[Interview] Bipolar Explorer
by Raphael Duprez
February 20, 2017
Far from any actual rock cliché, Bipolar Explorer’s music takes time to set its bases in order to better change themes through slow, well-thought and obsessive sound waves. As their new record, ‘Dream Together’ (available since January 1) is offering us a new insight into the band’s inspirations and talent, its members also prove that they cannot stop exploring the most intimate elements of their own musical language, where inspiration remains intact and creation is inevitably linked to passion and tragedy. Let’s go back to the basics with Michael Serafin-Wells, in order to discover, thanks to his kindness and confidence, what Bipolar Explorer desires and wishes upon an enlightened daily soundtrack they manage to perform, somewhere in a world where beauty and pain often collide.
Hi Michael and thanks for answering a few questions ! First of all, can you introduce us to Bipolar Explorer:
Hey. Bipolar Explorer is Summer Serafin (vocals), me - Michael Serafin-Wells (vocals, guitars, bass, percussion) and Jason Sutherland (guitar, backing vocals).
When did the project start?
The band’s sound as we know it began when I met Summer in late 2007. We’d already put out a debut album (“Go Negative” - Slugg Records, 2006) the year before, but everything - music and my whole life - changed after I met her. We wanted to do everything together and her influence was enormous on all aspects and every front. My guitar sound changed, the way I wrote, and the way we recorded. I always thought my demos were somehow better than the studio recordings (I’d made two earlier albums with my first band, Uncle, in the late 90’s) and Summer was the first person I met who thought that too. She thought there was an immediacy to our recording here in our own studio at home. Sometimes you just need someone you trust to tell you you know what you’re doing and believe it for yourself. Summer gave me that. And a thousand other things.
I had I guess what you might call a more straight up indie rock band in the 90’s (Uncle). We played CBGB’s a lot and all the other NYC rock clubs that sorta are no more. We put out two albums and then called it quits around 2000. The first Bipolar Explorer record came a few years later but it was really still that same indie rock aesthetic - just me on everything but drums, with Uncle’s third, last and best drummer, Yves Gerard, playing and co-producing. It wasn’t until I met Summer that Bipolar Explorer became was it is. The band began in earnest and in the way we know it now once Summer and I met and she joined the group. It was a kind of a total re-set. More minimal but simultaneously richer sonically. And purposefully without full drums. We didn’t fire anybody - Yves left the city, bought a house with his wife upstate a few hours away, concentrating on session work up there, so he just wasn’t around. We decided we’d just go on with this new sound without a drummer, at first just to see if we liked it. I think it made us tighter. And, now, that’s just a part of our sound, who we are. Ya know?
What were you aiming for when you started it ?
Summer brought a different aesthetic to the band and to me. She made me think differently. And I think my writing got more personal and the sound bigger in a different way. Not just louder - (ha! we do play loud, but…) more, I dunno, lush, I think, and emotional. Eight or ten years ago when we set out on this course we used to say that we were “not quite ex-punkrockers who decided to play not so damn loud and without drums, partly out of necessity and partly to see if we liked it” but I think that wasn’t entirely accurate. I think we just started to play more like we felt. Summer was the bravest person I ever met and could never do anything half-measured. She threw herself at life and she opened me up. When I think of what we were listening to when we started, it was all kind of epic stuff. I mean genre-wise it was diverse - Bon Iver and The National and Goldfrapp and DCfC and Fever Ray and Radiohead and Low (who we owe a huge debt to) - but regardless of the different styles of all of that stuff, even if it’s minimal sonically it’s still epic emotionally. And I think, even if you can’t hear any of those people in our sound, that’s what drove it.
Let’s talk about your new record, ‘Dream Together’. The whole album could be considered as one single long piece of music, but also, intends to reveal numerous movements and waves. How did you manage to record it, and what ideas did you want to develop through it ?
That’s such a great question! We really try to think of an album in those terms still, as something that has a flow and takes you somewhere, not just a random collection of tunes, ya know? We usually have the sequence figured out even before we begin recording basic tracks. We literally had the sequence on the wall in the studio before we even began recording and as we worked on the songs in practice, we’d often play the whole thing in sequence, just to see how it flowed live. Four of the songs are instrumentals - you actually mentioned all four of them in your review, Raphael, I thought that was interesting - and I knew from the beginning where they should go in the sequence. The record opens with one of them (which we remembered Bob Mould did on “Workbook”), kind of easing you into the trip and then the three others sort of float in at transitory points through the album. Which kind of gives it air, I think.
And just a word about that - I found myself listening to a lot of post-rock instrumental stuff in the last few years - Qualia and Loscil and this great record by Bass Communion called “Ghosts on Magnetic Tape”, as well the sort of sweeping sounds of Lanterns on the Lake (who aren’t solely instrumental, but Hazel Wilde’s vocals and lyrics remind me so much of Summer and they actually released their album “Beings” on her birthday - November 13) and even how Brian Wilson used instrumentals on “Pet Sounds” - and I think that’s found its way into what we do.
We started making longer records with Of Love and Loss, which was a double-album. And both Dream Together and its immediate predecessor, Electric Hymnal are 60-minute plus albums. I personally like long albums and a lot of the post-rock instruments stuff I mentioned - Qualia, Loscil, Bass Communion - work really well in that long form.
But another record that I wanted to mention because it’s gotten so under my skin that I almost forgot about it this double disc compilation that came out about 2001 - A Rocket Girl’s Companion. A London friend, Ras Terifa, gave it to me for Christmas the year it was released. Each disc is maxed out, like 72 minutes or something. They’re long but they also have the greatest flow - long fades and silences - like a perfect mix tape for the car, ya know?
Sequence is really important to us and so is indexing. That Rocket Girl record with its long silences and fade ups and fade outs - to say nothing of its exquisite moodiness - really got into my bloodstream. It’s affected how we put albums together. And it’s so a part of me that I nearly forgot to say. Big ups to Rocket Girl.
You asked about how we record, so just briefly - it’s pretty live. With most groups you usually start recording with everyone playing live to get the basic track down. That’s usually to make sure that the drums are locked in and that the vibe of the song seems about right. Then you can go back and overdub and fix guitars and vocals and stuff. We don’t play with drums but we still do basic tracks like that - Jason and I playing guitars and me singing the reference vocal - all of it live. It locks it in. And we use all of that. It stays pretty live because we get a lot of sound out of the live guitars and I don’t think there’s a single track where we don’t use my original guide vocal. I play bass and pepper some of the tracks with percussion and we record the backing vocals and spoken word and most crucially, fly in Summer’s vocals - but it still stays pretty live. We listen to playback, get an idea and bang it out. That’s the way Summer liked it. And we always put that in the liner notes “recorded live, noisily and in a hurry at The Shrine - New York City. ”
You mention the thing about “waves” - WFMU’s great Irene Trudel once called us “great, beautiful drifty pop” - I think people hear that sonically through the delays I use in my guitar sound but we hope, too, in this idea, like you say, of the album taking you on a journey, as one long piece of music on its own, rising and falling, trailing off and lifting again, reminding you where you’ve been and pointing you toward a promised destination.
