Inside The Cathartic Soul of Bipolar Explorer.

Friday, 10 May 2013

Sometimes providence is just meant to rule over situations in life. Things are meant to happen. People meet people. Stories are shared. Songs get sung. This is the way things went in getting this album into my hands. Online strangers meet each other by re-blogging each other’s Tumblr images (for a couple of years) before eventually ending up writing notes of introduction to each other, leading them to become friends. That was how I came into contact with Michael Serrafin-Wells, founder and frontman, lead guitarist, vocalist and songwriter of the New York City based band Bipolar Explorer.

Two months later I’m sitting in a cafe in Davis, California eating lunch with Michael and we’re discussing the differences between east/west coast punk rock music, writing for theater, romance and heartbreak, and making plans for photo documenting the band’s summer West Coast tour. The music of Bipolar Explorer’s new album is not typical to my taste, but the story of how it’s come to life, where the band has been, who they are, what they have done, and specifically, what this new album represents – a bridge of memory from life and love in the real and present world into a tribute to memorialize their tragically lost friend, band member Summer Serafin, well, it’s sound is now something that has gotten under my skin.

Michael and Summer were soul-mates. They met each other as cast members of a play and became inseparable. Summer joined the band and is present singing inside many of the tracks, but then she is also a presence inside the CD. Seemingly inconsequential captures of the giggling of a mermaid or the humming of an angel, bits of dialogue caught in the studio, even a phone message she left Michael capture her spirit in an almost haunting way. You have to listen to it to see what I mean. To get a better representation of who Michael Serafin-Wells and Bipolar Explorer really are, here’s the Q&A interview that I had with Michael over lunch.

Daryl “Darko” Barnett vs. Michael Serafin-Wells.

DB: So, a couple of questions.

MS-W: Just a couple?

DB: How did this come together?

MS-W: The record or the band? Like the current line-up or like the deep background?

DB: Maybe a little of both.

MS-W: Okay. Sure. So, this is the second Bipolar Explorer record. The first we never played out, it’s just me and the drummer. You can still get it. It’s called "Go Negative". It’s also on Slugg.

DB: Slugg Records. Your…

MS-W: Little imprint, yeah.

DB: So, how did you get from that early sound to what's on this new record?

MS-W: Well, The stretch from my first band before the first Bipolar Explorer record and then the first Bipolar Explorer record and now this one isn't that large; it's all punk. But when you say “punk” most people think about this ritualized thing with purple hair and puking on somebody’s shoes in an airport and that’s not exactly accurate. It doesn’t take into account somebody like Beat Happening or The Raincoats or anything. It's simpler than that; Brendan Mullen said that before it got co-opted into something else, making punk music just meant anything that anyone wanted to try – here’s three chords, now, start a band. Pre-hardcore, punk was just this colorful, diverse creative thing that was open to any interpretation or spin anybody wanted to put on it. And that’s where we’re coming from when I say punk, because even though there’s no drums, everything’s not turned up to eleven the whole time, we still think of ourselves, essentially as punk, because, just technically even, Jason [Jason Sutherland –ed] and I, we’re playing, even if it’s quiet or like arpeggios, it’s barre chords, it’s a punk way of playing, it’s informed by that, because that’s where we’re from.

DB: Where are you from?

MS-W: Me?

DB: Yeah.

MS-W: Like originally?

DB: Yeah.

MS-W: Um, around, kinda.

DB: Your family traveled or…?

MS-W: Sorta. But musically and like early, it’s DC. And that’s before I even had a band so I was only going to those shows like at The Wilson Center and DC Space and seeing all those great Dischord bands and that’s probably why we think this way and how even if … I mean, have you heard Ian McKaye’s new stuff. Like post-Fugazi?

DB: The Evens?

MS-W: Yeah, it’s just the two of them. His guitar and voice and her on drums and it’s incredibly powerful without being like, ya know…? And in every way, I think, he’s just a huge hero for… to anybody who cares about this. Certainly anybody, like everybody that we care about.

