Melissa Auf der Maur (Hole, Smashing Pumpkins) Talks Polvo’s Siberia

I am listening to Siberia on a loud, bass-heavy boombox, and out of the corner of my eye I am watching for whales out of my family friend’s...

I am listening to Siberia on a loud, bass-heavy boombox, and out of the corner of my eye I am watching for whales out of my family friend’s window overlooking the St. Lawrence River in northeastern Quebec. Where am I in relation to Siberia? Closer than I was in New York State when I set out on this Polvo review mission a few weeks back. And where am I in relation to Polvo? A dedicated fan since I discovered them in 1993 when reviewing Today’s Active Lifestyles for CKUT, a Montreal college radio station.

Now, it’s 20 years later. Since discovering these wild ones I’ve “matured” as a musician while keeping a healthy blind eye to “music lessons” or “music theory.” I still enjoy not-so-high-end, more primitive and/or experimental music (unless it’s the maestros of Mastodon or other metal champions), and Polvo are just that. Experimental pop is a way to describe them, I suppose — because, as odd as it is, it’s far more listenable and musical than experimental noise or drone music.

Although Polvo hails from the south — Chapel Hill, North Carolina, to be exact — their music appeals to my northern soul. I like music that creates landscapes in my mind, and the landscape of Siberia is jagged, unpredictable, rough around the edges, fantastical and fictional.  It’s full of doubled-up, out-of-tune guitars that occasionally coast into something sweet and dreamy; all the vocals are odd and chant-like. Polvo are mischievous boys calling from somewhere wild — at times, Lord of the Flies comes to mind — and it almost makes you feel uncomfortable, as if you’re watching them go totally insane and innocently unravel.  But it’s OK, they’re innocent children, sometimes they need to go over the edge.

This band holds a special key to my musical heart and listening to Siberia feels like I just boarded a time machine — the last two decades seem to have barely touched the essence of this band. No internet or cell phones can be felt in this world. It makes me want to board an old ship and set sail to an isolated and protected island. The instrumentation is picky-guitar-driven, lots of dropped tuning and floppy strings, doubled-up melody lines making for perfectly dissonant bigness. Casual, lo-fi drums play odd time signatures with tempo loose as a goose; the bass is fun and satisfying, the vocals are trancey and enchanty.

“Total Immersion” opens the album with total immersion into classic Polvo — the riffs are perfect, as are the traditional Polvo chants. It makes me feel at home.  “Blues Is Loss” is instrumental for the first three minutes, which creates a landscape scene as viewed through the lens of a video camera strapped to an invisible dirt bike — little sweet melodies flit by from time to time, and reflective lyrics jump out, like “How did my dreams get so clean?” The last minute of the song sounds like they spliced in a jam from their rehearsal space — it’s weird and it’s out of place and it makes me happy.

Although their album titles are always great, I never think of Polvo as a lyric-focused band. But “Light, Raking” exploded with words immediately: “Never step away from the shadow … wax and wane, pleasure and the pain… I like to dream what else can I do? A blessing or a curse…. Penny in my pocket for luck.” It’s a curious, non-committal spirituality that complements the casually unfolding and explorative sounds of Polvo. The song features some extremely cool Middle Eastern-infused licks, which are my favorite melodic tendency of this band — Polvo really opened my ear to Arabian-style half-step melodies.

The lyrics catch my ear again on “The Water Wheel” — “Tiny fucking rainbows… the telescope is broken” — but the song starts out too upbeat and poppy for me, the licks and melodies are too straightforward, which is a funny thing to say except when you’re talking about Polvo. But then four minutes in, there’s a cool space-out breakdown jam, with a really cool dissonant half-step-filled walking bass line.  And then it goes back to the part of the song that I don’t like.  And then it ends on an even weirder jam that I do like.  But you know, I don’t feel like it’s rude to dislike parts of Polvo’s songs — there are so many parts and I don’t feel like they labor over them for weeks like an obsessed craftsman songwriter might. I don’t think Polvo aim to “please” — they just aim to be, and if you join them and enjoy the ride, then great.

The haunting medieval-influenced licks and melodies of “Ancient Grains” remind me of one of my favorite bands, Helium. Then I dive into my touring memory bank, to Lollapalooza 1995: I was really excited that Ash Bowie from Polvo was playing bass with Helium on that tour. I hear whispers of that union in this song — it’s soft and it’s sweet, like an ancient grain…. it kind of makes me tear up, sentimental for bygone times and a loss of innocence in alternative music and alternative people. In the pre-internet world, bands like Polvo and Helium were hard to find — you had to dig and wait to find more of them. But now, in the 21st century, I hope more people find their ancient melodies within this online archive maze.

The closing “Anchoress” paints a picture of a lonely goddess/woman — “Summer rain is what she loves, singing to the thunder above” is the opening line.  She seems a bit tragic, but the narrator of the song understands and cares for her deeply.  He must be a special man with not only a grand imagination, but profound insight into the inner life of a special kind of woman. It’s my favorite song on the album, by far. I click the “back” button right away and listen again. It’s definitely a song about a goddess. I had not heard of an “anchoress” until today — I looked it up and an anchoress is “a woman who chooses to withdraw from the world to live a solitary life of prayer and mortification.” And now, thanks to Polvo, this anchoress lives within me.

Siberia reinforces the way I feel about Polvo, and probably the way a lot of other people feel too — they represent an intimate and, in some ways, lost world. I am not sure what these individuals have been doing during the long stretch between albums (four years since the last one, and then 12 years since the one before that) but I like to imagine that they inhabit a small, remote community that doesn’t have much to do with pop culture or the internet. Although one of them could be a computer programmer or a professor of ancient cultures, I wouldn’t even search for the answer if I could. The real life behind this music should be sacred, private.

So a new chapter of Polvo begins. May the people of imaginary landscapes and diggers of ancient grains find them this time around.

A musician and photographer born in Montreal, Canada, Melissa Auf der Maur is the former bass player of Hole and the Smashing Pumpkins. In 2004, her first solo album Auf der Maur was released by Capitol/EMI worldwide. 2010 marked the release of Out of Our Minds, which includes an album, the OOOM fantasy film, which premiered at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival and the OOOM comic book. MAdM is the creative director of the Basilica Hudson, an arts and performance space in Hudson, New York. You can follow her on Twitter here.