Is Polar Bear
"Cuddly but dangerous" is the catchphrase the English
quartet Polar Bear has come up with to explain their choice of name.
Here's the long version: "I called the group that because polar
bears are seen as quite cuddly kind of things: You see cartoons of
them and they're all kind of cute, but in fact they're really dangerous.
All the explorers who go to the Arctic say that the most dangerous
things are the polar bears. I like the contradiction, I guess."
Indeed, while the music found on their debut album Dim Lit is highly
melodic and often driven by modern (but acoustic) beats, it is also
somber and even elegaic, with a wailing saxophone extending a gently
cresting written line and, every so often, a full-bore Mingusian stomp,
replete with the requisite shouts. Polar Bear is led from the back
by its drummer and composer Sebastian Rocheford, who has just been
awarded the BBC's Rising Jazz Star award. Along with saxophonists
Pete Wareham and Matthew Lockheart and bassist Tom Herbert, Rocheford
came second in the Best Band category.
Polar Bear's Sebastian Rocheford
Dim Lit was, surprisingly, released on the Belgium-based label
Rub Recordings and in October 2003, I met the band (with German
saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock subbing for Lockheart) in Antwerp, just
before the second concert of their first Belgian tour. The previous
night I, along with a roomful of others, had discovered (the album
wasn't out yet) Polar Bear's characteristic blend of moving (emotionally
or physically) melodies, clever arrangements, and open-ended improvisation.
All present left thoroughly impressed.
An Aberdeen native, Rocheford comes from a large, boisterous, and
musical household, surrounded by 7 sisters and 2 brothers. It's
a mystery how, in such an environment, he ever managed to be heard:
contrary to the exuberant personality his truly spectacular mass
of hair would point to, the drummer is congenitally incapable of
speaking above a whisper. "My oldest brother used to be a
drummer and I think I always wanted to play drums. I was always
really into music as far as I can remember. The first record I got
really into was the Star Wars soundtrack. There's actually a jazz
tune..." At which point, bassist Tom Herbert interrupts to
sing the tune from the cantina scene.
The road to professional musicianship was a rocky one at first.
After several failed attempts at starting bands with his primary
schoolmates, at 15 Rocheford decided on his path. "I actually
recently found my diary from years ago. The day I decided to be
a musician, I wrote, 'Today I told my dad I wanted to be a musician.'
I auditioned for the Guildhall at 18, but didn't get in. I auditioned
for Newcastle and didn't get in that either. Then I auditioned for
the Guildhall again, and didn't get in."
Even getting together this successful band was fraught with difficulty.
"I moved down to London 6 years ago. It took me a while to
get to know people. I started with a sax player and a bass player
and didn't really work out. I phoned a sax player to ask if he wanted
to be in the band, but he didn't want to. He gave me Pete's number.
We had a play and from the very first second it was like... I'll
always remember that, it just went. It was just like the best feeling
in the world. That was in '99."
"I was about an hour-and-a-half late," remarks Wareham.
"Yeah, I phoned you up: 'Are you coming?' and you were still
in bed!" the none-too-strict leader laughs.
Since then, the band has gigged steadily. Herbert explains, in his
young professor-ish way, "I think that one of the things that this
band has really got going for it is that it really stands out in the
British scene. There's a lot of really good bands in London, but—I've
got to be careful what I say now—Seb's music brings something
fresh to the scene and people really appreciate and respond to that.
It's not necessary that the band is better than any other band, I
just think it's got a different angle."
Polar Bear's Tom Herbert
Pete Wareham explains the music a bit further. "The way he writes
chord changes is very open. So you don't spend half your time thinking
'God, how am I going to do this?' You get past that stage. Because
it's so open, I'm learning it from the perspective I've got now. The
way I was playing it 3 years ago was totally different. The music
has got lots of longevity in that way. I wrote tunes for a band I
had a few years ago, and within a few gigs I was totally sick of playing
them: They didn't have any longevity at all. Learning it is just the
first stage, the main part of the work is how to interpret it. Whereas
a lot of other music, the mechanical learning of it is it,
and the interpretation is fairly limited. For example, 'Argumentative'
I think I've done at every gig and I'm not sick of it at all! I've
only just learnt it. I've been playing it on every Polar Bear gig
for four years now and I've only just learnt it."
Rocheford's melodies are crepuscular, of a dark and fragile beauty
and wear their heart on their sleeve, while paradoxically keeping
a British reserve. The latter quality is heard in the music when,
while a saxophone exposes a deliberately-paced and affecting main
theme, key details and extensions are hidden away in the bassline
or in a cello accompaniment. Combined with the openess Wareham speaks
of, a strong emotional direction or context is created, so that
the soloists have something to build on, even if that something
is less tangible than a detailed harmonic structure. "For
Dim Lit", says the drummer, "I just wanted us to play
as we play. What we try and do as a band is play solo sections that
are personal to that tune. I think that's really important. Try
and make every tune have a different concept. We've got quite a
lot of tunes, so we just choose what we feel like playing that night."
