“2AM,” the caustic hit from Bear Hands’ 2016 album You’ll Pay for This, laments, “All I want is to forget how old I am” in a chorus about how much parties suck for thirtysomething-year-olds. Likewise, their Top 10 Alternative chart hit “Giants” from 2014 is anti-pop ear candy with frantic vocals, Ol’ Dirty Bastard-referencing lyrics and a dark music video with a ladies-of-the-night vibe. The post-punk energy, experimental flourishes and trendy-adverse edge make Bear Hands the perfect band for people who miss the creativity of mid-1990s indie rock. PRØHBTD spoke with bassist Val Loper to learn more about the Brooklyn-based band.
You'll Pay For This is your third full length album. In what ways do you think this album was a step forward artistically compared to the previous albums?
It’s the first record in which we were afforded the time to write. We had six months to write instead of putting the album together piecemeal like we had done with the previous two because we still had full time jobs and were touring constantly. This time we had a chunk of time so we're like, "Let's write a record." Because it was all written together, we were able to make a record that was a little bit more cohesive.
That's interesting that you say you had more time because it was four years between your first and second album and only two years between your second and third. What contributed to the quicker turnaround?
Things started to go well.
You want to keep up the momentum?
Yeah, momentum was a big part. We had a new management company, everything seemed to be streamlined and we were doing the band full time. Just being able to focus on music made everything much more efficient. It was harder when we had to do everything ourselves and try to balance life and no money, blah, blah, blah.
When everyone had to work jobs and do the band at the same time, who had the worst day job?
What did you do?
I worked at a warehouse in Queens unpacking expensive French jeans. It was pretty soul crushing. I worked there for eight years. Our drummer was a bartender, so he had time pretty easy, and the other guys went to school for film, so they would do editing jobs and odd [production assistant] jobs. I was the only one with a consistent soul crushing 9 to 5.
I bet it’s hard to find a job that lets you regularly take off time to tour.
The reason I stayed with that job for so long was because one of my best friends was my boss. I was like, "Hey man, I gotta go." Even though he didn't like it, he let me do as I pleased.
Since he was your best friend, did you tell him the job was soul crushing?
Oh yeah, he hated it, too. The main company was based in Manhattan, but we were in Queens with no eyes on us, so we'd fuck off a lot. That was another reason I stayed—nobody was breathing down our necks.
Do you read your album reviews? If you do, is it surreal to see how widely the reviews differ?
They differ so, so widely. I read some of them. The first couple of days after the record came out, we're really excited, and I'm very curious to see what people's feedback is, so yeah, I read the first handful of reviews. They all differed so widely that I'm like, "Okay, I'm going to stop reading this because people either really understood it or were totally missing the mark, in my opinion." Instead of getting frustrated and yelling at my computer, I decided to stop reading.
What was the strangest thing that somebody wrote?
That's a good question. I feel like people were way off in their comparisons. I know it's subjective and all, but they compared us to some crazy bands that are totally not what we're about at all. Sometimes we'll get really good ones, like Soul Coughing, which is one of our favorite bands. We don't hear any of that in our music, but that's an incredible compliment for me. Then somebody will be like, "Yeah, it just sounds like bad Vampire Weekend." I'm like, “Vampire Weekend is bad to begin with, so what is bad Vampire Weekend like?”
Was there a particular party or event that at least partly inspired the song “2AM”?
No. It was just slowly and surely getting worn down by New York City and by age. We've been living here for over a decade, and it's just not the same. I mean, we're not the same. I'm tired, all my friends are married, and a lot of them have kids, and I don't see as many people anymore. I don't go out as much anymore. When I tour, I'm out every night, so when I come home, the last thing I really want to do is go to a show or go to a bar. We're just kind of boring now.
What's the worst thing you've ever done after 2 a.m.?
I cannot commit that to paper.
Have you ever been arrested for something after 2 a.m.?
I have not. Our singer has, though. I think he had outstanding tickets for something, so he got arrested for an open container after a show. I think he had outstanding tickets, and there was maybe a warrant, so it was kind of a technicality, but yeah, he got hauled off to jail for the night. I think that was probably around 2 a.m. when it happened.
You head out on tour again on September 23rd. Is there anything in particular you're excited about for this tour?
I'm excited because we're going out with Foals, who are good buddies of ours. We're also playing a lot of places that I've always wanted to play like the Palladium in Los Angeles and the Riviera in Chicago, which are a step up from venues we normally play.
Is it true that you and Foals play basketball together when you tour?
