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I think I found a way to stump Polara frontman and local-music connoisseur Ed Ackerson. Having recently heard a few varying descriptions of Polara's sound, I simply had to ask: What on earth is the difference between noise rock and psychedelic rock, and how does Polara figure into the grand scheme of all this weirdness?
Reclining in an office chair behind the mixing boards at Flowers Studio, Ackerson scratches his head. He is dressed in a bright blue track jacket and jeans, his signature thick-rimmed glasses framing eyes deep in thought.
"I don't really know," he admits, grinning sheepishly. "Noise has always figured largely into descriptions of Polara because the band is really loud, and there is a lot of distortion, a lot of very dense harmonic content. Noise in our world is not noise in an atonal way. It's more like distortion and unexpected juxtapositions of harmonics." He pauses for a moment, ruminating. "It's all very abstract."
Abstract, indeed. Ackerson's goal with Polara, he says, has been to "take traditional pop songwriting and marry it with experimental sounds," and for a moment we come close to capturing the true essence of his band's sound.
On their new album, which is being released this week, Ackerson and his Polara bandmates Peter Anderson and Jennifer Jurgens masterfully balance the accessibility of hooky Britpop with the oddity of adding layers of fuzz and feedback to an otherwise clean sound. The title of the disc, Beekeeping, conjures images of Ackerson dressed in his finest apiarist outfit, directing swarms of bees with the wave of his arm. Quickly, little bee friends, we need more buzzing on track three!
Hot on the heels of last November's solo album, Ed Ackerson, the new Polara disc is both a contrast and a companion to Ackerson's more bare-bones, poppy solo work. In fact, the only major difference between the two albums is the inclusion of abstract and jutting noise: Beekeeping is what Ed Ackerson would sound like if played from a crackling old car stereo parked on an airport landing strip. Which makes sense, given the fact that Ackerson is the chief songwriter in both projects. "The songs start out the same, really," he explains. "But then once it's gone through the process of collaboration with Peter and Jennifer, stuff starts to take on a slightly different vibe."
Ackerson says he isn't alone is his approach of blending pop sensibilities with otherworldly sounds. He identifies local psychedelic/noise (whatever that means) bands First Communion Afterparty and Strange Lights as big players in the current scene of experimental pop. "Both of those guys are awesome," he says. "And really, really good examples of that kind of approach, where they are marrying something that aspires to be spacious and cosmic, but they're also bands that rock and sing about stuff that you can understand.
"They're not just hippies," he says, laughing. "It's definitely a weird new perspective on things."
After 20 years playing in local bands—14 of which were spent in Polara, though the band hasn't been as active in recent years—and recording and producing local musicians, Ackerson seems like the perfect candidate for Twin Cities music's elder statesman. But he says he shies away from mentoring the young musicians who come into his studio. "I don't like to get hierarchical about relationships with people," he says, donning his best aw-shucks smile. "Sometimes it's good to be a mentor, but it's also good to stay out of the way, and just appreciate and encourage people. I think of myself as more of a kid than a man on a mountain, you know?"
Fair enough. But Ackerson's levelheaded approach to the music industry will continue to make him a steady force in the local world.
"We're still here, and we're still happy," he says, reflecting on Polara's decade-plus career. "That's the motivation, that's why we have to put these milestones out once in a while. It's like a postcard from our universe to the universe at large."
POLARA perform a CD-release party with the Alarmists, Mercurial Rage, and the Mood Swings on FRIDAY, MAY 9, at the VARSITY THEATER; 612.604.0222
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