Giant Bear can be hard to define regarding musical genre. They’re not exactly roots, folk, or Americana. They’re not bluegrass, country or rock. But they’re a little bit of all of those things. Their sound falls somewhere between cowboy noir and the best band to ever play on a front porch. Since being named by The Commercial Appeal as a “band to watch” in 2006, the six-member group has crossed the country more than a few times, lost their van to a fire, played to empty bars and packed houses, and put out their debut album on their own label. Friday night they return to Memphis for a hometown show at The Hitone with Jeffrey James and The Haul.
Giant Bear, which includes Robert Humphreys on bass, Jeff White on guitar and banjo, Mike Larrivee on guitar, slide guitar and mandolin, Jeff Nuckolls on drums, Jana Misener on cello and Daniel Guerra on a host of wind instruments, developed quite organically from two other local bands. Ruffin Brown band, which included Larrivee and Misener, and Okraboy, which included White and Humphreys, were both asked to play Dan Montgomery’s CD release party in 2005 and enjoyed playing together so much they began booking shows together, often playing sets together during the shows under the Giant Bear moniker. Eventually, the two bands morphed permanently into one.
“We played a bunch of shows separately and just got off on each other’s styles. Ruffin Brown Band was more of an art band and then it changed shape and became more of an acoustic thing. Then we played with these guys, and we all sounded different, I thought they sounded like the Violent Femmes at first,” explains Larrivee. “It worked out because their song structure was more traditional, it was pretty effortless. You have to pay attention to stuff like that. We just realized that it was too easy. One night we had a show together, and we just all stayed on stage.”
The group pretty quickly came to the decision to dedicate themselves to touring full-time. Constant touring has not only helped them sell out the first pressing of their album, New American Wilderness, but has gained them a rabid following in places like Charleston, NC, and Shreveport and Lafayette, LA.
“Think of all the venues that it seems reasonable for us to play in Memphis, you’ve got the Deli and the Hitone, and that’s about it,” says White. “We have other hometowns now, not only regarding places to play but places to stay.”
“Plus we’re still more popular in other markets;” says Larrivee. “Just like The Grifters, Memphis was their number 10 market – and if being a musician is your job you go out and get heard by other people.”
Crowned by The Memphis Flyer as a “Southern-fried New Pornographers,” Giant Bear’s music has been compared to bands like The Pogues, the Decemberists, and The Flaming Lips. One thing is for sure, the music is always heavy on collaboration, with more than ten instruments played on stage and several songs with as many as four vocal parts.
“We write songs for each other,” explains Misener. “It’s not where we’re so concerned about having a solo part. It’s honestly never anyone’s single song.”
With over 190 dates played in a little over a year, the group has no intention of slowing down in the near future, they already have 30 songs written for their next album and have been invited to play the Midpoint Music Festival in Cincinnati with over 300 other bands from the US and abroad at the end of September. Rumor has it that there’s label interest in releasing their sophomore album, something the band will neither deny nor confirm.
“We’ll definitely have a new album by the spring – but it might be faster than that if someone tells us to write another record sooner – that’s the great thing about having four songwriters, we have a lot of material.”