Warped Tour 2012: Polar Bear Club on Vintage Screamo and Transcending the Buzz Band Hype

Hailing from upstate New York, fivesome Polar Bear Club wears its musical lineage proudly. The band's name comes from a song by Silent Majority, a melodic hardcore act that ruled Long Island's legendary scene throughout the '90s. Polar Bear Club, the band, formed in 2005, but the group's sound unabashedly mines the previous decade, when hardcore wasn't afraid to get a little emotional and before screamo became a bad word.

Until recently, this would have made for an unlikely commercial bet to make it on the increasingly pop-oriented Warped Tour. But Polar Bear Club is enjoying a special moment. Slightly younger acts like La Dispute and Pianos Become the Teeth have also, in turn, revived the same set of influences for younger fans. This means Polar Bear Club appeals both to this new crop of kids who were too young to experience the sound the first time around as well as the aging 20- and 30-somethings still clutching wistfully to their Hot Water Music and Lifetime records.

We caught up with vocalist Jimmy Stadt by phone in advance of the band's appearance Saturday at the local Warped Tour stop at Cruzan Amphitheatre in West Palm Beach. Here's what he had to say about flying the posthardcore flag and making it as a band in uncertain times.

County Grind: You all tour constantly. How do you even come up with set lists at this point? You have your last album, which came out this past September, but also several older ones to draw from, and then there must be new material.
Jimmy Stadt: Right. We've played the States so many times that we're always trying to think of things we can do to make it a little bit better or cooler or make that night unique to that night, instead of a carbon copy of the last time we were in Salt Lake City or whatever.
Self-interest is probably the biggest part of it. We don't want to be doing the same thing every tour. I read an interview with Gaslight Anthem where the singer said he almost felt bad for people who pay to see their show, because they've probably seen Gaslight Anthem at that club two or three times before that, and here they are paying a fourth or fifth time to see it again. We want to make it worth it for the people there and make it an experience in and of itself.

Since the last album but even last year, things picked up for you guys so quickly. You were on the cover of Alternative Press, and you got an MTVu award. When did you notice the velocity was really increasing?
That's a weird question, and I don't mean that in a "you're stupid" way; it's just that it doesn't necessarily feel like that to me. I think the way it feels to me is, when we first started touring -- our very first tour as a full-time band -- there was a lot of underground hype around us. We were playing amazing, sold-out shows in smaller clubs right out of the gate.
I think when we started to think about building up our, I guess, career as a band, we saw a dropoff in that aspect of things. We started in this spot, and then we started over, almost, in a way. We're sort of climbing back up a different ladder, different from the "buzz band" ladder. And that climb is a lot longer than the buzz-band climb. So I feel like we're still struggling and still climbing. I haven't personally felt the movement or speed of it all.
So we're hoping that now this climb will push us to the next step. Our only goal in this band is to be moving forward and not treading forward, no matter how big the step forward is.

Right, it's easy to see this trajectory from the outside, but you're living it.
Yeah, every day of my life is Polar Bear Club.

Obviously, when you started out, you were on the local hardcore and punk scene on the circuit where you were from. So when do you consider yourself having been at "buzz band" status, and where are you trying to go now?

We were definitely an "it" band when we first started touring the U.S. and the U.K. in Europe, in 2008 and 2009. We've been a band since 2005, and we self-released a demo and an EP that sort of slowly started picking up nationally and internationally. Then we went to

Sometimes Things Just Disappear,

and that went further as well.

So the sort of stigma with Polar Bear Club was that, "Man, there's this awesome band from New York, and they rarely tour, so I hope I get to see them someday." So with that first tour, people had thought they would never see us play, and all of a sudden we were in California and Germany, and it seemed really cool and special.

But that feeling doesn't last, which is something we had to learn. So this band is our lives, and we just want to keep going with it, and we want to be able to live off of it. We want it to be our careers, and that takes time. That's something that transcends buzz and hype. If you think of bands like Alkaline Trio, AFI, Bad Religion, and Jimmy Eat World, those are the bands we look up to, because they're consistent and able to live off their bands in a middle-class way and still have their ideals intact.

Did you always take it so seriously from the beginning of the band?
We set out to not take it seriously! The way the band started was, it was almost a side project for all our other bands that we did try to get big with. Those bands didn't work out for us, and then we started Polar Bear Club to be a weekend thing or a summer-tour thing.
I think what happened was we started getting this hype across the U.S. and even the world, and we just felt we would be doing ourselves a disservice if we didn't at least try to make it our lives. So we jumped through and took a chance by leaving our jobs and school and our lives to do this full time. So there was a definitive shift in our attitudes, for sure.

So nobody's working or anything?
It's weird now, because when we first went full time, none of us were really working. None of us have cars or nice things, so we just scraped by with the band. But now, some of us go home to jobs. We need day jobs still to get by. Being in a band, there's no money in it whatsoever. It's so bad, and it's gotten worse since we started. This is the worst time to start touring in a band full time, honestly. But our goal is to be living off of Polar Bear Club at some point.

