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Wednesday, Aug. 3, 2011

Collections of Colonies of Bees' Many Layers

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Collections of Colonies of Bees is best described as an experimental post-rock band, but that label misrepresents the spirit of their records, since the term “experimental” long ago became code for “difficult.” There's certainly nothing difficult or inaccessible about the Milwaukee band's latest album, GIVING. Released this week through the Portland, Ore., label Hometapes, it's a majestic, unwaveringly tuneful four-song instrumental suite set to jaunty rock tempos. Listeners introduced to Collections of Colonies of Bees through Volcano Choir's Unmap, the 2009 album from their side project with Bon Iver's Justin Vernon, may be surprised at how much more immediate and upbeat it is than that album's skittish abstractions. It's a gorgeous, profoundly joyful record.

Or that's how it sounds to me, at least. Bees' dense, endlessly layered sound leaves a lot of room for interpretation. This is music that can become drastically different with each listen, depending on which instrument, loop or frequency you let guide you through a song. Since each song is pieced together from more than 100 different tracks, every listen reveals new nuances.

“People hear all sorts of stuff in these records,” says Bees guitarist Chris Rosenau. “Some people think they're pretty, other people think they're challenging. But to be honest, I can't guess how other people perceive them because I'm too deeply involved in the recording process.”

And the recording process for GIVING was particularly consuming. The band's six players composed the songs from ideas generated by long sessions of improvisation, and then continually reworked them. Every instrument took a few days to track, Rosenau says, and the mixing process took even longer.

“It's all about listening and re-listening,” Rosenau says. “I literally spent two months mixing this record, probably anywhere from an hour to three hours, six nights a week. It's ridiculous when you think about it, but at the same time it's a total labor of love. The thing about records is they exist forever, so there are details that we hear when we listen to them that no other human will ever perceive, but at the same time they're important to us.”

GIVING
marks the end of a pivotal chapter for Collections of Colonies of Bees. It's the band's last record with drummer Jon Mueller—who has been with the band since Rosenau formed it as a side project in 1998, when both played in the post-rock group Pele—and also the last with keyboardist Thomas Wincek. Both left on friendly terms, Mueller to focus on his solo projects and Wincek to devote more time to his band, All Tiny Creatures. While the Bees lost one member of All Tiny Creatures, they gained another: Drummer Ben Derickson stepped in to take over percussion for Mueller.

“It's been bittersweet, because Jon and Tom are my right-hand men, and they were a super-solid foundation,” Rosenau says. “But on the other hand, it's opened up fun new doors for us. Playing with our new drummer, and trying out some different Rhodes players, has changed the way that I approach things. It's fun, and the whole idea of this band was always just to have fun.”

The lineup change, he says, is just the latest in a long series of lineup changes for a band that's always been in transition.

“This band has gone through so many insanely weird iterations,” Rosenau says. “Up until this point, it's always been Jon and I and this total rotating cast of characters, so the turnover is really just par for the course. At the same time, it's tough to let them go. If I were younger, I think I'd have freaked out a bit like, 'Oh my god, my friends are quitting my band.' But we're still great friends, everybody supports each other, and there are so many other musicians I want to play with that it's not like we need to post fliers looking for replacement band members. If the time ever comes when I can't look in my phone's contact book and find people I want to play with, that's when I'll know it's time to quit making music.”