INTERVIEW: Bearstronaut on the 2013 BMAs, synth-pop, and their influences

bearstronautBoston “tank-top pop” band Bearstronaut is taking the New England dance scene by force. Known for their active, beach party-like performances, they’ve performed at the Boston Calling Music Festival and recently won electronic artist of the year at the Boston Music Awards (2013). They’ve described themselves at “part new-wave, part britpop, part electro, part r&b, but for the most part synth pop”. We asked guitarist David Martineau, keyboardist Paul Lamontagne, and bassist Nate Marsden a few questions about what it’s like to be a break out pop group.

AF: Some of the songs on Paradice are great party anthems – “A Better Hand” and “Moniker”, for example. Others, such as “Birds of Prey”, are more like love songs. Can you tell me a bit about the story or context behind the EP?

Paul – Our idea of “Paradice” was a great way for us to make these very bright and extravagant productions while leaving a tinge of darkness around the edge with a lot of the themes in the lyrics. I liked thinking of Paradice as the place you want to escape to, but when you’re still have to deal with all the same complicated life stuff as before. Kind of a “careful-what-you-wish-for” scenario.

Dave- We had some ideas for songs that we needed to reign in a bit in order to fit the concept we had for “Paradice.” We like the songs to have a contrast between the music and lyrics. Where either the song is bright and happy sounding but the lyrics deal with a darker concept, or vice versa. So “A Better Hand” is a dancier track, but the lyrics are about someone’s last days on death row.

Nate-  I tried to reflect the themes of the EP in the album art. We got the opportunity to use a photo taken by our friend, Emily Knudsen, from her recent trip to Peru. It’s an amazing photo of this beautiful desert scene at night, but there’s also this ominous looking shack in the foreground that draws you in. Her photos have this incredible juxtaposition of being beautiful but also sad, or dangerous at the same time and I think that works perfectly with our music.

AF: How about the musical inspiration? Do you all collaborate when writing?

Paul – It’s a collaborative thing. We have worked out  our individual roles a little bit so we each bring something new to a project. A lot of times we’ll work out sketches and demos of musical ideas and they get chewed around and mangled and shaped to support the context of what we’re trying to pull off. Designing the song idea is a pretty collaborative process.

Dave- I do my best to come up with a lyrical concept or story to apply to a demo or idea. Then present it to them in context I think is a good start. But they’re awesome at pointing me in a strong direction and helping me steer the focus of whatever I’m working on lyrically/melodically.

Nate- Living together definitely makes it easier to write. I love when someone knocks on my door and goes ‘Dude, you have to hear what I just did’ then a few hours later, we have the basis of a song.

AF: You self-released your first EP in 2009. How do you feel you’ve grown as a band since then?

Paul – Speaking for myself, I definitely felt like a novice putting that EP together. I learned a hell of a lot about making a record and what it takes to build a song. Songwriting has remained very challenging, mostly because I feel like we have no other option but to top ourselves. I barely knew anything about synths, samplers, production when we started, but the nature of those instruments is very exploratory. As we began to get creative with song ideas, it kind of unlocked new ideas from the instruments. It was very exciting to start from square one and have production skills and keyboard techniques come as a result of learning how to write songs.

Dave- That record was incredibly necessary for us as a group. We learned a lot about writing as a group and how to push ourselves creatively. At the same time, we figured out how to step back and listen critically at what we were doing as a whole. Now, we are trying to make themes more prevalent between songs and what will be on our album. The first ep will always sound like songs by 8 different bands in a way, but I think work ethic was what we took away from that experience the most. Nowadays, we’ve all gotten pretty good at being each other’s critics and knowing how to take that criticism as encouragement to keep working.

AF: The kind of music you write is made for dancing. I’ve heard and read great things about your live performances. Do you do anything special on stage to engage the audience?

Nate-  I just always try to look like I am having fun, no matter what. If it doesn’t look like we’re having a good time and dancing, how can we expect the audience to do the same? That’s my philosophy.

Paul – My hands are always stuck on a keyboard the whole show. I’m not exactly running around the stage but I do my bit.

Dave- We try to give our audience a bit more than just playing the album live. With “Paradice,” we added some auxiliary percussion to our live set up in order provide a more engaging aesthetic. We streamlined some transitions between songs in order to keep the momentum up. As a front man, I do my best to try and make people feel comfortable with breaking out a bit at our shows. You have to walk the line between being annoying and encouraging. So I make an effort to try some new moves on stage to show them I’m ok with letting my guard down in front of them.

AF: What was it like to be nominated (and awarded) in a couple of categories at the 2013 Boston Music Awards?

