White Bear Polar Tundra is, I guess, alternative rock. They didn’t invent the term, but they’ve embraced it. I’ve always been a little confused by it, myself. Alternative to what, exactly? Alternative to pop rock? Classic rock? Hard rock? Glam Rock? Punk Rock? Alternative to choral music or rap music or jazz? Of course it’s an alternative to all of these things–everything is an alternative to everything. I try not to get too caught up in sub-genre micro-distinctions, but this one kinda bugs me, because it seems to set up an opposition that doesn’t really have to exist.
The issue on the whole is indicative, however, of the tendency for new music to brand itself as opposed to whatever came before it, often violently, even revolutionarily. There is a value created through distinction: this is not the music of our parents, this is not the music of our oppressor. This is our music. This is our voice. The catch of language is that only through opposition can we reach the positive conclusion of our own definition.
But White Bear Polar Tundra has a different definition of alternative. An alternative alternative, if you will. Their latest album, Filter The Noise, works in perspectives, in the differences of angles and rhythms. Their alternative is not an act of violence. It’s an invitation. On the closing track, “Solstice,” vocalist Zein Hassenein offers us a view:
If you look through my lenses
You will see, you will see
Your own face, is it smiling?
Facing me, facing me.
It’s a simple but resonant image, the looking-upon-oneself-as-other, and questioning what we see in that face. Is it smiling? The lines would have us to take a long hard look across the mirrored void, back into our own eyes. This is the solstice, the point at which two celestial bodies are either closest, or furthest away. These are our true alternatives, the only real choice we’ll ever make
Vocalist Zein Hassanein and Drummer Nate Stoll took the time to talk with me about the new album. Check out what they had to say below the video.
The title of the album, Filter the Noise, seems to resonate on several levels. The opening lines on the first track, Sifter, are “filter the noise/through your teeth and lips,” a description of the physiological process of speaking, shaping sound into something with meaning. Then there’s the larger idea of filtering the larger cultural “noise” into a meaningful piece of music or art, which is, I think, the “sifting” that the song is about. How do you guys approach the idea of filtering/sifting? When writing/composing, what elements do you find yourself filtering out, and what do you let through, and how do you arrange those components into something new?
Nate: We end up doing a ton of filtering when we’re writing songs. We often jam on one or two ideas for a long time, everyone trying out different parts to see how they interact. There’s no one answer to what makes a song sound right for us, but we let our ears lead the way. We all have pretty diverse musical tastes. Zein loves Metal. Ethan loves soul and funk. Patrick loves post rock. I love math rock. We all share a love for grunge. If it sounds good to all four of us, then we figure it’s bound to sound good to someone else.
There were a few instances on the album, like “Nairobi,” where we weren’t happy with how the song was sounding. We basically scrapped all of our work and started over. That also happened to a lesser extent with “Waves” and “Sifter.” We often call it killing our babies. I guess “filtering” is a better way of putting it…
Zein: When we were writing “Sifter,” my mindset around society, music, culture, politics, a lot of things was not particularly positive. The original image that popped into my head was of certain politicians and the way they are able to filter ill intentions through fine speech and jargon into something more benign. That’s who I’m addressing when I sing, “Bet you think you’re a sifter.” On a personal level, I found myself metaphorically digging through a lot of bullshit to get to the true meaningful essences of what was around me. The same went for music I was listening to. I felt strongly that a lot of the music in the scene around me was too happy-go-lucky for what the current world demands. It’s definitely an angry song.
Once we were trying to decide on a name for the album, however, the line took on new meaning. It began to represent a couple things: 1) how the listener filters the noise in their own lives, and 2) how we whittle down a song to its final form.
What is your songwriting process like? Do you all contribute parts? How do you collaborate musically with one another?
Nate: We’ve thought about this one for days on end, and we came together as a band years ago to draft a charter about how we operate. A lot of our charter has to do with how we write songs, and the overall product is our own brand of musical democracy. Everyone gets an equal vote in the final product. We all write our own parts, and we’ve found in our band that the end product is better when everyone’s unique creativity gets expressed.
That said, we definitely create a dialog within the band about how our parts are fitting together during the songwriting process. We don’t just throw four different parts together and hope for the best. Oftentimes the song starts with a riff or harmonic progression that Patrick brings to the table (although occasionally Zein or Ethan do, too), and we all piece parts together around that. It’s not uncommon for the riff that Patrick brings to come out the other end of the songwriting machine utterly unrecognizable. It’s a beautiful process, and Patrick’s a real sport about having his ideas torn apart and re-constructed.
