Music News

Designing Men

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.

"Still," he adds, "it was frustrating. I understand that that's the way reviewers in general communicate, and I know it would be hard to do thirty reviews of thirty different bands that don't mention any other bands that they sound like. I don't think I could do it, for instance. But to have your whole career seem like it's piggybacking one or two other bands in terms of sound--well, that's something you just have to try to ignore."

Exploded Drawings, from 1996, didn't make a clean break from its nascent style, but it was more thoroughly Polvo than anything the act had previously managed--and Shapes continues along this path. "Enemy Insects," "The Golden Ladder" and "Twenty White Tents" are so geometrically structured that you can practically see them flowing from your CD player, yet they remain blessedly unpredictable, going from loud to soft to loud again without the slightest notice. And just when the proceedings begin to seem a bit too smart, a tune like "Rock Post Rock" or "D.D. (S.R.)" comes along to blow the doors off the joint. According to Brylawski, the latter was one of the few instances on Shapes when he willingly set his sonic blueprint ablaze: "We had it set up in a certain way, but at the studio, it didn't really sound the way I wanted it to sound. So Ash and I sat down and messed around with other guitar parts, and he came up with a newer guitar part that turned out to be one of my favorite things that he has ever done on one of my songs. It was one of the only truly spontaneous things on the record, but I really liked the way it came out."

By the same token, neither "D.D. (S.R.)" nor anything else on Shapes is apt to cause Casey Kasem to break a sweat--and that's fine by Brylawski. Majors in search of the next Seattle have been hovering around Chapel Hill for several years now, and local acts such as the Squirrel Nut Zippers and the Ben Folds Five have actually scored mainstream hits. But other combos, including the Archers of Loaf, have found that a big-time contract doesn't necessarily ensure big-time success.

"I don't know terribly much about the major-label record business," Brylawski concedes, "but Polvo did sort of investigate it, and it seemed to us that unless you're very fortunate, it can turn out to be a bad thing. A band gets one chance, and that chance is over a two- or three-week period. It's like a movie: The record company sees how much it moves, and if it starts moving, then they push it, and if it doesn't, then it's dead in the water and they drop you like a fish. And your career's practically over.

"In Polvo, we sort of knew that; it was one of the things we carried with us. We were like, well, you know, if we were to sign to a major label, we know we wouldn't sell millions of records. So by doing that, we basically would have been writing the end of our career. So thank God we didn't do that." At Touch and Go, conversely, "the pressure is not less--the pressure is none," Brylawski says. "They've been super supportive and have said, 'Just do what you do, and we're going to put it out for you.' They're the best label we could ever want, because they have the capital and the power of a pretty large indie and they have great distribution, but they don't have any master plan for you at all."

Lately, Touch and Go, which was once stocked almost entirely with guitar outfits in the Polvo mold, has branched out. Brylawski regards that as a good thing. "I guess some of it is sort of postmodern--chopping up old stuff and rearranging it. And I know why people go in that direction. It's hard to do something completely new and different using the same instruments that have been around for years. But that's what we're trying to do."

Polvo. 8 p.m. Saturday, January 17, Bluebird Theater, 3220 East Colfax, $7-$8, 322-2308 or 830-