Nate-  Being nominated is a great feeling. It’s a weird sort of verification for everything we’ve done in the last year. Once I found out we were up for a few awards, I immediately reflected back to figure out why we were nominated and it reminded me of some crazy milestones we reached as a band in 2013. It’s nice to see that other people take notice of the hard work we’ve put in as a band. As far as winning Best Electronic Act, that’s kind of mind-blowing. With crews like Zone Def, HNDMD, and M|O|D all in Boston, we are like nerdy kids in gym class. Overall, it was a crazy night. We got to see some of our best friends win awards, and we got drunk while wearing ties, which is what it’s really all about.

Paul – It was a great night and I got to see so many friends there. It does feel great to win an award but I felt very proud to be among a lot of people I respect. We won an award for Best Electronic Act and for that category in particular, there’s a lot of amazingly talented electronic artists in the area who are so fluent and skilled with electronic production that it does feel like we are a bit of mis-representation haha. We’ve got drums, bass, and guitars just like every other band. Shout out to Tone Ra, Soul Clap, GMGN, Tide Eye, Tanner Ross, Andre Obin,

Dave- It is such an honor to be a part of the BMA’s. We had such a good time partying with everyone that night, basically to celebrate everyone’s hard work from the past year. My favorite part was definitely playing our set right after we won. We were all so excited to play at that point, it was one of my favorite sets of ours this past year.

AF: How did your friends and folks at home react to the Awards?

Nate- I think since we are all so close to our families and friends, it felt like they won as well. At least I hope that’s how it felt, since we truly couldn’t have won without them.

Dave- Our friends and family are incredibly supportive; always have been. They knew how much it meant to us to win this year. It felt great to bring something home this time to show them the fruits of our labor in a way.

AF: Many reviews mention a “human” quality to your work. People have called it “grounding humanity” and, more simply, “honesty”. What part of your music lends this quality?

Paul – That’s the trick, making music the way we do, it is very easy to get carried away. There’s always got to be a way to connect with people. We always try and tether our songs with that human element. I heard someone talking about the Strokes and how they always tried to make their guitars sound like computers played them. I sort of want to do the opposite, make computers feel like humans are telling them what to do and making mistakes. At the end of the day though, it’s all about trying to express something that feels real, even in the unnatural environment we put it in.

Dave-  When it comes to lyrics or stories, I try to create a balance between vivid imagery with accessible hooks. Some songs take longer to get there than others. But we want the hooks to be accessible, and for our audience to want to hear them again.

Nate- A lot of the human element also comes from our live show. Since we are all actually playing instruments, we tend to make mistakes. We’re not just standing up there pretending to be doing stuff.

AF: What are your favorite synth-pop bands, from the 80s and today?

Nate- Bow Wow Wow and that song ‘Electric Avenue’ by Eddie Grant

Paul – The Tough Alliance, Talk Talk, Delorean, Blancmange, Hot Natured, Saint Etienne

Dave- From the 80s: ABC, Human League, Duran Duran. From today: Hot Chip, Cut Copy, Polica, Painted Palms

AF: How many of them are influences?

Nate- 6, to be exact

Paul – I’m generally more interested in the songwriting and how clever they are at using their instruments to capture a feeling. Synth-pop bands are lucky to not have to exist in an actual environment. What I mean is, they can be as stark or lavish as they want and be as personal or as larger than life as they want. That’s a pretty attractive advantage.

Dave- All of them for sure. It’s really interesting to see how many of them cross paths or borrow from each other. When we analyze influences, we like dissect what parts we like and dislike to see what we want to draw from.

AF: Do you come down to New York often for live performances? How do you like it here?

Paul – I never know what to expect out of New York. We played Glasslands a couple weeks ago with the Hood Internet and Pictureplane and it was incredible. I loved it.

Dave- Yeah, we’ve definitely had a tough go of it in NYC. But the Converse show we did at Glasslands gave me some new found hope.

AF: What’s your favorite thing about Boston? What’s the best thing about Massachusetts?

Nate- Mo Vaughan and clam chowder.

Paul – The Greek Corner on Mass Ave. in Cambridge

Dave- The ability to escape the city fairly easy. All of our families are in CT, so it is nice to have home close by.

AF: It’s been freezing down here these past few weeks. It must be even worse up in Massachusetts. If you could live in one season forever what would it be?

Nate- Definitely Spring right before it becomes summer. We New Englanders work hard for that nice weather.

Paul – That first week in October is the sweet spot.

Dave- I’m all about the beginning of spring. Let me put on some shorts and bust these gams out already, please.

Check out Bearstronaut’s “Passenger Side”, off of their new Paradice EP:

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