DB: Who would you say those people are? Those groups?

MS-W: For us? Like now?

DB: With this record, yeah, and…

MS-W: Oh, man. Low. Obviously. Death Cab. Bon Iver. That’s just now but, ya know – Westerberg, Husker Du, REM, The Velvets, The Pixies – clearly. X in a big way.The Ramones, Iggy. It’s eclectic and we probably don’t sound like any of them, but that's really where we're coming from. Hey, ya know, Frank Black said this thing about the best music or the music that you love the most, you don’t even need to listen to or even own it at certain point because its so deeply a part of you; there’s a piece of your brain – a dedicated bit of your grey matter – where it’s always playing. That’s how it is for me. Ya know. For us.

DB: Got it. So, you had this punky sorta band in the Nineties called Uncle and you put out two full-length albums with them.

MS-W: Right. Right. Thanks for All the Lemons. That’s like ’96, and Moving on to Solids; that came out around ’98.

DB: And that group breaks up.

MS-W: Yeah.

DB: And then… what?

MS-W: A while later. A few years, actually…

DB: You started Bipolar Explorer.

MS-W: With Yves, yeah.

DB: Yves Gerard.

MS-W: Yves was the last drummer in Uncle. Our third. We had a kinda Spinal Tap-py thing with drummers in that band.

DB: They kept exploding?

MS-W: Or, yeah, bizarre gardening accidents. Weirdly, this band, it’s been the bassists who kept combusting. Until we got Eva. Now, we’re good.

DB: So, post-Uncle…

MS-W: Right. I took a couple of years off. Wrote some other stuff.

DB: You’re a playwright, as well.

MS-W: Right. So, I did that. Played on some friend’s demos. Then wrote a bunch of tunes and got back with Yves. And he’s awesome. You might know him, too, from Patti Rothberg’s band, also a group called Better Days. And he’s just a really good musician, period. Let alone his drumming. He hits hard and he has such an intuitive feeling for every nuance, every section of a song. He’s a great producer. So, I got him in on that first Bipolar record, "Go Negative", and I still like it. I think if you listen to it now – it’s sorta Pavement meets The Replacements by way of Wire – but I think it kinda works. It’s just not exactly what we’re doing now. But possibly, it’s an understandable bridge from Uncle to this. In a fucked up way, maybe.

DB: What happened?

MS-W: Nothing contentious or anything. We couldn’t get the live thing together right away because of the exploding bass player situation and then he bought a house up near Woodstock with his wife and got into the studio thing a bit heavier. So, there was just me with these songs meant for two guitars, bass and drums. I had to re-think it all. I had this guy, Curt Dempster, who I worked with. He encouraged me to keep developing the music so I reached out to a couple of friends and started over. And part of that meant writing songs differently. Writing for the new bandmates. Writing without drums. And that changed the sound. And then, of course, I met Summer. And then everything changed.

DB: Of course.

MS-W: Everything. I mean, she was my love. She changed my whole life and, two years ago, she passed away after a tragic accident. She was just thirty-one. That’s why this record got made and that’s why these songs sound like they do and that’s why you and I are sitting here, talking about it. And I am so good to talk about any of this because that’s why I’m here; I love talking about Summer. But just in terms of the music. We just wanted to be together all the time and I just wanted to write for her. And she was so fucking magic intuitive; I mean, you can hear it on the tracks. Especially the one that closes the second disc, the second version of “Moulding,” which is essentially a rehearsal with me playing through my practice amp and the both of us singing a new song and the whole thing recorded just for reference on my iPhone. Thank god I have it. Not just because I fucking miss her but – and this is why it’s on the album and this is why it closes the album – she follows everything I do with the most incredible sensitivity. Her harmony is unusual and perfect – this is why I say Low and X, she’s like Exene or Mimi – and she goes from loud or quiet, light head-voice to deep chest voice not just when she hears me go but in the exact instant that I do. It’s not a moment later, it’s right fucking on it. Like telepathy. She knows where I’m going before I do, even. And all of her stuff on the record is like that. And we did those parts in one 4 hour session because we didn’t ever imagine that we wouldn’t be back to do more. And that’s also why there’s so much outtake spoken word stuff of hers – like "talkback" – on the record. If Summer was here there wouldn’t be any need for it – and she’d never allow it, probably, ha! – but I just wanted people to get the most visceral sense they possibly could of what a delight it was to be in a room with her. And another thing, it wasn’t just me bringing her along. She turned me on to some amazing music that I frankly did not even fucking know about. Goldfrapp for one. And you can hear Allison in Summer’s vocals – “No Answer”, especially, which we wrote sitting on my futon in New York. I wish like hell she was here. Not only because she was the love of my life and my best friend and my partner but because she made this band amazing and I wanted to make records with her forever.

