Catching Up With... Dave Brylawski of Polvo
When Dave Brylawski applied to his current job as a clinical social worker in New York City, it’s unlikely he had “serious guitar shredding” listed on his resume. But three years later, that skill is once again at the forefront of Brylawski’s life: his band Polvo is about to drop its fifth release, and its first in a dozen years.
Before Polvo disbanded in 1998, the North Carolina group was one of the
more credibl noisy, independent guitar bands (think Sonic Youth, Sebadoh) around, most notably with 1993’s Today’s Active Lifestyles. Singer/guitarist Ash Bowie joined Helium and recorded as Libraness while working as an electrician; Brylawski went back to school and kept up his chops playing in Black Taj and Idyll Swords.
Polvo soon morphed into a never-huge band that newcomers cited as an
influence. Then last year, one of those bands pushed Polvo back
In 2008, Explosions in the Sky curated an All Tomorrow’s Parties festival and asked the then decade-defunct Polvo to play. A year and a half later, Polvo is prepping the release of In Prism, its first since 1997’s Shapes and maybe its best yet. Endlessly complex labyrinths of guitar and catchy choruses rarely co-exist so harmoniously. Better late than never.
Paste: Where are you today?
Brylawski: Just got off work, ate dinner, put the kid to bed, talking to you. That’s my night. I actually have to do some work-work after I talk to you. I am a clinical social worker, a psychotherapist. Been doing that for about five years.
Paste: Is it ever hard to keep your focus at work knowing that you could be playing rock ’n’ roll?
Brylawski: A little bit, sure. It’s a funny thing: That definitely gets talked about at work. I like the work/band balance. It keeps you grounded, especially at my advanced age. But certainly as the record nears coming out and the excitement starts to bottom out, it does get a little hard.
Paste: What do people at work know about your night job?
Brywlawski: They know. I’ve been here about 3.5 years. They were privy to the beginning of it—when the band got back together. All of a sudden I was going to England, doing ATP. They didn't know what to think, really. None of them are really indie-rock savvy, so they were sort of tickled by it, but not grasping it.
Paste: It was about a decade between the Shapes farewell tour and All Tomorrow's Parties. Did the band keep in contact much in those years?
Brylawski: Oh, yeah. All those guys live in North Carolina. I grew up there, so I would go down to visit my family and catch up with them. We all sort of transitioned into just being friends—where we began before the band ever happened. Ash and I were buddies in college. We were friends for four years before Polvo. So our relationship went back to going to bars, talking about music, just being friends. It was nice actually to get that part of our friendship back. We didn’t have to deal with band stuff.
Paste: Had that aspect of the friendship dissolved when the band broke up in '98?
Brylawski: No, we ended amicably. It was an odd ending to a band arc. We thought we’d done everything we could do. And at that point, of course, we weren’t saying, “Oh, we’ll get back together in 10 years.” No, we just did everything we wanted to do. So we had one last album, one last tour and went our separate ways.
Paste: That certainly doesn’t always happen so smoothly.
Brylawski: For sure. And let me say, being in a band is like being with family and friends and workmates all at the same time. There are stresses, negotiations, things you need to iron out. It can be pretty intense.
Paste: But 10 years later the band is back together. What was the moment, or the tipping point, that convinced you guys to not only play together, but to fully record a new album?
Brylawski: Before Explosions in the Sky asked us to get together for ATP, we’d been asked before. Once for a Touch and Go anniversary, once for Merge’s 15th anniversary. We really thought about it, but we didn’t have enough time to make it work. We knew that we didn’t want to slop it out. We wanted to really take some time. With ATP, they gave us a six-month head start to see if we could do it. So once we made the commitment, we were spending all this time and energy for basically just 2 shows. So we thought we might as well make a go of it and write some material. There were two decisions, really: to write new material, and not to play the old stuff exactly how it was written. So those two things naturally led into us feeling freer and led to the new record.
Paste: Was it weird thinking that you were going to be rehearsing music you wrote 15 years ago?
Brylawski: Yeah, and some of it was 18 years ago. That was part of it: I can’t imagine getting in touch with those same emotions I had in my early twenties. That’s why we knew we wanted to update the music, to make it more reflective of where we are now.
Paste: Had you kept up your chops playing Polvo songs?
Brylawski: Oh, absolutely not. That was actually the third decision we had to make—what the hell were we going to play? So now we’re playing the old stuff differently; Today’s Active Lifestyles is a step below standard tuning and now we play a half-step. Some of it was muscle memory and some we really had to go back and think through.
