If you had visited Bear in Heaven's website in the months leading up to the release of the band's third album, I Love You It's Cool, you would have heard an ambient piece of music full of long, low, strange, droning notes and a slo-mo burst of curious distortion. It was actually the new record slowed down 400,000 times, so that a single spin lasted 2,700 hours — or roughly 112 days. The music became utterly unrecognizable, albeit not utterly unlistenable.
"I've heard a fair amount of it," drummer Joe Stickney says. "I'd get home after a long day at work, really late at night, and put it on. It helped me come down from my long bar-tending shift."
That months-long stream is a clever twist on the strategies a lot of current bands regularly use to promote themselves. Bear in Heaven let you hear the album for free — just not in the form you expected.
"A lot of people thought we were taking the piss," Stickney says, "but the idea evolved out of our desire to do an original ambient piece as a companion to this record. There's just so much to do when it comes to getting a release together and getting all the wheels in motion. We just didn't have enough time." Thus, I Love You It's Cool became its own ambient companion.
While that stream doesn't give much of an idea how Bear in Heaven sound at regular speed, it does provide a useful impression of the audacity and cleverness with which they explore the intersections of music and technology. Based in Brooklyn, this band of Southern ex-pats play ambiently catchy (or catchily ambient) songs that straddle dance, pop, and rock and mix live guitars, drums, and vocals with carefully calibrated walls of synths. I Love You It's Cool is a headphones album for the dance floor, digesting styles and influences that range from ELO to Orbital, from Can to Philip Glass, from New Romantics like A Flock of Seagulls to New Tribalists like Animal Collective.
In a few short years, Bear in Heaven have become one of the premier bands in Brooklyn, which is known for its robust indie rock scene.
"We spent a lot of years feeling out of place in New York because we didn't seem to fit into any particular music scene," Stickney says. "I feel like maybe we mix in better with what's going on currently."
Spacey and lushly textured, with subdued hooks that reveal new complexities with each listen, I Love You It's Cool should cement Bear in Heaven's reputation both locally and nationally as an adventurous band that not only integrates a wide swath of pop history but transforms it into something new and complex.
The group started in the late 1990s as a solo project for singer/keyboard player Jon Philpot, then based in Atlanta. When he moved to New York, the lineup expanded into a quintet. But the roster has proved variable over the years, as Bear in Heaven shed members with each new release.
They recorded 2009's attention-getting Beast Rest Forth Mouth as a quartet, but after that album prompted a busy touring schedule, bass and synth player Sadek Bazaraa left the group to concentrate on his 9-to-5 job. Rather than replace him, which would have been financially unfeasible for the indie band, they figured out how to play everything as a three-piece. "It was a crazy process that gave Jon in particular a number of sleepless nights," Stickney says. "He had to learn a lot of the new technology that we used on this record."
While shedding members puts more demands on the musicians, it varies up the recording process as well as the results, making sure that each album has its own sonic personality. As the band has grown smaller, their sound has grown bigger and bolder with each release.
"Basically, every time we go to write a new record, it's a new experience," Stickney says. "This is the first time we've gotten together and written a full record without distraction."
Bear in Heaven's music is closely linked to the technology they use to write and to record their albums — numerous keyboards and synthesizers as well as computer programs and even the lighting set-ups in their live show.
The band's mix of live and synthetic instrumentation necessarily determines how Bear in Heaven write and perform, but it also allows them to work just to the left of their influences, making references to so many different forebears without actually sounding like any of them. Perhaps the band's crucial trait is its collective adaptability, by which they can use the demands of jobs, lineup changes, and new technologies to their best advantage.
"Our sound is always changing," Stickney says. "But I think we're retaining the crucial fragments that give our music its identity."
Bear in Heaven, with Blouse and Doldrums
Hi-Tone Café, Sunday, April 22nd, 8 p.m.; $12