Zein: He answered that one beautifully, I’d say. Who knows how it will change over time, but that’s how it’s been. Thanks Pat, for letting us hack away at your melodies!
From a music production standpoint, filters are used to emphasize and de-emphasize or remove certain frequencies, often with the goal of getting multiple sounds to exist audibly with one another. This album feels more painstakingly produced than your last one in terms of the number of vocal and instrumental layers on each song. What was your philosophy toward composition during production/post-production?
Zein: If we’d had the time, equipment, experience and connections the first time around, Strikes Back would have been equally as produced. In general, I like a crisp sound. I am a big believer that the more people you include in a project, the more investment there is in its success, and thus the bigger the impact. I was really happy to have some of our singer and instrumentalist friends from other communities involved with Filter the Noise. I get tired of hearing solely my voice, believe it or not, and so I was happy to share the sonic space.
Nate: When we were tracking the basics (drums, guitar, and bass), we wanted to get a really live feel, like you’d experience when you see us perform live. For the most part, that’s exactly what you’re hearing when you play the album. We all got together in the studio and played our parts live. All those tracks ended up on the final product. With our first album, we actually weren’t all playing in the same room when we tracked the basics, and I think the production suffered a bit as a result. We tracked drums, then guitars separately, and then finally bass at the end. This was because we did everything DIY back then, and had a smaller budget (although I still do a lot of the overdub recording at home on the new album).
After we finished the basics, we went to town with overdubs. Unlike playing live, a studio album gave us an opportunity to realize all our musical fantasies, like getting a choir to sing over our songs or adding female backing vocals. I think we had these fantasies with the first album, as Zein mentioned, we just didn’t have the experience or time to put all the layers into the music that we were hearing in our heads. On Filter the Noise we embraced the musical community we’d been surrounding ourselves with over the years, and asked a bunch of our friends to contribute.
A stylistic device you guys often use is the contrast between lighter, melodic sections and sections with harder distorted guitar and bass riffs. How do you guys use this juxtaposition when writing songs?
Nate: Post-rock is a huge influence for us. The band actually started out as a duo with Patrick and I writing post-rock songs on acoustic guitar and drums. We grew out of this phase and wanted to add more musicians to the project, but I think part of that post-rock influence remained. The whole pretty/heavy, loud/quiet aesthetic is a device used commonly in post-rock. We do that same thing often, but we just don’t write post-rock songs anymore.
Zein: Ethan and I are both huge fans of System of A Down, who are masters of this! From my middle school years through now their mixture of aggressive and delicate moments have shaped my musical tastes, so that may factor in subconsciously. As Nate mentioned, post-rock also employs this a lot. I like to think WBPT plays post-rock without the build-up, if that makes any sense.
Who are you guys listening to now that people should know about?
Nate: Holy Tentacles, a great Portland math-rock band, just released an album called Won’t Be Saved. It was on repeat in my car for a week. Their guitarist did a fantastic job recording the album, and the instrumental interplay is absolutely phenomenal. The music is pretty technical, but they don’t sacrifice songwriting in order to get there. The songs are still catchy as fuck. I’d recommend it to fans of Minus the Bear (one of my all-time favorite bands).
Another band I’ve recently been listening to is Brontide. Their new album Artery has some seriously mind blowing tones on it. It sounds so clean I feel dirty after listening to it.
Zein: At the time we were writing Filter the Noise, Pat and I were living together and we were listening to a couple different things on repeat: SOJA (yes, the reggae band) was a major lyrical influence, because they were saying the things we wanted to be saying about the world. Pat was also spinning a ton of Foals and trying to dissect their guitar work (I think he bought a songbook even?). I was also blasting the AFI album Burials because I was super enamored with the dark, sharp arrangements and production. Super varied musical inspiration is healthy, I think.
Right now, I am listening to The Kominas a ton! I love those guys because they are a bunch of Pakistani-American punks from Boston writing music that appeals to me as a Middle Eastern dude trying to navigate the world of alt rock/hard rock/punk/indie/whatever you want to call it; which is, especially in PDX, super white. They write tongue-in-cheek songs which make you laugh and make you think. The bassist, Basim Usmani, just wrote a dope article in the New York Times about how the punk scene is thriving for brown folks right now, it’s worth a read!