What do you need to express through these walls of reverb and echo ? Is it like a signature for your project?
That is definitely a big part of our sound - both delay and trem. From a purely technical point of view it replaces the drums. Ya know? We kind of ride those “waves” like you said. The rhythm is in the echo and delay and tremolo and we float on top or cut back against the tide, channel or go under with it. And I really have to say something about Jason here. He just intuitively brings something so perfectly counter-pointedly with his guitar lines. He’ll answer or underscore or ride along whatever I play in a way that I wouldn’t think of immediately. Lou Reed said something about Sterling Morrison. How it’s incredibly difficult for a guitarist to break out and have a signature sound but that Sterling had that. And that he couldn’t imagine The Velvet Underground without him. Jason is like that. I can’t begin to describe how important he is to us.
Mixing reverb and distortion is quite a challenge, but you manage to perfectly deal with it. Is it a way, for you, to show two sides of the same music, or both sides of mankind ?
That brings Jason to mind again because his guitar is often the overdriven one. And on a purely pedantic, overly technical note, we both tend to use overdrive as opposed to distortion. Jason also is a huge Pixies fan and I think anytime you use that sorta loud/quiet/loud - or in our case, quiet/loud/quiet - thing, you have to thank The Pixies.
I’m really glad you like how we mix the two. And to your larger question about two sides of the music and/or both sides of humanity, yes. I think we like finding and expressing that. We like playing with feedback, too, and sometimes, like in the last track, “To The Other Half of The Sky”, you can get both the quieter and more overdriven things happening at once. The whispery vocals riding over feedback and sort of melting together. Ya know? Along those lines of the band, once Summer joined, of trying to sound like we feel, I think this is what drives us toward expressing that duality. In the way you can feel more than one thing at the same time.
’Dream Together’ explores the continuous themes of love and eternity, and the possible ways for them to melt. How do you find inspiration to express these particular emotions?
I think love, real love, true love, is eternal. And I think - without getting too super theological - that the essence of us is eternal, too. Summer isn’t in the room with me in a way that I can touch her, not mortal. But she touched me so deeply and profoundly that her presence lingers. And that moves and inspires and drives me. To express both what she means to me and how she still is. There’s a law of science about energy, once created, cannot be destroyed. I think the essence of us remains. The essence of our beloveds remains. They’re there. Nearer than we can imagine, unseen because we’re still mortal. But there if we quiet ourselves and listen. That’s just what I believe. I can only say for me. But art is important that way because for a thousand people who say, “well, that’s rubbish”, one other person might come across it and say “that’s me, too”. And not feel so alone.
The booklet of the album is a visual masterpiece. Can you tell us more about your collaboration with Natalia Drepina and Audun Grimstad?
Thank you so much! We know that most people, if they actually buy music and don't just listen on Spotify or something, tend to grab it on iTunes. But we still love making CDs because the artwork and actually having a physical object is important to us.
We’ve been super fortunate to work with some amazing artists and I have to name them here. Alex Alemany let us use his wonderful painting (“Mediterraneo’) for OF LOVE AND LOSS. Elizabeth Gadd took the amazing photo for the cover of ANGELS. And, yes, Natalia’s breathtaking work “Drowse” is the cover for DREAM TOGETHER. They’re all totally far-flung - Alex is in Spain, Elizabeth in Vancouver, Natalia in Russia. We found each other’s work online. Thank god for the internet, no?
Audun is from Norway but is closer to home for us - he’s at the New York School of Visual Arts. We wanted him for the album between ANGELS and DREAM TOGETHER - our album ELECTRIC HYMNAL - but he wasn’t avail. I had this idea to do a booklet for DREAM in the style of a Victorian book of verses. It’s 20 pages and has the song lyrics, vintage black and white photos and narrative poems I wrote especially for inclusion. Audun put all that together for us beautifully. It’s, as you say, included in the CD. But we’re also doing a limited edition of it twice as big - like 9 1/2 inches square - right now. It came out really well and a few people asked for it, so we’re doing it. I want one, myself - ha!
Seriously, we have an enormous respect for visual artists. We love playing out in galleries. We’re really keen to keep working with Audun and everyone I mentioned and to seek out collaborations with others.
The other thing, we allude to this briefly in the booklet for Dream Together is that more than a few of the songs came to me in actual dreams. Summer was always in the dreams. Often the song would be something we were listening to on the radio in the dream. Suddenly I’d wake up and realize it wasn’t a song on the radio but was a song she was sending to me from The Forever. I’d sing what I could remember into my phone right there still in bed in the middle of the night, listening back later, figuring it out on guitar and filling in the missing bits. If you ask me, I might be able to remember some of the dreams. I can tell you that “Dream 3” , “Listen” “She Hears You Calling” and “Tail O’er Fin” all came partly or fully from dreams.
What were people’s reactions after listening to your new album?
It’s been really good so far. We’re totally indie and DIY on a small label, so it’s not like we have some big PR thing behind us. It always knocks us out when our stuff finds its way somehow to people - like you guys!
DREAM TOGETHER is our sixth album, so I think we’ve been slowly making our way onto people’s radar over the last few years, like cumulatively. OF LOVE AND LOSS (our double-album for Summer) is a hugely important record for us. It came out late 2012 but didn’t really start finding its way into people’s hands until the next year. Ground Control Magazine really liked it (OF LOVE). They did a feature on us and named it to their Top Ten Albums in 2013. And they’ve been really supportive ever since. Our follow-up, ANGELS, was the one that first started to get radio play on WFMU and online.
So, I think all that helped when DREAM came out on New Year’s Day. Liz Berg and Irene Trudel at WFMU have both championed it and it’s been on the charts out in Cali on KDVS for five weeks now. Also, USC’s Alexandra Dennis-Renner wrote an amazing piece about it on her blog the day it came out.
I think it’s finding people and striking a chord. We’re really grateful for that. Like I said, it always really knocks us out when people let us know our stuff resonates for them in some way.
I don’t want to interfere in your personal life, but you told me that you went through a terrible loss back in 2011… But also, that Summer’s presence was the main reason for Bipolar Explorer to exist and keep going on, year after year. Can you tell us how you managed to endure such a tragedy and use it in your music?
You’re not interfering. I love talking about Summer. She means the world to me. All of this is entirely for her. I often say that our music, each album, is of, for and about her. It’s my way of telling people about her and talking to her myself. That’s the “for’ and “about” parts of the equation. And Summer remains an integral part of the band - not only as its inspiration but, because I have lots of her isolated vocals from other recording sessions - as her voice, both spoken and singing, graces each record. I’ll write songs and fly in her voice.
She’s always with us in so many ways. Her passing is entirely tragic. For anybody out there who wonders how you endure, I can only say what a friend told me when I said I didn’t know how I was going to go on or what I was going to do now. He just said, “you’re doing it.” It’s always there, grief. Like if you even breath a little too hard. I think possibly you learn to carry it. I can’t tell anyone out there that it’s something you ever get over. For myself, I don’t even see that as some goal. I don’t want to “get over” anything that has anything to do with Summer. Not even the most painful parts. I want all of that. I welcome her, ask her to be near me.
