The cramped cellar “green room” enjoys the dank stench of countless drunken midnights, fueled not only by the promise of avoiding the old 9-to-5, but plenty of beer and smokes, judging from the mountainous accumulation of empties and butts. Fading, peeling stickers layer walls like old-forest bark, and the WWII-era Salvation Army furnishings stink of the sweat and spilled spirits of a thousand naïve dreamers doggedly tooling the highways in pursuit of something, whether it be a good time, some kind of recognition, or just some free beer.
Bear Vs. Shark seem blithely unaware of the lingering ghosts whose sticker-tombstones line the walls here at Philadelphia’s North Star bar. They’re just five high school buds from Ferndale, out of college, still crossing America in support of their 2003 debut album, Right Now You’re In The Best of Hands.
Oh, they know their history and the Clash, Hüsker Dü, Minutemen and Minor Threats that established the brand, but they’ll be excused if they’re a little giddy with the fresh-out-of-their-boxers excitement. They’re doing their thing their way. You get the feeling they’d fashion themselves rebels, were the idea not so meaningless and corporately co-opted.
“You have Hot Topic in the mall selling this lifestyle to kids, and we’re saying, ‘fuck you,’ to that, but, you know, the underground scene has just as much bullshit as the mainstream one,” says drummer Brandon Moss, taking his ‘indie’ peers to task.
“You’ve got this new market and it’s easy to exploit. A lot of bands nowadays really hit it up because they know there’s money there for them. There are so many bands making a living off of other people’s sadness. It’s bullshit, not genuine. You want sadness, get [The Cure’s] Disintegration, don’t throw out Boxcar Racer.”
I ask them what they’ve learned in their initial foray across the country and they tell me of their realization that “opening bands don’t get paid,” a fact so ingrained in the scene it has its own publicist. When I ask guitarist John Gaviglio — for the third time over the sound of whoever’s pummeling away onstage — what it’s like to be on the road, feeling far-away fans’ love up-close and personal, he shouts, “What?” for the third time, leading me to identify him as an early candidate for one of rock’s inimical twin legacies — liver damage and tinnitus.
But however mundane is the appearance of new bands — like crows on the musical powerline — it’s just as self-evident that every Sonic Youth or Nirvana starts somewhere. Bear Vs. Shark aren’t the saviors of rock (not yet anyway), but their debut is an uncannily mature effort. The shifting tempos of their arrangements recall not just herky-jerky DC post-punk but the swirl of math rock without the dispassion. Bright melodic legato parts grow choppy, building in tension before exploding in an ear-bending roar. As often openly melodic as not, the hard/soft interchanges feel spontaneous and lively, full of passion and expression, not calculation.
Their sound is underwritten by vocalist Marc Paffi, whose heartfelt, image-rich yet oblique lyrics are reminiscent of a post-core Pavement, wounded hope replacing ironic detachment. Paffi’s vocals are percussive, come in torrents that ebb and flow. They key the band’s off-kilter charm, from the churning, Jawbox-like “Buses/No Buses” to the waltzing jangle of “The Employee Is Not Afraid,” to the stark, Jets To Brazil-ish ballad, “MPS,” where he forlornly sings, “they gave you poetry and endless hours of conversation/And it affects the colors … Your crutch and your cross/Your voltage, your watts at the end of the day.”
The energy of Paffi’s alternation between a roaring scream and gruff melody is matched by his onstage menace, which makes Richard Simmons seem sedated. Whirling, kicking and gyrating, Paffi’s taken out a few of his own teeth swinging the mic, and is known to wander the audience like an escaped mental patient while performing.
There’s certainly something idiosyncratic about Bear Vs. Shark. It’s not their experiences, which, from the bus mishap stories to the artistic convictions, echo a line as old as athletic standbys: “one game at a time” or “just happy for the opportunity.” It’s not even in the way they fumble to explain their non-linear structures.
“I think we do try to avoid verse-chorus-verse,” says Gaviglio.
“Well it’s not like avoid it, I mean why would you try to do something that’s already been done,” counters Gaviglio’s grade-school chum and fellow guitarist Derek Kiesgen.
“We just sit down and ideas flow from there,” offers Moss.
“Everybody brings something to the table and it just is what it is. It really just turned out the way it was. We work with what we have,” follows Kiesgen, picking up any leftover clichés.
While in thousands of garages across this country, we see the birth of an unfathomable number of bastard bands, and one of them — by the exigencies of the scene — must have the seeds, the beans if you will, to spawn future generations. There’s a potency words and interviews can scarcely illuminate, and so, like a flirt, are best stopped at the hinted suggestion.
Bear Vs. Shark will perform Thursday, May 6, at the Magic Stick (4120 Woodward Ave., Detroit) with Don Caballero and Panther Attack. Call 313-833-9700 for info.Chris Parker is a freelance writer. He lives somewhere south of here. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org