"Sometimes it changes from night to night", adds Herbert.
"We recorded the album about a year ago. You do quite a few
gigs and things change over time. Somebody plays something one night
and that becomes part of the arrangement."
Sub Ingrid Laubrock chips in: "I've done toured with Polar Bear twice
before over the last two years, I think. I'm really enjoying it, because
you can just play yourself and it's appreciated, and that's not always
the case. There's no paranoia. It's a good 'band' and it's a good
Polar Bear's Ingrid Laubrock (subbing for
regular member Matthew Lockheart)
The mixing of a jazz background with modern electronic and left-field
pop/rock is evident in Polar Bear's music, although the totally
acoustic context should avoid Dim Lit showing its age too rapidly.
"I just like a lot of different kinds of music, get inspiration
from wherever I can", Rocheford replies. "Just muck around
with it, really. Use it and try to mix things all together. Sometimes
you're not even conscious of it, like one day you'll listen to six
different kinds of music and when you write something, sometimes
you can hear where it came from, but it doesn't really sound like
that anymore because it's so mixed up in your head. Also mixing
musicians from different scenes. One of my main influences is Venetian
Snares, a genius Canadian programming group. I've also been destroying
Ingrid's music. It's kind of an extension of composing."
Perhaps the most distinctive tune on Dim Lit is "Snow",
which features the album's only vocal. Singer Julia Biel's voice
is surrounded by a deep-hued and slow-moving arrangement, for an
alternative pop result. "I really love vocal music as well",
Rocheford admits, "and to put some vocal music on it really
rounded the thing off for me. I wasn't even sure I was going to
put it on the album at first. I got her to record it on her computer:
I played the piano to it, she sang to that piano-playing. Pete came
round to my house and played the saxophone and we just built it
"The album in general was played all live, we all played
in the same room. Just a few things were overdubbed later. I wanted
to experiment a little bit. On the next album we're going to try
to develop: A live thing, but with the freedom rock albums have
to use the studio as a tool. It's not explored enough."
There are viola and cello parts on a few of Dim Lit's tracks, which
manage to stay well away from well-worn sappy clichés. "I
sang the parts for strings and wrote down what I had sung",
Rocheford explains. "I thought 'What do I want to hear here?'
I didn't really have any pre-conceptions. On the last tune, 'Wild
Horses', I got the cellist and the viola player to play completely
free on top of the lines I'd written. Ben Davis on cello makes the
most incredible tones and sounds, so I got him to do loads of takes
free, then picked the bits I liked and edited them together."
The members of Polar Bear are part of a collective called F-ire, which
is attempting to broaden perceptions of the UK scene, too often seen
as consisting solely of irreconcilable radical free improvisation
and staid mainstream. Being involved in this large musical community
is obviously quite important for the members of Polar Bear and they
speak of it animatedly. "F-ire", says Wareham, "is a very
similar thing to France's Hask. Barak Schmall, who founded F-ire,
goes over to Paris quite often. We're trying to hook the two collectives
up. AKA Moon, Octurn are playing in London at the moment and F-ire
organizes gigs where bands from collectives abroad and our bands will
hopefully go over to Paris to play. F-ire organises workshops twice
a year and gets people like Stéphane Payen and Gilles Coronado
over to teach."
Polar Bear's Pete Wareham
members lead their own projects, often drawing on the large pool of
F-ire members. Wareham begins, "My band is called Acoustic Ladyland.
We started off doing adaptations of Jimi Hendrix tunes, with Seb and
Tom and a piano player called Tom Colley. Then we started doing Strokes
and Led Zeppelin. Now we're starting to do originals and turning it
into a punk band. Trying to use that school of influence, interesting
rock bands from the past. It's just the music I've always loved. We
were worried at first, we didn't think we were going to get an audience.
But everyone loves it, young and old, because there's something in
it for everyone", he laughs.
"I play electric bass in Jade Fox", continues Herbert.
"With drummer Tom Skinner and guitarist David Coombey, we've
been playing together for about 11 years. Everybody involved in the
F-ire collective is involved in a lot of different music, so I don't
think any of us necessarily see what we're doing as being purely jazz,
although a lot of it is based in jazz, I suppose. It's groove-orientated
and it's not necessarily about solos all over the place. I do another
band called Timeline, which is a rhythmic, M-base type project."
Laubrock chips in: "I have my own quartet that will be upgraded
to quintet. We just recorded as a quintet, with a cello, the same
cellist as Polar Bear. We were going to record as a quartet, and I
thought 'Why not add an unknown element?' It's my own writing, it's
quite eclectic, I think."