I used to say to her all the time, even if she was just going into another room for a minute or only just shifting her weight to grab something from the other side of the bed, “don’t go too far away,” I’d say. I still say that to her all the time. Whether it’s in a quiet moment when I suddenly sense her presence or we’re in the middle of a session and a lyric I wrote for her hits me as we come to it.
Summer isn’t the main reason BPX goes on, she’s the only reason. She is the reason. And I think I can trust that I’m doing things for the right reason if I always know the reason for it is her. Not out of any ambition other than to honor and conjure her. She’s my conscience.
Can you tell us more about the live art installation piece you are about to perform?
Sure. It’s a piece centered around our double-album, Of Love and Loss. Dream Together is conceived for performance in a similar way - but most immediately we’re working in this vein with Of Love and Loss. Briefly, the back story to this project is that I’m also a writer and some of the people I know in that world wondered if there was a way I could bring that and the music from Of Love and Loss together. I thought maybe the way to do that would be to write a narrative female voice, like a spoken word narrator - the kind of narrative voice you’d find in a novel or a hear off-camera in a film - and have her perform with us live. So I wrote something like that and we brought in a friend (Kim Donovan, who subsequently voiced spoken word on Dream Together and Electric Hymnal) from California and did an initial performance of it in this funky artist’s loft in Brooklyn.
We like playing in non-traditional venues and in galleries and this was kinda both - a converted industrial space with exposed electrics and big windows overlooking the city as we played at sunset.
That went really well and we had the idea to take it a step further by seeking to collaborate with someone who would help give it a strong visual signature. We started talking to artists. And it could be anything - film projections or something more tactile and immersive. We don’t think there’s only one way or one definitive way to do this. It could be different in every different collaboration and, maybe especially, every different venue.
The next iteration of that should be in the spring. And we hope to get some video of it. Because I think it’ll give people - people who haven’t seen, but only heard about it - a better idea of what we’re talking about. Help them visualize it.
Who will support you with it?
That’s a great question. Any ideas? Seriously, and we may have an idealized preconception about this, but there’s not the same sort of network of arts support in the US as we imagine there being in Europe. Not state support, anyway. So, it’s kind of like everything over here, you have to create it for yourself. We’re working with a couple of people on different tracks - one artist who works with projections and another who works with light. They each bring different things and the possibility of very different venues to the idea. I think one leads to the other. We’ll definitely learn a lot. And I think sometimes when you just get something rolling, more people are exposed to it and further collaborations get forged.
I think this is largely how we’d like to perform these pieces now - in their sequence and entirety as live arts installations in collaboration with a visual artist. We came to that idea, like I say, after we’d already released and were playing Of Love and Loss out. But we actually went into the recording of Dream Together with the idea that that was how we’d like to go forward. Some of the spoken word is voiced on the album and the booklet is meant to give you an idea of the visuals. And we mention all that in the credits. So that maybe someone listening to the album while leafing through the pages of the booklet or even someone reading this right now who finds the thought intriguing - an artist or someone with a found space or something - might give us a shout. Seriously, get in touch. Who knows? We’ve got passports, we’re good to go…
What do you need to express when you are on stage?
I think, I hope, there’s some kind of life to each song, ya know? I think we live it from its inception. I think, I hope, maybe you can even hear that in the recordings. That’s why we put such a premium on recording as live as we can. I think when we’re on stage we’re there to celebrate that and live in it together with the audience. If that makes sense. The spark of the song, of writing it, comes from somewhere and that’s where it lives inside you. You just go to that place when you play it. And the added bonus is that other things come along for the ride in the moment. Somebody catches your eye or you hit some note sideways. Things happen in the moment that can only happen in that moment and it makes it special. You can’t make a mistake - as long as it’s truthful - it’s just what is really happening right now. And that’s what makes so special.
How do you manage to share your intimate, precious music in front of the audience?
That’s also a really good question. My old band played every conceivable club and bar and anything else you can think of many years ago. When BPX started playing out, I kinda didn’t wanna do that. We did play some clubs around the city - a handful. But it became apparent pretty soon that this was music that needed a different kind of venue. That’s what led us to art galleries and non-traditional spaces, even before we hit on this live installation idea.
Also, I spent time in DC and the music scene there when I was a kid had this DIY tradition, very punk rock, that was outside of the bars and clubs and centered more around house parties and church basements and just community. So, it’s not that foreign. For a year, we did shows once a month right here at The Shrine. We’d cook and people would come over and eat and drink and then we’d plug in and play Of Love and Loss in its entirety. We called them “couch concerts”. Literally surrounded in an intimate (if loud!) setting. I think that’s largely what inspired people to suggest to us bringing that kind of immersive, emotional experience to the galleries. So, that’s what we’re doing. Ya know? No barriers.
What are your plans in a close future?
Well, most immediately we’re still kinda rolling out Dream Together. And getting ready to do the live Of Love and Loss. Alexandra (the USC filmmaker I mentioned) is planning to write and shoot a documentary about us. I think it’s called “Sonic Prayer”. She started interviewing us while we were making “Electric Hymnal” and when she’s back in New York I think we’ll be getting together on that some more. We like to put out a single or two between albums and I’ve got an idea for one. We’ll likely release it mid-March. Man, that’s soon. That’s next month! We’ll be ready tho’.
Anything else you want to say ?
Yes. Thank you!
(Translated from the original French):
Bipolar Explorer offers a new album that is as much a reverie in a nature fertile and reassuring as a dream burning and crawling gently under our bare skins. In perpetual search for the discovery of the unknown, the trio delivers a work as simple as majestic and purified.
It is quite difficult at first to understand the music of the New York trio Bipolar Explorer when one is not used to it; What the author of these lines can testify when it came to penetrating the meanders of "Dream Together". Chords of guitars sober and charged with reverb and delay, voices and choruses distant but warm, all in an atmosphere as moist as light, like a refreshing breeze before the storm. The disc is adorned with long tracks brushing the six minutes when they do not surpass them, developing his riffs like so many mantras that we like to repeat to infinity, in a sensory and sound meditation of all beauty. No doubt this opus will destabilize more than one; But above all we must yield to the temptation, the inexorable attraction of these magical and nostalgic, deep and milky songs.
Alternating dark and placid instruments ("Thirteen", "View") and angelic and aerial songs ("Dream 3"), Bipolar Explorer plays with us hide-and- seek, concealing its assets and attires under six strings at the same time bitter and Crystalline, whose purity of interpretation, sounding like live, is not limited to a simple performance. It is indeed an experiment in the metaphysical sense of the term; "Fireflies" seems out of time and space, the lack of battery reinforcing this strange and penetrating feeling of a radical and fluffy comfort. The urgent brevity of "Along Those Lines" calls for a flight that will ultimately not come, if not through the painful and urgent song of "She Hears You Calling", catching and cathartic. Completing his epic ten-minute epic "To The Other Half Of The Sky", loaded with palpable electricity as well as an ultimate tour de force in softness, the group relaxes its muscles and leaves notes hovering, Long after its ultimate resonances.
