WAS is out now.
What drew me to Ireland alt pop solo project Bear Worship were two things. The wonderfully hopeful and positive nature of the music, and how elements of a wide variety of music are deftly melded together within the conconction to create something invigorating and new. There’s guitar lines and drums from indie rock tradition, a very dance influenced use of synths, and the general bounce and lustre of old fashioned pop music.
We recently had the chance to chat with Bear Worship (Karl Knuttel) and take the album apart piece by piece by piece. Discover how weed, the floating head of Zardoz, and the selfishness of art influenced the record.
WAS is really a collection of songs I made over a period of a few years. I’d sort of given up on music as a career after doing it for over 7 years with little success. But I need to make music; I get seriously depressed if I’m not making it all the time, and I really only realised that after a period of avoiding it. So I just started sketching out ideas for songs, learning synthesis, and getting better at production, mixing, all that jazz. I bought a few old analogue synths after really getting into more electronic stuff and that was a huge catalyst in putting stuff down. I just love the creative freedom they provide for and the way they make me think differently about music.
I find lyric writing very difficult. I don’t want to stick any old crap down on a page, and I’m not a good enough writer to be able to hash nice stuff out quickly. So usually I spend months getting lyrics right. It’s a personal record, but it’s not about love or loss or any of that. It’s about hitting 30 and trying to make sense of life. What is it that drives me and gives me meaning? What frustrates me? What gets me down? I had serious anxiety while making the record to the point I thought I was losing my mind, was on meds, counselling, the whole lot. So that feeds into it, I guess.
I recorded a lot of the record at home. Lots of the vocals were recorded in the early hours. But I ended up then working with Stephen Shannon who’s an amazing engineer and producer, and it was really collaborative. I had the songs at a certain point but he really pushed it way way beyond. It was a joy working with him.
1. Art in the Artifice
This is the first track on the record, but it’s also the first one I wrote for it. Lyrically, it’s about the feeling of creativity, the feeling of being in ‘flow’. I love stuff that’s unpredictable. I used to smoke a lot of weed and really enjoyed listening to interesting music while stoned. Weed’s too strong now and gives me panic attacks so I can’t go near it, so I wanted to try to recreate that feeling of being constantly surprised and satisfied by the directions a track takes. Unpredictability and payoff. So this is meant to be a non-weed weed experience. Or something. Weed emphasises all the good stuff in music, so I felt I needed to go more extreme in how stuff plays out. It’s kind of a swingy 4/4 feel, but it’s actually 6/8 meter.
Sonically, this is obviously a very Panda Bear/Beach Boys/Grizzly Bear influenced track. But I was also listening to a lot of Oh No Ono, Caribou, Palmbomen, Todd Terje, and Sebastien Tellier. It was Stephen’s idea to replace the bass with a baritone guitar, that’s the sound you hear at the start and throughout. It has a cool bite to it. We tried to make a sort of sonic tapestry, there’s a ton of little elements hiding in there. That’s what I love about well produced music, all the little stuff you discover the more you listen. I’m not sure what it’s about anymore. It was about culture, the idea that we’re not evolving biologically anymore but that our evolution is cultural. But then around the time of the marriage referendum in Ireland it took on a new meaning for me. It became more about what drives us, gives us meaning and purpose, and the struggle for that. Which I guess is still culture, technically. But also something deeper. Like culture and values are expressions of something even more basic.
I got really into the surf guitar vibe for a while and wanted to make something with that influence buried underneath. So you have this kind of dream pop vibe with a driving bass and slidey guitar thing going on. The vocals are also about twelve layers to get the choir-like sound. That took a long time to get right. I had the middle eight written and sort of built the track around that. So that’s the focus of the song for me. It’s really unexpected and sort of comes out of nowhere. I had bought a Yamaha CS50 from Japan. It’s a synthesizer which is like the baby brother of the CS80, the synth that Vangelis used in Blade Runner and a bunch of other scores. Stevie Wonder too. And Toto, Moroder, Kate Bush, Air. Anyway, it’s amazing sounding and that’s the synth you hear in the chords in the middle eight. Very fizzy, brassy and rich. The song is about getting older and realising the truths you once accepted are just beliefs or assumptions. It’s about overcoming all that to hopefully become more humble and aware of the perspectivity of truth and knowledge.
4. Our Friends
Usually tracks take me a long time to write, but this one actually came together pretty quickly. I had the chorus worked out for a long time; it used to be a part of another song, but that song wasn’t working so I totally reworked it and it became ‘Our Friends’. The lyrics are pretty simple, there’s only about ten or twenty lyrics for the whole song, but I wanted to let the music tell the story on this one. The idea was to have it gradually progress, build and get deeper. So there’s mostly just high mid-frequency stuff to start, then the kind of slow brassy synth adds mid-range. Finally you get this huge bass at the end. There’s no bass for most of the song so the payoff is really satisfying. You can hear Moroder’s bass for Berlin’s ‘Take My Breath Away’ is a big point of reference. Vocally, I wanted to go for a SuperTramp vibe. Again, there’s a lot of layered stuff going on at the end. It’s all about the ear candy.
