Polecat Talks To Pollstar

We recently got the chance to become acquainted with the five-piece band Polecat, which is tearing up the Northwest with its spirited live shows featuring a blend of bluegrass, Celtic, rock, reggae and world music.

The Bellingham, Wash.-based group released its third full-length album, Into The Wind, in March. Aaron Guest, who handles vocals and 12-string guitar, told Pollstar that the band explored a few more genres with the LP. Take a listen to “Christine,” which he describes as “super swampy and kind of country,” and the pop tune “You’re The One.” He adds that “In The Cold,” which is posted below, really shows what the band can do.  

An album review from Independent Clauses declares, “Polecat is proof that you can have catchy pop melodies and not sacrifice an ounce of musicianship – if more people would take up the mantle, music would be a much more interesting place. But it starts with every member of the band being incredibly talented at their instruments, and that’s a rare thing.”

Guest is joined by Richard Reeves on double bass, Karl Olson on drums, Cayley Schmid on fiddle, and Jeremy Elliott on electric guitar.

Into The Wind gives Schmid and Elliott the chance to showcase their vocals, in addition to incorporating horn solos and keyboards.

Pollstar called up Guest a few days after the band wrapped a run of dates supporting Yonder Mountain String Band. Next for Polecat is a run of headline dates in Washington and Oregon. Fans will be especially eager to see the band on stage because Into The Wind is the first album Polecat has released where the majority of the songs weren’t played live before hitting the recording studio.    

Photo: Kenneth Kearney
Aaron Guest, Richard Reeves, Cayley Schmid, Karl Olson, Jeremy Elliott

Can you talk about how the band formed?

So a little more than six years ago Jeremy, the electric guitar player, and I got together over just a few of my songs I had been writing. Originally we were thinking much more of a string band. He was going to flat-pick a six-string acoustic guitar. I’d been buddies with Richard a long time, the bass player, and he had just recently started playing the upright bass so I knew I was going to ask him. I had been watching Cayley, the fiddle player, perform in her mostly traditional Celtic groups,[that] was most of the music she played before Polecat and she had some really good groups here in Bellingham. And I’d been a fan of Karl, the drummer, for years and his different projects. He played in a lot of Dub reggae and world music and stuff like that, just a really excellent percussionist. So that’s kind of how it started. I basically was fans of everybody beforehand and kind of got everybody together that way and a lot of the members met at our first rehearsal. I had been in several bands in town for several years beforehand so I had some connections in town and I got us a Monday night gig at the local brewery. We had just met, we didn’t have a name yet, so things came together very quickly and we just had crazy long rehearsals several times a week. So we kind of got to hit the ground running as far as having a weekly gig right away and some material to work with right away. In the beginning it was all my songs, kind of Americana-y, from the bluegrass world but not necessarily bluegrass tunes. And then right away Jeremy, the electric player, started writing. We started writing lots of tunes together and then he started writing his own instrumentals. Cayley has also added some of her own instrumentals over the years so now we have three principal songwriters in the band.

Is Polecat the longest you’ve been involved with a group?

The longest and most steady as far as the most work. We average about 100 shows a year and it’s been six years now. It’s kind of my baby, I guess, if you will. I got it all together and I do most of the managing and booking and all that. This had definitely been my biggest thing so far with music.

How did Bellingham’s music scene influence the band? Has the city been welcoming to Polecat? My aunt and uncle actually live there. She works at Boundary Bay.

Oh, that’s where we started. (laughs) I had a piano gig  [at Boundary Bay] that I’ve had forever and ever and I approached Janet, the general manager. I was just like, “Hey, I know I’m the piano man but I got this new band.” She gave me Monday nights and that’s really how it started. Yeah, Bellingham was incredibly receptive from the very get-go. I remember the very first show we played there. It totally packed out. …We played on the inside of this guitar door kind of thing and they opened it up and the sidewalk was just as full of people. It was just this really cool vibe. … The town really took to the music really quickly so that was awesome. To be able to have such a great crowd right off the bat was huge for us. It definitely created some buzz for us that reached other cities pretty quickly in the Washington area. So we pretty much did that gig for a few months and just really got tight that way and then started doing weekends out in the small towns of central Washington and northern Washington and then started doing support slots at the Tractor Tavern in Seattle. It’s a pretty famous little room. Just kind of opening for different string bands and string fusion bands and stuff like that is how we kind of got in the Seattle scene. And so it organically grew from that.

Photo: Jonathan Gipaya
Richard Reeves, Karl Olson, Cayley Schmid, Aaron Guest, Jeremy Elliott

You bio says you started playing piano and then picked up other instruments – drums, bass –and now you play the 12-string guitar in the band. Was the guitar the instrument that you most connected with?