"Dream Together" dares harmonic nudity without worrying about the eyes of others; And this is what makes it a less evident work than it seems, but especially devilishly endearing. It has rarely been possible for us to traverse such vast lands, leaving so primordial a place for our imagination, all by means of instruments and stamps that are literally enveloping and vibrating. A LP that is drunk, slowly, to better quench thirst. A walk through the clouds, without worrying about the next day.
"Dream Together" from Bipolar Explorer has been available since 1 January 2017 at Slugg Records.
Bipolar Explorer is Summer Serafin, Michael Serafin-Wells and Jason Sutherland.
Excerpt from Ground Control Magazine review of the band's album, Electric Hymnal:
"...Get ready to be swept up and away by a prayerful reverie of melodies. I listened to the CD for the first time on a drive into San Francisco – careening above the bay on the San Mateo bridge and I began to feel like I was flying. These songs could be considered prayers. The lyrics are not shouted, for the most part, but are breathed and whispered with reverential respect. There is something else happening with these melodies. Don’t forget that Bipolar Explorer is a post-rock band. Low growling vocals, gnarly grinding tempos, rhythmic looping strands that escape and rise above the weight of this world. That these lyrics are esoteric and spiritual is how they are able to soothe us and raise up our consciousness. I think that there is a lot of healing that can come from listening to this music. It also reminds me of the works of Nikos Kazantzakis; The Last Temptation of Christ and Saint Francis – a non secular approach was taken to deliver the message of their saintly lives without it being ordained by the religious order. This music feels like that, a post-rock interpretation of worship music for the modern age, and typical non-believers. Electric Hymnal is released (for free!) as a limited edition CD (no digital) and is not being mass-marketed - the band has stated very clearly that this music is offered up “as a meditation and sonic prayer for our fallen bandmate, Michael’s true love and partner, Summer Serafin.” I highly respect this because it makes the music real in a different way. It makes it feel live. Being limited to a very special audience makes it feel, rare. It goes straight to heaven where the angels are listening, and connects us here on the earthly plane to this private listening room where angels and the living mingle..."
01.) Bipolar Explorer – Angels – (Slugg Records): The New York City minimalist indie rock band continues to capture my attention with their ongoing stream of super-consciousness musical tributes to their fallen band member, Summer Serafin. Angels feels and sounds like a visitation of angels has descended upon, and electrified these men as they express their emotions of memory and loss. This is what music fueled by raw love and emotions sounds like. The single, “Angels,” is definitely my very favorite song of the entire year! Bipolar Explorer remain my number one small label indie band to keep an eye on for future greatness.
This is the first installment of a new series I’m trying to bring to Ground Control Magazine called “Driving with Darko”. Doing interviews with musicians, artists and writers in which we have a conversation together while driving around in my SmartCar, all the while recording the conversation with a Ricoh Theta S (which records in 1080p 360 degree video).
Michael was visiting Northern California for the winter holidays. We both had a couple of hours free, so I drove up to Davis to meet him and suggested we go for a short drive into downtown Sacramento. The transcript of the interview is found below.
Driving With Darko interview - conducted January 2, 2016. Ground Control Magazine’s Publisher and Contributing Editor, Daryl Darko Barnett interviews Bipolar Explorer frontman Michael Serafin-Wells while driving his Smart Car from UC Davis to the Sacramento Historic City Cemetery.
DDB: So, this is my first official recorded podcast. I’m interviewing Michael Serafin-Wells.
MSW: How auspicious.
DDB: How are you, man?
MSW: I’m alright. Happy New Year.
DDB: Thank you. Same to you. What keeps you living where you live?
MSW: Uh.. the rent laws in New York (laughs).
DDB: Yeah? It makes it affordable?
MSW: It makes it affordable. This economy is crazy. In most cities - I think LA’s the only place you can still maybe live kinda affordably as an artist. I know they’re screwing things up in San Francisco…
DDB: San Francisco, yeah.
MSW: … in a big way. In London it’s really difficult. And New York’s been like that, too. They’re trying to get people outta the stabilized and rent-controlled apartments. And, uh, it’s pretty unscrupulous. The last mayor that we had, Bloomberg, sorta gave rich folks a really sweet deal…
MSW: …real estate development-wise with not having to pay property taxes for like 25 years if they started construction during a certain period of time during his last, his extra administration - there’s only supposed to be two terms but they changed the law just once for him …
MSW: And, uh, so… it’s a liberal mayor now, so maybe he’ll roll back some of that crap but it’s been hard. My building’s been bought by some… fuckoes… and they’re trying to get folks out but they didn’t succeed. Mostly. So, but… yeah. It’s kinda been a struggle. Yeah. That’s one thing about New York. (beat) Sorry to get so political…
DDB: That’s okay.
MSW: … immediately but that’s kinda… Yeah. I been there for a while.
DDB: See, I’ve been to New York a couple of times.
DDB: Immediately, in the airport…
MSW: Uh-huh. Which airport?
DDB: Um, I’ve been…
MSW: That makes a difference.
DDB: … in both.
MSW: La Guardia is sorta like really bad news.
DDB: Yeah. So, I’ve never really been in the city. And my whole…
MSW: You gotta come, man.
DDB: I know. Well, I need to go and visit somebody that knows their way around, so… I don’t wanna get swallowed up in the streets (laughing).
DDB: My only representation of New York City is, uh, crime dramas.
MSW: Oh, god.
DDB: And so…
MSW: It’s so… antiseptic, now, man. It’s not like Taxi Driver, anymore. It’s like totally…
MSW: Yeah. It’s very safe. Yeah. No worries about that. But you should totally come to New York.
DDB: Yeah. A friend of mine went last year. Last year or the year before. It was his first time there and he said he did nothing but walk…
DDB: …I dunno, the four days he was there.
DDB: And he wore a hole in his shoes (laughing).
MSW: It’s a walking city. It’s really awesome. Yeah. That’s a great thing about New York. You can walk everywhere.
DDB: So, when you guys come out to California, do you like it out here?
DDB: If you could…
MSW: I love it!
DDB: … afford it out here, would you stay out here instead of where you are or…?
MSW: I, uh, I really like spending time out here. Ya know? And it’s… it’s bittersweet because I spent a lot of time out here with Summer…
MSW: … before her tragic death and so particularly when I’m in San Francisco, it’s kind of heartbreaking. But it’s beautiful. And I was out here - last trip was like a month ago - to meet this cool girl who may do film projections for the Of Love and Loss project. She’s at the San Francisco Art Institute, which I didn’t even know about at all.
MSW: And we met up in North Beach and we hung out and she said do you want to see the Institute and we walked over there and it’s amazing. It’s totally gorgeous. This…
MSW: … fantastic facility for these guys that’s available 24/7 and, ya know - inspiration strikes, they’ve got a cutting room, they’ve got a recording studio. Ya know? Ya just roll outta bed and walk over there and do your work.