This track is really a song of two halfs. There’s a weird structure to it. It goes verse/verse/chorus/chorus. I go for non-traditional arrangements with a lot of my stuff. For that reason I think a lot of people don’t gel with it – they’re expecting a certain song structure. I’m more about trying other things. Anyway. This song is about the fact that there are no solid bodies in the universe. Everything is mostly empty space at the most basic level of description. Even the idea of a continuous self is illusory, but despite this there is the phenomenon of ‘self’. The universe is made up, fundamentally, of oscillating frequencies so in a way the whole universe is music. The music of the planets and all that stuff. I swear, I don’t smoke weed anymore. Sonically I wanted to divide the song into two sections. The first part is setting the scene, and the second bit is for blissing out to. When I was a kid I used to DJ crappy trance music. So the big arpeggio is a throwback to that. That’s the CS50 again. I had to sell that synth because, hey music doesn’t pay! It’s a shame, but I’m happy it’s all over this record and preserved in that way.
So this track is the one that took the longest to write. It went through about ten different iterations and the lyrics took me forever, about two years all in. It’s also my favourite track. And in the end it sounds exactly how I want it to. There’s three main sections. The first starts off as exposition, then moves to a kind of Kate Bush type vocal thing to introduce a new melodic theme. Then it goes super 70s meets Jon Hopkins before entering a massive vocoder break, which builds and builds til you think it’s going to go one way, and then it goes a totally other one. Again, I wanted to play with expectations and use sonic payoff. A friend of mine called it a ‘synth pop-era’, which sums it up nicely. It’s structured more like classical, maybe, than your bread and butter verse/chorus/verse/chorus/middle eight/chorus. Lyrically it doesn’t really mean anything concrete. I wanted to go for an expressionistic, Bowie-like approach —like ‘Life On Mars’— where it’s just a succession of rhyming couplets which don’t have any relation but which hint at some overall meaning. There’s something going on in there, but I don’t know what it is yet.
7. Illusions of Modernity
My friend David Turpin, who is a ridiculously talented musician, producer, writer, and a load of other stuff, does the spoken word thing at the start of this track. I sent him the demo and told him the idea – a sort of ‘visions of the future from the past’ type thing. He came back with this really smart and funny riff on that idea which totally blew me away. Every time I listen to it it makes me laugh. As he described it, it’s like the floating head of Zardoz. The idea of this song is that whatever age humanity has been in, they’ve always believed in this nebulous idea of modernity which eventually, in hindsight, is viewed as incredibly quaint and antiquated. We also see the future as an extension of the present. Think of the Victorian image of the future, or the 50s idea of rocket ships. Soon our technology and futurism will look just as naive and ridiculous.
This track had its beginnings way before any of the other ones, but I ended up finishing it almost last. It didn’t take too long to write, like Pagodas, but I left it and came back to it. Again the idea was to create a sense of unexpectedness. I love tracks that challenge me like Oh No Ono’s or Ariel Pink’s. Tracks that have this kind of schizophrenic quality to them. Stoicism has no chorus, or anything like it. It goes verse/bridge/verse/bridge/verse. But each time the verse comes in it’s entirely different. So it’s like three versions of the song in one. I love playing around like that. Lyrically, the song is about how I’m outwardly quite a stoical person. I think people think I’m cold sometimes, but that’s just how I am. I live in my head a lot. But inside my mind I’m just awed with stuff all the time. The beauty of nature, humans, our culture, but most of all our passion. There’s nothing more moving than seeing someone who’s so passionate about something, no matter what that is. But all great art is created by someone who is just burning with passion for it. I wanted to celebrate that. Nothing worthwhile comes from cynically doing stuff. So much of human culture is disposable, you have to actively seek out the quality stuff now.
9. A Wondrous Waste of Time
The final track. I love music but it’s a heartbreaker. I’ve come to realise that I’ll never have a career in music after dedicating most of my life to it. This saddened me for a long time. But then I came to realise that it doesn’t really matter. You know the idea that the difference between art and design is that design has a purpose but art is for its own sake? That’s the abstract concept of art, but it’s the same deal with making it. The enjoyment I get from music is in making it. There’s no real other reason for doing it. All artists and musicians are adding to this huge culture pool; it’s only drips here and there, but when others get enjoyment from it too, that’s the bonus. So while it’s a waste of time —if we think that our purpose on Earth is to make money or whatever we’re conditioned to expect of our lives— then it’s the best possible way to waste away that time. Art is totally selfish and self absorbed for the artist—just like any pursuit people are engaged in— but the upshot is it often gives so many people so much joy. Stamp collecting is absorbing for the collector, but no one else benefits from it. Anyway, it’s a pretty sentimental and kinda mawkish note to end on, but it’s genuine.
Order WAS via Bandcamp.
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