Interview with Kovacs and the Polar Bear

Nick Kovacs and Joe Chang of Kovacs and the Polar Bear take some time to discuss what it is that makes Asheville such a great music town, and where their favorite places to see a show in the city are.

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The following is our complete interview with Asheville indie rockers Kovacs and the Polar Bear.

Wand’rly:
Are you guys all from Asheville? If not, when and how did you end up here?
Nick:
We’re from Asheville. We’ve all lived here for a good while, and it is definitely home.
Joe:
Yeah we’re all pretty much local boys. Chris and I grew up out in Black Mountain, and Andy and Nick went to high school in Hendersonville.
W:
It’s no secret to most big music lovers, and probably most people in the South in general, that Asheville is a pretty great place to be for people on both sides of the stage. But if you ask anyone out West or up North about great music scenes in the country, Asheville doesn’t often beat out places like Portland or Austin. It’s not like music in Asheville is new or anything, do you have any comments about why you think Asheville is such a “best kept secret” type of place?
Nick:
Asheville has a lot going on. There is such a wide variety of good stuff going on in such a small city, but it is kind of spread thin. People in Asheville are really supportive and friendly, but there are definitely certain places that people need to play to get heard. It can be a tricky town for traveling bands to get anything going sometimes. It’s slowly changing though, and better and better music is starting to emerge.
Joe:
Im not really sure. Asheville’s very much so a bubble of a town, and in a way I think a lot of folks kind of like that about it. It’s got a lot going on and things being made and created, but a lot of it tends to sort of stay here for the most part, and I’m not sure why that is. Maybe it’s just because Asheville isn’t really as big as those cities.

My own feelings on it are that it’s a very comfortable, laid back and easy place to live, which is great. But in that sense, being comfortable often leads to contentment, and not really wanting to strive for something more or “bigger”. I’ve felt these things and I’ve seen a lot of friends (artists, musicians, filmmakers, etc) who come and go from this place, with that sort of struggle and frustration perhaps. But then again, I don’t know what that ‘something more’ is, I guess it’s that ‘something more’ that everyone is kind of after. But that could just be seen as success or whatever on other people’s terms, so that’s kind of bullshit. I don’t know.

But ever since I can remember I’ve heard people talk about Asheville being the next Austin or Portland or wherever and I’ve never seen it happen. I think it really has the potential to be something like that, but I don’t think there’s a formula for it to happen, it may or may not, maybe it’s just the timing of certain people and certain things happening, and I guess it just hasn’t so far. But there’s anything wrong with that.

Recently with the opening of the MOOG factory and what those folks are doing for music here has been really cool, and could lead to bigger things, more exposure, what have you… but then again, Asheville is just Asheville. And I guess it’s all really just hype, and when it comes down to it, it shouldn’t matter. Who knows, I don’t know. It’s a beautiful place to be.

