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SUNBEARS!' Jonathan Berlin talks uplifting music, the Jacksonville scene and the American indie-rock landscape




When you see a band name like SUNBEARS!, you have to ask: What’s the deal with the exclamation point?

“It signifies enthusiasm,” says Jonathan Berlin, singer and multi-instrumentalist of the Jacksonville indie pop duo. “When the band first started, we wanted to make everything over the top and enthusiastic, so we said, throw an exclamation point on there, because everyone will want to yell the name when they see it. And I think it’s working.”

Indeed it is. The group’s exuberant sound (think the Flaming Lips, MGMT and the Shins) and live show has turned Berlin and drummer Jared Bowser into two of Florida’s most fun-loving bands. Want proof? They’ve collaborated on a song (Imagination Adventure) and live shows with the irrepressible kiddie-rock enterprise Yo Gabba Gabba!

See? There’s that exclamation point again.

On Tuesday, the duo’s debut full-length, You Will Live Forever, will be released nationally via Tampa label New Granada Records. They’ll mark the occasion with a concert Nov. 23 at New World Brewery, the first show on their first cross-country tour (click here for details). We caught up to Berlin to learn more about the album, the Jacksonville music scene, and how SUNBEARS! fits into the American indie pop landscape.

I’m surprised this is your first album, because you play in Tampa so frequently. Why did it take so long to release a full-length album?

Well, the last release, everyone pegged it as an EP, even though it’s 46 minutes long. It just had some longer tracks on there. I always looked at it like a full-length. Everyone likes to say that it’s an EP, and we just kind of went with it. But it’s longer than most Weezer records.

How did you guys hook up with New Granada in the first place?

We met Keith (Ulrey, owner) the first time we played in Ybor City. We hit it off, and have been friends, and were like-minded. Now we talk every day. It’s always been this thing that felt right.  It’s been awesome to have him onboard, because he’s so enthusiastic and intense in his own way. He kicks a lot of ass, so it’s been awesome.

Jacksonville is interesting. There have been a few acts to come out of there over the past few years, like Black Kids, and make a lot of buzz — more so than you can really say about Tampa or Orlando or Tallahassee. Why is Jacksonville such a decent musical incubator?

Jacksonville is an interesting melting pot, where there’s not a lot going on. Even though there’s a lot of people here, there’s not a huge scene. And I think it creates this sort of tension in some people that want to play music — they put in a little bit extra to be heard or get peole to come to their show, and all of a sudden you have the Red Jumpsuit Apparatus. I’m not a fan of their music, but I can understand their work ethic a few years ago, before they blew up and everything was handed to them. They really worked their asses off more than any other band at the time. I think that’s happened with Black Kids, Limp Bizkit, whatever. Things are just not handed to you in this city.

What’s your go-to description of You Will Live Forever?

I guess it’s an alternative pop record in a way. But ... (pauses) ... man, I don’t know how to describe my own album.

One of the words that comes to mind is “psychedelic.” But that word is tossed around so much in rock-music criticism that I’m kind of sick of it. But does it fit? Is there a word you prefer?

I guess it’s a rock and roll record, but probably not radio rock. More like the Beatles would do rock, but it’s more f---ed up than that. That’s how I always describe it. I’m totally with you with the whole “psychedelic” thing. Everyone likes to throw that word around. I think people probably get that more from the visual side of the show, because there’s lights and projections and all that stuff, and it seems a little more psychedelic. But I don’t know that it’s a record that anyone would want to drop acid and listen to. It just seems like an over-the-top, crazy alternatvie pop record to me.

Another word that people often associate with your music is “uplifting.” Do you find that fitting?

One thing I really wanted to do was sing about things that were probably not so uplifting, a little more existential, but sugarcoat it with this glee-like, uplifting sound. But if you really listen to the lyrics, like, They Think They’re Soooo Philosophical, it’s a song about death. Believe what you want, but if you’re not a good person to each other in this life, maybe you missed your opportunity, because we all die the same. 

There’s a family of positive, uplifting, exuberant indie rock — Polyphonic Spree, Flaming Lips, the Shins — and you guys are in that general phylum. I would think you’d want your music to have a positive effect.

Yeah. I want people to have a good time. I don’t want people to walk away from a show and think, “Well, I’m gonna go put a gun in my mouth.” And I want people to enjoy the record. You know what’s funny? A lot of people have said, “Oh, you’re doing this in the fall? This doesn’t feel like a fall release.” It kind of feels like a fall release to me, but I have a different viewpoint. A lot of people just hear SUNBEARS! and they hear happy.

That’s interesting. I’ve never put two and two together, with the release date of an album and the date on the calendar.

 People want to listen to Fleet Foxes and Bon Iver when it starts getting cold, so they can throw their scarf on, drink their chai latte, smoke their cloves and feel bummed. (laughs)

Are you guys fans of MGMT?

I didn’t really like their new album when it came out. I actually liked the stuff they did when they were working with Dave Fridmann, who produced their first record. He produces the Flaming Lips, OK Go, a lot of bands in that messed-up pop genre. When it comes down to it, I’m a fan of a good song, and I feel like Electric Feel out-songs any song on their new record. It didn’t totally gel with me. I mean, I only listened to it 10 times, and I really, really wanted to like it, because I liked their first record a lot.

I’ve never heard anybody say that — “I only listened to it 10 times.” That’s still an impressive amount for an album you’re not crazy about.

I do that with a lot of records — records that I’m a fan of the band. If a record comes out, I want to listen to it, and make sure I really like it. The new Sufjan Stevens record came out last year, and I have always loved Sufjan Stevens, and it came out, and on first listen, I was like, I don’t know... And then I listened to it a few more times, and now I really like it. And I like the latest MGMT too, but it just wasn’t as good.

Is there a band that, if they released an album tomorrow, you’d run right out and buy it?

I think if the Flaming Lips actually released an actual album tomorrow, I would buy it, instead of all the little songs they’ve been putting out that are just noisy. I really want them to release another record with some real songs. I’ve gone to every Flaming Lips show within this area. Every time they’ve come anywhere close, I’ve been there, and I always have an amazing time, and I love it. But what they aren't doing in their live shows is playing these weird, 20-minute songs. I just want them to release another Soft Bulletin or Yoshimi.

-- Jay Cridlin, tbt*

[Last modified: Friday, November 18, 2011 12:57pm]


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