Bear Hands / Photos by Nick Karp
Many of Bear Hands’ nights have ended in The Gutter, both literally and figuratively. Located conveniently between two of the Brooklyn band’s former practice spaces, the bar and bowling alley—which achieved momentary national renown when it closed briefly because of an Ebola scare in 2014—became a place to unwind after a day of playing or a spot for a mid-day bender following band meetings, bassist Val Loper remembers, reveling in his shot and beer special. “At this point, I’m just trying to get drunk,” he says.
“I don’t like this place because it’s the nicest,” guitarist/keyboardist Ted Feldman concurs. “I like this place because it’s not the nicest and it’s convenient.”
It’s 11 PM, and the band are at a table at their longtime Williamsburg haunt recovering from the conclusion of a recent tour with Cage The Elephant, Silversun Pickups, and Foals. Their third album, You’ll Pay For This, is about to be released, and its first single, “2AM,” has been sitting in the top 20 on Billboard’s Alternative Songs chart for weeks. “2AM” explores the inescapable act of getting older—not only being the weird guy in his 30s at a millennial party, but the after effects that a cliché life of drugs, sex and rock ‘n’ roll have on a body—and still succumbing to the gluttony that dominates early adulthood. “All I want is to forget how old I am,” vocalist Dylan Rau laments on the song.
Instead of his age, it’s this specific gathering Rau has forgotten. Rau, typically the one to quickly toss back a few drinks and call it a night, retreating to the hotel room to watch TV, might not have made it until 2 AM anyway, his bandmates Feldman, Loper and drummer TJ Orscher say. The singer’s absence can be credited to losing his phone a few days before the end of tour, and his bandmates have no other way to reach him—or at least didn’t attempt to.
The remaining members are discussing TV. Feldman and Loper have been watching The People v. O.J. Simpson, and the conversation has devolved into a mention of the Kardashians.
“I never watched any Kardashian anything, but I was flipping through channels and saw the original [season],” Feldman says. “It was just interesting anthropologically.”
“That whole family has corrupted itself,” Orscher replies.
We’re off to a good start.
Left to right: Val Loper, Ted Feldman, TJ Orscher
Despite being a band for the better part of ten years—Rau and Feldman met at Wesleyan University, Loper and Orscher had been playing in bands together in Connecticut for a while—Bear Hands feel like they’re just about to hit their stride with the release of You’ll Pay For This, their third LP, out April 15 on their own label, Spensive Sounds. Skewing toward the quirkier side of the indie rock spectrum, Bear Hands have all the ingredients to position them as a Top 40 darling with enough edge to appeal to an older audience.
Since the release of 2010’s debut, Burning Bush Supper Club, Bear Hands have been plugging away, honing their sound, hip-hop-tinged rock mixed with Animal Collective experimentalism. Much like their former tourmates Cage The Elephant, Bear Hands have a knack for crafting melodic and danceable tunes, like Burning Bush Supper Club cut “Tablasaurus” and “Giants,” the breakout hit from their 2014 sophomore effort Distraction. The song’s more electronic elements—like the inclusion of a drum machine and synths and an explosive and rhythmic verse in Rau’s charmingly distinct nasal bellow—set the pace for a grander, more expansive sound. The album’s follow-up single, “Agora,” tapped into the band’s juxtaposition of party songs paired with tortured lyrics: “You like to hang out, but I don't / I don't leave the house, cause I can't / I've been taking these pills, but I still / Got a couple of tails that I couldn't shake.”
For a Monday, there’s a healthy crowd that surrounds the table where the three share memories. Select booths are packed with patrons, necks craned trying to get a look at the bar’s few mid-sized TVs broadcasting the NCAA Championship game. Feldman, Loper and Orscher aren’t really interested. Their basketball experience extends to drunken games with UK outfit Foals backstage on their recent tour.
“One dude in their band is fucking good, and the rest of them are OK, but the problem is none of us are good,” Loper says. “For the record, it just hurt to be beat by a band [from a country] that doesn’t have basketball.”
There’s a bowling alley in the next room over, though they’ve hardly utilized the lanes—Feldman’s only bowled here once with a friend he ran into on his way out of the practice space. More inspiring are the bathrooms whose walls are covered in Sharpie shoutouts and dick sketches, much like any bar with a comparably divey charm. Loper's iPhone snaps of the bathroom artwork were his motive to get on Instagram.
