“We set our minds to make something real, something passionate,” remembers Mikey Ferrin. And so began the journey of three Duluth teens who crafted a sound and a movement that still inspires and resonates with a passionate and loyal Duluth following.
Bear Garden played their first ever show to 12 people in a friend’s attic in 2004. At its conception, the band consisted of three Duluth sophomores who shared a love for a brand of East Coast punk rock, sometimes referred to as screamo, that no one was playing in Northern Minnesota. At the outset, the band consisted of Chris LeBlanc on guitar, Mikey Ferrin on bass, and Kyle Ollah on drums, and they all shared vocal duties during their under-30-minute sets. (The band would later include Evan Morse, and then Kyle Potter). LeBlanc and Ferrin had just lived through the end of their band K!LL THE L!GHTS, but they knew they had wanted to keep playing music together. Ollah and LeBlanc had met while taking guitar lessons from the same instructor. All of these guys discovered a shared love for the same bands—Saetia, Pg. 99, Joshua Fit For Battle, Hot Cross, etc.—and together decided to form Bear Garden.
That first Bear Garden show included an opening set by xTIMEisDUEx, Bear Garden side project that had fun with genres and played as a mock straight-edge group. The crowd was in on the fun, though, and ironically some members of xTIMEisDUEx went on to change the band’s sound and image and eventually became one of Duluth’s more popular metal acts, No Wings To Speak Of. “We wanted to have fun with our opening sound,” remarked Ollah, “because we didn’t know what the reaction to Bear Garden would be. No one knew these weird East Coast screamo bands that we loved, so we figured people were probably going to hate it.”
The band’s worries were for not, as that first attic show already had the audience in rapture. Early Bear Garden shows included moshing and what band members remember as some kind of mass audience convulsion. “I remember seeing more than one kid visibly shaking, sometimes laying on the ground and shaking—just letting the music move through them in unique ways,” recalls LeBlanc.
As the band gained popularity, the shared emotional connection of the audiences just got more intense as audience members and band began to fuse and share the stage as one.
“We didn’t like the idea of being above anybody,” notes Ollah.
“That was a part of that East Coast screamo thing—bands playing on the floor with their backs turned to the crowd. The feeling of being in the crowd and not just in the band,” remembers LeBlanc.
“We’re all doing the same thing, I just happen to be playing an instrument,” affirms Ollah. “That shared energy of the crowd and musicians acting as one is what drives me today; it’s what bands thrive on.”
That audience interaction and unadulterated joy displayed by fans was one of the things that led to the attention of those outside of the band’s high school classmates. Paul Connolly and Mat Milinkovich, bandmates in the post-rock band Portrait of a Drowned Man, had also been working together to publish a Duluth music zine called …And the Heroine Screams Help that would publish a feature on Bear Garden. The band was also booked to play their first major stage as part of the inaugural …And the Heroine Screams Help showcase.
“I was personally into a lot of the bands they were obviously drawing influences from and was excited to discover this kind of music was being written in Duluth,” recalls Connolly. Despite Bear Garden’s fan base being largely made up of high school age kids, that didn’t stop Connolly and others from taking an interest and going to see them play live.
And the live show never disappointed. Milinkovich remembers that, “It was something I hadn’t seen in Duluth in a long time. Kids would go nuts. They weren’t passively listening. They were screaming along to every song. There wasn’t a wallflower in the bunch. Everyone wanted to be in the front. It was nice to go to a show where the audience was genuinely excited to see a band.”
Connolly similarly recalls, “I had been playing in bars and going to 21+ shows with indifferent crowds for a few years by that time and found it inspiring to see an audience so into a performance. Soaked in sweat, singing along to every word…I had to drive to Minneapolis to see my favorite bands to get that experience when I was in high school. The guys in Bear Garden were getting that out of their classmates.”
After a couple of years of pounding out house shows and gigs at Duluth skate venue the Encounter, the Bear Garden band mates were ready to celebrate their recent high school graduation by hitting the road and going on tour.
“We were lucky enough to have played host to a ton of great bands that made their way to Duluth—many of them playing super packed shows at my house,” recalls Ollah. “I’m so grateful for having really understanding parents that let us have these crazy shows.”
As Evan Morse transitioned out of Bear Garden, the band briefly returned to life as a three piece but due to the increased intensity of the live shows, the band enlisted friend Kyle Potter to be the group’s vocalist. “The way our shows were going, we needed someone to do vocals. [Due to the ever increasing crowds] Chris sometimes couldn’t play guitar, I couldn’t play drums…kids were literally draped across my cymbals. To fight off that and to try and switch off vocals was too much to handle, so that’s when we brought in Kyle Potter,” remembers Ollah.