Yes sir, every day.
Do you think you'll do that again on this tour?
Absolutely. 100 percent.
If you had to guess, what do you think the win/loss ratio is against Foals?
I don't want to say. Alright, so Foals beats us all the time. Foals has a ringer. Yannis [Philippakis], the singer, his best friend Kit comes on tour with them, and he plays percussion on a couple of songs. Kit is an incredible basketball player. Basically, Foals is okay at basketball, but Kit steals the show every day, and we can't compete with him. This tour, we got a new monitor guy who's 6'10" from Oklahoma and who had a scholarship to play [Division II] basketball. What Foals doesn't know is that their days are numbered.
When you interview crew members for the tour, do you keep in mind their height and basketball skills?
I mean, now we are, yeah. That's a determining factor of the crew.
It is great to see a band like Bear Hands do well because I’m personally not a big fan of popular music right now.
Where do you think the music of Bear Hands fits into what's going on with popular music in general right now?
I have no idea. It's funny that we're a "radio band" now because we never really saw ourselves as that. It's weird that we're on the radio. I feel like our songs don't necessarily fit in with popular music. We're probably not a very big band because we're too weird for radio, but then since we're on the radio, you get ignored by Pitchfork and BrooklynVegan and stuff like that. That whole indie world that we came up in will tend to ignore you as well. I think we exist in some sort of pop purgatory. I like being an outlier, for sure. I prefer that to being an easily identifiable, cookie-cutter rock band, but it's difficult when you're trying to cultivate a career and you don't know where you belong.
What is a prominent theme or personality in pop culture right now that really leaves you shaking your head?
You know, I have no idea. To be honest, I don't know a lot of pop stars. Like, I still don't know who the fuck Arianna Grande is. I know who she is, but I was just having a conversation with somebody yesterday, and they were like, "You know that song?" I was like, "No, I have absolutely no idea." Yeah, man, if I listen to music, I listen to rap or death metal. I don't like anything that's in the rock or pop world. I just try to stay the fuck away from it.
Who's a rapper most of us aren't going to know that you really dig right now?
Antwon. Yeah, I love Antwon. He's out of Los Angeles, originally from San Jose, I believe. He's like an old hardcore kid who's a rapper now. His music's awesome.
Speaking of hardcore, you came out of that scene with In Pieces. What philosophies about hardcore music did you want to maintain in some way with Bear Hands?
We didn't bring a driver or any extra crew for the first six years we were a band. The four of us did everything. We did have help booking shows, which was different from In Pieces because I used to book all the shows, but we would sleep on people's floors, not in hotels. There's a lot of posturing, a lot of egos, a lot of entitled babies in the Brooklyn indie scene. They're like, "I'm not going to tour unless it's worth it. I don't want to lose money, blah, blah, blah." It's like, "Just get on the fucking road. Get in the van. Tour. Don't expect a blog to make you big." For me, it was the proactive nature of hardcore, just do it yourself, and do it now. If you don't do it, somebody else is going to do it. We brought that philosophy into the band. Just get on the road, be uncomfortable and do it the old school way. Get in front of people every night, play the best show you can and move on.
You've been in Brooklyn for a decade now. How has the artistic community changed in positive and negative ways during that time?
Negatively, because Williamsburg has totally jumped the shark. Williamsburg was the hotbed for all the best venues—Death By Audio, 285 Kent, Grasslands, places that were around forever—but all those venues I just mentioned are now Vice. Vice bought the block and knocked down all the fucking buildings for their corporate headquarters. There's still a lot of places, they've just moved further out, but it's harder to nurture new bands because it's more expensive now. It's pushing people out. The good things, I don't know. I guess the fact that it's still going on. I'm old now, man. I'm glad 22-year-old kids in Bushwick are still putting on house parties. That fucking rules. I'm not there, but I assume they're good.
Is cannabis legalization a political issue that’s important to the band?
To be honest, we don't try to be too political, but we're pro-marijuana everything. We were just in Colorado and Washington and Oregon, and it was wonderful how easy it is to get. It would be great if it could be federally controlled and taxed, and we could all live happily ever after. We are absolutely for the legalization of marijuana. I think it's ridiculous that it's illegal, or in some cases, that it just now became legal.
Who in the band smokes the most?
TJ [Orscher], our drummer.
Does he keep time better when he's smoking or sober?
I don't know, I've never seen him play sober.
David Jenison (firstname.lastname@example.org) is Editor-in-Chief at PRØHBTD. Photo by Nina Westervelt.