In Rank Your Records, we talk to artists who have amassed substantial discographies over the years and ask them to rate their releases in order of personal preference.
After 17 years, six albums, a handful of EPs, and a B-sides release, Seattle prog/math/indie rock band Minus the Bear announced that they were calling it a day following one last EP and a farewell tour. They knew things were winding down while they were touring for the tenth anniversary of 2007’s Planet of Ice but didn’t want to end things there.
“We’ve known for a while, and just wanted to kind of fulfill the things that we felt we needed to fulfill before hanging it up for good,” singer-guitarist Jake Snider says. “We wanted to do that Planet of Ice tour and do this last farewell tour—do it right so everyone could come out and see us play one last time.”
Minus the Bear has gone through a lot of phases and explored a lot of sounds, starting with Highly Refined Pirates in 2002, which was full of movie-reference song titles and ex-Botch guitarist Dave Knudson’s mind-bending riffs, ending with the more accessible but still intricate Voids last year.
The thing that’s interesting about Minus the Bear is that, unlike a lot of bands who might say that their early work feels like a different band entirely, they’ve never tried to distance themselves from the early stuff—quite the opposite. They’ve done anniversary tours where they play an album top to bottom and frequently dig up old songs on tours supporting new albums.
That made ranking the albums difficult for Snider, but he said his bottom and top choices were easy. (He also says he’s the contrarian of the band, and that other members ranked differently.)
Noisey: At first, I was a little surprised you had Highly Refined Pirates ranked at the bottom, because I think a lot of people would say that’s the quintessential Minus the Bear album. But then, from your perspective, maybe it’s the starting point.
Jake Snider: I feel like we’ve matured a lot, and got better at playing and better at writing together after that. I feel like Menos El Oso is just a superior record for sure. Everything after that is superior. It might have a special place in people’s hearts, but I don’t know if that makes it better.
How do you guys see that album after 16 years?
I just wish it were… [Laughs] I wish they were better performed and I knew where the band was gonna go. I don’t know. I just wish it was a little tighter.
Can you think of anything you’d want to change if you could go back to the recording sessions for it?
I’d re-sing the whole thing probably.
That’s kind of a tough one. I like that record quite a bit. There are a lot of good songs on it. There’s just a couple songs that I think make it a little less cohesive than it could be. Hard to come up with that fifth spot.
You worked with Joe Chiccarelli for production on this one, right? You guys had pretty strictly worked with Matt Bayles previously. What made you make the switch?
I think we just wanted to see what a different producer would bring to the table. We all worked with Matt a lot on Minus the Bear and on other projects before, so we just felt it was time to branch out and see what we might sound like with a different approach.
This one definitely had more of an accessible feel, in terms of the music. Am I off on that?
I feel like that was partly Joe’s influence. And we were kind of, like, at this point where Menos El Oso and Planet of Ice had done really well, and we wanted to see if we could push it a little further, and still maintain the sound, but maybe make it a little more direct and a little more concise. We’d just come out of Planet of Ice, which was pretty proggy and expansive, and wanted to do something a little different.
You went back to Suicide Squeeze for this one after a couple on Dangerbird Records. What prompted the move back?
Well, Dangerbird, during Infinity Overhead, they made a lot of promises and they invested a lot of money in the record and all that, then the week that it was going to be released, the label owner and president and label manager left the label to reboot Elektra Records, so it kind of fell a little flat promotion-wise. We wanted to go back to a label that we knew was 100 percent committed to doing records and no risk of having the record get shelved or have it get less attention than they promised and stuff like that. Come back home to that.
It was also your most recent. What are your thoughts on it just a year out?
That’s what’s hard about this ranking. I think it’s an awesome record, but it’s got five others to compete with. Three of them I don’t think would ever be out of the rankings that they’re in. So it’s got a lot of competition, but I had a great time making it. I had a great time working with Sam Bell, the producer on it. Again, kind of another record where the songs were tracked live, and he just had an amazing energy and approach to the music, and was really involved and kept us motivated [and] happy in the studio. Making it was a treat. It was awesome. And the results were great, too. It’s hard to describe why it is where it is.
This was also the first one without Erin Tate on drums. How did that impact the writing and recording process?