DDB: That’s pretty nice.
MSW: Yeah. So, that was cool. Greer Sinclair, that’s our friend. Shout out to Greer, whose work we really really love. But, yeah, I hope to spend some more time out here this year. Hopefully, we’re gonna do some incarnation of Of Love out here. Either in the Bay Area or down in LA. So, yeah, I love California. I was born in Santa Barbara.
DDB: I didn’t know that.
MSW: Yeah yeah.
DDB: Did you live down there for long?
MSW: I, um, my father was a teacher and so he kinda moved around a lot. We did spend a couple of summers down there later on in life like when I was a teenager or before that, eleven/twelve. But I… my parents always spoke longingly and lovingly of California.
MSW: I love being out here. And it’s very … it was great being with Summer out here and… yeah.
DDB: Santa Barbara is a beautiful beach community.
DDB: I can imagine growing up there. Were you like a surfer dude or…?
MSW: I wasn’t, man, ‘cause I didn’t…
MSW: We spent some time in California but a lot of it was elsewhere in the East and the Midwest. My father was a college professor and mostly I was landlocked.
DDB: Where did you wind up in the Midwest?
MSW: Uh, I… my father went to the University of Michigan for his post-graduate work, so we were out there briefly and Ohio for a little bit…
DDB: What part of Ohio? That’s what was… I thought you might’ve been in Ohio.
MSW: A little bit. Northwestern Ohio.
MSW: And then, uh, and then I was in DC - before I came to New York - for a few years. And a lot of the scene there with Discord Records and Ian McKaye and, ya know, all that after Minor Threat and Fugazi and these bands and great house shows and stuff like that. They’re a big inspiration to how we like to do things.
MSW: Which is, ya know, Do It Yourself. But, uh, yeah. I still have a lot of friends in DC.
DDB: So you mentioned your production, your stage production of Of Love and Loss. How many times have you done that in performance now?
MSW: It’s, uh… it’s a pretty new thing. The backstory of that is Summer and I - my late partner and sweetheart - were working on the new Bipolar Explorer record in 2010/2011 when she was in a tragic accident and passed away. And later I came back - when I could - and worked on the material that we had recorded and then added new songs and it became a very different record called Of Love and Loss and we released that at the end of 2012. And that’s kinda when you and I first got to know each other. And I’m also a playwright, so friends and colleagues in the theatre and also in the indie film world had wondered if there was a way to adapt that song cycle into something for the theatre. And it interested me to a certain extent but I really wanted to do something that was different and wasn’t a… like a jukebox musical or wasn’t like a traditional musical and so…
MSW: I had to think of a way to do it. And I met this woman who knew my writing but didn't know the band. This woman - Nina Keneally - who’s a producer. She was the co-Artistic Director of the experimental theatre lab at The American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge and then she produced a bunch of stuff on Broadway for the last 20 years. And we got to know each other and she heard the record and she was really really taken by it. So she said, ya know, “I’d really like to work on that” and she’s kinda an advocate and producer for this. So what I did was I wrote a script that doesn’t have an enormous amount of dialogue. It’s mostly the songs and just everything that happens - what you’d see.
MSW: It’s meant to be us playing in a really intimate setting in the kinda way that we’ve done shows…
MSW: Like house concerts and art galleries - which we really like to play - and after-hour bookstores and stuff like that. Where the audience is really close. Like almost surrounding us. And then what we did for this was… we had a narrator. We had a spoken word artist - my friend Kim Donovan, who does a lot of work for Pixar…
MSW: And who’s out here. I knew her in New York but she’s in Oakland now working for Pixar for the last bunch of years - and we just had her read all that. Just describe everything that you would see. So we were set up in a triangle in this… we performed it in this salon series in Bushwick, in Brooklyn, and had a small audience there. And without any kind of lighting design - so it was just a kinda “concert performance” of the record itself in its entirety, which is like an hour ten..
MSW: … and about 2/3rds of the way through, there’s a long text passage. We call “the choral text passage”…
MSW: … that is - I mean, she describes things throughout between and under the songs that’s really meant to be going on simultaneously…
MSW: … with the music, but there’s a long text passage about 2/3rds of the way through which is a piece that I wrote for Summer’s memorial which talks at length about her and it’s “performed” in a way that… we just mute our guitars and step away from the mikes and the sound is all in the room - except Kim, who’s sorta the voice of Summer, things that Summer said…
MSW: … that I included in the memorial speech and she’s on mike, she’s the voice of her through the PA.
MSW: And I think…
MSW: … people were really moved by that. It sorta also led us to the idea that maybe we don’t need actors for this piece. Maybe entirely what we need… ‘cause the next thing that I really want is not a theatre director or necessarily to add actors or something like that - is a strong visual signature. And was the first thing after we did this that I was really… I mean, people really seemed to… we got really good feedback, a really good audience that night - was to do stuff with light and narration and possibly projections. And Greer’s work is really interesting because she uses stuff that’s all vintage public domain footage - I mean, we’ll probably shoot some stuff, too, that she’ll use - but it’s got this silent movie very atmospheric vibe.
DDB: Oh, neat.
MSW: And the way that we were lit, just cursorily, in this art salon space, which is like this open, found, former industrial space in this loft in Bushwick, in Brooklyn, with these huge industrial windows that looked out at the skyline…
MSW: … was really neat, I think. Just this industrial light like shooting up at us was very evocative, I think. And if you add this sorta more moody element and those kind of visuals, particularly something like what Greer works with - which I just adore - I think it’ll add a really cool element to it. That’s kinda our next step with this. We’re trying to do something, ya know, like instead of… I think it would be very traditional to do, as a next step in the theatre, to like tie yourself to some theatrical institution or just grab a director and try to get it…
MSW: … slogging along in some developmental process - but we really want to do something different. We really wanna work with a visual artist. That’s the next thing we want to do. And I think it would be really cool to do this in a place like that. Like the Institute or a gallery somewhere…
MSW: … or something like that. So… so, we’re trying to re-invent the wheel in a way, I know, but ultimately it’s gonna be more of an immersive, emotional, intimate experience for an audience and for us, too, because it’s just the way we like to do things.
MSW: Yeah. So, that’s where we are with this right now.
DDB: That’s pretty neat.
MSW: Thanks, man.
DDB: Did you happen to get any video footage of the performance or…?
MSW: You know, uh… the girl who runs the Salon in Bushwick - which is cool because she does all this different stuff, screenings of independent films, she has music, she’s starting to do theatre stuff, we were a kinda hybrid of all these things - she had offered to have someone come in and film a little thing but we thought, ya know, we’re not ready for that. Ya know? So, there’s some clips on our website that’s just Nina with her iPhone, ya know, just grabbing some stuff.
MSW: Ya know? Which does give you an idea of what the night was like.
MSW: It’s interesting…
MSW: But they’re short clips. The longest is about 45 seconds.
MSW: They’re up on our website and our Instagram page, also. You might’ve seen.
DDB: I may have but I didn’t fully register exactly what that was.
