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Polvo Guitarist Talks Day Jobs, New Album ‘Siberia’ + Not Becoming a ‘Wistful Grandpa’

Michael Klayman

Polvo’s music isn’t for everyone. During their first phase, from about 1990 to 1998, the quartet from Chapel Hill, N.C., challenged listeners with intricate rhythmic structures, occasionally impenetrable lyrics and a complex, angular twin-guitar attack. Many devotees of more straightforward indie rock were alienated by this dense noise, while others took to it immediately, forming bands and spawning a sub-genre known as “math rock” — a limiting tag Polvo have made a point of distancing themselves from in interviews.

Polvo are right to disassociate from the math-rock mantle. While they are undeniably pioneers of technical post-rock, Polvo have shown strains of psychedelia, classic rock, noise and even a Middle Eastern influence in their material. On the brand-new ‘Siberia,’ the band’s second Merge release since regrouping for 2008′s All Tomorrow’s Parties festival, these elements are more noticeable than ever. From the spacey, droning opening guitar licks of ‘Blues Is Loss’ to the fist-pumping, melodic chorus of ‘Light, Raking,’ Polvo have never sounded so in tune with their various influences or as completely cohesive as a band.

Guitarist Dave Brylawski recently spoke to Diffuser.fm about Polvo’s new record, their kids and day jobs and his desire to avoid seeming like a “wistful grandpa” when discussing music at his age.

There was apparently more improvisation involved in the writing of ‘Siberia’ thatn there was on ‘In Prism’ [2009]. What was the reasoning behind this?

I wouldn’t call it improvisation. There is a snippet of a jam that I spliced on the end of ‘Some Songs’ that was truly improvised. I think that came out of a practice where we were jamming on the middle part of ‘The Water Wheel.’ The main difference from ‘In Prism’ was that this time we didn’t labor too intensively over these songs. They were written fairly quickly — for us at least. Putting them together took some time, though. [Guitarist] Ash [Bowie] did most of the heavy lifting on that aspect, with drummer Brian [Quast] doing his share as well.

How much does improvisation factor into Polvo’s songwriting? Interviews suggest you or Ash usually bring your own songs to the table, but do parts of the songs also emerge from jamming with the full band?

That may have been the case before, but with this album, the songs were presented pretty much in finished form. There is not much sprawl or free-form on this album. As individuals, we usually have some discretion regarding coming up with our own parts (with subsequent songwriter veto-power), which adds a somewhat organic touch. But I wouldn’t call the process organic this time around at all.

You guys all have day jobs when not doing the band. What is it like balancing those jobs with the band? What does everyone do?

Oh yeah. The non-band part of our lives are pretty ascendant these days. [Bassist] Steve [Popson] works in communications for a museum and is going back to school to become a teacher. Brian is in school full-time. Ash is an electrician. I do clinical social work in an outpatient hospital clinic. Ash and I have kids – in fact I am expecting my third kid the same week ‘Siberia’ comes out, so right now and for the foreseeable future, there is no balance. Life is taking precedence over band. I think everyone understands and accepts this and is doing what they have and want to do with other aspects of their life. I know that Ash and Brian have been doing some Libraness music again.

The rest of the band lives in North Carolina – how does practicing and writing work with you living out-of-state?

I moved to Washington D.C. a year ago, but as I said above, right now we are concentrating on other things. The long-distance thing worked OK for a while but it isn’t optimal.

Obviously the ‘indie’ music scene is currently getting a lot of attention – as a musician, do you ever make it out to venues or DIY spaces to see any up-and-coming bands?

D.C. seems to have an abundance of venues, and there are some bands I have been meaning to check out. Between work and kids, I have not been out as much as I would like and just don’t have the stamina for many late nights, unlike the days of yore. I know most people reading this are like, “Who’s the Wistful Grandpa?” But I’m not complaining. I still love seeing music when I can. I saw Tame Impala and Rush this year, so quality over quantity. I think the N.C. guys get to go out a bit more. Steve co-owns a rock club in Raleigh, so I know seeing bands is still a big part of his life.

‘Siberia’ has received some comparisons to Polvo’s older material, specifically ‘Today’s Active Lifestyles.’ Was there a conscious effort to reference this earlier sound when making the album?

Nah. We couldn’t get in that old headspace again if we tried. We were fairly young and the capacity and language to capture what was in our heads with intent was still emerging. I don’t think this album references ‘Today’s’ much, but I have no perspective on it.

Have you found that since reuniting and releasing new material, Polvo are attracting newer and younger fans who may not have been familiar with the band previously? I know a few people who started getting into the band when ‘In Prism’ came out.

We aren’t really keyed into social media and haven’t played in a while, so I don’t think we know who is listening these days. That isn’t being curmudgeonly or willful; I just don’t think we have the energy to maintain that kind of presence. So hearing that we may have some younger fans is encouraging as well as somewhat surprising. I still read Pitchfork occasionally and have recently discovered Sirius radio in the car, so I have a slight awareness of new bands. I don’t really see how we fit into the landscape these days, but that is OK.

What can we expect from Polvo in the next few months? What about the next year or two?

No concrete plans at this point – kids and work are my immediate future. As I said, I know Ash and Brian are playing out as Libraness with a full band. I still am writing, too, but I am not sure where things will end up. Things are really up in the air, but we all accept it at this point. If someone would have asked me in 2006 if Polvo would ever play together again, I would have said “not a chance,” and subsequently, we had a good four-year run in our second act. So I am not going to make any prognostications.

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