Single File

3 April 2012 | 9:32 pm | Doug Wallen

Back in early 2009, the prolific Sydney label Spunk released a compilation featuring young bands from all over Australia. Even if the Spunk Singles Club wasn't the ongoing series once planned (but ruled out for costliness), it still provided a reliable vision of bands that are now a considerable presence. Super Wild Horses, Seekae and The Middle East (RIP) were all included, as were today's Spunk signees such as Emma Russack (then Lola Flash) and Leader Cheetah.

Another band featured were Bearhug, a Sydney five-piece that only had demos to their name at the time. They went on to release the EPs Cartoon Island and To Anything, the latter through Spunk in late 2010. Bearhug have stuck with the label for their long-time-coming debut album, Bill, Dance, Shiner. They've come a long way since that promising compilation track Snow Leopard, without losing the lackadaisical indie rock sound that falls on the charming side of sloppiness.

“We were still working some stuff out,” recalls singer-guitarist Ryan Phelan, whose mumbled vocals aren't far off from his speaking voice. “We were finding our feet, so to speak.” The band formed in 2008, thanks to a few members that had gone to high school together. “We didn't really know each other that well,” he adds, “but we started talking about having a jam session or whatever. We just got other people in the band from there.”

Co-produced by Tim Whitten, who was Philadelphia Grand Jury's sound guy when Bearhug toured with them, Bill, Dance, Shiner came from what Phelan calls “a solid seven months” of writing at their rehearsal space. Despite its oddball title, there's not much of a story behind it. “Kind of and kind of not,” Phelan demurs. “It's just three words. Everyone in the band thinks of it differently.”

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The album itself, meanwhile, divides between sleepy, shambling guitar jams (Cinema West, the seven-minute Cold Stream) and crunchy rock anthems (opener Over The Hill, the Broken Social Scene-ish Be Fine). Some songs even combine the two sides (Shiner, When I Shake, Cherry Red) for an unlikely catharsis. All of them have a decided slacker streak, while the single Angeline is uncharacteristically sprightly next to the lethargic drawl elsewhere. “We definitely wanted to colour them up as much as we could,” notes Phelan of the album's sneaky variety.

There's no overstating the influence of 1990s indie rock on Bearhug, and the band have already been lucky enough to support heroes such as Built To Spill and the aforementioned Broken Social Scene (who came a bit later). Certain stretches of Bill, Dance, Shiner could double for Dinosaur Jr's sun-dazed classic Green Mind, and the guitars nod to the tangled sound of many a bygone indie act. Speaking of, Home opens like early Pavement; Pavement even had a song of the same name.

“I was actually really late to come onto Pavement,” shares Phelan. “After the Singles Club, we were playing a little club and a guy at the show said we sounded like them. After that I listened to Pavement and [now] I really, really love them.”

Still, there's more to Bearhug than just archetypal North American indie rock. “There are some bands we all love,” he continues, “but everyone branches off a little bit. Our drummer is obsessed with the Stones and Van Morrison and all this older music. There are definitely bands we agree on, and you can hear it through the music. [But] we tried to not make a really straight-up indie rock album.”

At the same time, just look at the vehicle-filled, found-footage video clip for Angeline and try not to think “lo-fi.” “It was just for fun,” says Phelan. “A friend just knocked it up in a couple of hours. It's pretty ridiculous. I'm not a huge fan of proper video clips, [but] I think it does fit the song. It's a bit tongue in cheek.”