MSW: Yeah yeah. There’s some stills and there’s also some little video - grabs from the back of the house. She was sitting on the stairs and just grabbed them on her phone. But that’s another thing that we’d really like to do in this next process is - as we go forward with this visual thing - we’d really like to get some good video of it, so people can get an idea of what it is.
MSW: Ya know?
DDB: Yeah. (concentrating on driving for a moment) We’re coming into Sacramento.
DDB: There’s the river over there.
MSW (observing the camera mount): I forgot this thing is 360. It’s…
DDB (re: driving): Exit? I think that’s the location for this… cemetery. It’s on my side usually driving here from…
DDB: … and I have to go all the way across…
DDB: It’s right there in the mirror. Yeah, I gotta get across. (beat) So, that’s what you’re concentrating more on now than writing new music? Are you just looking to… finding more places to do…?
MSW: I… I think that… Yeah, we got a couple of things we’re coming out with. Some totally new music things going on that I… that we’re working on right now, at the same time. ‘Cause I think what’s going on with the live Of Love sorta theatre/art/music collaboration is we’re waiting for the next step with that. I think like we feel very strongly about where we’re at with it and it’s like just Greer putting stuff together and seeing where that goes next. Meanwhile, yeah, we’re working on a couple of things. You know - I’m sure you must’ve come across her in your travels as a photographer - but do you know Jacs Fishburne at all? Do you know her work from Tumblr or from…?
DDB: Her name sounds…
MSW: … online?
DDB: ..familiar but I’m not getting any visual.
MSW: She’s an art photographer and model and she was in - I’m not gonna pull the name of the publication… Volo! Volo Magazine. She made their list last year of the top 100 art photographers.
MSW: And she’s been modeling and shooting for the last bunch of years and she’s transitioning completely into photography and writing now and we - not unlike you and I - first started to be in touch online with our work…
MSW: … with each other and she was gonna be in New York and she said “I’d really like to come over to your studio and shoot you” and she took these really excellent photos in our studio…
DDB: Oh, great!
MSW: … and did these…The studio is kinda…there’s, in addition to all the gear - recording and practice equipment, all the amplifiers and guitars and everything that’s there - there’s just loads and loads of pictures of Summer. Everywhere.
DDB: Oh, yeah. Yeah.
MSW: And so she took these really cool shots of me in the studio around stuff and at the window that overlooks 9th Avenue and then she took shots of Summer and shots of text - Summer’s writing - and superimposed it over them in this really cool way. Like one onto the other…
MSW: So, I’m writing these ambient drone pieces that Jason and I are recording, inspired by all this and we’re gonna call the record, using her artwork, Double Exposures.
DDB: Oh, nice!
MSW: Yeah. And there’s this other work we’re doing. This series of… I’ve been going to this cool candlelight meditation service in the city at West End Collegiate Church, which is this cool, progressive church on the Upper West Side, and on Wednesday nights they do this neat Candlelight Taize service. Taize is this French monastic tradition of these chants…
MSW: … and then spoken word stuff. Some of it is scripture and some of it’s poetry. The first time I went, there was this beautiful Sylvia Plath poem that was read.
MSW: And so we’re doing this… we’re recording these chants in our sorta dreampop, slowcore moody versions of stuff…
MSW: And we’re gonna release that as this thing - with spoken word stuff - called Electric Hymnal.
DDB: Oh, wow.
MSW: So, we’re working on a couple of projects simultaneously with the Of Love thing. And then, uh… it’s been really cool this year - we’ve got a lot of advocacy from WFMU’s Irene Trudel, which, I mean, is… I’ve loved her show for 20 years. I’ve listened religiously to her show and she first started playing us about this time last year. We’ve been on the station now 12 times and 7 times on her show. I think we may be doing a live set later this year. And just… FMU is my favorite station, has a huge online presence, several of the other DJ’s have picked us up. It’s been incredibly gratifying…
DDB: That’s fantastic.
MSW: You know when you’re a real fan of somebody’s work and then they kinda become an advocate of yours? It’s really… it’s just… heady stuff. So, I’m… Summer and I used to listen to Irene together all the time. So, it’s really kinda amazing to hear ourselves…
MSW: … on her program. We’re really, ya know, honored and grateful and it never gets old. We’re always jumping up and down with excitement…
DDB: Yeah yeah yeah.
MSW: … to hear ourselves on the radio.
DDB: Yeah. That’s a good thing, too, I think, with you guys getting your first radio play, airplay…
DDB: … out of your own hometown.
MSW: Yeah yeah yeah.
DDB: To get that foundation established…
DDB: … there. And then…
DDB: … really have a reputation to speak about when…
DDB: … you, um, reach out, ya know, to other stations.
MSW: It’s such a well-respected station - worldwide.
DDB: Oh, yeah.
MSW: Ya know? Everywhere. Because they’re one of the last standing freeform stations.
MSW: They don't take money from any corporate whatever. It’s entirely listener-sponsored. And it’s just incredibly eclectic. If you turn it on and turn it off and turn it on again, something completely different is going on.
MSW: It’s such interesting, original programming.
DDB: Yup. And I’ve definitely heard stuff there that I’ve never heard anyplace else.
DDB: And I’m like, who are these people?!
DDB: Where are they finding this stuff?! And who is creating it?
MSW: Yeah. And they archive everything, so you can go back and listen to…
MSW: … like any program, anytime.
MSW: It’s a really fantastic station. I can’t say enough about them. (beat, turning to camera, smiling) We love WFMU.
DDB (laughing): Well, good. Let me think, what else was I gonna ask you about? Um… I know one thing we talked about earlier this week was, um…my year-end list of my top… favorite music and…
DDB: … you guys were gonna make a cut…
MSW: Yeah. We were so incredibly grateful and gratified to be included a couple of years ago with Of Love. That was fantastic. We were very excited.
DDB: Well, I can let you know - this is not official because I don’t think it’s been published yet. It could be. As we’re speaking, it could be up. I haven’t checked in the past hour and a half …
DDB: … since I left home.
MSW: Things move fast online.
DDB: But, yeah, you guys made my list.
MSW: Holy cow! Congrats! We’re so happy. Thank you! (laughing)
DDB: Yeah, yeah. Kinda close to the top, too.
MSW: Oh, sweet. Oh, man. Thanks.
DDB: Kinda like on top. (laughing)
DDB: Because, ya know, I went back through everything I listened to this year and, um… and I kept thinking what stuck with me. Ya know? What…
DDB: … out of all the things I’ve heard just… that I hear the most or just stuck in my head. And this album. And the single. Angels. Is just…
MSW: Oh, man.
DDB: I think my favorite song, I think maybe for a long time.
MSW: Wow. Thank you so much.
DDB: Yeah. Yeah.
MSW: Thank you. (beat) That was really… ya know, that was an important moment for us, ya know? Writing that song and playing it for Jason - when he came into practice - for the first time.
MSW: We really felt like we had something, we thought. And it… He… I don’t have it on me. But there was… Jason was a… Jason was tending bar.
