Local Current Blog

Neon and nature: Poliça reflect on five years as a band

Poliça perform at Rock the Garden 2016 (Nate Ryan/MPR)

“[The Current] started playing ‘Wandering Star’ by the new local band Poliça five months ago,” Mark Wheat wrote back in February 2012. “Our audience immediately reacted emailing and calling every time I played it, liking it for reasons they often couldn’t describe […] I’ve also always loved two drummers in a band, but it has seldom worked better than here.” He says, “The response when I introduced them at our Saturday Birthday Party was literally unbelievable for such a new band.”

In the five years that have passed since Wheat’s wholehearted praise, Poliça have maintained their dazzling pull. Vocalist Channy Leaneagh, bassist Chris Bierden, drummers Ben Ivascu and Drew Christopherson, and studio producer Ryan Olson moved through Give You the Ghost‘s otherworldly crackle (“Wandering Star”) to Shulamith‘s smolder (“Warrior Lord”) to United Crushers‘s neon urgency (“Lime Habit”). The crowds have evolved along with them, Christopherson says, noting, “We recognize some faces from over the years, but I think there’s been shifts with each record.”

What hasn’t changed, says Leaneagh, “is the interplay between the natural and the affected. Finding that balance.” She calls her voice “pretty pure — folk-sounding”; her singing style is “very traditional.” She started her musical career busking at a farmers’ market, eventually co-fronting folk band Roma di Luna (who’ll reunite in April). But after Olson recruited her to local supergroup GAYNGS, she began to experiment with vocal processors. When Olson played her rap beats he’d written but never used, she picked her favorites and wrote the album that’d become Give You the Ghost.

Poliça have often been singled out for their cryptic (and often just hard to catch) lyrics. Leaneagh writes with expressionistic poise, calling up moods with images and inchoate phrases. “There’s the boss who draws the gun/ White balloon the setting sun,” she sings in a round on “The Maker.” In “Fist Teeth Money,” her vocals echo, “Teeth on the rope pay me honey/ Fist on the floor give me something.” She talks that way in real life, at times; her words pivot and even fragment, but they’re richer for leaving out the unneeded.

Poliça have worked closely with another artist whose lyrics can be challenging: Justin Vernon, of Volcano Choir, GAYNGS, and of course, Bon Iver. There’s the quote Vernon gave Rolling Stone in 2012, saying Poliça were “the best band I’ve ever heard.” But the ties run deeper than his shout-out. Vernon and Olson have been collaborating on music for years (GAYNGS, Jason Feathers and “Tiff” from Shulamith).

When Poliça played Vernon’s inaugural Eaux Claires Festival in 2015, they formed a relationship with German DJ and fellow performer Boys Noize. The DJ turned “Kind” techno on the song’s remix EP. Together, he and Poliça made “Starchild,” a gorgeous, shimmering track, for his album Mayday.

Poliça are one of the most successful Twin Cities bands outside of Minnesota, touring all over the United States and Europe. The Guardian profiled Leaneagh in 2012 and reviewed United Crushers twiceSPIN, Rolling Stone, and Pitchfork have lengthy archives of Poliça writing. Milestones of the band’s international success include a Sydney Opera House show and a concert review from Jon Pareles of the New York Times.

Though they’ve traveled through many countries, Poliça seem to have a special bond with Germany, having worked with Boys Noize, named a song “Berlin,” and toured there several times. “Before Poliça was even a band,” Christopherson says, “many of us were drawn to the idea of working in Berlin, because there’re so many pioneers of electronic music from there.” That includes Kraftwerk and Boys Noize, who “was an entry point to a lot of dance music for Ryan and for myself.” He adds, “David Bowie felt the same way. He uprooted himself and went to Berlin to make music. It’s almost cliché at some point.” He laughs. “Except for the fact that it actually worked.”

Thanks to all the tours, the band are adept at German geography, shouting out Hamburg, Berlin, Cologne, and Heidelberg — though they’re not quite there with the language. Asked how much German they know, Ivascu throws out the word “Frühstück” (“breakfast”), glorying in a gurgly “k” at the end of the word. Playfully, the drummers go back and forth with a little more vocabulary; Christopherson says Ivascu is the one who’s picked up the most of the language.

“It has always been the dream to go to Berlin and make music,” Christopherson says, and for one week last October, it actually came true. Justin Vernon and 85 other musicians, including Poliça, traveled to Berlin, working for room and board in the Michelberger Hotel, and put on a nameless two-day music festival with small crowds, little need for real money, and no public set times (hear some of the music here). Even the musicians enjoyed some anonymity among each other: “The first night, we were up super late in one of the hangout rooms in the hotel,” Christopherson says, “and I was sitting in a large window well talking to this girl. I thought she was really cool, and I was about ten minutes into the conversation when I realized that it was Kristín Anna [Valtýsdóttir] from the band múm, who I was absolutely enthralled with fifteen years again. I realized, there’s so many people here right now that I don’t even know, really, who they play with. But many of them are people I’ve listened to for many years.”

Olson used to stay behind on tour, but after marrying and having a baby with Leaneagh, he’s joined Poliça’s recent travels. “When he comes out,” Ivascu says, “he’ll usually do vocal effects live. Mostly he’s just a morale guy.” Christopherson interjects, “The Roadie Riddler,” and Ivascu grins. “He whips out the Roadie Riddler, which is a character where he hides all of our music gear at load-out in different locations around the outside of the building. He gives you riddles to find where your bass is.” Laughing, Ivascu continues, “It’s the worst thing ever, but it really can break up a six-week tour. Our sound person, Alex, would just go insane while the rest of us were laughing and appreciating the moment.”

Summing up the band’s work, Leaneagh goes back to that crucial contrast: the electronic versus the natural, and the way the band’s art confronts the binary. Eric Carlson’s United Crushers cover blares red, pink, and green over a black background, and Poliça’s psychedelic site design follows suit. The design is meant to “contrast between neons and green,” she says, and she told Mxdwn, “Because I was pregnant writing the record, the image on the front is me and then the poppies is in reference to when people ask us about our sound and the kind of music we are making and that kind of idea of an opium zen or something that makes you feel, in general, a little bit darker and moodier — it’s kind of a sweet sort of mellow and dreamlike.”

Leaneagh deals with the same push/pull in her personal life. “I don’t love being on the internet,” she says. “It’s kind of a necessary evil at this point.” On the other hand, she says, “I’m for sure a nature enthusiast […] As a kid, on car trips, I’d imagine running through fields.”

Poliça will be home this weekend, playing First Avenue on Saturday with rapper Spank Rock and producer Taskforce (both have ties to Boys Noize). They’ll also return to Eaux Claires, reprising their Music for the Long Emergency project with Berlin group s t a r g a z e. As they come up on Give You the Ghost‘s fifth anniversary (it was released on Feb. 14, 2012), it’s hard not to wonder: what else is next?