Friday, August 23, 2013

Bent Shapes and the Art of Feeling Weird

Bent Shapes

Originally published on
Bent Shapes has strong connections to the band’s hometown of Boston and the music community there. Listening to the record almost drops you right into the streets, brick buildings everywhere and rats scurrying around corners. They’re the kids that worked behind the counter of the local thrift store, hocking treasures and oddities from lost decades. Or the kids in the coffee shop that you recognize from the basement show the night before and that you have a supremely awkward conversation with, almost as if “Fight Club” rules applied. However, they’re just the same type of socially clumsy dudes that embody the title of their debut LP, Feels Weird.
The project began with guitarist Ben Potrykus writing songs under the name of Girlfriends. The trio, including Supriya Gunda on bass and Andy Sadoway on drums, teamed up (oddly enough) through musical basements and working at thrift stores. On Feels Weird, they all share the microphone with each member singing at least one song. For a few years now, the group has been consistently releasing solid EPs and singles on cassettes and vinyl. Their debut Girlfriends cassette was a group of songs that complemented each other well, recorded in a more lo-fi style that really lent itself to the content of those particular songs. A few of their singles were released as flexible vinyl 7″ discs–translucent squares that appear as if the manufacturer forgot to pop the record out that can be flexed in half (or maybe it’s better to say it could be bent in a plethora of shapes).
Regarding the title, Feels Weird, Gunda says, “It really encapsulates how we are all feeling all the time.” The title was a potential band name, but somehow “Bent Shapes” meant the same thing, which also somehow translates to, “a non-linear arrangement of unshared, lone electrons comprising one angular molecule in a skewed and non-uniform world.” Their songs are full of these juxtaposing things that seem to have nothing to do with one another, but wouldn’t make sense any other way.

They’re fun and stupid, but also intellectual and insightful, like splitting the weekend between college parties and art-punk house shows. In their first video for “Panel of Experts,” they pull the trick of puppeteering someone’s arms from behind their back to ensuing hilarity. From the video, a casual listener might write them off for a silly garage pop band. Yet, they write smart lyrics with plenty of clever, chuckle-worthy turns of phrase and there’s always an undercurrent of socio-political awareness and observation.
Watch the video for “Panel of Experts”:
The lyrical honesty and realism captures the kind of awareness and confusion that dawns on middle-of-the-road 20-somethings these days. It’s something the song “Cave Kids” (a personal favorite) embodies well, while riding the deep nonsense divide. The song didn’t make it onto the album, but the theme is still all over the record, including their single “Behead Yrself, Pt. II.” It’s a gloriously catchy tune about self-decapitation that’s a zen battle between arrogance and self-deprecation (read more in Potrykus’ explanation below). It kicks the record off right with the motto, “I’m not saying you need some deep seeded hatred of self…but it helps.”
Listen to “Cave Kids”:
Gunda called the image that they chose to represent their songs a “suburban ground zero,” because, “[t]hat’s where we all grew up–in the bowels of a drawn and quartered caste system… We ain’t no fortunate sons. We ain’t no working class heroes either.” Likewise, the music seems torn between escapism and activism. They can be nerdy and nonsensical, but also aggressive and opinionated, like that moment when you realize that the party might be turning into a riot (which is also befitting of Boston as that’s exactly what happens with every huge sports victory).
The lyrics have a direct relationship with Boston when it comes to local music in songs like “Brat Poison” and “I Was Here But I Disappear.” Criticizing trends and scenes becomes something personal in a freaks and geeks kind of way. Potrykus explains, “I grew wary of cliques (even as I yearned for community-based support) just by virtue of feeling ‘left out’ growing up.” Those are feelings to which plenty of people can relate, and although the references are specific–even calling out Boston by name–it becomes even more of a universal analogy. Potrykus continues, “Authoritarianism precipitates inequality, and I think that it’s worth thinking critically about hierarchy as it applies to everything from the state down to a house show.”
