Designing Men

With Shapes, Polvo vaults into the forefront of experimental rock acts.

Guitarist Dave Brylawski, one of the principal architects behind Polvo, is an adamantly regular guy. So eager is he to make a personal connection with the Coloradan on the other end of the telephone wire that he is soon noting that his brother lives in Snowmass and that guitarist Ash Bowie, his partner in feedback, devotedly follows the ups and downs of the Denver Broncos.

But Brylawski's conversational accessibility doesn't mean that Shapes, Polvo's latest recording for the Touch and Go imprint, will have Hanson fans doing handsprings. The music on the discs consists of alternately searing and sensitive guitar lines whose precise geometry makes the disc's title all the more appropriate. The result is rock, all right, but rock of an especially intellectual type--and Brylawski, in the friendliest way imaginable, makes no apologies for its braininess. "We sort of fell into our own sound a couple of records into our career," he allows. "This is just what we do naturally."

That may be true, but the manner in which the members of Polvo have collaborated over the past several years is far from simple. The act was born during the late Eighties in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, a community that has spawned one of the more interesting and idiosyncratic indie-rock scenes of the past decade. But several years ago Bowie moved to Boston in order to set up housekeeping with Mary Timony, with whom he performs in Helium, a recent Westword profile subject ("Lighter Than Air," October 30, 1997). Then, around the time that Shapes was forming, longtime drummer Eddie Watkins vamoosed, leaving Bowie and pinch hitter Brian Walsby to handle the sticks as best they could. To top it off, Brylawski had just relocated to New York City, leaving bassist Steve Popson as the only one of the players to actually remain in the state where he began making his name.

Keeping the band together under such circumstances would seem to be an impossibility, but Brylawski insists that it's easier than it appears. "It's just a matter of time," he says. "When we all lived in the same place, we were very lazy; we would be minutes apart and never rehearse. So this enabled us to know that when we got together, we would have to produce."

He adds that such constraints have caused the Polvo sound to evolve in unexpected ways. "I think we were a traditional garage band for years, but as we've gotten older and were forced to make better use of our time together, we've gotten a little more composerish--a little more set in our ways," he says. "What we learned to do with our songs is respect each other. You can hear on our first few records that sometimes Ash and I overplayed on each other's songs. I think that stemmed from practicing three times a week in a small room next to your own amp, where the only things you could hear were your guitar part and the background of the song. Then, when we sat down in a studio, we'd be like, 'Oh, my gosh,' because we'd be hearing all the subtle parts played by other people that we never really heard before. So after a while we made a conscious effort to respect each other's songs and to sculpt our parts in the ways that the other person wanted. And that's turned out to be really constructive. I think most musicians would agree that what a composer hears in his head usually doesn't sound that much like you thought it would when you listen to the playback of the tape. But on this album, especially, we've tried to be truer to the sounds in our heads."

For Brylawski, a big part of his musical development took place at WXYC-FM, a radio station affiliated with the University of North Carolina, where he was a student at the time of Polvo's birth. "It's known as one of the best college stations in the country and has a very eclectic format," he notes. "It's one of the reasons Chapel Hill is the way it is. The music is super free-form; there's a lot of rock, tons of world music and composers and rap and electronica and everything else." When he was serving as a disc jockey for the outlet, Brylawski was, by his own admission, "one of those music geeks who worshiped all the minutiae that had anything to do with rock or indie rock." But having WXYC's vast music library at his disposal helped him broaden his tastes. Today he is every bit as enthusiastic about the folk traditions of India, China and Central Asia as he is about Jimi Hendrix.

In the beginning, though, reviewers of Polvo full-lengths such as 1992's Cor-Crane Secret and 1993's Today's Active Lifestyles could hear only one influence: Sonic Youth. Virtually every blurb on the group likened Polvo to Thurston Moore and company, and Brylawski acknowledges that these comparisons made a certain amount of sense: "Obviously, there were some similarities, and we owe them a lot, because they trailblazed a path for any band that has two guitars and plays in a different, winding style where you fill in the gaps around each other. Also, Ash and I did alternate tunings on our guitars. We didn't really do that because of Sonic Youth, but we definitely were influenced by that to an extent.

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