W:
Has Kovacs & the Polar Bear, or any of you as individuals, ever done any busking?
Nick:
Nope.
Joe:
Never as a group, no. I don’t think Nick is into busking. I’m not against it or anything, and I enjoy hearing other buskers sometimes and I appreciate the performance aspect of things, I guess maybe we’re just a bit shy in that sense. If I was traveling and needed a little traveling money or something, I’d probably be up for it.
W:
What’s your connection with River Whyless? Are you guys friends or just play together? The greater point I’m getting at is, what kind of camaraderie do you feel with other local bands?
Nick:
We have known them for a while. They’ve always been sweethearts. We never really got to know each other really well, but they are certainly friends. We’ve recently been getting to know them better and they are great folks. We have a lot of friends in other bands that we play with. It is a pretty tight knit little circle in Asheville. Other local bands like River Whyless are always really busy touring and stuff, so you don’t get to see them a lot outside of a show setting I guess.
Joe:
We just recently played their album release show, and yeah we’re pals with them, as well as a lot of other bands. I think there’s definitely a camaraderie between a lot of bands here, its pretty small, everyone kind of knows everyone and goes to one another’s shows and are quite supportive, and a lot of bands share members, and there seems to be a mutual respect for all kinds of music and genres and weird shit, so that’s nice.
W:
You played the Orange Peel several years back, and we’re going to be looking into that venue in particular in the article. What can you tell us about playing at a place with the history and the current stigma and buzz surrounding that place? How did you get the gig and what was it like working with the people at Orange Peel?
Nick:
It was really a good experience for us. Someone contacted us to play for a festival that was going on, and we were really excited to do it. The people there are really good at making things run smoothly. I just love playing places where I have seen so many of my favorite bands play. It makes the experience a lot more meaningful. They just do what they do very well there.
Joe:
I wasn’t in the band when they played there, and even though I’ve been around Asheville since the Orange Peel opened, I’ve actually only seen one show there (Tony Clifton, which was the greatest show ever). Not that I’m against going to it or anything, I guess I just don’t listen to much new or popular music, and I don’t really like “big” shows and crowds, so I tend to go to smaller shows. But it seems like a really wonderful venue, and it’s definitely put Asheville on the map in that sense, and made it a destination spot for a lot of big name touring folks.
W:
Do you have a favorite place to play in town? A particular bar or club? I see you’re playing a show Friday night in a warehouse for Grammer School’s album release, do you like playing less formal places like that? Do you do birthday parties?
Joe:
Collectively, I’m sure we’d all say the Grey Eagle. It’s a wonderful venue run by wonderful people, and we always have a great time there. Other great places to play/see shows: The Get Down, Bobo Gallery, Broadway’s, Emerald Lounge… I personally like less formal places, the best shows I’ve been to have been in living rooms and basements. I don’t think we’ve ever played a birthday party.
Nick:
The Grey Eagle is our baby. We love playing there. It is kind of like our home base. We’ve come to know the people who work there really well, and they are amazing. The sound there is great, and the people who come out are always so supportive. We definitely like playing less formal places too. We love house shows and getting rowdy, and doing quieter stuff in small random places. Some of our favorite shows have been in strange places I guess… We have totally played some birthday parties.
W:
Asheville’s lucky in that it’s got the population to support, or at least the business owners’ with the desire to keep local record stores alive. Do you guys have opinions on the value of record stores like that? Do you find that a local shop helps promote you guys or get your music out there where it may not have?
Nick:
Every record store in Asheville is great. I know it sounds like a kiss ass thing to say, but it’s true. Harvest Records has helped us out with so much in the past. They also get a lot of the bands that I love to come to Asheville. They are really a key element to the music scene here, and I think most local bands would agree.
Joe:
Absolutely. I think they are invaluable. It’s really amazing what Harvest has done with expanding and booming so much, in a day and age where things like that are sadly dying out. It’s really a testament to the guys running it as well as the local community that supports it. And yeah, all of the local record stores are definitely supportive of musicians and local music and vice versa. It seems that’s gotta be an undeniable relationship in any sort of music community. And really, it just comes down to a town full of nice folks. People want to help other people out, and I think it’s as simple as that for things to thrive. Being kind.
W:
In that vein, how do you feel about the mp3 world that we live in? When you put your songs together as an album, do you think “man, I wish this was the good ol’ days where someone would listen to this as an entire record at once” or do you embrace the Internet and what it’s done for bands who aren’t on major labels?
Nick:
I don’t know that I’ve ever really thought about it. I’ve always liked seeing a band live. I think that is what a band is all about. Honestly I take whatever music I can, however I can. When it comes to our stuff, Im humbled by the fact that anyone listens to it at all. I think the internet is a great way to hear bands you like and find out more about them, but I think that people will always enjoy listening to records straight through. It’s nice to have both options I guess is what I’m trying to say.
Joe:
I’m not sure. I don’t really live in an mp3 world. I think if an album is good, it’ll find a way to the listener, and if it touches them, then they’ll listen to and take in the entire record at once. I’d like to think that will never be lost. All my favorite records, I tend to think of them as a whole, like a little world they’ve created that I’m invited into and get lost in or find something in. Though the same could be said for a single song I suppose.. and I’m always a wisher for the good olde days…

I think the internet is a great tool for bands nowadays, in a way to reach out and directly connect to an audience as well as other bands all over the country. It’s crazy how many people I’ve met who’ve come through town or have emailed us, and they know such and such from such and such band from such and such place, it makes it seem a small world after all! And we have the Internet to thank for that!

W:
I asked about where you like to play out in particular, but if a band you really loved was coming to town, and you could pick where they were going to play, where would you want to see them?
Nick:
The Grey Eagle.
Nick:
In my basement.

Read more about the Asheville music scene and the Orange Peel. Photograph by s000z.