Portykus adds, “I love Boston. I care what kind of a place it is and what kind of an artistic community it fosters.” Right now, Boston doesn’t have much of an architecture for the music industry, with most record labels operating out of living rooms that don’t have access to national distribution or management. Potrykus himself has his own record label and zine project called “Cake Time” (read more below). Being a D.I.Y. city is a good thing and a bad thing, because there’s so much freedom for creativity and experimentation, but in order to “take it to the next level,” bands usually have to go out of state. Potrykus’ poignant advice in “Brat Poison” is, “Go West, young dumbshit!” Yet, it seems like Bent Shapes might be able to try out something different if they get the chance.
THE BOMBER JACKET interviewed the Bent Shapes trifecta and it was appropriately nerdy, insightful and hilarious. Check out the full transcript below.
TBJ: I know that the album title Feels Weird was a potential band name at one point. What’s the idea behind “Bent Shapes” and how does it relate to “Feels Weird“?
Supriya Gunda: Feels Weird really encapsulated how we were all feeling at the time. In fact, it really encapsulates how we are all feeling all the time. Too much so–to the point that the level of transparency implicit in the name made us feel a little weird. We felt Bent Shapes preserved that accurate reflection of who we are and what we are trying to accomplish with a thinly veiled similitude: a non-linear arrangement of unshared, lone electrons comprising one angular molecule in a skewed and non-uniform world.
What is going on in the album cover and who did the artwork?
SG: The cover painting is by Casey Spectacular. According to his own artist’s statement, “Casey Spectacular creates a soap-opera world of characters marred by smudged mascara, cigarette breath, and social ineptitude.” It’s a world parallel to the same terrarium that fosters “bands,” “music,” “scenes.” Think about all of the smudged mascara, cigarette breath, and social ineptitude you saw at your last independent rock show. We asked him to give us a suburban ground-zero, and he delivered. That’s where we all grew up–in the bowels of a drawn and quartered caste system, watching our head and arms and feet get farther away. We ain’t no fortunate sons. We ain’t no working class heroes either.
How and where did you guys record it?
Andy Sadoway: The album was recorded at Mystic Steamship Co. in Arlington, Massachusetts by our friends Ian Doerr and Evan Murphy. We recorded the drums and bass in a weekend or two and then spent a lot of time playing around with the guitars, vocals, and other overdubs. Like any album, we were pretty sick of recording by the end, but it was a good process for us to experiment like this. All of the old Girlfriends recordings were done in a day or two. And that suited the aesthetic, but it was time to try something different. We were fortunate to work with Ian and Evan who were very patient and encouraged us experimenting like this. I think we’ll end up doing something in between for the next record: we won’t do it in a day but also not take a year.
I remember the early Girlfriends demos were pretty lo-fi and the recordings have been getting slowly more hi-fi, or maybe more clean pop vs. in the drone zone. What are your thoughts on that kind of hi vs. lo?
SG: Well, I guess this is growing up, so to speak. My house is cleaner, my car is cleaner, my mind is cleaner. My tone is cleaner.
AS: I think that the lo-fi thing is definitely a fad, which is fine. There are labels where, between the sound of the recording and the hazy, oversaturated press photo, you may have no idea what decade the band is from. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. I guess it’s cool, but I’m not sure it’s something that really grabs me.
We dabbled in the garage-pop resurgence thing for a bit with the older recordings and I really love a lot of the lo-fi aesthetic. This record definitely has more fidelity to it than the Girlfriends stuff, but I think we won’t ever really get rid of some of the lo-fi elements of the early recordings. Songs like “Brat Poison,” “I Was Here But I Disappear” and “What Do You Get??” funnel that lo-fi aesthetic into the record and I like that.
Is Feels Weird a coming of age story? Or are you guys just fans of ‘90s R&B (à la the song “Boys to Men”)? Also, I was surprised that I didn’t see any X-Files nods on the record. [See the band's Facebook page.]
Ben Potrykus: I think “coming of age” is kind of a misnomer, at least when I try to apply the concept to my life, but my lyrics are definitely about getting older and trying to understand (or maybe confront) people’s expectations of you at various stages in life.
SG: Yeah, I think age is coming of us. The X-Files references are fairly abstract, but they’re there.