DB: I can understand that. It feels a little awkward to ask, but how did Jason and Eva get involved with the band? Can you tell me a bit about that?

MS-W: Of course. Summer met J. He wasn’t in the group yet. Sean was still on second guitar. But she knew about him and vice-versa because I played on and produced his side project, Spitbath, a buncha years ago.

DB: I don’t know about that.

MS-W: It’s more of a demo. Not widely released.

DB: And he, Jason Sutherland, replaced Sean Lahey?

MS-W: Yeah. Sean was second guitar when we all went in with the first batch of songs. It’s not so much that he’s out of the band, he’s out of town.He’s in Rye Brook and he had other commitments. And again, it’s that thing – put it together with who you have at hand. When we talk about Sean we say he’s “on hiatus.” Although, we’d have to figure out what to do live with a third guitar. We’re close with Sean, and he did art for the record. That’s his other gig. He does design and animation and film.

DB: That’s handy.

MS-W: It is. And Jason plays a bit different than Sean, so it’s a slightly different dynamic. It’s entirely possible that Of Love and Loss wouldn’t have even happened if Jason, hadn’t insisted on coming over and getting me out of bed and wanting to jam. Sean wasn’t around and after Summer’s accident, so it was just a while before I could do anything. Jay started coming over, just to keep an eye on me, I think. And we played all the stuff I already had with Summer and Sean, that I’d written and we’d tracked. Jay learned all those tunes and, because he kept showing up, pretty soon I started wanting to bring new things into practice and that’s how I got started writing the second wave of songs and that’s how whatever Summer, Sean and I had – we weren’t even sure if it was an EP or if I was going to write some more and do a full-length – that's how this second wave of songs entirely about her got coupled with what came before and became sort of for and about her. That’s why it’s a double record. Even though it’s not chronological at all in terms of when things were written. But I spent a lot of time on the sequence. Of both discs. What was on disc one or on disc two and where it went. And we tried to keep in mind doubles that we liked. Like Zen Arcade. Or Being There. To tell that story. And it’s still like that. When we play out. If it’s like our own show. If it’s a club date and we have to play a shorter set, we do a condensed version, like we will on Friday. But if it’s our own show, we do the whole thing in sequence live.

DB: Eva [bassist Eva Potter –ed] is not on the record?

MS-W: No. No, she came in just before we released it.

DB: Exploding bass players?

MS-W: Yeah, so most of the bass on Of Love & Loss is actually me, but Eva really just made the band. You know? I wish to god that Summer was here to sing with us and I miss her vocals live – because we’re not trying to replicate them at all – but but Eva is perfect on bass, and we knew that immediately. In a way, the record is something of its own. It’s the place you can hear Summer – and that alone makes it something special – but playing these songs out and the way that Jason and Eva play them, the way we do as a "drummerless" trio, this is the most sympatico lineup I’ve ever had for my stuff. You gotta hear us. I mean, you really gotta hear us.



Of Love and Loss
is available from CD Baby , iTunes, Amazon and here via the band’s website

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