I thought it was a good change. We had a pretty good young drummer, and he brought a lot of technique to the table that was very different than before. And I think the record benefitted from that. Just new energy into the band where it was needed kind of.
So, going back to what you said about Planet of Ice, which you have at number three, it’s very proggy. It kind of feels like a lot of prog albums—it’s not fully a concept album but it has that general aesthetic to it where all the songs feel connected under one theme, even along with the album name and artwork. Was that intentional?
Yeah. We had the name of the record and we wanted to do something, like, proggy or something more expansive, so we wanted to kind of have the music live up to the name of the record and be appropriate to it. So it kind of gave us this guideline to follow.
So you picked the name before you wrote the music?
Yeah, that’s what happened.
How did you land on the “Planet of Ice” concept?
That was probably just one of those things where we were all sitting around drinking and somebody mentioned it, and it kind of stuck, and we were like, “Yeah, that’s awesome. Let’s do something like that.” And we just started listening to a bunch of, like, English 70s rock at the time quite a bit, and it gave us just a bit of direction of where to go with the music. You know, Menos El Oso is a pretty tight-sounding record, and we just wanted to do something more expansive than that.
I love all of the songs on that record. I think it flows really well. Like, “Diamond Lightning” I think is a great song. It has kind of a good, almost—what would I call it? It should go on Planet of Ice, pretty much. I don’t feel like the record got its due, like I said, from the label. It’s kind of an underdog, and it never got its day in the sun like some of the other ones did. It starts off really strong with “Steel and Blood,” really kind of heavy. I totally dig “Lies and Eyes.” That’s kind of quintessential Minus the Bear. “Heaven is a Ghost Town” is this big, anthemic song. There are just a lot of great ones on there.
You played with a couple new ideas for the sound, too. I remember the first time I listened to it being thrown off by the beginning of “Listing.” You guys never really started many songs with acoustic guitars.
That song, I like it now. But I think it’s one of the ones that, I don’t know, it brightens up some of the dark stuff on there. The acoustic stuff on it is quite a bit of a contrast to some of the other songs on it.
I just love how it starts. The drum sounds are so incredibly tight, punchy, in-your-face kind of thing. It’s got a really fat and tight sound to it, in my opinion, compared to almost all the rest of them. “The Game Needed Me” is an interesting out-of-the-gate song after Highly Refined Pirates. It just has a different flow and feel, and it’s kind of herky jerky, and gets into Dave’s first real commitment to the DL4 sampling, as well. It’s got some of my favorite songs on it that we’ve done, like “Drilling” and “The Fix.” “The Fix” is another sample-heavy song with jabby, stabby kind of guitar parts and all that. “Hooray” is probably the first song we wrote after Pirates. It’s just got a bunch great ones. “This Ain’t a Surfin’ Movie,” “The Pig War,” “Fulfill the Dream.” This is kind of what Minus the Bear sounds like to me. This record is always the one I go back to, I think.
It seemed like there was a real shift in your lyrical content to more narrative, protagonist-driven stories, too.
Definitely. Taking a step back and fictionalizing things a little more.
Songs like “Memphis & 53rd ” definitely feel like that for me.
Definitely. And “The Fix.” All of them, for the most part, are kind of not necessarily from my point of view.
I also read that Erin and Dave made a lot of their parts kind of tripping together and making some crazy stuff for the rest of the guys to come in and flesh out. Is that true?
Yeah. Hearing some of the stuff they came up with for the first time, and trying to figure out where to fit in my kind of less technical guitar playing, while not throwing off the core of what they developed, that was interesting and somewhat difficult, but really satisfying in the end to figure out how to do it without creating extra noise. Making sounds happen that didn’t need to happen. But that’s the whole fun of this band. It was always kind of finding my spot within Dave’s parts and finding the tapestry way that we kind of weave the thing together.
So even though it sounds like Minus the Bear sounds like in your head, is there anything you’d go back and change about that album?
Not really. It’s interesting to go back to stuff like “Pachuca Sunrise,” which is the fan-favorite. We’ve played it almost every single show, and I’m just, at this point, I just personally don’t like the chorus very much, and think I could’ve done a better job to make it, I don’t know, more interesting. But people like it how it is. You know, I kind of have to trust the fans and whatnot. There’s always little things, but this one I think is right on.