For a certain kind of early-millennial indie-rock fan, Minus the Bear elicits affection. The band's specific brand of melancholic prog-pop struck a chord with listeners on the breakthrough album Menos el Oso, a complex, layered beast that balances its math-rock, avant-garde tendencies with earnest songwriting. The formula was further refined on 2007's Planet of Ice, a record whose stark, alien instrumentals stood in contrast to Jake Snider's warm, inviting vocals. The album was also a success, charting in the indie sphere and drawing tons of new fans.
Never content to rest on their laurels, the band members have been expanding their sound and experimenting with form and texture. Notably, their most recent release, Voids, contains songs that might sound as if they come from a different group entirely. The band has learned to pare down its sound without removing what makes it unique. But for those who prefer the outré experimentation and obtuse song structures of their earlier work, there's always Planet of Ice.
That's probably why the band has decided to celebrate the record's tenth anniversary by playing all of it on the next tour. New Times caught up with Alex Rose, who plays synthesizer, to talk about the gestation of Planet of Ice, the changing dynamics of the group, and the University of Miami's penchant for harboring talented musicians (we're looking at you, Iron & Wine).
New Times: Minus the Bear started around 2001, but you joined the band sometime around 2006.
Alex Rose: I did sound for the band in 2004, 2005. I was playing in one of the opening bands, with Heather Duby, on tour with them in 2005. Their original keyboardist, Matt Bayles, got busy with production work, so it worked out that I was around, and they could tolerate me in the van, and I could play and sing. Planet of Ice, the album we're doing this anniversary tour for, is the first one that I played on.
Matt was the keyboardist who decided to move into production full-time, and you were trained in production but came on to play keys and synth.
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Matt had recorded some of the early releases, and we continued to work with him on a lot of stuff. He's supertalented, and he had a record to make that was very important to him when the band needed to tour. He was always like, "I'm a producer, and I happen to be in this band."
What kind of influences informed Planet of Ice? Do they differ from Menos el Oso or subsequent records?
It was a natural progression from Menos el Oso, some of the same guitar sampling. We started to get into '60s and '70s prog rock, all of us together. Right when I joined the band, the band had an experience with a friend in England where they stayed up all night listening to Yes albums, King Crimson, lesser-known Pink Floyd stuff, and it was kind of a revelation. In the van, you're all forced to listen to the same thing at the same time, so we all got into it. That new flavor informed Planet of Ice. They'd been compared to bands like Yes for a while, so it was funny that we took so long to get into it. We had the title of the album before we went to the studio, and it had this solidified feeling to it. It became a thing where we were describing guitar parts and sounds as "icy," so the title influenced the music.
Was a different kind of recording approach used for Planet of Ice?
It usually always starts with a Dave [Knudson] guitar riff, and then we all come in and add things. But getting everyone in there earlier, to write parts together, was important from the get-go. Holing up in a practice space and writing a record with everyone there was a new thing. Planet of Ice was the most jam-oriented writing the band has done.
Why do you think that record in particular resonates so much with fans?
We've done tours for other records. The band has so much material, and I think this record does resonate because it's a deep dive. There's a cohesive vibe throughout and a lot of layers that reveal themselves on multiple listens. So I think it's had time to grow on people and dig itself into their minds. For me, it's like a full circle, bringing me back to the time when I joined the band. There's enough distance to listen and feel proud of it without the baggage it came with at the time.
Voids has tracks that are almost pop songs. Has the band's approach to composition changed?
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Lately, on certain songs, the goal is to try to be more direct instead of going on prog journeys. It's challenging in a different way to actually try to make things concise. But there are still songs where we let ourselves run wild a bit. It's still a form of exploration. The weirdest thing we can make into a hook, that's the most fun to try to do.
So the tour starts out in South Florida, and you yourself are an alum of the University of Miami.
Yeah. We start the tour in Fort Lauderdale. I haven't been back to Miami in a while, but I did go to school there. UM has had some cool music people come through it, like Bruce Hornsby or Sam Beam [of Iron & Wine]. Sam actually taught film there. I studied music and production there — weirdly, when I landed on keys for the band, I wasn't a keyboard player, but it turned out I had some of the skills and some of the technical and recording know-how. I was a WVUM DJ for a second too. Some of the first math rock I heard was through the rotation on WVUM. It was a cool radio station, but I couldn't figure out where the people who listened to it hung out. I do remember going to the Culture Room to see bands like Nada Surf and Superdrag. I think I'll stop off in Miami before the tour to check out the city and see how things have changed.
Minus the Bear's Planet of Ice Tour. Thursday, April 19, at Culture Room, 3045 N. Federal Hwy., Fort Lauderdale; cultureroom.net. Tickets cost $25.