I’ve always been a big fan of the 12-string. I grew up playing piano so that big sound, the 12-string translates itself to that. And I’m definitely a rhythm player; I don’t take solos or anything. So it’s a great instrument to kind of meld all the other instrumentation together. It’s a lot of like shimmery high end … with all the strings but it also has a really full low end sound as well so it kind of helps mesh the rhythm section with the solo instruments – Caley’s fiddle and Jeremy’s electric guitar. So it’s just a great sound to kind of glue everything together. But I’ve just always been a fan of that instrument. It’s just got a lot of sound and energy behind it and it’s great for the fast-paced strumming that I do, for the most part, in Polecat. And then as an offshoot, just last summer I started laying a keyboard with the band as well, so that’s really fun for me to connect with my original instrument. I’ve been taking more solos on the keyboard. I’ll play a verse on the acoustic and then jump to the keyboard for the solo or something like that, so that’s been kind of fun flip-flopping.  

What sort of music did you grow up listening to?

I grew up with a lot of Paul Simon, anything I could get my hands on at the public library. My parents were pretty religious so we didn’t really listen to much worldly music. I grew up singing in a church, that’s where I kind of learned to sing harmony and learned my first guitar chords through that. It was a very musically driven church community. As far as world music, I’d definitely say Paul Simon was huge [and] any grunge rock that I could sneak on the radio was pretty important to me. I guess those two were probably the most influential, the ‘90s rock that I grew up around and then Paul Simon’s Graceland has been with me since I was like 7 years old.

What can you tell readers about Polecat’s new album, Into The Wind? Anything you wanted to share about the songwriting or recording process? 

So yeah, for this record we took a lot more time in the studio. We layered pretty much all the instruments, like a rock album. And so drums and bass first and then acoustic guitars and electric guitars, then keyboards and fiddles and vocals. Our other records we played pretty much live in like four or five days in the studio. And this was completely layered over. It was over 20 days, I believe, of actual recording time. So there was a lot more care placed into the sounds of every instrument and getting every musician happy with their performance and sound before we moved on to the next instrument. And I think that shows really well. I think the production quality of this record is the best we’ve come out with. It was recorded in a little studio called Bell Creek Studios, just outside of Bellingham, up in the mountains, in the Douglas fir forest. It’s pretty much a log cabin, just this really cool, very vibe-y small studio. Michael Iris was the engineer and he’s been producing and recording all kinds of acts all over the country for years and years and we really liked his background. He’s not a bluegrass engineer, he’s not specifically rock or funk but he can do all of that. He’s done all that before so it was nice to have his approach with us because we do go so many directions with the music. He was very keen on developing different sounds for the different styles of songs – different guitar tones, different amplifiers, different drums, different mic-ing techniques depending on the styles of music. And so I think that really helps lend itself to how dynamic the record is.

As far as songwriting goes, I’d say four or five of the tunes we’d been performing live for a while. The bulk of the album was written by Jeremy or myself or together in the months leading up to the actual recording process. We really pushed ourselves in the six months before we got into the studio. We were writing a lot and polishing a lot and so that was also a different approach in that the bulk of the album we had never played live before we recorded it. Beforehand we’d always tested the songs live for a while and then laid them down on the record.   

You mentioned that Cayley has been contributing to songwriting as well.

There’s a tune called “Marmot” on the new record. She wrote that one. You’ll notice on the credits that we always just credit all of us as writers and arrangers because that’s what it really comes down to. The arrangement process is very democratic and we all do that together. We finalize the songs as a five-piece. But the kernel of “Marmot” definitely came from Cayley’s writing there. You can tell it has a Celtic kind of feel … which is definitely more of her background.

Do you have any personal favorite tracks from the album?

I love “Christine,” Jeremy wrote most of that and he sings lead on that. That was exciting because we added that song later on in the recording process. It kind of came late but it’s super swampy and kind of country. It’s something that we’ve really never done like that before. So that was exciting and I got to sing these big high background, really yell-y background vocals and do a piano solo so that one was really fun and that one’s been really great to perform live recently as the record’s come out. I like “You’re The One,” it’s just a simple love song. It’s kind of a pop tune, again it’s a very different flavor than anything else on the album. But I think our best single is “In The Cold,” which is the second track. I think it kind of just demonstrates a lot of what Polecat can do – a straight-ahead grove, a polyrhythm groove, big rock lines, big vocal chorus.

The album cover is really cool. Is that a woodcut?

It’s called letter pressing. There’s a company in Bellingham called Bison Bookbinding and they’ve done all of our releases exclusively. So our brand all looks like that. Different designs but basically it’s a super old mid-1800s process of printing where everything is done by hand. They make a plate and then ink the plate and then the paper gets rolled over the plate and then as it gets rolled over it kind of gets steamrolled over and the plate punches in the words [and] the design as it inks it.

