Bear Cub

Hello Underwater Sunshine fam! Katie again. If you’re anything like me, this weather— the up and down, the dark and rainy sludge— is wearing you out and making you ready for the sun. I’ve personally been singing a Menzingers song called “The Midwestern States” a lot to myself lately and, at some point by now, I’ve looked everyone I love right in their also-stuck-in-Indiana-eyes and started singing them its chorus:

“LA/ Is only two days if we drive straight…”.

While I can’t promise sunshine at night on the streets of New York on April 5th and 6th, I can still predict an awful lot of it inside the doors of the Bowery Electric. The reason: I have the privilege of introducing everyone to one of your new favorite bands: Bear Cub.

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By the time they hit the stage, they’ll have an EP out, and they’re working on the full-length record now. Which doesn’t mean the band is new to music. In fact, guitarist and vocalist Jesse Hall has been working in music for pretty near a decade, part of the time with another iteration of Bear Cub. I actually saw him bring down the house in a different band, American Hotel, in Nashville at the Outlaw Roadshow a few years back. At the time I remember thinking, “I have not seen such a pure rock band in a while.” It was a little bit of a relief, then, when he told me he was happy I didn’t want to put modifiers in front of “rock.” We joked about the idea of power-alt-country-radio-pop-post-rock— because sometimes, lately, it feels like that’s the only way people want to talk about music.

I’ll be honest, I initially brought the Menzingers up for two reasons: first, because it’s important for me to remember at all times that I’m just a two day drive from sunshine, but second, because Jesse and I actually spent the first part of our conversation talking about music he’s not making. We talked a little about punk music and WHY we’re into WHAT we’re into now.

We both like the Menzingers, (big smile) because we are both smart. We talked about NOFX and Black Flag briefly because…(shrug)…because. I’m telling you this because sometimes the music you love comes from places you can’t even imagine. I told him I’m doing a bit of a ‘60s psychedelia kick: I just listen to the Turtles and the Grass Roots and Strawberry Alarm Clock over and over.

And, in the end,  all of this led to a pretty telling revelation: Hall loves music. Not just playing it. Thinking about it, listening to it, talking about it. And it also led (a little later) to perhaps one of the more apt comparisons we came to after talking a little more about Bear Cub.

Based out of Pittsburgh, though he moved back recently from Nashville (I do NOT, for the record, agree with or understand going back INTO the cold), Bear Cub consists of an entire band of people who can do just about anything they need or want to do musically. Hall writes, sings, and plays guitar; Dylan White plays piano, guitar, and sings; Paul Menotiades is on guitar and vocals; Tony Tortella plays bass and is on vocals, too; and Matt Gray plays drums. If you’re doing the math, Bear Cub is a band that can play three electric guitars and pull off a four-part vocal harmony at the same time. They can double vocals on 2-part harmonies while a couple people play acoustic over a bass and piano counterpoint. Plus drums because Matt Gray is still free to play drums. They can switch off on which instrument, which focus— it’s an almost overwhelming amount of talent.

I asked Hall to do me a favor and send me some of the raw demos and lyrics and they’re already embarrassingly good. You can tell when talking to him that he’s got the spark of new creation in him. It’s exciting to hear someone who is that inspired and it didn’t take long for us to start talking about what makes certain groups special. I told him some of the harmonies on the demos sounded Beatle-esque. I always scramble after I make that comparison but it came up naturally: we were talking about McCartney’s Ram and Wings’s Band on the Run. I said, “You know. The seven chords. The unresolved phrasing. The harmonies. The—”

And then I realized he’d been saying all the same things I was.

Bear Cub is a great band, and you can hear some of the reason behind that in the way Hall approaches, talks about, and truly loves music. He listened and he studied and he knows why the pieces fit where they do. He knows how to connect the chambers of the heart. And now he’s doing that with his own music.

In “Brautigan’s Ghost” (a reference to the darkly comic novelist/poet Richard Brautigan), he starts: 

I remember her

In a light 

That she deserves 

A lovely thing that couldn't stay

She's gone away

She remembers me

From time to time, I believe 

But the curtain's down

And the mystery is over now

 

I’m the one who loves you, dear

Even after all these years 

I remember then 

The fights we'd have  

About Brautigan

Those lovely days

Can't last always

I've gone away 

There are other contemporary bands exploring these moments— the nostalgia for a life you could have lived. Harvey Danger’s swan song, “The Show Must Not Go On,” says,

It’s not hard to see a beautiful girl

And imagine the life that you could have had with her…,

but that’s not a man who ever experienced the woman in the light she deserved— or at all. She’s merely a figment of an imagined life.

Okkervil River’s beautiful “Calling and Not Calling My Ex” starts similarly—

“She was once mine, that smile that shines—”

and though it’s quickly revealed she’s moved to LA and become famous despite his objections, Will Sheff ends that song with,

 

So go turn their heads

Go knock them dead

Go break their hearts

 

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Hall doesn’t quite let this go quite as easily. While you may read some love into the other songs, Hall’s heart is bare when he sings, “I’m the one who loved you then,” and even their fights are described as “lovely”— and of course they were. After all, every couple has their little scuffle they keep getting into over and over, mostly for fun (like how my husband adorably and mistakenly believes that Exile on Main St. is better than Sticky Fingers), but at the end of “Brautigan’s Ghost”— the ghost of an argument that was likely playful, at least at first, the teasing and poking of two people who can trust each other to do that without risking someone leaving— there is absolutely no relief. Because despite “writing the book” and “letting her off the hook,” Hall ends the song by singing, again,  

I’m the one who loves you, dear

Even after all these years.

That kind of permanent longing is a deep root, something planted at the core of our lizard brains. I think we all know what it’s like to close our eyes and for a moment be somewhere else, transported to a life we either invented to disappear into or that we could have actually lived.  

In the midst of my latest #KatieMullinsAgainstWinter campaign, Hall sent me the lyrics to “Letting Myself Disappear,” one of the most beautifully written songs I’ve seen in a long time. After reading it, I just sat and stared at the words on the page. They begin:

 

I’m always sleeping something off

when I should be up and

How many mornings will I waste before I die

 

Always at home but never

Feel like I’m really here 

I’m letting myself disappear 

 

I’m not sure what I’d say 

If I saw you today

But if you care 

Spare some time

Please come by 

I know a lot of people who are feeling adrift these days, hating the fact that they can’t get out of bed and then, simultaneously, hating themselves BECAUSE they can’t get out of bed. When you’re stuck like that, you can just feel the time slipping away. The song ends with:

Hey, don’t be late

I haven’t left the house in days

Sure you’re right to be afraid

Of what you’ll find

Behind the door

I actually got chills up my arms the first time I read the lyrics and realized the space I’d been invited into was a dark room that, to be fair, when I have time, I sometimes visit by myself. It’s nice to have a lonely song for lonely times. 

But damn, you’d never know any of the darkness just by listening. Bear Cub is seriously a band that plays with three electric guitars AND they’re a band that has ‘60s Beatles-esque harmonies. They have a bassist who is as good a singer as anyone else in the group. The drummer is always on point and ready to pick things up. They know when to add piano, when to pull back, and when to swell the strings under the narrative. But what you’re going to learn about them when we all get to share our first Bear Cub experience together in April at the Bowery Electric is this: they know how to play rock and roll in a way that’s so glorious it could make a stone sing.

See you there!

 Bear Cub on Facebook