Potter was the same age as LeBlanc and Ollah (and represented the third high school between them) and was a huge fan of Bear Garden and had rarely missed a show. Potter was even one of the 12 people in the attic audience during that first Bear Garden performance.
Bear Garden set out on the band’s first and only tour together in the summer of 2007 playing shows with their friends in Grand Rapids band A Corrosive Melody. The bands shared venues from Florida all the way to Maine and would eventually release a split EP together called Bromance. After the month long venture on the road, Bear Garden returned home only to realize that the band was starting to wind down. Everyone in the band had, “other groups they were playing with, members were settling in at college, we were happy to have had the summer together,” notes LeBlanc.
The last Bear Garden show took place as a reunion with A Corrosive Melody at the 2009 Homegrown Music Festival. Band members continue their own journeys, but all of them fondly recall the years spent in Bear Garden as some of their most rewarding.
“I’m not sure we’ll ever have that same experience. There was a community of people our own age that had the energy and desire to want to give so much and just let go,” says Ollah.
Kyle Potter and Kyle Ollah continued to play together after Bear Garden in a group called Cowards. That band called it quits playing its last show in 2010. Although Potter isn’t currently involved in a music project, he can look back fondly at his time in Bear Garden, “The best thing about Bear Garden, and the Duluth scene as a whole, was that everyone knew each other. Friends brought their friends to a Bear Garden show and they soon became friends too… (as both a fan and then a member of the band) it never really felt like anything other than a group of friends having fun, expressing ourselves, enjoying music and one another’s company…Bear Garden came from the heart…It was something we all shared. That’s something quintessentially Duluth and a feeling that I’ve not really experienced elsewhere. To me that’s what defines Duluth music.”
Mikey Ferrin, now living in the Twin Cities, continues the Duluth tradition of balancing duties in a handful of bands. Ferrin is currently playing bass in a project called Daytripper and bass in Up In Smoke, as well as guitar in two new upcoming projects called Merchants & Marauders and Dhoom. Ferrin is also still active in the Duluth band Ty Cobb.
Kyle Ollah and Chris LeBlanc have kept busy musically in Duluth playing in a multitude of bands post Bear Garden. LeBlanc is currently a member of the Duluth DJ Collective known as the Crunchy Bunch as well continuing to work with Ollah, this time providing percussion in the folk-influenced harmonic powerhouse, Yester. Beside his work in Yester, Ollah (who is a classically trained bass player) is currently playing guitar/banjo/violin with Four Mile Portage, bass in power-violence band Indulge, as well as playing folk traditionals and original tunes as a solo artist.
For those who don’t see the connection between what Ollah and LeBlanc are doing these days and their time in Bear Garden, the two explain it this way: “The approach of folk music and of punk are very similar. I’d say that folk as an umbrella would include punk. To me, it’s people writing music for people,” offers Ollah.
Ollah continues, “People are attracted to an artist because there is a vulnerability in art…you have to trust yourself and know that things could go terribly, but if you do it with an energy that says ‘I don’t care if you don’t like this, because I really do,’ then people really can get into that.”
For LeBlanc, these different styles of music all make sense at the heart of it because of the approach he takes. “What I translate into Yester, or into the Crunchy Bunch, is this: If you focus on nothing but yourself, people are gonna be attracted to that. If you don’t care what they think of you, if you don’t take into consideration how they’re gonna react…people get naturally attracted to that. In Bear Garden we gave so much time and we loved it so much—I don’t even know if people necessarily loved the music as much as they [loved] the energy, the vibe, the approach.”
“There’s energy in playing music and feeling like you’re doing what you love,” reflects Ollah. “It’s a feeling I’ve been chasing ever since Bear Garden. It was a monumental part of my life and I felt it so early and it was so amazing that I can’t stop chasing it…If I keep making music for the reasons I first started making music then that energy will always be a part of me.”
Bear Garden will be featured on this week’s Duluth Local Show, which airs every Wednesday at noon, Thursday at 11 p.m. and Saturday at 6 p.m. on the Local Current stream. You can listen to the Local Current stream at thecurrent.org/local, on HD radio in the Twin Cities at 89.3 HD2, and via the MPR Radio app, which is available for iPhones and Androids.