Well, the covers look really awesome.

Sweet! Thank you. Yeah, it’s an insane amount of extra work for us. When we get everything we get the discs themselves manufactured at discmakers and the paper at Bison comes to us flat so we fold, glue and package every album that we’ve ever done, by hand. So we’re talking like many, many thousands at this point. (laughs) And it’s more expensive, we’re crazy for doing it but I don’t know, it’s unique and it’s different and it’s local and it’s recyclable and all that stuff.

I think all the work that goes into it makes it worth it to purchase the physical copy.

I think so too and I think it helps our sales at shows. When people want to buy a CD at the show, it’s a cool-looking, unique kind of older-looking cover. The front design concept was by Jeremy’s brother, Stewart, who lives in Washington. So it was cool to work with him on that. And then the inside, this little girl Ella, at one of our concerts one time came up afterward and gave us that sketch. As we were playing she had sketched that. It had a lot of personality in the faces. So we thought it would be cool to put that on [the inside].

You mentioned that you handle most of the management and booking for the band. Do you like being involved in the business end of that? Or are you looking for booking and management representation?

That’s a tough question. I definitely enjoy a lot of that work. It’s really rewarding with things come through. For Polecat, we’ve been a busy band but we’ve never been a completely full-time on-the-road band. And that’s something that’s been important to the members of the group. Having our own lives to a certain extent is very important personally. I guess if I could go on record about it, I would say we make sure to give each other personal time and to make sure that the process of booking is democratic, like everything else we do. We’re eager to work and to get out there. We’ve stayed very busy, consistently busy throughout our whole career, but we’re not trying to live like road warriors constantly. Give each other space to play in other groups, do your own music, other work if you want it, travel, stuff like that.

It seems important to have that balance so you don’t get burned out.

You can definitely get a little burnt out and jaded when you’re constantly only doing music and away from home all the time. We live in Bellingham, Wash., you know, it’s a beautiful place. So you try to take advantage of staying pretty locally. We’ve gotten to tour all over the western U.S. and I think that’s really been the goal for the most part, to be a Northwest band. And really just grow closer to home but having the chance, we’ve been able to tour the Bay Area several times and Colorado area. So we’ve definitely stretched out all over the West at this point.

Photo: Nick Negrete Photography

Do you think going further east as time allows would be a goal? Or even expanding outside the U.S.?

I think so. Yeah, you know. If the opportunity presents itself and it’s right for everybody then absolutely. I don’t think anyone has ruled that out. So we’ll just see what happens as it builds. We just did two weeks with Yonder Mountain String Band so that was a huge amount of travel for us but obviously that was a wonderful opportunity for the band and it was a great success. Always looking for opportunities like that, of course.

What’s your live show like?

We’re very engaged with each other on stage, a lot of moving around. Playing with each other and for each other and for the audience, I think is all equally important. We definitely have some performers in the band. Karl, the drummer, in an awesome performer to watch. He’s very theatrical. Polecat is party music with a focus on being original and smart music as well. … It’s usually pretty feel-good, upbeat music so we definitely try to reflect that vibe from the stage. The crowd usually gets pretty amped in a fun, positive way.

How did you choose the polecat as your mascot?

Richard, the bass player, was out somewhere in the mountains in a cabin and the guy’s cabin had a bunch of pelts on the wall and Richard didn’t recognize one and the dude was like, “Oh, that’s a polecat.” Basically a polecat is – to give you a little nature documentary here – polecat is from the family of Musteliane, like weasels and skunks. But our guy, our little logo that you’ll see on all our shirts and hats and CDs and whatever, is the European polecat, which is native to England and they hunt wild rabbits. They’re basically like an 8 pound ferret that totally kicks ass and is also really cute. It’s a good mascot. Maybe not the cute part, but I think it’s a good fit for the music. The music is really energetic and can definitely rock out and be heavy at times but at the end of the day it’s lighthearted, joyful stuff.

Photo: J. Scott Shrader Photography

Upcoming dates for Polecat:

April 21 – Chelan, Wash., The Vogue
April 22 – Spokane, Wash., The Big Dipper
April 23 – Bend, Ore., Volcanic Theatre Pub
April 24 – Astoria, Ore., Fort George Brewery
April 30 – Prosser, Wash., Prosser Wine and Food Park (In This Together Music Festival)
May 26 – Portland, Ore., Doug Fir Lounge (Poor Man’s Whiskey) 
May 27 – Seattle, Wash., Nectar Lounge
May 28 – Eastsound, Wash., Random Howse
May 29 – Friday Harbor, Wash., Rumor Mill

Visit PolecatMusic.com for more information and be sure to follow the band on Facebook and Twitter.