When post-rockers Explosions In The Sky invited Polvo to reunite for the U.K.’s All Tomorrow’s Parties festival in May, the North Carolina indie-rock group graciously accepted. Having disbanded in 1998, Polvo’s core members—singer/guitarist Ash Bowie, guitarist/singer David Brylawski and bassist Steve Popson—stayed friends and, more important, stayed active in music. Yet Brylawski was a little nervous about reuniting.
“I still listen to new music,” he says. “And you see the bands people like now. Why would a 25-year-old guy or woman now know or care about Polvo?”
Contrary to Brylawski’s anxieties, Polvo’s unpredictable guitar riffs, skittering, free-form cymbal crashes and almost apathetic sing-speak vocals are synonymous with indie rock. The band formed in 1990, but Brylawski and Popson, best friends since the fourth grade, had played music since their teens. Bowie picked up the guitar during his freshman year of college, and the disparity between when each guitarist learned to play is what set Polvo apart. While Brylawski had honed Sabbath and Rush riffs at a young age, Bowie took inspiration from bands such as Sonic Youth and R.E.M. Along with drummer Eddie Watkins, Polvo initially had only one goal in mind: to release a single and play Carrboro club Cat’s Cradle.
Soon after issuing the “Can I Ride” double seven-inch on its Kitchen Puff label, Polvo released 1993 debut album Cor-Crane Secret via Merge. (Mac McCaughan is a high-school friend of Brylawski and Popson.) A minor controversy ensued with the following year’s Today’s Active Lifestyles; the cover-art image of a seven-headed lion lifted from a Jehovah’s Witness pamphlet prompted the religious denomination to threaten a lawsuit, forcing Merge to remove the offending image. Polvo switched labels to Touch And Go for its most hummable album, 1996’s Exploded Drawing, but the group was still cast as “math rock,” a term that never sat well with Bowie.
“To me, math rock is something that is hard to follow, rhythmically and melodically, and probably hard to play as well,” he says. “Polvo songs are generally pretty straightforward, and we’ve never tried to challenge listeners with a barrage of weird time signatures. We like to throw in the occasional twist, but I don’t think that is a major element in our approach to writing songs.”
Leading up to near-psychedelic 1997 swansong Shapes, the band members began going their separate ways. Bowie had already moved to Boston to live with girlfriend Mary Timony and play bass with her group, Helium; he released a collection of home recordings under the name Libraness in 2000. Brylawski issued two LPs with the band Idyll Swords, and he and Popson currently play in alt-boogie outfit Black Taj, whose second album, Beyonder, came out last spring. Still, a decade after moving on, Brylawski is uneasy with the word breakup.
“‘Breakup’ seems so sad,” he says. “It wasn’t even really like that. We basically said, ‘I think we want to do some other things, but let’s do one more album and one more tour.’ It ended very amicably.”
Now that Polvo is playing together again—this time with Cherry Valence drummer Brian Quast (Watkins departed after Exploded Drawing and was replaced by Brian Walsby)—the band has three new songs and would eventually like to record.
“If you had asked me, even though I would’ve never conceptualized Polvo getting back together, I would’ve said, ‘Yeah, I’ll play with Ash again,’” says Brylawski. “I would’ve thought we would have done something, but I didn’t expect this.”