Dave Brylawski, one of two guitarists in the rock band Polvo, has the perfect collegiate smile that makes good jokes better. It's a symmetrical grin, curving evenly with his round face, relieving the seriousness of the square, athletic shoulders below it.
Brylawski smiles often, especially when he's around the rest of Polvo. Earlier this afternoon, during a four-hour van ride northeast from Philadelphia to New York City, the quartet laughed about silly blunders of past tours (showing up for a post-show house party when everyone's asleep), the whereabouts of rock 'n' roll footnotes (so where did Missing Persons' Terry Bozzio go?) and the perils of the high school symphony (Brylawski was his school's trombone troublemaker).
"I was awful," he said. "I was last chair. Just ask Steve."
"Yeah, you were," replied bassist Steve Popson, his affable Southern drawl always guided by a nonchalant chuckle. "Because half of the time you got kicked out of class."
But today's funniest moment comes at Brylawski's expense, and, for a moment, he's not laughing at all. Polvo is scheduled to headline the Seaport Music Festival, a free seven-show outdoor series at Manhattan's South Street Seaport, just three blocks from the Brooklyn Bridge. Organizers expect a Friday evening crowd of several thousand. But just two hours before the show is to begin, low, gray clouds creep in from the west. Five minutes into Polvo's soundcheck, the sky opens like a ruptured dam.
The band and the stagehands race to cover amplifiers and drum heads. Guitarist Ash Bowie kneels to check his tuning once more, then stows the guitar on a nearby rack. The clouds break briefly, and Brylawski hops down the stage's stairs, headed for a nearby tent. Suddenly, a gust of wind shakes the canopy, pushing water onto Brylawski's shoulders.
"Oh, goddammit," he screams, incensed. He groans, grimaces and shakes himself off.
Brylawski knew this was going to happen. He lives with his wife, Madeleine, and son, Henry, in Manhattan, so yesterday he took a train down to the first show of the tour, at the Philadelphia rock club Johnny Brenda's. Though an hour earlier than the rest of Polvo, northbound from Raleigh by van and stuck in traffic south of Philadelphia, he almost immediately announced his prediction: Tomorrow's show would be a wash.
The storm returns with stronger winds and heavier downpours. Polvo's triumphant stand in New York—just its third show here in a decade—is scrapped.
Most acts touring through New York might not mind a paid Friday night off in the city. Even if your band isn't playing, there are a thousand other things to do—some of the world's best restaurants, movie houses, rock clubs and shopping bonanzas. But most bands aren't in the throes of an unexpected second chance. With In Prism—the band's fifth album, its first in 12 years, and arguably the best of its career—Polvo is. They don't want to waste it with rainouts.
Between 1989 and 1998, Polvo compiled one of the definitive indie rock discographies, built squarely upon the dual guitars of Brylawski and Bowie. They explored alternate tunings and carved melodies from willful dissonance while the quartet itself built tottering epics full of shifts in rhythm, direction and tone. Though Brylawski adamantly rejects the notion that Polvo helped pioneer math rock, you'd be hard-pressed to find a younger such band that wouldn't include Polvo as a touchstone alongside Sonic Youth, Don Caballero and Shellac.
"Like watching Barry Sanders in the open field," Dan Pearson described the band for the magazine Stop Smiling after their reunion in 2008. "To hear Polvo was to hear the guitar, to hear rock, to hear indie music for the first time again, to reconsider what two guitars, bass and drums could achieve."
In Prism is the most concise, most propulsive and best-rendered record they've ever made. If the old Polvo was the nimble, foot-shifting Detroit Lions running back Barry Sanders, the new Polvo is more like Pittsburgh Steeler Jerome Bettis, busting holes open with mammoth guitar riffs and a rhythm section that feels, at times, like a battering ram. Force now drives the finesse.
Time often smoothes history's rough edges, and Polvo's legacy is no different. People are more prone to talk about the band's influence and contributions: Brylawski and Bowie exploring the guitar in a way that few others did; the misdirection-friendly rhythm section of Popson and first drummer Eddie Watkins; how Polvo helped make Merge Records an indie rock powerhouse. But any honest portrait of Polvo remembers the sometimes-puny sound of the band's early output and their infamously erratic live performances.
"I can say this about Polvo," says Jim Wilbur, guitarist for Polvo labelmates and early '90s tour mates Superchunk. "There were nights when they were the greatest band of all time, and then there were nights when they were four guys in basketball gear stinking up the place."
"We played with them in Rocafella's in Columbia, S.C., a show notable for them pulling up to the gig on the back of a tow truck, like on the thing," says Wilbur's bandmate, drummer Jon Wurster. "But, hey, they made the gig."
Thing is, these flaws are exactly what Bowie thinks about when he hears those Polvo records people consider classics—questionable lyrics, lackluster vocals, dated licks, the indiscretions of youth. He appreciates the enthusiasm people have for that work and how some might treat them as a blueprint of sorts. When he listens, he hears only the errors, the moments he'd like to take back.