AS: We have been playing some of the songs on the record for years. “Bites And Scratches” was on the first Girlfriends release from 2010. We rearranged that song, new lyrics were added, new parts, different time signature. Not to get too meta here, but it’s the first full-length record that Girlfriends / Bent Shapes has put out, with roots back to 2009 and before, so the culmination of everything on the record truly is a coming-of-age story (see what I did there?), independent of the lyrical content. Oftentimes a band’s first record spans their first years together, whereas subsequent records are songs that have been crammed together in a year or two (if the band is clipping along). This makes the first record very cumulative and a lot of phases and directions are encapsulated in it.
Tell me a story about your single, “Behead Yrself, Pt. II.”
BP: I wrote a song about ten years ago called “Behead Yrself!” after a quote attributed to Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī, a 13th-century Persian poet. I didn’t do a lot of research into it or anything. I think I saw it on a “zen calender.” But the concept of losing my head/shutting off my thinking was pretty appealing. It still is, and Pt. II is essentially about the same thing: small-town asceticism, self-sabotage versus remaining grounded. I could have named it “Let Go of Yr Ego” or something, I guess.
One of my favorite lines is in “Brat Poison” (“I want to take a ride on your retro schtick, but it’s form over content, and moreover nonsense”). I’ve been torn between feeling like retro throwbacks are both awesome and a plague upon humanity. Is that line targeted at anything specifically?
BP: I wrote “Brat Poison” after getting really burnt out on the 1-4-5 garagey pop thing that was happening to an even greater extent a couple years ago. I just felt like there was a sort of mythology surrounding the laziness embraced by certain bands. People putting a lot of effort into telling people they weren’t putting much effort into it. I thought it was bratty and counterproductive in what I still saw as a D.I.Y. “underground” or independent scene, so I complained about it like any good New Englander.
Are you indeed taking a ride on “retro-shtick?” Are there any songs specifically emulating your inspirations?
BP: I can’t think of any bands that aren’t, in some sense. If there’s a guitar in your band, you’re probably emulating someone who, in turn, was influenced by the history of guitar-based pop/rock. The nice thing about ripping people off is that most songwriters aren’t that great at it, so the songs still end up sounding “like them.” I have pointedly gone after textures or styles of playing exhibited by The Fall or The Feelies and we still get comparisons to everything from Scottish pop groups of the ’80s to late-’90s indie bands. I’m fine with that.
Some of the recurring things on the record that I picked up on were strong opinions about local music scenes (I found “No gods / No master / No scene” on your website). How do you feel about the state of local music in the U.S.?
BP: Local music seems to be doing great! We play with a lot of smaller bands who are on tour and have been consistently impressed. As for scenes: I grew wary of cliques (even as I yearned for community-based support) just by virtue of feeling “left out” growing up. I don’t think scenes are a “bad” thing, per se, just as I doubt that everyone who has used the phrase “No gods, no masters” thinks spirituality or a certain amount of leadership (via facilitation, maybe) are “bad” things. But authoritarianism precipitates inequality, and I think that it’s worth thinking critically about hierarchy as it applies to everything from the state down to a house show.
SG: In the digital age, is there even a local? Are there any gods or masters or scenes left?
AS: Yes, Supriya, I think there is a local! Sure, the Internet has made it easier for bands to get exposure globally and the lines between what is “Boston” and what is “Brooklyn” are more blurred. Is there a “Boston sound?” I’m not sure, but probably not. To be honest, I think of J Geils Band when I think of a “Boston sounds” but not many bands from here sound like that anymore.
But I do remember that when Girlfriends toured the US in 2010, we saw that many towns around the country still have groups of kids that go to all of the shows, just like we all did when we were younger. And it doesn’t matter whether or not the band sounds similar to each other, because people were just looking for a thing to do. I don’t think we’re going to go back to a time where you have to go to NYC to see a REAL punk band in the punk scene, but I do think that people look for communities, no matter how informal. I’m hoping that the smartphone bubble will burst soon and that we can all get back to work and spending time with each other.
“Brat Poison” is a pretty aggressive song and the lyrics make direct reference to Boston (the “Rat City”). What’s going on there?