MSW: And, uh, after we played the tune the first time, he was like “oh, yeah!” and into it. After practice he went to work and was, ya know, just getting set up or whatever and… cleaned the bar, nobody’d come in yet, and he turned around and there was this little prayer card…
MSW: … sitting there with a guardian angel on it…
MSW: … he turned it around and it had this protection prayer and all this… these notes on it. And he gave it to me at our next practice. And he said “I don’t know where the hell this came from…” he said. “I just came in. There was nothing on the bar. And then I looked and…”
MSW: Yeah. “I was just getting everything set up and I turned around and there it was.”
DDB: Yup. Yeah.
MSW: “We’d just played the song.” So, it was like, ya know, weird, cool things happen.
MSW: It seemed very auspicious. (beat) Well, thanks. I’m very pleased you like the song. And I’m very pleased you like the record. Thank you so much.
DDB: Sure. You’re welcome. (beat) Thank you for making it all.
MSW: Hell, yeah.
DDB: Speaking of angels…
DDB: Here we are…
MSW: Here we are.
DDB: … surrounded in their little playground.
MSW: Yeah. I’ve never been here.
DDB: Yeah, this is a really, really amazing cemetery. There’s… I get a lot of… energetic hits here when I’m walking through. I…
MSW: I’ve seen some of your photography, but I’ve never been here myself.
DDB: Yeah. Well, why don’t we wrap this up, now…
DDB: … with the interview and we can go out and walk around.
New York’s minimalist indie rockers Bipolar Explorer are poised to release two new EPs this month: Angels, the follow-up to their celebrated double-record Of Love and Loss (Slugg Records) as well as a Christmas EP entitled BPXmas (out now digitally and as a CD on December 17). Indeed, I have it on as I write this. I’m not entirely certain what I expected but it’s kind of brilliant. And voluntarily having selected “repeat all," I have to say it’s getting under my skin.
Christmas music. It’s a dodgy prospect. I’m not sure I can take another holiday season hearing Sir Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime” as I stamp about Trader Joe’s looking for some decent French Roast. But I wouldn’t mind at all coming across BPX’s moody “Emmanuel”, haunting “In The Bleak Midwinter” or their downright raucous “The First Noel” (yeah, they went there…) in any grocery aisle. There’s even a kind of joy in their ghostly half-German, half-English cover of “Silent Night." It may be more Joy Division than Joy to the World, but that might actually be a good thing.
BPXmas (a mash-up play on words of the band’s acronym, BPX, and that of Christmas itself) is comprised of those four traditional carols - in new arrangements ranging from moody shoegaze to jangly dreampop with a sturdy bit of the ruins of CBGB’s undergirding the lot – plus one new original composition, “It’s Christmas, Sweetheart," penned by frontman, lead guitarist and singer, Michael Serafin-Wells.
Inevitably, The Ghosts of Christmases Past attend and inform the proceedings – like every Bipolar Explorer record, this one is dedicated to the memory of their fallen bandmate, Michael’s late-girlfriend and partner, Summer Serafin, who died in a tragic accident in 2011 at the age of 31. But somehow that very gravitas only adds to the shimmer of this collection of tracks – it anchors them, still finding the very holiday-appropriate voicing of gratitude for ever having found “a life of love, so better led”, as Serafin-Wells sings to her on “It’s Christmas, Sweetheart," the EP’s opening track.
Interest piqued, I caught up with Michael via Skype from the band’s studio in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen…
Daryl 'Darko' Barnett vs. Michael Serafin-Wells
MSW: Hey, man!
DDB: So, tell me about this.
DDB: Like, yeah. A Christmas record. What…?
MSW: Could possibly have possessed us?
DDB: That and, yeah, how did you pick the tracks. And, yeah, tell me…
DDB: Tell me about all that.
MSW: So the idea for BPXmas came from a friend of mine – the filmmaker, Heather Winters - she produced “Supersize Me” and directed last year’s “Two: The Story of Roman & Nyro” - who really loved that Christmas single we put out last year and suggested we do an album in that vein. So, while at work on our next “proper” album – the Angels EP – we simultaneously began putting together this collection of holiday songs. I tried to think of Christmas records I liked and immediately thought of two – Low’s full-length (simply called “Christmas”) a few years back and the BBC’s annual broadcast of “A Festival of 9 Lessons and Carols” by the King’s College Cambridge Choir, which I taped off the radio one year and always listen to on Radio 4 at Christmas Eve. That’s where we got “In The Bleak Midwinter." I don’t think it’s real widely known in the US.
DDB: I like that Low record.
MSW: Right? They’re a huge inspiration and influence for us. I just love them. We all do. And that’s one of the things about it, ya know…
DDB: About the original?
MSW: Yeah. One of the things I love about Low’s record is that they actually had the nerve/balls to write a couple of originals in addition to re-working holiday standards, so I sat down and had a go myself. That’s the opening track. I had the little riff and the jangly kinda chorus playing my Tele through a short delay and I was trying to find the words. I kept singing “It’s Christmas” and then the next line sorta wordlessly, just looking for the sound of it, over and over, until it just came out: “Sweetheart." I really feel that Summer gave that to me. Like she was sitting here looking over my shoulder while I played and just whispered the word into my ear because I could barely sing it for crying the first several times it came out of my mouth.
DDB: Tell me about “Emmanuel”.
DDB: You guys had this one, right?
MSW: Exactly. Emmanuel" is our moody reworking of the already rather moody traditional carol, “Oh Come, Oh Come, Emmanuel”. This was the single we put out last year just on its own that prompted Heather to say we should do a whole album. This is a new re-mix and newly mastered from that session. It seemed right it should be on the EP, as it was sorta the genesis of the whole thing. I guess you could call it “Emmanuel (2014)” like The Police did with “Don’t Stand So Close to Me (’86)” or something. Like if you wanna get technical…
DDB: God forbid.
MSW: That was their first reunion. You remember that?
DDB: Vaguely. I think.
MSW: They got back together to do some new tracks. They’d broken up…
DDB: After “Synchronicity”.
MSW: Right. And like the first day, Copeland gets into a punch -up with Sting, falls down and breaks his fucking arm.
DDB: Oh, yeah…
MSW: And couldn’t play the drums. He was in a sling for the rest of the..
DDB: So, they just did the one track.
MSW: Right. And then like stalked off for another twenty years.
DDB: I hope you guys don’t do that.
MSW: No. No, we’re good.
DDB: Thank god.
MSW: Sadder but wiser.
DDB: I can see that.
MSW: Hey, do you know this English one?
DDB:In "The Bleak Midwinter?"
MSW: You spent some time over there, right?
DDB: Ireland, mostly.
MSW: I don’t know too many people over here who know it. And we weren’t entirely sure how to approach it, really. We just loved it – it’s so haunting – and we knew it had to be on the record. So we just kept trying it in practice and at a certain point let it devolve into heavy delay and chaos a bit before bringing it back really quiet and still at the end. There’s like seven verses so we thought we’d do that thing going back and forth between singing and spoken. It’s kind of very us. Like very us right now. Trying to explore those kind of dynamic shifts so that the song takes you somewhere. Like you travel with it. Ya know? There’s a lot of this on the new record. On Angels, I mean…
DDB: So…Track 4.