"They're talking about records that I think are really flawed. You think, 'Wow, I wish we could rerecord that stuff or redo it in some way. I wish it is better than it was,'" says Bowie, whose calm is often mistaken for reticence until he starts talking. "It's a weird feeling to be represented by something you don't feel is an actual representation of what you were trying to do. When I listen to those records, and I don't do it very often, I mostly cringe."
Those regrets, Bowie admits, were an essential piece of his compulsion to resurrect Polvo two years ago. It was a chance to fix those songs, to take back riffs he'd written in his 20s and augment them with his experiences since.
Back then, Polvo thought they'd played all they needed to play. They'd had successful runs on Merge Records and then Touch & Go. Like so many indie rock bands in the mid-'90s, they momentarily flirted with major labels and money. For a bunch of buddies who met when they were 9, like Popson and Brylawski, or at University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill because Bowie was wearing an R.E.M. shirt that Brylawski liked, Polvo had done all right.
"Our early goals were playing the Cradle and doing a 7", and those were exceeded. We had done nearly everything else we wanted to do," says Brylawski. "It just felt like we were done, and we wanted to do different things."
So when the fourth album, Shapes, was released in 1997, Polvo announced that they'd tour the country once more and break up. They'd devoted 10 years to the band, and now, with every member about to turn 30, it was time to move onto a second career. Brylawski became a clinical social worker in New York, and Popson took a job with the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh. Brylawski put his guitars away and bought an oud. He and Popson later rejoined in 2002 for Black Taj, a four-piece that sounded like Polvo with meat on its bones. Bowie returned to Chapel Hill after a stint in Boston, made a solo record and started recording new material with the drummer Brian Quast. He eventually played in Quast's band and recorded a demo for Black Taj. Everyone remained friends and kept in touch.
Then in 2007, the Austin, Texas, instrumental band Explosions in the Sky asked Polvo to reunite for their edition of All Tomorrow's Parties, a franchise of boutique music festivals curated by a band or a celebrity. They had almost eight months to prepare. Brylawski delivered the news.
"Did I think Ash and Steve would be interested? No idea. Maybe?" says Brylawski. "But the extra catalyst was it was eight months before ATP. We knew we had time to see if it worked."
If it was to work, things couldn't be the same: Original drummer Eddie Watkins had left the band in 1996 and had been replaced for two years by another local drummer, Brian Walsby. Polvo needed something new. Bowie had grown comfortable with Quast, a rock drummer with an encyclopedic knowledge of the form and a workmanlike addiction to his job. He'd known the band since he was 17, when he became the final drummer for Polvo's ill-fated buddy band, Erectus Monotone. It felt like an appropriate progression.
What's more, all of the guitars Brylawski originally played during the band's heyday were lying dormant in mothballs. Aside from his time in experimental world music plunderers Idyll Swords, he'd played only in standard tuning since Polvo disbanded, abandoning perhaps Polvo's biggest calling card. Reverting to those old ideas for a new Polvo, then, felt disingenuous.
"We have some songs where I miss his old part, but he's probably a better guitar player now," says Bowie of Brylawski. "He's creative, and he comes up with things that compensate for the loss of that distinctive sound."
Bowie didn't want to play parts he regretted, either. He rewrote a few lines and scrapped others altogether. Unlike other recently reunited peers, Polvo didn't simply cash in on a legacy they felt needed work. They immediately started crafting new songs. The third track they rehearsed in 2007 was Bowie's new tune, "Right the Relation," the opener of In Prism. Brylawski soon presented "City Birds," the fourth song on the album, in rehearsal. They took some of these tunes on tour throughout 2008 and decided this new band was strong enough—and, more important, distinct enough—to warrant a new album.
In February 2008, Polvo convened at Asheville's Echo Mountain Recording Studio with producer Brian Paulson. He'd recorded the Polvo EP This Eclipse in two days in 1995 and later lived with Bowie for two years. Paulson had worked on projects with substantial budgets and expectations before, including Wilco's A.M., Beck's Odelay and The Rosebuds' first two albums. They knew he'd help them avoid sloppy production decisions and rushes to judgment.
With Paulson working as a fifth member, Polvo played for six intense days in Asheville and brought back their work to Chapel Hill, finishing the record during almost 40 recording, editing and mixing sessions at Paulson's house over the next three months. The dedication shows: In Prism is rich with ideas and crisp in execution. Paulson's production vividly captures the new rock backbone Quast delivered without forsaking the intricacy of the guitars. On some songs, peel one riff away, and there are a thousand little notes swimming beneath.
"The end result is more indicative of the time and care put into it, as opposed to the technology involved," says Paulson. "They were very aware of details for this one, and they weren't really given the opportunity to work like that before. Ash approaches it like he's tending a garden: He goes through layers and layers of tracks, and he instantly knows when something is missing."
Sprinting opener "Right the Relation" was mostly captured live in the studio, with all of the instruments played and recorded at once. But the monstrous closer, "A Link in the Chain," is an intricate mass of sound, its trippy little guitar line slowly dripping from a swollen drone. The guitars slide around each other in subtle dances, and the song eases from one part to another, climaxing in a moment of textural bliss. Three minutes later, it finally arrives at the more resilient, better-for-the-wear second verse. In Asheville, the band recorded more than 200 sounds in five parts for this track. Back in Chapel Hill, they meticulously sorted, edited and mixed the final tune. A younger Polvo didn't have the wherewithal for a song like this.
