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Bear Lake leaves an imprint with its third album

Bear Lake_photo by Stephanie Culver.jpg

There has always been a noticeable and admirable toughness to Detroit-area rock bands, whether it’s in the music, the determination to persevere or both.

Bear Lake might not be as guitar-centric as its Motor City predecessors or contemporaries, but the six-piece group — featuring not one but two keyboard players — displays the same work ethic and loyalty that’s standard in the Detroit music scene.

Of course, pride and principles wouldn’t mean much in the end if the band didn’t have chops or tunes, and Bear Lake shows plenty of both on its third album, If You Were Me.

Bassist/singer Keith May has plenty to say about what drives Bear Lake, his band’s sound, some summer 2011 concert memories and much more. How has the poor economy impacted your band and the Detroit-area music scene in general?
Keith May: “I think it has helped in ways and hurt in others. It allowed us to get our used band van for an insanely great price, but it has also forced us to spend tremendous amounts of money keeping it gassed up. I think the lack of available jobs out there has made people look at us as being a little less crazy when we tell them we are devoting our lives solely to the pursuit of music, even though if there were millions of jobs out there we still would be doing what we are doing now.

“All in all, though, I believe that we are welcoming this economic Armageddon, and hoping that it will bring America back to some sense of balance, where people will have the opportunity to pursue what they love because they can no longer get that miserable 9-to-5 job that they would have otherwise wasted away their lives with. It is exciting, but I think it has also given a more cynical edge to our music. Seeing these Republicans in power [who] don’t care for anything or anyone outside of their own checkbooks, and would rather see people starving on the street than to give any money to government support programs, is so sad in so many ways that it would be hard for any American citizen to not let that affect their art.”

Do you or anyone else in the band have a standard response whenever someone says Bear Lake doesn’t sound like a typical Detroit rock group?
May: “We usually say, ‘Keep listening.’ While many of our tunes are very different from the stereotypical Detroit rock, others fit that description fairly well.

“Also, people should take note of the shifting sound of the Detroit music scene. There are so many great acts in Detroit right now, and few if any of them fit that dirty garage-rock sound that is typically associated with a ‘Detroit band.’ The scene is taking on more influences and it is morphing in a very unique way, and I am excited about the future of the scene.
“In terms of our sound, it has always been diverse writing that sets us apart. With so many songwriters in one band, we always have an influx of songs at our fingertips, and we never run out of material because of it —quite the opposite, really: We always have way more material than we can realistically deal with at one time. Because of this, every album that we put out will take you to a different place or feeling. It is hard to classify, but that’s the way we like it.

“Also, I think so many bands out there today — Detroit rock bands, especially — are extremely guitar-centric. We like the guitar, and [Jon] Rice does a great job on it, but it is just one instrument, and there are many others we like to experiment with. We always try to have a more balanced approach to our melody structures. With multiple key players, it allows us to explore more tonal possibilities rather than just guitar riff, guitar solo, guitar outro, like many other bands.”

If You Were Me is Bear Lake’s third album, and all three have been produced by Eric Hoegemeyer. Talk about how the band’s working relationship with him has changed and grown over the years.
May: “The band’s artistic vision has always been to experiment with the possibilities of songwriting, and to create the greatest possible hooks and melodies that we can fathom. Eric understood and respected what we were trying to do from day one. When we are in the studio, sometimes it is like mental telepathy. Most times we don’t even have to explain an idea in words; Eric will just automatically pick up on it and add to it in a way that astounds all of us. This telepathy has certainly grown over the years, as well as our ability to break down tasks for tracks effectively. We have all taken on and accepted our different roles in the studio, and this has helped the recording process to move along smoothly. All in all, getting in with Rustbelt [Studios] and Eric was certainly one of the best things that ever happened for our band.”

Does hearing a Bear Lake song in a TV show such as One Tree Hill and Bones have the same feeling as hearing one on the radio?
May: “It’s just different. When you hear your songs on the radio, you get to think about everything that was going on when that song was created. There’s nothing leading you; you focus on the meaning that we put into the song. When you hear your song on a television show, you have to go with the meaning that is being conveyed by the visuals presented to you. Sometimes they are spot-on; other times, they are far different from what you originally imagined for the song. Either way, it has always broadened our appreciation for the music itself, and we love seeing our tunes in different mediums.”

Bear Lake opened for Sheryl Crow and Rick Springfield during summer 2011, correct? When and where were those shows? Did you have any interaction with either of them? And what were some of the thoughts that ran through your mind during those gigs?
May: “Ha — well, unfortunately, we never got to open for Sheryl Crow. We were on the bill for MI Fest 2011, but due to low ticket sales, they had to shut down a stage and canceled close to 20 local Detroit bands two days before the festival. The few Detroit local acts that were kept on the bill canceled to stay unified with the rest of us. It was pretty amazing seeing Detroit bands stick together like that, and that’s what we really took away from it.

“We did get to open for Rick Springfield at the Stars and Stripes Festival 2011, and though we did not get to meet him, he did put on a stellar performance. I have never seen so many tightly clothed, upper-aged women screaming in one place before. The amount of youth reliving that was taking place there was astounding, and the energy was intense. All I could think of was Springfield’s recent role on Californication, and I chose to believe that it was absolutely true. Seriously, though, he is a great player, he puts on an awesome show and it was an honor to get to share the stage with him.”

— Introduction and interview by Chris M. Junior

Bear Lake on tour (schedule subject to change):

* Oct. 21: Arlene’s Grocery — New York
* Nov. 5: Woodruff’s — Ypsilanti, Mich.
* Nov. 11: Apple Store — Chicago

Photo by Stephanie Culver