Photo by Elise Shively

When you first listen to Minus the Bear, it registers in your cranium as radio-friendly, indie-tinged pop. But listen closer, and you’ll hear intricately woven, kaleidoscopic parts hidden within—disparate elements like live sampling, contrapuntal melodic guitar parts, math-metal-inspired polymetric riffs, and sometimes just balls-to-wall shred. For evidence, one must look no further than MTB’s fifth LP, Infinity Overhead.

“You’re peeling layers upon layers and hearing something you didn’t hear the first time,” says Dave Knudson, guitarist for the Seattle-based quintet “which is how great music should be.”

Because of those shifting, seemingly inconsistent parts, the group’s music can be difficult to classify. Their perpetually changing sound can be directly tied in to Knudson’s everexpanding musical headspace. Like many guitarists who grew up in the ’80s, Knudson was initially drawn to guitar after hearing Metallica. “I picked up guitar after hearing … And Justice for All. I was, like, ‘Holy shit—what the hell is this? I gotta play guitar!’” He later moved on to progressive bands like Yes and King Crimson, then punk and hardcore, and then to IDM (intelligent dance music, aka “braindance”), which inspired the Line 6 DL4 Delay Modeler-driven looping madness that has become a central part of his guitar approach.

“A few years ago, I started listening to a lot of electronic music like Four Tet and Caribou—sampling and glitchy stuff. I thought, ‘Wow, that’s a cool sound. I wonder if I can reproduce that on guitar,’ and that’s where a lot of the sampling stuff came from. I discovered I could do that if I just sampled it into the DL4 and made it double-time.”

For MTB’s 2010 release, Omni, the band looked past their inner circle and called on Grammy-winning producer Joe Chiccarelli, who introduced a stronger emphasis on keyboard and synth textures, but this year’s Infinity Overhead finds the band revisiting their formative, guitar-centric sound.

Minus the Bear’s sound seems to evolve from album to album. Which side of your musical personality came out on Infinity Overhead?
When we first formed in 2001, we had come from a more punk-rock/hardcore community, but I think we all wanted to break out of the more rigid genre rules and experiment with cool, complex technical music but in a pop format. The first couple of records have a lot of dance-y stuff on them, like Daft Punk-inspired indie-rock stuff. Then we got more into prog rock—Planet of Ice was sort of a journey through late-’60s, early-’70s prog rock. Now I think we’re coming back and joining both of those loves with this new record.

What is your favorite track on the album?
I think the consensus is that “Diamond Lightning” is the favorite for all of us. Everybody loved how that song was written and the fact that we wrote it as one piece of music with “Toska” together. It was written that way and is always played in rehearsals as one song.

That’s surprising, because “Toska” has such a different vibe—it’s more upbeat and has more aggressive guitar, like that repeating, keyboardesque figure midway through the song. Is that part tapped?
No, it’s just picked—a lot of hammer-ons, pull-offs, and picking. There are a couple of songs that have two-hand tapping, like the main riff in “Lonely Gun.” That crazy, almost synthed-outsounding part is a two-handed tapping riff.

“Lonely Gun” also has some crazy-fast alternate picking.
Yeah, in the bridge there’s a pretty fast picking part—there’s a time and a place for everything. Like, on this record there’s a time for a song like “Cold Company” to be totally extreme and kind of flashy, and there’s a time to be a little more restrained like on “Diamond Lightning” or “Listing,” where it’s just more of a traditional acoustic thing. There are some songs that don’t need a brutal, insane tapping solo. The tapping stuff was what a lot of people loved about the first couple of records. I love doing the two-handed tapping stuff, but using it more for a rhythmic riff rather than for a flashy solo. But I think there are times for both extremes.

MTB gets intimate at Seattle’s Cornet Tavern. Photo by Amber Zbitnoff

Although you started out in the punk/hardcore scene, the guitar parts on Infinity Overload are a far cry from bashing away at power chords. “Lies and Eyes” and “Diamond Lightning” are just two examples among many that have several independent melodic layers going on simultaneously. Where do you get this concept of melodic rhythm guitar, and how do you avoid sonic clutter?
Yeah, it’s not a three-chord punk band. We strive to create earworms that get stuck in your head—whether it’s a keyboard melody or a guitar line or a vocal hook. I think we all have a pretty good ear for when something isn’t working with another thing. At this point, having been in the band for 10-plus years, we all understand what each person’s role is and how that works for the band. Alex [Rose, keyboards/vocals] is really good at coming up with parts that weave in and out. There are keyboard lines that are more prominent and take center stage, but a lot of times Alex’s melodies pop up between different notes and stuff. Jake [Snider, lead vocals/guitar] is great at complementing my guitar parts with other things. Even though there’s a lot of stuff going on, Matt [Bayles, Infinity Overhead producer/former fulltime keyboardist] is such a good engineer and producer that he’s able to wrangle those things in and have them make sense— although sometimes we’ll be like, “That’s going too far … .”

Did that happen on the Infinity Overhead sessions?
I did some overdubs that didn’t make the record. We were like, “Let’s try this and see what happens,” and then we listened back and were like, “That doesn’t really fit the vibe.” So sometimes, yeah, you’ve got to rein yourself in. With this band, sometimes what you don’t play is more important than what you do play.

Although the guitar parts can be intricate and complex, there is a live and spontaneous feel in the execution.
Yeah, it’s not so rigid and played exactly as we wrote it in the rehearsal space, and that adds to some of the personality of the record. We did, like, 10 to 12 takes of a song to get a really great drum take and a great guitar take, so sometimes there were some liberties or flourishes added here or there. I also did a lot of guitar overdubs to fill out the sound, so some of those embellishments may have happened as experimentation during the overdub process.