Dave Knudson (left) and Jake Snider split Minus the Bear’s guitar duties onstage. While Snider holds down the grooves, Knudson uses a bank of three Line 6 DL4 Delay Modelers to layer loops and IDM-inspired textures. Photo by Ryan Muir
Minus the Bear’s Jake Snider and Dave Knudson seem to take great delight in shredding the indie-rock blueprint every chance they get. From the cerebral math-prog of the band’s 2002 debut, Highly Refined Pirates, to the polished art-pop of 2012’s Infinity Overhead, their freewheeling approach to guitar interplay and songcraft has always drawn on a wealth of musical styles. And now—with a new drummer in the fold, and a new producer at the controls—the band’s sixth album, VOIDS, chronicles yet another multi-layered fresh start.
But, as many artists learn after years at their craft, sometimes you initiate change, and sometimes change is thrust upon you. The latter came down hard on the Seattle quintet in early 2015, when—after five albums and more than a decade in the trenches together—Snider, Knudson, keyboardist Alex Rose, and bassist Cory Murchy parted ways with original drummer Erin Tate just as they were mapping out their first stab at new material in almost three years. For a moment, Knudson feared the worst.
“We were in a holding pattern for a while,” he says, “and at least on my part, there was a little bit of concern—like, is the band going to continue? Can we keep doing this? We’d written probably six songs with Erin, and once he left the band, we just scratched those and started fresh. We asked Kiefer [Matthias], our drum tech, to come in and help write the record, and that ended up being amazing. In two weeks we probably wrote nine pieces of music—not complete songs, but for us it’s incredibly prolific. That sparked a lot of enthusiasm in terms of starting fresh and moving forward. We just went at it with all guns blazing.”
At the same time, the band decided to clean house in search of an entirely new sound—a feat in and of itself, since Minus the Bear’s musical twists and turns have always been hard to pin down. Although rock has always been their foundation, over the years they’ve dipped exuberantly into prog, psych, glitchy electronica, and even avant-pop, often with their former keyboardist and longtime friend Matt Bayles (known for the layered clarity he’s brought to such heavy stormbringers as Mastodon, Isis, Russian Circles, and Mono) at the mixing board.
They finally connected with Brit producer Sam Bell, whose work with electronically inclined U.K. bands (including Bloc Party, Snow Patrol, Editors, and the Wombats), deft touch with multiple instruments, and easygoing demeanor won over everyone in Minus the Bear. “I think Sam had the best, most like-minded approach to what we wanted to do,” Snider notes. “Going from the unknown where we were, it was a nice transition. We didn’t know who was going to do the record, and it had been a long time since Infinity Overhead had come out. Sam just fell into the group very easily and became a friend and an advocate for what we were doing. So he wasn’t a stranger for very long.”
VOIDS—aptly named for the sense of loss the band was dealing with, as well as the creative vacuum they sought to fill—might be Minus the Bear’s most adventurous release to date, especially where the guitars are concerned. Loaded with rich textures and groove-thickened riffs, and peppered with Knudson’s signature chord-tapping and looping (using a bank of three Line 6 DL4 delay modelers), the atmosphere gets a noticeable boost from Bell’s ear for programming and tone-shaping.
“We would try a lot of parts,” Snider says, describing the early tracking sessions at Stone Gossard’s Studio Litho in Seattle. “I’d lay something down, and then we’d swap out the guitars, reverb pedals, amps—just trying to find the specific texture that Sam was looking for. I’d never been utilized that way—where there wasn’t any expectation. So it wasn’t like, ‘Is your riff cool enough?’ It was more, ‘Can we add some cool ear candy to what’s already there?’”
From the shimmery fretboard-tapped cascades that open the anthemic single “Invisible” to the mud-thick riffage and whistling leads of “Give & Take,” Snider and Knudson unleash a rich palette of sound that in some ways harks back to the near-symphonic arrangements of early gems like 2002’s “Absinthe Party at the Fly Honey Warehouse,” but with much more spatial dimension and depth. The album opener, “Last Kiss,” channels the dancefloor-heavy mood of French electronic artists like Jackson and His Computerband, while “Tame Beasts” pushes a relentless beat with locked-to-the-rhythm licks and swirling guitar samples. Further on, the album closes with the oceanic trip-pop of “Lighthouse,” its backwards-looped guitars and bit-crushed Omnichord effects channeling vintage Massive Attack or even Trevor Horn-era Seal.
