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Inner band tension ends up fueling Solar Bear's creativity

Right before Solar Bear headed into the studio to record its new album, there was quite a bit of simmering tension among its members. Between trying to raise money to record and having to replace a player mid-stride, things became increasingly heated until one day they just erupted between frontman Marcus Tallitsch and drummer Kevin Henkelman.

"A lot of us were holding our tongues and putting up with it," recalls Tallitsch, "and you know that's gonna spill out eventually. There was a shouting match between me and Kevin; we were saying 'Fuck you,' wanting to kill each other, and five minutes later we'll be bros and hugging each other."

While this particular rift eventually ended in an embrace, it was significant enough at the time that Tallitsch genuinely thought the band might just break up altogether. Rather than spurring the guys to part ways, however, the acrimonious episode actually ended up fueling the act's creativity, as heard on "The Ghost of Anton LaVey," in which Tallitsch ruminates on the prospective death of Solar Bear told through a narrative that involves a conversation between a dying old man and the Grim Reaper. When death comes calling, the man's not quite ready to leave.

Likewise, there was still ample life left in Solar Bear. Given how much effort the band invested in developing its sound, often spending weeks or even months at a time writing a single song, it's easy to how such friction festered. Losing a guitarist in the midst of the songwriting process simply compounded matters. But Marshall Gallagher, who filled the slot after Tyson Weigel quit the band to go back to school, augmented the lineup perfectly, as evidenced on songs like the aforementioned "Ghost of Anton LaVey," which features some extremely intricate fretwork from Gallagher and Nicholas Scriven. The latter axman is the mastermind behind many of the complex guitar lines, which noticeably tend to avoid formulaic structures and repetition.

"When we started this band," Scriven explains, "I tried to make it a point to not keep repeating myself by writing the same part over and over again."

Mission accomplished. The bulk of the songs on Modern Architects, the outfit's six-song debut, feel like mini-songs within songs. The album's opener, for instance, "Baiting the Electric Hook," is an epic six-minute tour de force that has at least eight different movements, from dreamy, shimmering chorus-laden guitars to dirty, odd-metered Fugazi-esque grooves.

Bassist Tyler Stoakes says this mainly comes from not knowing how to write transitions very well. Henkelman's outlook is slightly different. He says the guys try to keep things interesting by letting the individual parts linger just long enough to stir the senses before moving on to something else. "We're not really anti verse-chorus, verse-chorus," Henkelman clarifies, "but we have a very Mars Volta approach, a very non-linear approach."

Architects certainly bears out this assertion. The band wasn't always so progressive, though. Early on, it put far more emphasis on being heavy than on being technical. The song "Million Dollar Homes" marks a pivotal point in the band's evolution. "It's pretty much a separation between old Solar Bear and new Solar Bear," Henkelman points out. "That one has a lot more of a Converge feel to it, that almost kind of lead into our harder stuff that's more like tech stuff. It's a good transition from what we had before."

"Before that song, we didn't really know the Solar Bear sound," adds Tallitsch. "We were trying out a lot of stuff, but as soon as we wrote that song, that's when we had a real definite idea of the kind of music we wanted to play. Right after that is when things started to fall into place."

Gallagher, who previously played guitar in Aloft in the Sundry, had been a fan of Solar Bear but hadn't heard the group for a while. When he gave an ear to "Million Dollar Homes," he was blown away. "I was like, 'Wow! What the fuck happened?'" he recalls. "It was so much more cohesive."

Considering where each member came from musically, it's a wonder these players have crafted anything cohesive. Henkelman grew up playing old-school punk and listening to Minor Threat and Black Flag, while Gallagher was into a lot of '70s rock and is now studying jazz. Stoakes, who at nineteen is the youngest member, is into pop punk but can't stand playing it, and Scriven's gone through everything from Mr. Bungle and Primus to the heavy post-hardcore of At the Drive-In, an outfit that, not surprisingly, everyone in Solar Bear admires.

For his part, Tallitsch was into Depeche Mode and the Smiths growing up, but he eventually drifted toward death metal. He's also a major fan of Tom Waits, which is evident from hearing the 130-pound singer aggressively belting on "The Devil, the Prophet, the Salesman," a gypsy circus waltz Henkelman penned after seeing There Will Be Blood. The song, notes the drummer, is about trying to be raised in a religious household. "Everybody is a snake," he declares. "No matter who you are, everyone has an evil instinct in their body."

Perhaps so, but not everyone acts upon it, particularly this bunch. Although Solar Bear's songs survey the trespasses of evil and frequently trade in angst-ridden anthems that nod to controversial figures like LaVey, the late founder of the Church of Satan, the guys are not Satanists or druggies or alcoholics, as they've led some to believe.

"We wanna lead people on," Tallitsch admits. "It's just a joke. We're probably like the most normal guys ever."

"We don't ever want to take ourselves too seriously," Henkelman interjects, "because that's when it gets so mundane it's stupid."

"That's when you get stuck," Tallitsch adds. "When people take it so seriously. That's when you can't write. That's when you get stuck in a formula."

The act's painstaking, anti-formulaic ways served it well. When the group entered 8 Houses Down, the studio where Architects was recorded, the members had only budgeted for two songs. Since the guys nailed them so fast and were ahead of schedule, they had time to record an additional four tracks. Even then, as fulfilling as the session was ("It was the funnest experience ever," Tallitsch says), Henkelman remembers it as "the most depressing experience ever," he recalls. "You don't know how bad you are until you're in the studio. And then you're like, 'Oh, man,' and you start to go over and over again."

"I just wanted to keep doing it," says Tallitsch. "Every day I had something to look forward to. I was like, 'This is so awesome.' And you start to get it in your head: 'Oh, man, like a total career — I could do this forever' type of deal. And when you leave, you're like, 'Oh, yeah, I have to go back to the real world now.'"

Ah, the real world — a place where folks fight and forgive in equal measure.

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Jon Solomon writes about music and nightlife for Westword, where he's been the Clubs Editor since 2006.
Contact: Jon Solomon