"It was sort of like plunging into an unknown lake or something," says Bowie. "But once the songs started changing a little bit, it became a lot of fun."
And that's the most inspiring thing about Polvo's second chance: They enjoy traveling together and being a band again, acting like old friends with a reason to hang out. In a way, Polvo is like a sports team of veterans, full of a million shared jokes and stories and stocked with idiosyncrasies that everyone's just come to accept. When someone passes gas, for instance, Popson quips, without fail, "Whoop, breaking news."
"Wasn't that yesterday's news?" Bowie sometimes dryly responds.
"When you're in your 20s or whatever, you're just doing it. You're taking it for granted. It's, 'Oh, I'm in a band. I'm touring,'" says Brylawksi. "This go-round, we're more aware of how lucky we are to be doing this. We're happier and more excited than before. I mean, did I think I'd be playing New York again, going to Europe, putting out another record on Merge? Never."
Actually, the show in New York wasn't scrapped. Even before Brylawski spoke to the organizers at the Seaport Music Festival as the band approached the city, they'd been scouting possible indoor alternatives. So when Popson and Bowie returned from their nap, Brylawsk and Quast were sitting in the van, soaking in rainwater along with the band's equipment—five guitars, a bass, a drum kit, several amps, cords and cables—and considering routes to a block-sized warehouse called Brooklyn Bowl. The newest major venue in New York, Brooklyn Bowl had yet to host a rock show when Polvo arrived.
Perhaps overcompensating for a lack of experience, the staff at Brooklyn Bowl treats Polvo less like the biggest band to play there yet (because, well, they were) and more like the biggest band that will ever play there (since Polvo's July appearance, The Roots and Bob Weir have appeared at Brooklyn Bowl). A fleet of servers rushes stacks of appetizers into a backstage loft. Entrée orders are summarily taken and filled, and pitchers of local microbrews appear and are refilled without request.
And Brooklyn Bowl—a green-certified bowling alley and rock club—reserves its most secluded lanes for Polvo who, at 40 and beyond, still claim to be one of the most athletic indie rock bands around. Quast begs out of the game, but Popson and Brylawski study each frame, focusing and carefully squaring their shoulders. They talk trash and do jubilant dances when a ball lands where it should. Popson bowls well and smiles. Brylawski bowls poorly and quits early, but smiles nonetheless. Bowie, who's casually gabbing with friends and surveying the room, bowls best.
People show up—lots of them. By the time the opener, New York's Obits, has wrapped its set, there's a long line outside of the door. In fact, more than 800 people pack in front of the stage, and from the first notes of the winding introduction to "Vibrecobra," Polvo sounds, somehow, like a tour-tight band, as if they've been on the road for weeks. On "Beggar's Bowl," for instance, the new album's brilliant single, Bowie's guitar glides through an Eastern-influenced riff, while, from stage left, Brylawski's growls back with an almost-metal menace. Popson moves from one side of the stage to the other, sometimes stalking at the center, holding his bass vertically or low and away from his body. He turns around, locks to Quast's unerring beat for a moment and then shoots the audience a slanted smirk, his eyes and mouth cocked to one side. No one's treating this like a consolation set.
The night—or, rather, the experience of turning what had once felt like a missed opportunity into something of a coup—seems to galvanize Polvo. The next night, headlining at The Ottobar in Baltimore, they rip through nine songs in 75 minutes, louder and with more pizzazz than they've had all week. There's a bona fide drum solo during "Title Track" and four new songs, too, each dazzling with energy that only freshness and an encouraging crowd can bring.
Remember Polvo's reputation as frustrating or complicated? Well, no one in the crowd seems to have heard about it.
"We never expected this chance, and with this second chance, we want to realize a potential that was dormant," says Brylawski on the trip to Baltimore in the family sedan he keeps in storage a few blocks away from his Chelsea apartment. "It felt like a chance to harness something that we were leaning to once."
Indeed, for the first time this abbreviated tour, they even return to the stage for an encore. Bowie, generally so stoic and focused during the set, smiles across the stage to Brylawski. After they finish, a man with gray hair tucked under a baseball cap tells someone he ranks Polvo alongside Led Zeppelin and John Coltrane. This is one of the best shows he's ever seen, he beams. Brylawski walks by, toting his guitar case toward the car. He says goodbye to the rest of the band, climbs in and pulls away. He's headed toward New York.
The rest of Polvo gets in the van, speculating how far Brylawski might make it tonight before he gets a room. It's too late to head to Raleigh, so Quast drives a few miles to a cheap hotel with a dimly lit lobby. Popson goes inside and returns with two keys, and Quast pulls the van around back. Everyone gathers his clothes and backpacks and troops quietly up the concrete stairs. The clock ticks closer to 3 a.m., Sunday morning, and suddenly it starts to rain.
But it's been a good night, and nobody notices.
Polvo plays Cat's Cradle Saturday, Oct. 17, with openers My Dad is Dead and Savage Knights. Music starts at 9:30. Tickets are $10.