“I wanted to have different tonalities that hadn’t been on a Minus the Bear record before,” Knudson explains. For the meat and potatoes, he relied primarily on his two stalwart Paul Reed Smiths: a Custom 24 and a goldtop McCarty. From there, anything was possible with Bell in the producer’s chair. “Sometimes we’d record just completely dry and then Sam would make it sound really bizarre—that happens in ‘Invisible’ in a few places. And then we talked a lot about having more synth-like guitar sounds, with Sam giving us some great pedal suggestions—the Malekko B:Assmaster was one. I mean, it was very organic. We nerded-out on amps, pedals, effects—all that stuff. Once he understood what we wanted to achieve, we were completely on the same page.”
It seems like a lot of the compositional approach to this album was almost improvisational, especially with Sam Bell onboard.
Jake Snider: Yeah, there’s a mixture to it, and there wasn’t as much of that on our last album. Over the last few records, I did have more of a complete idea of what I was supposed to do. I don’t advocate for not doing your work or anything like that, but sometimes not having things completely done proved to be an interesting way to get to something new that I wasn’t used to doing. So Sam might hand me a Fender Coronado II and be like, “All right, this is certainly not what you sound like, but let’s get this totally different tone on the record and see where it fits.” And some of the songs came together rather late in the process, but that was kind of cool, because then I was used as a tool for Sam to create these textures. I’d tell him, “I don’t have a part,” and he’d say, “Well, do something … stabby.” And I’d think, okay—I can do stabby. So I’d go in there and stab away, and then he’d shout, “Massive reverb, mate!” And I’d kick in the reverb and give him some of this shimmery whammy-bar stuff.
Dave Knudson: We did a lot of that with the amp combinations, too. It was like, are we gonna use my PRS Sonzera with my Fender Twin, or are we gonna use the Verellen Ravine? That’s an incredible amp that we used a lot. It’s based off a ’50s jazz amp that Ben Verellen was commissioned to build by someone else, and now they make it together. It just sounds so beautiful. I mean, the Twin was being used pretty much all the time, and then we’d swap out a second amp to get some different tones, whether it needed to be more high gain or low gain, or bright and crisp, or more subdued with less high range.
And then there were the synth-like guitar sounds that I mentioned. “Lighthouse” is a good example. It’s got that backwards guitar sample that happens throughout, and that came about in a weird way: It started with the Suzuki Omnichord OM-100 that I used on the OMNI record , which is prominently featured on “My Time”—the first song off that album. I had that hooked up with different rhythmic and bass tracks going, and then I sent one of them to my pedalboard. Then I looped the main phrase and added a bunch of effects to it. So at the beginning of “Lighthouse,” that’s the Omnichord that gives it a synthy quality, but it still has the flavor of a guitar.
Knudson’s pedalboard boasts three Line 6 DL4 Delay Modelers. “I use one for standard delays,” he says, “and the two on the bottom are exclusively for sampling, looping, and re-triggering.”
Since Dave talked about his amps, Jake, do you want to talk about which amps you relied on for the VOIDS sessions?
Snider: I’m very stoked on the [Vox] Hand-Wired AC30 I have now. It’s my brain’s idea of what my guitar should sound like. It’s straight off the shelf. The only change I made was to put an alnico Celestion Blue speaker in it. I also have an AC30 Custom Classic that had alnico Blues in it, so I just swapped one for one—so each amp now has one Celestion Greenback and one alnico Blue. I also used a Goodsell Custom 33 as kind of a counterpoint. Both amps are definitely in the same world, but they have different characteristics.
How about guitars? Both of you have go-to guitars on the road—Jake, you usually have an Ibanez Roadcore or Talman, and Dave, you have the two Paul Reed Smiths. Did you change that up to make the album?
Snider: Yeah, on this one I did play a lot of different guitars. I used the new Ibanez Talman quite a bit—the Tele-style Talman. And I had a Music Man Cutlass, and I used a Strat just to get that middle-pickup sound, which is a huge change for me from the Tele. Sam would throw me in there with a Strat and a ton of reverb, and I’d play these high, twinkling chords with a lot of whammy-bar stuff, so there’s some of that on a few tunes. But actually my main guitar the past couple of years on the road has been this Esquire parts guitar that Old Town Music in Portland made for me about 20 years ago. It’s got a real growly, almost P-90-ish sound. We were using a lot more of a single-coil sparkle on this recording.
Knudson: Honestly, I pretty much used my two PRSs the entire time—probably 90 percent. There was a lot of mixing of amps and pedal combinations, but those guitars—they’re like home for me because I’ve had them for years. I feel so comfortable playing them, they sound great, and you can get a lot of different tones out of them, whether you’re coil-tapping or at the bridge or the neck pickup. They’re really versatile, they’re easy for me to play—I mean, I love the PRSs.