Paste: I’m guessing most of the band was like you—they hadn’t kept up with Polvo songs. Was it tough to work through the songs on that first practice?
Brylawski: Yeah, none of us were really sitting around five years ago playing Polvo. We didn’t remember the songs; we didn’t think we’d have to. So the first time it sounded a little rusty, but it was good enough that we knew we’d be okay. And one of the first things we did was write a new song. It’s the first song on the new album (“Right the Relation”).
Paste: On “DC Trails” (from In Prism), there is the line “The past is just a fading ghost. The future is so very hard to tell.” In a way, do you feel like that line sums up Polvo—that the future will come, but it’s undefined until it happens?
Brylawski: That’s funny. I’ve never really thought about that line in terms of the band. But sure, yes. Absolutely. Not to be tossed off, but the line is about being in the moment. You brought into light that, yes, it does apply to Polvo. We never had a set agenda or wishes or goals. We just wanted to wait and see what happened. And the momentum has built on its own. When we were asked by Explosions, I didn’t know I’d be talking to people about a new album. It’s been a very pleasant surprise.
Paste: How did Explosions actually ask you guys to get back together?
Brylawski: It was their manager who got ahold of my e-mail. I was sitting at work at the mental health clinic and all of a sudden got this e-mail. And, of course, I knew what ATP was. I was just like “Boing!” I mean, wow. So I immediately called Ash. We didn’t know what to think, really, but we decided we’d at least give it a try.
Paste: From talking about work and the band, it seems like you’ve got a pretty good balance. But do you think, with the new record and tour, this could be something you’d take on the road and invest a lot more time in?
Brylawski: Well, unfortunately, because of my work and family I’m the only person in the band with familial restrictions. I’m the only one with kids. That limits a lot of my ability to be a road dog and hop in the band for five weeks. Work does too. This is the conundrum of being in a rock band at this stage of my life. I can’t really abandon my career to play music. Right now, it’s tough but it’s workable. I can play on the weekends and go away for the occasional week. I can just do that with vacation days. But I can’t see it being much more than that for me, personally.
And, I mean, it would be fun to rocket in a time machine back to 1993 and go away for eight weeks at a time, but that’s just not where my life is now. It’s bittersweet. It’s not awful and it’s not wonderful, but I accept it.
Paste: Then would it be false to say that you wish things went differently?
Brylawski: I’m too much of a realist. If Polvo sells a million copies of In Prism, I’d probably quit my job. But I don’t think that’s going to happen. When I say to my in-laws, “It’s weird being in a band in your forties. It’s sort of not rock ’n’ roll,” they say the same thing: “Oh, the Rolling Stones are in their sixties.” Well, yeah, but the Rolling Stones gross a hundred million dollars a year. Makes it a little more palatable when you’re raking in the bucks.
Paste: Well, that said, the new record is solid. I missed the first wave of the band; I was 11 when Shapes came out
Brylawski: Jesus! That means when our first record came out you were... four? Why don’t you just call me grandpa and get it over with?
Paste: But seriously, what do you make of putting out a record that could be the band’s best so long after the band broke up?
Brylawski: Well, there are a lot of different opinions about that, often based on the context of when someone got into the band. I’ve heard feedback like yours, which is nice to hear, but I’ve also heard more negative feedback. You know, that it’s not as good as the old stuff, whatever. But you’ve got to respect people’s opinions. There are elements of the same band we were 18 years ago, but we have to be different. We have a different drummer (Brian Quast) and we’re 20 years older now. We just can’t recreate what we were. That’s just the way it is. I hope people like it, but I can’t control if there’s an element that people think is missing. Ultimately, you can’t go home again. You can’t go so far back in the past. You’ve got to keep moving.
Paste: For sure. And speaking of moving forward, there are tons of bands who would cite Polvo as an influence. Have you heard from them, especially now that the band is reunited?
Brylawski: People come up to us at shows or they’ll write us and say, “Oh, you were a big influence.” It’s funny—you hear it and you don’t hear it (in the music). Nothing really hits me over the head where I say, “Yes, that sounds like Polvo.” But if we were to go tell the bands that were influences for us, they might hear it and they might not. Influence is just something passed down from band generation to band generation. And it’s definitely flattering. But nothing sounds obviously like Polvo.
Paste: Except for Polvo.
Brylawski: Except for Polvo. And sometimes that’s not even true.