Polar Bears

: Polar Bears Shane Goepel, Ben Henning and Matthew Izen skatin’ toward fame. –>

Polar Bears warm up

By Gabe Meline

It’s a Saturday afternoon at the Redwood Empire Ice Arena, and the members of a rock band are lacing up their skates. Not much has changed at the rink in the last 15 years. The faux Alpine village décor, Swiss flags, yellowed ceiling tiles and fake plastic tree are all exactly as I remember them.

The cafe, where each menu item is named after a “Peanuts” character, still smells like stale coffee. Additionally, it blows my mind that Skippy Baxter, the instructor who long ago taught me to ice skate, is still here lecturing a gaggle of leotard-clad preteens about the importance of toe picks. With such completely preserved details in place, it is a minor disturbance to the childhood-memory continuum that I am about to take Polar Bears out on the ice for an interview.

I figure they asked for it. After a name change from the Set Up to Polar Bears (not the Polar Bears, they are quick to note), it was only a matter of time before someone threw them into the most arctic environment Sonoma County has to offer. And indeed, it is cold as the Zamboni makes its rounds. The large clock ticks down to the afternoon open session, and guitarist Matthew Izen exudes confidence. “We’re Polar Bears,” he points out. “We’ve been doing this ice thing for ages.”

The new name is fitting for a group of three very soft-spoken guys who, upon donning instruments, make a furious noise capable of eating the skin off your face. Much like their animal counterparts, Polar Bears seem friendly at first but onstage unleash random attacks. In the same way a polar bear might ravage a baby seal for breakfast, the band frequently leaves audience members scathed by a rhythmic and complex barrage of sound. Theirs is a music far removed from “wine country” rock (though it’s true that one member sports a tattooed Gillian Welch lyric); closer comparisons can be made to Washington, D.C.’s Q and Not U or the overdriven antics of At the Drive-In.

The lights come down at the ice arena now, and the PA system starts cranking out tired Top 40 pop hits. Surrounded by young children, we are easily the tallest people on the rink. It’s tempting to race around like maniacs, but the conspicuously dark-clothed band is courteous to the small tykes in pastel tutus. They’re also gracious as they talk about their new EP, Shorts Are for Warm, just released on Petaluma’s Pandacide Records.

“It’s a pretty big leap,” remarks Ben Henning, bassist and lead vocalist. “We’ve been able to record some music in a way that is not only professional but artistically fulfilling.”

The five songs on Shorts Are for Warm represent Polar Bears at a very focused period, when infectious dance beats have crept into the interloping bass and guitar lines that define the band’s technical hardcore style. While Henning and Izen scream through songs titled “Does This Casket Make Me Look Fat?” or “Last Time This Happened I Got Fired,” there’s an undercurrent of mischievous ass-shaking to the abrasion. For its source, look no further than the north wall of the ice rink, where drummer Shane Goepel is busy spinning haphazard three-sixties and avoiding reprimand by the Ice Arena staff in yellow “Peanuts” T-shirts.

Dancing isn’t the only thing to look forward to at a Polar Bears performance. On most nights, the band attempt to play as close to the crowd as possible, often shunning the traditionally coveted stage in favor of performing on the floor. “It’s not like we’re some dance Gestapo,” Henning explains. “We just thrive on that intimate level.”

Or as Izen quickly and succinctly declares: “It’s energy, it’s always energy!”

Polar Bears are poised to take their energy on the road for a three-week tour of the United States and were poised to celebrate Shorts Are for Warm‘s release with a hometown show on the floor of the Phoenix Theatre before an earthquake retrofit of the venue cancelled the gig. It’s a busy time for the band, but out on the ice Izen and Goepel are clownishly trying to skate backwards without falling and cracking open their heads. Henning is more concerned with cautiously edging his way around the perimeter of the rink.

“Suddenly it becomes very hard to speak about playing in my band,” he confesses. “I’m fearing for my life.”

Polar Bears’ new EP ‘Shorts Are For Warm’ is in stores now. For more band information, check out www.polarbearpatrol.com.

From the March 17-24, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

© Metro Publishing Inc.

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