“We’re definitely a grower kind of band,” explains Erin Tate of Minus The Bear. “We don’t have hit songs. We have songs that people listen to and can like right away but they have to get it. There are a lot of complicated textures. And with this record we wanted to make things a little easier for the listener to wrap their brain around.”
The band’s latest release, Omni, certainly tilts more than their previous works toward the land of accessibility. While it keeps the prog-pop edge that MTB is known for, the album manages to sneak in a funky groove that keeps things in a tight circle.
Tate’s parts have never been over-the-top, especially considering the often-complex music they support, and Omni has him laying it even sparser, wetter – better. To Tate, his drumming “sounds more confident and more solid. And more fun.”
It didn’t come without work. MTB went with an outside producer for this one, an über-producer, in fact. Joe Chiccarelli has fingered knobs for, oh, to pick a few: Frank Zappa, Beck, U2, Radiohead, The White Stripes. And he’s won a Grammy or two … okay, more like eight. Tate and mates spent four months with him, nose to the grindstone.
“Joe never told us what to do,” Tate recalls. “He would help us come up with different options and different ideas. Lots of things kept changing, even during recording. We’d spend a 12-hour day tracking a song and at the end of the day Joe would want to try a bunch of changes. We’d do it, reluctantly, but we’d do it. And the next day we’d come in and listen and realize he was right. It was a really big learning process for all of us.”
Pretty much all bands these days have to “settle” for the digital do-rights of Pro Tools – cutting and pasting their way through financially limited studio time. Well, under the eye of Chiccarelli, MTB was forced to take the long road.
“We’ve always done lots of cutting and pasting and overdubs with Pro Tools, just for time’s sake and I guess for sanity as well. But for this record we really strived to get as full a take from each performance as possible. So we’d do take after take after take. It was a grueling process.
“There were times when I’d play a drum part perfectly six times in a row and really just wanted them to edit one little bridge and it’d be done. But Joe absolutely wouldn’t allow it. He didn’t want to sacrifice the feel.”
The feel yields to none. And a big part of Tate’s feel on Omni is his drum sounds. Often crisp and splashy, turning to washed or even punchy with an occasional rough romp, they’re an integral texture as the vocal track.
“In the past a lot of our tones and stuff like that would end up getting tweaked in the [post-production] mix. We’d set up our guitar sounds and our drums sounds and just go with it. But with Joe we’d set up different tones for each individual song.
“I’d go first, play the song over and over by myself, then we’d start changing sounds: cymbals, snares, bass drums, hi-hats. There was so much detail to every little part. He wanted everything perfect going in so that when we did get to the mix it was all already there. My brain doesn’t think that way and it was great to have someone there who’s brain does.”
MTB is already a band who admittedly tends to “over think things a bit, trying every different thing every possible way”. But with the addition of Chiccarelli the cerebral considerations went into overdrive. The uber-producer shuffled the deck on many of the song structures and pushed Tate and company to re-think everything they did. Tate found his own way to keep up.
“I tend to write out structures for everything just to help my brain keep normal. I’ll write out A-part, B-part, C-part and that makes it easier to rearrange in my brain because it’s just parts written down on a piece of paper. I stopped looking at songs as set verses and choruses and instead considered each part separately. That made it much easier to move things around in my brain.”
The entire Omni experience lifted Tate and his drumming vision to new heights. Heights that will continue to expand as he continues his already considerable journey.
“If you’re young and [aspiring] just keep trying. I’ve been in bands since I was 12 and I’m about to turn 32. I’ve been touring six months of every year since I was 18. Touring has gotten me fired from every job I’ve ever had, it’s taken countless relationships, it’s made me homeless before. We’ve all made a ton of sacrifices to do this and the only way we’ve been able to accomplish anything is by trying really hard. It’s a long, hard process. So just keep trying. The worst that can happen is you won’t succeed.”