DSB: "The First Noel."
DDB: That’s a real change up.
MSW: Thanks. I think.
DDB: No, it’s good just…
MSW: "Noel" is something of a return to our Westerberg-ian, Replacements-esque roots or something, I think. A kinda punk rock hoedown with a little Luke 2: 8-14 - the “Linus” Bible verse- thrown in for good measure. For love & faith. It’s ridiculously fun to play.
DDB: It sounds like it. I mean…
MSW: It really is.
DDB: … I can imagine you guys.
MSW: Like in practice.
DDB: … just killing it.
MSW: It’s really fun. And we’ll do that, ya know, between moody shoegaze moments. Like break into (The Velvet Underground’s) “What Goes On”. Or like “Rumble”.
DDB: The Link Wray…
MSW: … instrumental, yeah. Just loud and nasty and “rrrang rrrang rrrrraaang!” We sound check with that.
DDB: You guys need to play out here.
MSW: [laughing] I know! Can you hook us up?
DDB: Let me see what I can do.
MSW: Church basement.
DDB: Children’s birthday parties?
MSW: All that, yeah. I mean, bring it on!
DDB: I’m making the mental note.
MSW: Ha. Thanks!
DDB: But before I let you go…
DDB: Oh, there’s one more.
MSW: Right. Right.
DDB: "Silent Night."
MSW: It’s originally a German carol. Did you know that?
DDB: I’m not sure I did.
MSW: Yeah. We thought about learning it phonetically but instead we just lapse into the German between the second and third verses and chorus. Like if you listen closely. The vocal is a bit back in the mix. The guitars are farther up front. And sleighbell, which we’re using less rhythmically than atmospherically. The whole track is meant to have that kind of woozy, dream state feeling. Like post-hypnotic or something. And Summer is on the track in a big way. I made this soundscape of some her spoken word stuff and then mixed that mix into the mix.
DDB: Summer’s on Angels, as well?
MSW: Oh, yeah. She’ll always be. I’ve got a lot – thank god, I do – I’ve got lots of her stuff yet that we were working on. She’ll always be on the records. Always.
DDB: Anything else?
MSW: Well, first – just thanks.
DDB: Of course.
MSW: And just… I think…
MSW: I just wanna say, I think, all in all, BPXmas – weird little Christmas record notwithstanding - is a really good representation of the different things we do and where we are now – particularly when you hear it with the other EP, with the forthcoming one, with Angels. Time-wise, because we got hung up with artwork, we weren’t able to quite do the simultaneous double drop of twin EPs. Both CDs are going to look really gorgeous – Sean (Lahey)’s work is amazing, and Scott (Bezsylko)’s photos and Elizabeth Gadd’s amazing cover for Angels – but, ya know… What’s that thing Strummer says? He’s talking about Mick always being late. “Talent’s worth waiting”. I think we’ll have Angels out now New Year’s Day. But the two have a relationship to each other, are part of a conversation, somehow. It has a cohesion, I think, taking the two together. They inform each other in rotation. Anyway, I can’t wait for you to hear them, actually…
DDB: Same here.
MSW: Okay, then.
DDB: Til then.
MSW: Thanks, man.
DDB: Thank you.
Bipolar Explorer are an NYC-based minimalist indie rock group featuring Summer Serafin (vocals), former Uncle frontman Michael Serafin-Wells (lead guitar & vocals, bass and percussion), Jason Sutherland (guitar & backing vocals) and occasional guests. The drummer-less group - once quoted as being “basically not-quite-former punk rockers who decided to try playing not so damn loud and without a drummer, partly out of necessity and partly to see if we liked it” - are currently poised to release both this Christmas EP, BPXmas, and the follow-up to their celebrated double-album, Of Love and Loss, an EP called Angels, on Slugg Records .
Of Love and Loss has been honored in Ground Control Magazine's 2013 Critics Poll, hailed by staff writer Daryl Darko Bennett as:
"...Winning my vote for most heart-stirring album of the year, it feels and sounds like music that is really from inside someone's own skin, skeleton, bloodstream, and remains the most significantly stirring and addictive musical accomplishment we've come across in some time..."
Of Love and Loss, the new record from NYC-based Bipolar Explorer is something of a departure from their previous work, it is at once quieter and more far-reaching. It is eclectic and spare, and altogether haunting.
The band, it turns out, was already staking out new ground before they recorded the first wave of songs for what would become this record. Having pared down to a drummerless core of two guitars, bass and vocals, BPX’s new sound was emerging as something more taut, emotional and urgent, and Serafin-Wells found himself writing different kinds of songs. “Somebody said of the last record that it was Westerberg meets Pavement by way of Wire, and that’s probably about right because that’s where we came from. But writing for this line-up and without drums changed that. And, of course, I met Summer and that changed everything,” he says, speaking of Summer Serafin, his love and partner, the band’s female vocalist. “I mean, she changed my life, clearly. But just in terms of the music, I think we started to go toward something that better served all that and closer to the kind of thing people – Low, Death Cab, Bon Iver – we love, were getting up to.”
Then, after a series of transcendent live shows and halfway into basic tracks for the new record, tragedy struck. Just thirty-one, Summer died from injuries sustained after an accidental fall.
Eventually picking up the pieces in the midst of their grief, the reconfigured band (with Jason Sutherland on second guitar and Eva Potter on bass) - armed with a second wave of songs written in the aftermath –completed the record, now a double CD. “It’s really of, for and about her”, Michael says of Of Love and Loss. “My everything”.
Perhaps fittingly and, I learn, entirely intentionally, the post and pre-tragedy batches of songs are interwoven together. “Yeah, it’s not chronological”, he tells me “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 this story.” Love is a mixtape, I think to myself, because Of Love and Loss isn’t merely a collection of songs or anything as prog as a quote/unquote concept album.
It’s more a testament. A testament of love which leaves one with more emotions than thoughts, in a way. Alive, infused with love and spirit and resurrection – Summer’s presence palpable and ever so slightly haunting (that word, again) – in a magical way.
“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 Disc two, 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. For reference. 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 four-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 – 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... 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.”
I’ve always imagined the greatest gift to someone we’ve lost, to their memory, is to live a stronger life than we did before, so that they can be proud of us from the beyond. The memories of them here are all we are guaranteed. Hearing this story could give one more courage to carry on. That indeed may be the greatest legacy of this testament to love.
“Every last step of this – the final mixes, the final mastering, the final art (the double CD comes with a collage poster of photos and an incredibly arresting cover, Alex Alemany’s painting “Mediterraneo”) – it was really hard to let go of because it felt like something was ending, “ says Serafin-Wells. “But, playing these songs out – and we’re not trying to replicate Summer’s vocals, no one could – it’s still something going forward. It’s like a kind of prayer to her and we know, we can feel it – she’s around.”
Excerpt: "...the story of how (Of Love and Loss) came 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, its 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..."
"Eclectic, steadfast and powerful - making new and truthful music."