“Whatever people say about our music, I would say that you can always hear a melody running through our songs, no matter how spastic the rhythm ideas may be!”
I read this remark by Ash Bowie before confronting him myself. They seemed to be the words of someone clinging to hope, a faint hope that someone, somewhere, may have some idea about what he is up to.
Ash Bowie, guitarist and vocalist for North Carolina musical splicers and dicers, Polvo, is used to reading and hearing all sorts of nonsensical descriptives of their work. Since the late eighties, comments spawned from the noises produced by Polvo have ranged from immense freeform prose to blatant reviewer quackery. Eager writers and fanzine editors reach for the thesaurus and reconstitute the words messy, dissonant, noise and challenging. Bowie keeps yelling the word ‘pop’ over the editorial spew, yet no-one listens.
“It doesn’t seem that people who comment on Polvo try too hard to distinguish our melody,” Bowie shugs nonchalantly. “Most of what I read seems very much off the cuff. Fanzines around here are consistently absurd in what they say.
“What in fact might just be four guys changing their tuning for a pop song is suddenly an opportunity for a music writer to show off their vocabulary.”
To stand up for my own dubious profession, how does one explain the sound of ‘spoons hitting a piano wire’, my definition of the sounds abounding in Street Knowledge, a track off Polvo’s latest ‘pop’ album, Exploded Drawing. “A hammer dulcimer, yeah,” Bowie perks up as I finally stroke a creative nerve. “Dave (Brylawski, the other chief guitarist and vocalist) has been collecting a lot of stringed instruments from Asia lately, things like banjos, but really short.”
Okay, and what about the sleigh bells on In This Life, the gongs on Bridesmaid Blues, the horse-trot clapping on Light Of The Moon? Polvo is obviously extreme leftfield for everybody – everybody, that is, except for Mr Ash Bowie. It may be pop, but it certainly isn’t light’n’easy supermarket fare.
Sort through your low-fi buddies’ record collections and you will probably find Polvo’s Today’s Active Lifestyles (’93) and Celebrate The New Dark Age (’94). These are the recordings that introduced Polvo to the world outside of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, but they have hardly earned themselves large neon signs.
On the financial shoulders of Merge Records, run by Mac and Laura from Superchunk, their weird ear for melody within detuned instrumentation continues to fire a small but extremely dedicated base of fans worldwide, with disections of their cross-pollinated Eastern twang and Western rock deconstruction being a popular talking point in internet newsgroups.
With the birth of their sprawling new double album, Exploded Drawing, Polvo continue to invent, no, probably devolve, the history of electric guitar use. But somehow, shining through this time, Polvo have let the ethics of pop snobbery into their tight little world.
“Actually, In This Life has all the elements of a single, for once,” Bowie pauses, obviously looking for an escape route from finally being pigeon-holed. He can’t. “It has a chorus, a great riff, but … um … for once I have a problem with the meandering solo within it, it goes for too long and could have have been a really complete song, dread the thought (laughs).”
With their newfound dalliance into almost-pop, throughout last year Polvo did attempt to shmooze the major labels into coming to the party. Maybe, one day.
“As soon as we started talking to bigger labels it soon became clear that we weren’t some young band with a small following, with ‘po-tent-ial’, that with a couple of minor adjustments could sell a pile of records. Polvo with slicker records? I don’t think so. This is how we will always be and I like it.”