So things have gotten worse even as your profile has gotten bigger on a mainstream level?
It's weird, because there's a lot people don't understand about being in a band. So yes, our profile in terms of a mainstream scale has gotten a little better. But the money is pretty much the same as when we started out.
When you're in a band, there are so many expenses and so much debt. You have to be prepared to lose money all the time, and that's the only advice I can give to a smaller band that's just starting out. Don't freak out when you have to spend $3,000 on a new transmission for your band. That's going to happen all the time, and it's really hard to get ahead.
There's no middle class for a musician any more. You're either a starving artist or hugely famous. That was not always the case. You could be a band like NOFX or Lagwagon and have a house. That doesn't exist anymore. You're either at one end of the spectrum or the other nowadays.

You say you picked a weird time to be in a band and tour professionally. But also, at the time your band started, in the mid-'00s, it was a weird time to start a band that sounded like yours. It was a time full of metalcore. So what was the initial reaction to your band?
I don't think we ever thought about it like that. We just set out to make music that we wanted to hear and that excited us. It just happens that that's what gets us going. The bands we really responded to as a collective were bands like Small Brown Bike and the Casket Lottery, and of course At the Drive-In and Jimmy Eat World and things like that. It just got mushed up in a way that was Polar Bear Club.
It helps us and hurts us in ways. It helps us because we have a really wide range of people who like our band. There are late-30s people who like our band who can see our influence from older bands. But we also have young kids as well because of the Warped Tour and the Alternative Press tour we did. I think as long as you're honest and positive and passionate, it doesn't really matter how you sound. Those things are universal enough that someone of any demographic can get into it.
It's true of all art forms. Look at a movie from the '80s that's just a good movie and honest and well-written and acted. It still is great today. So if you're honest and play true to your heart, that's always going to be in style.

And your name came from a Silent Majority song.
Yeah. I mean, we named the band after that song because that was another band that was just honest, and sonically, they existed in this cool gray area between singing and screaming and musically between hardcore and old emo, I guess. That was so fascinating to us, and that resonated so hard with us. You have the ends of the spectrums where most bands like to play -- they like to be either quiet or really loud and heavy, but there's so much cool stuff in between. And Silent Majority was such a cool band that showed us that.

There are so few bands going for that middle. Do you think that's been part of your appeal to younger kids?
I think so, but I think also it has to do with being young. When you're young, it's all about what's the sweetest candy. I'm really good friends with the band Four Year Strong, and they have a really young crowd, because every part of every song is as sweet and catchy as it can be. Every part could be the chorus. And when you're a young kid, it's like the intense-action-movie version of music to you -- it's sensory overload of awesomeness.
That's cool and that's one thing, but as you get older and your tastes refine more -- I don't want to sound too snobby as I say this -- you start to appreciate that middle ground.

You play a lot of all-ages venues and tours, like the Warped Tour, that have a really young crowd. How does it go over? Have you ever gotten crickets?
It's awesome playing for a crowd that young. I think the only times we've ever gotten crickets are when we toured with Thrice and then Face to Face. I think with Face to Face, their crowd was just a little too old and didn't care about anything but Face to Face. With Thrice, I guess their crowd was a little too -- I don't know -- conservative. I don't mean politically, but their crowd was very college-y and just into rock.
But when we do the Warped Tour or did the Alternative Press tour, it's a really young crowd, and it's great, because they genuinely want to like your band. They're into new music, and they have a sense of curiosity about all things having to do with bands. They're just excited to be in the room, and they pay attention to you. They're not too cool for it or over it. They respond to energy and positivity. I love playing to young kids, honestly.

You mentioned the Gaslight Anthem earlier, and obviously, they've blown up huge. Do you think they've helped pave the way for you guys a little bit in terms of prepping people for your kind of music?
I don't know. It's a little strange, because I think when we first started out, a lot of people compared us to the Gaslight Anthem, and I never understood that. I love that band, but I never understood why we were comparable. I guess earlier Gaslight Anthem has that gruff edge that's also found in Polar Bear Club, but they went really far from that. They went to really good, simple, straight-ahead rock.
A lot of their crowd is like, 40-plus, and that's a huge part of their success, because those people still buy music. The shows we've played with them, there's a lot of adult-adults there. The rock and punk kids love us, yeah, but those hardcore adults are still a little confused by us.

Where do you see this going? Are you hoping to get on a major label? What's going to be the key to keeping the band solvent, I guess, since you talked about money?
I read an interview with Against Me! last year where even they were starting their own label to release their music because everything was so uncertain. I'm of the same idea -- I'm not certain if it's good to be on a major label, stay on an independent label, or just take complete control over your music yourself. Music is in limbo. Luckily, though, we've never cared too much about the business end of things. We've always just been about writing and playing music. So as long as we can still do that, that's fine.
In terms of goals, yeah, we'd love to move up and play bigger clubs and maybe some day come home with some money so we don't have to worry all the time. But the music business is in such a weird time, there's got to be one thing that comes along that changes it somehow, but I don't think anybody knows what that thing is. Until we know, we can't really be certain about anything.

Polar Bear Club, at the Vans Warped Tour, 11:30 a.m. Saturday, July 28, at Cruzan Amphitheatre, 601-7 Sansbury's Way, West Palm Beach. Tickets cost $44.05. Click here.

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