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ACL Fest 2010 preview: Bear in Heaven

Patrick Caldwell

So, Jon Philpot, singer, guitarist, keyboardist and lead writer for Brooklyn electronic rock trio Bear in Heaven, your sophomore album, the spacey and intricate ‘Beast Rest Forth Mouth,' has just received an 8.4 from Pitchfork. About how long did that take to change your life?

‘Probably about 20, no, maybe six hours. I'm really not kidding,' Philpot answers with a laugh. ‘After that review was posted my phone started blowing up and change carried forth swiftly thereafter. We got some notice and all of the sudden we were a band people cared about. I think we toured a grand total of two weeks behind our first record. And I think on this record, by the end of it I'm predicting we'll play maybe around 200 shows.'

Not a huge surprise — ‘Beast Rest Forth Mouth' is, at 10 songs and 40 minutes, an economical journey into cushiony synths, interlocking electronic grooves and Philpot nuanced vocal drone. It's the second Bear in Heaven album that's an actual band record — Bear in Heaven's debut EP was crafted as a solo project by Philpot, a video editor by trade who'd previously composed one-half of the experimental rock duo Presocratics.

Philpot crafted that first EP alone, tracking pulpy and noisy synthesizers to a four-track recorder in his ‘music cave' — an 8-by-10-foot room in his Brooklyn apartment with black walls, an Alice Cooper photo on the wall, about 19 guitars and a horrifying number of wires (‘You don't want to go messing in that room if you don't know what's going on. Something might get you.').

‘That a band formed around those songs was totally a surprise. It wasn't meant to be. I was just going to make tunes by myself,' says Philpot. ‘But adding actual members limited the palette, which was a good thing. It focused me a bit. Before, the songs were never intended to be played live, so they would have a horn on top of a violin on top of a cello. The songs got edited down more, which I think made them stronger.'

It's good that Philpot developed that skill early because Bear in Heaven underwent a series of lineup losses, each of which forced the remaining members of the band to do more with less. Bassist James Elliott left to focus on School of Seven Bells, reducing the band to a foursome — and Sadek Bazarra, bassist and keyboard player, won't be along for the tour that takes the band through town for the Austin City Limits Music Festival, leaving the expansive Bear in Heaven to fend for itself as a three-piece.

‘Honestly before we went out on this big tour we had to scramble and learn how to play everything live all over again. It was a crazy juggle. I was sleeping about three hours a night,' says Philpot. ‘But even that opens up new doors. You figure out new tricks, learn how to queue up samples and play the guitar and sing at the same time.'

Not bad for a guy who took his first stab at music when he picked up the guitar at the relatively late age of 20 (Philpot's now 36).

‘I kind of wonder, if I had spent my high school years learning to play an instrument, would I have gotten to this point earlier?' asks Philpot, before immediately shooting himself down: ‘Nah, I probably would have just made a bunch of awful post-rock.'

Bear in Heaven plays at 1:30 p.m. Saturday on the Zync Card stage.