FOREWORD: I had spoken with Polvo’s Ashley Bowie at many New York City gigs on several occasions. His band played dissonant, angular post-punk gunk that lazy critics labeled math-rock and others saw as an extension of abstract prog-rock. Bowie was a laid-back dude with no pretensions. Alongside several better-known bands, Polvo was part of the zestfully varied mid-‘90s Chapel Hill scene. They broke up in ’98 after one final tour and Bowie formed the less popular Libraness, whose Yesterday…And Tomorrow’s Shells, has been lost in the shuffle. In 2008, Polvo re-formed and did a couple gigs. This article originally appeared in Aquarian Weekly.
Along with fabulous underground brethren Archers Of Loaf, Superchunk, the Connells, Dillon Fence, and the Judybats, Polvo sprung up from the expansive Chapel Hill, North Carolina scene in the early ‘90s boom – releasing their debut, Cor-Crane Secret on local label, Merge Records, during 1992. Diligently deconstructing melodic fragments and building upon skeletal song ideas, Polvo’s cerebral punk-inspired prog-rock takes unexpected twists and turns.
“We work out a chemistry which gravitates towards the unconventional instead of the straightforward. But it’s not a question of whether we decided on any models,” Polvo vocalist-guitarist Ashley Bowie maintains.
Sharing time in girlfriend Mary Timony’s respected Boston trio, Helium, Bowie’s intense commitment to both bands never wavers. Along with musical partners Dave Brylawski (guitar-vocals), Steve Popson (bass), and Brian Walsby (drums: replacing Eddie Watkins), Polvo take their sound to higher levels on the brave new Shapes.
ASH: Dave suggested the title Shapes. Originally we didn’t know how the project would turn out. We worked on this album more independently. We didn’t sit down with finished product like we usually do. Each songwriter had more control, and different textures developed. We don’t sound like a band just chuggin’ out – even if there’s busier guitar work. Dave added some cool segues. And as writers, each of us approached the project in a different way. There’s more editing, more discussion about each song, and more thought about what should be left out.
Some critics complained in the past that your songs were cold and unapproachable. But I felt Shapes had an easier flow to it.
ASH: To me, most of the songs we make are pop-oriented. They make sense melodically. I’m surprised when people say they don’t know what’s going on in our songs. Most songs start out with an uncomplicated melody. Some people think we’re just using trickery, playing gymnastic prog-rock. But the songs on Shapes are simpler than ever, more riff-based. Some are more mellow and some have plain chord changes. Maybe more people will understand the songs this way. A lot of rock fans have no patience for unconventional stuff because it takes concentration. But there’s so much music out there that people won’t be able to dig if that’s the case: Jazz, Classical, Blues. The batch of songs we experimented with and recorded for Shapes are connected by segues and intros. There’s still juxtapositions of tempo, and weird, jarring stop ‘n start intervals. But to me, the arrangements flow and are suited to the melody.
Eddie Watkins went back to school. Brian Walsby took over drums. What has he added to Polvo’s overall sound?
ASH: He added some kick-ass moments. He had played with a bunch of North Carolina bands. We thought he was one of the best drummers in the area. He’s fantastic and fun to watch. He has lots of skill and plays with a definite flare. In the group Shiny Beast, Brian made heavy non-generic music. They made an EP on Boner Records, then recorded a split LP with a band called Regraped.
Polvo introduces a few different instruments to Shapes. Why?
ASH: There’s some Casio keyboards and trumpet on it. Also, I used an e-bow guitar on “Rock Post-Rock.” We definitely wanted to bring in more instrumentation. And when we found out we’d have to use a different drummer, we approached the album differently. It was a break from the regular routine and set a different tone. It seemed obvious to try different things.
When you’re playing live, it seems as if you’re constantly adjusting modulation and controlling feedback. Are you a true guitar technician?
ASH: Live, we’re pretty well aware of how things sound. I can’t honestly say that I’ve figured out all the sonic elements and acoustics of a room. But I do play with my amp just to make sure the sound isn’t getting out of control.
What are your favorite and worst venues to play?
ASH: The Cat’s Cradle in Chapel Hill is always fun to play. It sounds great depending on the board man. CBGB has a good sound system. The Middle East in Boston is fine. Downstairs, the Middle East has low ceilings because it used to be a bowling alley. But six years ago they designed it for bands and the acoustics are great. Of course, Chicago’s Lounge Axe is cool. If anyone had asked us, we would have submitted a Polvo track for the compilation they made last year to raise legal money. TG The Bear in Boston doesn’t sound real good but it’s a lot of fun. I think the soundsystem there makes music souns low-end-y; all vocals and drums.
What parallels or differences are there between playing bass in Helium and guitar in Polvo?
ASH: The difference for me is playing a different instrument. It’s just different coming up with bass parts for songs. It’s a different experience. But that’s what I enjoy. I’d like to one day do an album by myself. That’d be satisfying in a way because I’d have complete control. It would take a lot of stress out of the process of recording. But it could be more difficult, time consuming, and not as rewarding as collaborating. That’s when you get to interact and play stuff you never thought of.
What are some of the hurdles Polvo had to jump to get initially recognized?
ASH: We were very lucky because when we started playing a glut of new bands were coming out. To make it all worthwhile, we felt we had to put records out and tour. It was good timing for us. We got signed by Merge, a label that was looking for good local bands. And they liked us. It’s never a bowl of cherries. But we sell a decent amount of records without having it take over our lives. I’m lucky. I could pay the rent. But putting money in the bank is hard. The last few years have been hectic because of all the traveling.