When the four members who would eventually form Bear in Heaven individually left the Southeast for Brooklyn nearly a decade ago, not one of them did it for music.
"I moved up here in 2001 for no real reason other than it wasn't Atlanta where I grew up," says bassist Adam Wills. "I'd never been outside of Marietta, Ga., really." One by one, his future bandmates – who had all been in other musical projects in Atlanta or Savannah – coincidentally relocated with the intention of putting music on the backburner.
"I was first," says frontman Jon Philpot, who began recording solo under the name Bear in Heaven before making the move North. "I came up here because I couldn't really find creative [video] work in Atlanta. I moved up here and was actually working on television shows – not local advertisements or instructional videos on how to put a catheter in."
Drummer Joe Stickney, an Alabama native who met Wills when they were both art students at Savannah College of Art and Design, decided against getting involved in music before arriving in New York. "I played a lot of music in Savannah and then decided to stop and focus more on painting," Stickney laughs. "It didn't work out. I got up to New York and started immediately seeking out bands to play with." Similarly, guitarist/keyboardist Sadek Bazaraa, who relocated from Atlanta to Brooklyn with his design firm, didn't intend to step back into music, either. But as the four settled in, the social circles they gravitated toward consisted almost exclusively of other Southern expats, most of whom were heavy in the music scene.
Though Bear in Heaven eventually blossomed beyond Atlanta, it happened in such an accidental way that it bears little resemblance to the deliberate strides music acts ranging from Cat Power to Prefuse 73 took to make it in the Big Apple. While all four members of BIH retain their fondness for the South, they stress that both advantages and hardships come with making music in the Brooklyn bubble, long heralded as the center of the DIY universe.
"I don't think any of us would go so far as to say that it's necessary to be in Brooklyn or even in this type of environment," Bazaraa says. "But there is something about being here that maybe has to do with media or the way people pay attention to things. It's a fortunate place to be. I just think about how many people I know back in Atlanta who are in amazing bands that are a lot better than a lot of the ones in Brooklyn that get a lot of hype."
Bear in Heaven will experience a homecoming of sorts on March 11 when the band opens for Cymbals Eat Guitars at the Earl. Being the supporting act on the New Jersey buzz band's first headlining tour is part of the upside of living and playing in Brooklyn, where BIH benefits from what Bazaraa calls "a certain set of media eyeballs."
Still, Brooklyn alone doesn't guarantee success. "It's difficult to find a decent place to practice," Stickney says. "It's difficult to get everybody to come out to shows and to give a shit about your music. ... It gives you some freedom, I think, but it also makes you work harder."
Since rallying behind Philpot's Bears in Heaven recording project six years ago, the band's hard work has materialized. Last October, they released the haunting, sophomore LP Beast Rest Forth Mouth (Hometapes). Dark and synth-heavy with tribal percussion and suspenseful vocals, the album explores the new wave musical canon with fresh fingers and forward focus. It's an urban masterpiece that's a far cry from their suburban South.
Philpot also credits their burgeoning success to a bit of dumb luck. "We were fortunate that there weren't other records that were blowing people's minds at that time. We've been playing music together for six years and it's really great to finally, after such a long time, feel like we're getting somewhere. And now we get to go play music all over the world."
When Bear in Heaven returns to its adopted Brooklyn home, however, it's fortunate to be in a place where a thriving infrastructure supports and propels music acts forward – at least for now. "There are epicenters for every industry," says Wills. "If you want to be in movies, you move to L.A. If you want to be in a rodeo, you move to Texas. It just so happens that New York has always been a big epicenter for music. That was definitely true in the late '70s-early '80s in Manhattan, and there's a revival right now in Brooklyn. I'm surprised the bubble didn't burst five or six years ago."
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