Orscher, a man of few words, cradles his Cynar on the rocks—according to his bandmates, he enjoys the finer things in life. Having been a bartender in New York for years, he has a stronger knowledge of the ingredients in drinks—he’s made enough of them after all, he says. His current go-to is a Mezcal gimlet: “It’s a way to say I don’t want any shit in my margarita.”
It’s that time of the evening where guy decides if he’s going to make it a night out and run up the tab—and really determine if “nothing good happens past 2 AM” as the song declares—or behave as if he’s got important things to do tomorrow. There were no such decisions while on the road.
“I was up until four or five every night and it was great,” Feldman says of their three-week jaunt with Cage The Elephant and co. “But it wasn’t objectively healthy.”
“It was not a healthy tour. It started off that way kind of because there was a juicer,” Loper laughs. “A juicer makes you feel like you’re being healthy for about three days until the hangover is so bad that you don’t even go to the juicer.”
“You can have all the cocaine and booze you want but if you had a juicer, it really helps,” Feldman jokes.
Tonight is not heading in this direction, for better and for worse. At 34, Orscher acknowledges the guys—who range in age from 29 to 35—need to keep it chill when it comes to their daily lives.
“When we are out until two in the morning, nothing good is happening,” he says. “You’re not out hanging with friends or seeing your family—you’re at the bar, going hard.”
They’re not old, but they’re getting older, and with that comes the natural wisening up. Rau’s knack for framing insecurities and shortcomings in an endearing and almost whimsical manner comes to the forefront again—“You see a mess but that's progress / You see a mess but I promise / We'll make the best of whatever's left over / I'm only halfway through,” he sings on “Like Me Like That” and a self-deprecating realization on “Winner’s Circle”: “I’m a pacifist who’s never not been pacified / I’m a piece of shit / It’s a point of pride / I’m the super rich complaining I want more in life.” The most reflective track, closer “Purpose Filled Life” inspires better behavior. “Don’t let me be no kind of burden / Just let me work and I will earn it,” Rau softly croons. On You’ll Pay For This, the bar has closed and Bear Hands are collecting their thoughts and trying to do better next time.
Just as the quartet have evolved emotionally, their songwriting process this time around had more focus than previous efforts. Taking their time over the course of the last few years to marinate in the music, with Rau and Feldman taking sabbatical in LA for a few days after a tour stop to write, You’ll Pay For This is the record that takes a band from opening act to one with a catalogue.
“The record alone is deeper in itself,” says Feldman, who co-produced the record alongside James Brown, who has worked with Foo Fighters and Arctic Monkeys.
Taking everything they’d showcased on previous efforts, You’ll Pay For This ups the stakes. Album opener “I Won’t Pay” presents Rau at his most falsetto and Feldman at both his most electronic and glam rock, with a stark transition from synth to power chords and siren-sounding riffs. There’s “Deja Vu,” a kinetic force with non-stop flitting wordplay and geometric synth lines, each chord fitting into one another. The most stylistically simplistic of the record’s dozen tracks comes in “Purpose Filled Life,” a sweet lullaby with Eastern-inspired guitar work. No two songs employ the same lineup of sounds and styles, and, still, You’ll Pay For This has cohesion and identity.
As the night grows nearer to 2 AM, no horrid actions seem likely. Villanova has clinched the NCAA Championship title, and the band is talking about karaoke. Loper’s go-tos are Soul Asylum’s “Somebody To Shove,” The Misfits’ “Hybrid Moments” and LL Cool J’s “Momma Said Knock You Out”; there was a time Feldman didn’t make it up to mic because he fell asleep on the songbook. But they’re different now. Or at least have gotten better in exercising restraint. The guys who’ve spent enough good times at The Gutter to not remember them all are leaving in a way more composed state than in their younger days.
“I’ve done a lot of things five years ago in this bar that I wouldn’t do now,” Loper says.
“I think that theme resonates through the whole record,” Feldman says later. “I can think of at least three songs where not that specific idea, but the theme of aging is very present. And I guess that’s what we’re going through.”
Nick Karp is a photographer based in New York. Follow him on Twitter.
Allie Volpe is a writer based in Philadelphia. Follow her on Twitter.