From exclusive interviews, live performances, special collections and more, we’re celebrating music all month long. We talked to the bands and artists playing our upcoming UO Live in Austin shows about their musical beginnings and the places they’re headed next. Click here to read more from our favorite musicians.
How does a band return to the world after five years of silence? Minus the Bear will answer this question on March 3, when their sixth album, “VOIDS,” arrives. It’s the Seattle band’s first full-length since 2012’s “Infinity Overhead” and a lot has changed since then.
Their drummer Erin Tate, who was a founding member back in 2001, left the band. Singer Jake Snider and guitarist Dave Knudson both became fathers. There were a lot of big changes, some of them good, some of them bad. And Snider, speaking on the phone from his home in Takoma, Washington, tells us that there was even a possibility that Minus the Bear would call it quits.
That didn’t happen. Minus the Bear is back. We spoke with Snider about his early days skateboarding and his first band, and about how Minus the Bear has evolved over the last 16 years and the recent life and band changes that impacted “VOIDS.”
Photos by Ellie Lillstrom
Words by Elliot Sharp
How did you first get into music?
It all revolved around skateboarding and friends’ older brothers playing the Descendants and Social Distortion while we skated in the driveway. I remember one of them had a Gibson Les Paul and he was playing it one day. It was the coolest thing I had ever seen and it made me want to start playing immediately.
Did you study music in school?
No, but I had about a year of informal guitar lessons where my teacher would show me how to play songs and technique, but not really any theory. For the most part, I’m self-taught. As soon as I could make notes happen, I started messing around with writing melodies and songs.
Do you recall your first live performance?
Oh man, not really. It was in high school, I think. I played a battle of the bands with some fellow students. We played Alice In Chains covers and stuff, like “Man in the Box.”
What was your first official band?
It was another group of people during high school, kids who lived close to me but went to a different school. I’m not sure how we got started, but I think we just met at one of the local shows — there were youth centers in Washington that had a lot of shows when I was a kid. We had a band called Pillow and we played some pop punk music.
Were you writing songs and lyrics back then?
Yeah, but I was just getting my feet wet, learning how to do things. It was pretty bad, but that’s how everyone starts out, I think. You know, just a few kids learning how to cooperate in a band setting together. But it was bad music, for sure.
And now Minus the Bear has been together for 16 years, so maybe those early experiences somehow helped you learn how to cooperate in a band setting.
Definitely. The guys in the band all built this thing that we all individually depend on, and we depend on each other for our livelihood now. It’s not that tough to keep it together when it’s what you do, you know. We’ve done it for a long time and now it’s become our job.
But so few bands stay together for that long, so it seems like your creative group relationship is very special.
It’s really hard to do, really. Being that close to other people is always difficult. Doing it for a long time,, you have to have a commitment to it beyond the personal stuff that might come up. It’s very difficult to keep it together when you don’t have reasonable income. That’s why so many bands stop so early; it’s hard to make a living out there. And it takes the commitment of going for it and making it a full time thing.
Did Minus the Bear struggle in the early days or did you have fairly immediate success?
In our minds, we had good success from the beginning. We didn’t lose too much money on our first headlining tour, or we didn’t lose as much money as we did touring with other bands, at least. I think we had an easy time with the transition from it being difficult, because we expected it to be that way, and then it started working, so it was easy for us to make it a priority in our lives.
“VOIDS” is the band’s sixth album. Do you still feel nervous about a new album dropping or are you used to it by now?
I’m still kinda nervous about how people will react. That’s a lot of records to put out and a lot of opportunities for fans to be disappointed. That happens every time you release a record. I’m wondering where this will fit into the hierarchy of the band’s albums for our listeners. I’m more interested in what the audience is going to think than what I think. I don’t have a huge opinion yet, so I’m waiting to see what people think.
As an artist, how do you balance making fans happy and doing your own thing no matter where that takes you?
When we’re making music, I don’t think we put a hell of a lot of thought into making fans happy. We do what we do. People in this band have signature sounds that we make so it somehow always ends up sounding like us. But we don’t think about who’s going to enjoy a particular song and then write for that specific audience. We don’t think about it. We’re like our own audience when we’re writing and we’re trying to please ourselves. We just like to get in a circle and please each other…. Huh, that came out perfectly.
How do you keep the creative environment fresh and challenging after being in a band for so long?
These days, we’re more open to presenting ideas to each other and accepting criticism from each other. That’s allowed us to get more ideas out on the table and it’s pushed us in a more beneficial direction. Everyone has a greater share in the finished product. Everyone has been really vocal in the process, including a great collaboration with our producer, Sam Bell. He integrated really smoothly with how we work as a band.
“VOIDS” is an evocative name. How does it relate to this new album and the making of it?
Through the process of writing the record, we lost our drummer, we lost a lot of time, and we were rebounding from all these things. The record is filling up this blank spot we had. For a while, it wasn’t even clear we were gonna make another record, so it’s more about repurposing what we’re doing to fill up what we’ve lost in the past. Pumping stuff into those voids. It was a long time since our last album. I had two kids in that period of time, Dave has a child, our old drummer had a kid, a lot of things changed, and a lot of new solutions had to be put in place to get everybody back on track to make another record. Life just comes at you.
How did the addition of a new drummer impact the sound of the album?
Kiefer brought a lot to the table with his drumming. He was very flexible and he had a great attitude. It was kind of his first time in the studio working on an album and he was very open to our ideas and really into contributing to the greater good, when songs would change at the last minute and you have to roll with the punches.
The song “Give and Take” mentions hearing an old song and how it transports the listener. Is there a specific song you can think of that does that to you?
There are tons of songs that do that to me. The other day I threw on June of 44’s “Four Great Points.” I hadn’t heard it for a few years. It took me back to the house I was renting with friends when I first got the record; it was a window into a former life.
Where do you see the band 10 years from now? Still on the road and making albums?
I’m 40 now and 50’s probably not gonna take that long to get here. I could say anything now, and then in 10 years we could have this conversation and I could say, “Yeah, still playing in the Bear. Yeah, we’re gonna play at the Union Transfer.” In 10 years maybe we’ll be doing the same shit, I don’t know. It’s addicting. I think we could all get a day job and make a bit more money, but it’s pretty darn hard to get out of it once you’re used to making music and touring and all that.
If you had to get a day job, is there any career you think compares to the feeling of being onstage and performing for thousands of fans?
Being a stay-at-home dad. That’s a pretty awesome job.
See Minus the Bear this month at UO Space 24 Twenty for UO Live in Austin. Click here for more schedules and information.