BP: I love Boston. I care what kind of a place it is and what kind of an artistic community it fosters. I wrote “Brat Poison” at a time when I thought that those feelings required me to start dissecting everything that didn’t strike me as perfect about independent music in and outside of our city. In the year or so since, I’ve looked back on that motivation pretty skeptically. I sort of turned an overly-defensive position into an attack (which felt like a retaliation then) and maybe became a bully in the process. I don’t regret that song. I’m glad it’s there for me to listen back on. But when I sing it now I think of the speaker as a cranky caricature (my insecurities incarnate) rather than as some smart-assed version of myself.
SG: What could be more Boston than aggression toward Boston?
I remember Ben saying once that you weren’t sure if Bent Shapes would go the way of some other Boston bros that got on bigger labels and started touring internationally. Did you solve music?
BP: Yeah, it’s all set. Order our new self-help book from for a mere $49.99. I don’t actually remember what I said about our future plans then, but I love touring and touring internationally would be awesome.
SG: I’m thinking our next big move will be off the grid. Do they have iTunes there?
AS: By the way our new record is available on iTunes as well as many other outlets on the grid.
With some lines like “Go west young dumbshit,” it’s funny to see you on a label partly based on the West Coast. How’d you end up working with Father/Daughter Records?
BP: The West Coast rules! That line was written after watching people move out of Boston, seemingly (to me) because they couldn’t “go any further” here. As for F/D, Jessi (who runs the label) has been in contact with us since we were called Girlfriends. She was asking us about working together in 2009 in other capacities, and by the time we had a full-length ready this time around, she was asking about doing a record. She takes a really keen interest in her bands, does primarily vinyl releases, and isn’t some inscrutable trend-hopper, and I think all of those things really appealed to us.
SG: Yeah, we weren’t referring to ourselves! We’re OLD dumbshits.
Are you still going to put stuff out on Cake Time? What’s going on with that label/zine project?
BP: For awhile, I had this fantasy that Cake Time would be the Dischord to our Minor Threat, and that we’d build up this label that could put out all our stuff and do releases from other Boston bands as well, but it sort of fell by the wayside. None of us have enough time or money to be releasing records properly, and in the end it sort of just became my thing, and wasn’t really representative of the band. I’m not ruling out doing releases by other people if I work up some cash (or credit) someday, but mostly it’s just me sending out mail order at this point. I am putting out a new issue of the Cake Time Zine this month (July is International Zine Month! Details on Cake Time 1½ will be on which will be available at an art show and a reading that will both happen in mid-July.
Got more video ideas to top the awesomeness of “Panel of Experts”?
AS: What’s funny about that video is that we discussed the concept for a few weeks, argued, shot down each other’s ideas, went in circles. After all the bullshit, we finally had a concept, which was to have some live footage mixed in with some other idea that I don’t even remember at this point. And then we show up the morning of the video shoot, and decided to shoot the whole thing in front of one wall, using that dumb hands trick. I can’t remember whose idea it was, but it just happened on the spot.
My roommate, Avi Paul Weinstein ( shot and edited the whole thing in about 24 hours. Once again we were lucky to work with someone with a lot of patience and a good sense of humor.
So, to answer your question, we’ll probably debate, at length, a video concept and then show up and just let it fly. But isn’t that always how things work best? Or at least that’s when they seem to be really fun. Like that time where we were at practice and we decided to add two drum solos to my new song.
Is the record going to come in the mail with more Garbage Pail Kids cards? Do you have like a huge collection or something?
BP: Our singles will, until I run out! Supriya and I used to work at a thrift store, and I collected a couple hundred. I try to match them up with the recipients’ names whenever possible, but make no promises.
SG: We have no shortage of found crap to dole out for our post-Garbage Pail era, I wouldn’t worry about it. Unfortunately Ben sold a metric crap ton of his lesser Magic cards, though. And we’re not quite financially stable enough to be mailing out Shiny Charizards just yet.
BP: Aw man, that’s Pokemon. I’ve got a few snow-covered land cards I might be able to spare. Those are still tournament-legal, right?
SG: I was just trying to emphasize the diversity of our cards. Pretty sure snow-covered lands are illegal in most Magic events though and basic lands are standard.

Originally published on