Polvo's 12-Year Itch

N.C. indie rockers return with a new album and a fresh perspective

When Polvo called it quits back in 1997, there was no long-simmering feud that boiled over into a full-blown break-up. It was just a matter of friends who decided to move on to other ventures after a fairly momentous seven-year run that saw the North Carolina quartet tagged by some critics as the architects of Math Rock.

“I’ve read interviews we did and I was like, ‘Well, I sure hope it’s not the last time,’ ” recalls Polvo bassist Steve Popson. “(Guitarist/vocalist) Dave (Brylawski) was going off to grad school and moving to New York, and it was hard to project into the future. We definitely had zero animosity, it was just time for us to do other things.”

For the next decade, three of the foursome remained somewhat connected. Guitarist/vocalist Ash Bowie moved variously and continued to play music, ultimately in a solo guise he dubbed Libraness, to which Brylawski contributed. Brylawski finished graduate school and became a New York social worker but also maintained his music career, forming the band The Black Taj with Popson, balancing day jobs like working for the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences and running a Rock club in Raleigh. (Drummer Eddie Watkins departed before the official Polvo dissolution; he was replaced by Brian Walsby.)

Four years ago, Touch and Go, Polvo’s last label, contacted the band about the possibility of reforming for the label’s 25th anniversary commemoration show, but none of the core trio felt it could be pulled together in the time available.

“Personal schedules were too conflicted at the time,” Popson says. “We knew we would need quite a while to get back up to speed.”

Then in 2007 the Post-Rock instrumentalists of Explosions in the Sky were offered the honor of curating the second weekend of 2008’s All Tomorrow’s Parties festival, and they contacted Polvo with a similar plea to reunite for one show.

“They asked us maybe nine or 10 months ahead of time, and we had enough time to get ready for it,” Popson says. “And we needed every minute of it. Dave lives in New York and the rest of us live in North Carolina, so our practice schedule was pretty disjointed, but we pulled it off somehow.”

Tapping former Cherry Valence drummer Brian Quast, Polvo rehearsed and retooled old material and began working up a handful of new songs. The group benefited from the fact that Popson and Brylawski had continued to work together and, perhaps most importantly, that Quast had a studio in his house.

“We could record our practices and send Dave a practice session of the songs we’d been working on and he could work on them at home,” Popson says. “It’s not the same as having all four people in the same room, but it’s been really helpful.”

After the overwhelming response to the show at last year’s ATP, Polvo was determined to keep the momentum going, playing a number of festival dates (“When we were playing originally, they weren’t that common, so it was a treat to do those,” Popson says) and continuing to write new material.

“In the fall of last year, we started saying, ‘Do we have enough material for a full-length?’ and it started to seem like we definitely did,” Popson says. “Then we had to shift gears and be like, ‘If we’re going to make this happen, what sort of time frame is going to work?’ We needed to budget out a couple of months to flesh all this out and really give these songs the attention they deserved and needed.”

Clearly that attention paid off. In Prism, Polvo’s first album of new material in 12 years, is a triumph, a brilliant evocation of where they’ve been and a glimpse into where they intend to go. For Popson, the biggest surprise of the process has been the reception Polvo has enjoyed upon its return.

“We were really unsure how we would be received,” he says. “We didn’t know if it would be, ‘Oh, that’s a band from 12 years ago, who cares?’ Of course, it’s always striking and odd when you’re talking to someone in a club who’s 21 and it’s, ‘Yeah, I was 10 years old when your last record came out.’ Me and Dave are like, ‘We don’t want to hear that!’ ”

Although Popson cites better equipment as one of the big improvements in Polvo’s circumstances (“You’d buy a cheap pawn shop guitar for $90 and it sounded like a $90 guitar,” he says), the biggest shift is in the band’s outlook.

“I think there’s a sense among us that we’re relaxed and enjoying it more,” Popson says. “When we were in our twenties, it was, ‘We’ve got to make sure this is important. It’s a big deal,’ and you sort of overanalyze everything. I think we’re able to appreciate it more now and that in itself is one of the bigger differences.”

POLVO performs Friday at the Southgate House. Get show and club details here.

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