Many of the songs on this album deal with journeys, travels, and relocations, which I know is something you, Zein have experienced in your life. Even as you describe different locales though, there seems to be this underlying sense of unity you try to capture, especially on Um Al-Dunya, whose title roughly translates to “this temporal world” (correct me if I’m wrong). Can you speak a little about how you look at moving around, “Al-Dunya” and how you use those ideas when you’re writing music?
Zein: Um-al-Dunya comes from a popular Egyptian phrase “Misr, Um Al-Dunya” which means “Egypt is the Mother of the World.” That particular song was written about the Egyptian Revolution which was going on in 2012, and in many ways is still going on. I couldn’t be there to protest, since I was getting my degree at Lewis & Clark at the time, so I guess I wrote those lyrics. Cairo, Egypt is where I spent my formative years (ages 6-18) and so it was kind of a homage to my people and their current struggle. I do like your interpretation though. There is a lot that differentiates us as human beings, but the feelings that are expressed throughout the album are meant to be universal, and like I said, I find it beautiful when a listener comes out with a totally different reaction to my lyrics than what I intended. I try to leave that space by making the statements relatively abstract and employing allusion.
Speaking to travel, I find it difficult to write about things that haven’t actually happened to me. That’s why I don’t really write love songs. Even “Waves,” which is the most romantic track, is more of a love song to the Oregon Coast and the platonic love shared between my bandmates and I. It materialized when we went on a band retreat to Ethan’s house in Newport, and almost all the lines are pulled from literal stuff we did and saw.
What’s the significance of your name? Who’s the white bear? What’s the polar tundra?
Nate: The name is really just an inside joke and a statement about how band names don’t really matter anymore. How a band sounds makes a much bigger impact on me than their name. When we were starting out as a band, Patrick tried to come up with the most stupidly hipster indie band name he could think of as a joke (not to actually use): White Bear Polar Tundra. I thought it was absolutely ridiculous. I liked it enough to want to use it. That and, at the time, it was hard to come up with a name that wasn’t already taken. We were pretty sure nobody had named a band White Bear Polar Tundra before.
Zein: We’re musicians, not name-comer-uppers. That’s why almost all of our songs are named after words in those songs. Even “Solstice,” which you beautifully interpreted, is just called Solstice, because we wrote it on the solstice. That being said, I like to think of us as the White Bear and the scene being the Polar Tundra.
Zein, you’ve just recently moved out of Portland, which means the band won’t be performing these songs live in the near future. Did you approach the way you wrote and recorded the album with that in mind? Does that change what the project means to you?
Zein: Wow, that’s a tough question! It really was difficult knowing that I was going to release this album and then bounce because I truly believe in this band, our music, and our message. I guess we all wanted it to be really good, to affect people in a personal way. We wanted that regardless of the fact I was moving. When we started writing the album I wasn’t planning to move. It was an itch that became more in need of a scratch, gradually. Perhaps the ideas that I was exploring in the writing process subliminally played into my decision to leave Portland. I was feeling frustrated with my inability to feel like I was doing enough to heal our sick society, a sentiment you can hear in Sifter, Um Al-Dunya, Fireflies, Nairobi and who knows where else. I was feeling really out of place in Portland, as an Arab-American, and just as a person. Don’t get me wrong, I love Portland in that deep kind of way, but I was feeling stifled there. I was feeling like I had a ton to say about the state of the world, and that wasn’t necessarily what people in the PDX indie-rock world were interested in hearing about. Maybe it was all in my head, but regardless, I was feeling it and I think it was unhealthy for me.
Now, I’m in Philly and I love being just another alt brown dude in a sea of shades! Furthermore, I am studying how to use music as a healing tool by getting my Master’s in Music Therapy and Counseling. I feel like I am on a path towards addressing that internal struggle I was having, and healing the sick world in a way that makes sense to me. I treasure the times we spent making Filter the Noise and my bandmates are still my brothers for life. Who knows what will happen in the future, but to use a beer metaphor, let’s just say things are still brewing. And boy that mash-tun is starting to smell like NW hops.
Zein Hassenein, Nate Stoll, Henry Whittier-Ferguson