet was little more than a moonlighting gig for a group of friends who were also members of Botch, Kill Sadie and Sharks Keep Moving. Perhaps subconsciously, the band quickly recognized that the sum of Minus the Bear's parts was greater than their other wholes.

"We were kind of a side project band to all our other bands for like the first year," says MTB drummer Erin Tate from the band's first tour stop in Chicago. "It just ended up happening that all three of the other bands broke up and we went on to doing this instead."

The transition was fairly easy for Minus the Bear: They had already recorded their 2001 debut EP, This is What I Know About Being Gigantic (which the band made before they had even played a proper live gig), and its 2002 follow-up, Bands Like It When You Yell "Yar!" at Them! when they all found themselves down to one band nearly simultaneously. Once they went full time, MTB completed work on their debut full-length, Highly Refined Pirates, and went on to do a third EP, 2004's They Make Beer Commercials Like This.

"The first one was just because we only had a couple of songs at that point and then the 'Yar' EP was because we were doing a tour before our full-length came out and we didn't have time to get the full-length done so we made an EP of a few of the songs that were going to be on that to sell on tour," says Tate. "Then the Beer Commercials EP was on a different label, and that guy had been asking us to do something, so we had a group of songs that we knew wasn't going to make the Menos el Oso record, stuff that we'd written right before that. So we did it just to experiment with a different label."

By the time MTB came together to record their sophomore long-player, last year's Menos el Oso, the band (Tate, vocalist/guitarist Jake Snider, guitarist Dave Knudson and bassist Cory Murchy) had already endured some changes.

MTB's original keyboardist departed and was replaced by Matt Bayles, who played on and produced Menos el Oso. With their second full album, Minus the Bear finally fleshed out the sound they had flirted with previously, a precise Math Rock structure flecked with Prog majesty, Pop melodicism and an electronic pulse. The main differences between the two albums were the time and care that went into Menos el Oso, and closing the gap between the studio and the stage.

"We really thought stuff out a lot more," says Tate. "There was a conscious effort. If you listened to Pirates and then saw us live, you'd realize how insanely slow those songs are on the record. We realized, 'When we play this live, we're gonna wind up playing it three times faster.' So when we were looking to do Oso, we made sure the tempos were all up to what we were gonna do live. And we spent a lot more time. We spent a couple weeks on Pirates and three months on Oso. We just took a lot of time so it sounded the way we wanted it to sound, and concentrated on getting different kinds of sounds and taking out the typical stuff that people were expecting from us at that time."

The disc was well received by critics and caused a definite spike in MTB's tour attendance. But an unfortunate event kept sales flat.

"It was kind of funny because it got leaked about four months before the record actually came out, which hurt sales to some extent, but it definitely bumped up attendance at our shows a ton," says Tate. "It was kind of brutal, because by the time the record actually came out, people were already kind of like, 'Whatever, been there, done that with this record.' It happens. Not much you can do about it these days. It was a curse and a blessing."

As MTB moved into the new year with plans to write and record fresh material, the band had to contend with yet another shift in personnel. Matt Bayles announced early in the year that he would be leaving the band to concentrate on his burgeoning production career; he was ultimately replaced by keyboardist Alex Rose, who actually helped engineer Menos el Oso. Since then, Rose has toured extensively with MTB and the band has actually written a handful of new songs, a few of which will make their way into the current set list. After this leg of the tour, MTB will make their way back to Seattle to complete the songwriting process that began on an uncharacteristic three-month break this past summer. And while they're working on the new material, a new version of Menos el Oso will hit the shelves early next year featuring remixes by the likes of Pretty Girls Make Graves multi-instrumentalist Jay Clark, the Anticon crew's Alias, Dalek, Weerd Science and Tyondai Braxton.

Tate admits that Minus the Bear has traveled an odd path since their part-time launch back in 2001, but notes that the band found their center point relatively quickly.

"When we first started writing music, it was a side project so it was just something that we threw together, and then we were finally like a band," he says. "It's kind of like with every record, we get into it more and more and care about what we're doing more and more. When we first started, we were pigeonholed as this band that had happy guitar riffs and now we're to the point where we want to go do whatever the fuck we want to do. Our songwriting has evolved a lot in that way, where we're not holding ourselves back from anything we need to do to capture the 'Minus the Bear sound.' We like our sound to be just what the five of us do."

MINUS THE BEAR plays Covington's The Mad Hatter on Tuesday.

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