Minus The Bear’s ‘Highly Refined Pirates’ turns 20: “A different kind of everything”
You’re out at a bar on a drunken late night with friends. Maybe you’re attending a random house party that’s still kicking on well into the dawn. Maybe you’re squeezing into the back seat of an already crowded carpool to that show or festival you’ve been desperately waiting for all week. Suddenly, the contours of a face you don’t immediately recognize crosses your field of vision. This is someone new, someone different, someone interesting. Maybe you introduce yourself straight away. Maybe you don’t have the courage. You dance around one another, circling through the complex swirl of social interactions hoping, waiting, wondering what that first encounter might be like.
When the moment inevitably arrives, your eyes lock together with an intensity that feels almost inescapable. As your hands touch, a chill runs up your spine and neck, making hairs stand up with a soft tingle. Your skin ripples with goosebumps. This sensation, known as “frisson,” is a psychophysiological response to strong emotional states of thrill, excitement and pleasure. You know with an unwavering sense of certainty that something’s going to happen here, but you don’t know what. You’re standing on the threshold of anticipation, gripped by the aching anxiety of potential outcomes. It’s a sensation that every adolescent-come-young adult knows deep down in their bones. It’s a feeling that’s striking, universal, and almost impossible to put into words. The world slows down, and everything hinges on a moment that’s at once revelatory and ephemeral. You feel electric. You feel alive.
This is the feeling captured by Highly Refined Pirates, the debut full-length album from Seattle indie staple Minus The Bear, released on November 19, 2002, through Suicide Squeeze Records.
When talking about music from subgenre movements that rose to prominence in the cultural tumult of the early 2000s, context is key. As Andrew recently pointed out in our list of the best emo & post-hardcore albums of 2002, if 2001 was the year that emo went mainstream, then 2002 was when the emo floodgates opened. Emo bands and their adjacent post-hardcore brethren—Taking Back Sunday, Glassjaw, Thrice, and Piebald, to name but a few—bubbled up from previously insulated regional scenes and began to dominate alternative music culture for the remainder of the decade, thanks in large part to a post-9/11 world driven by the digital upheaval of file-sharing and social media.
Perhaps it’s not too surprising then that Minus The Bear would find their origins in this curious temporal juncture, where collapse and frustration eventually lead to innovation and creative expression. “We all hung out in the same circles, pretty much constantly,” recalls lead vocalist and guitarist Jake Snider. “Dave [Knudson, guitarist] was in Botch at the time. Cory [Murchy, bassist] and our drummer at the time, Erin [Tate], were in Kill Sadie. I was in a band called Sharks Keep Moving, and our producer and engineer Matt [Bayles, electronics/keyboards] had recorded all of our bands at some point in time.” As their previous outfits began to unwind and stagnate, the group’s collective interests eventually coalesced around the possibility of new and exciting forms of sonic exploration. “I was just tired of playing heavy music,” Knudson says in a recent episode of the BrooklynVegan podcast. “I wanted to do something different with all these other influences I was having fun exploring. Whether that was like Daft Punk or Don Caballero or any of those other things. I was just ready to move on.”
What started as a few friends drinking beers and making music with little ambition quickly morphed into a new creative endeavor with real potential. “We wanted something a little bit more song-oriented with pop structure, and none of the bands that we were in had that,” Snider explains. “We were trying to do something different in that regard, something more accessible, but also keeping our attention on parts and textures that were still interesting to us. It was kind of like, ‘We’ll see what happens,’ and then we started playing shows pretty quickly. It turned into an obvious main project really, really fast.” Despite the rush, Knudson found himself embracing a similar impulse. “It was just one of those times, like ‘Hey, let’s start a band’… but as soon as we got going and realized how much fun we were having, it just clicked, and that became the priority.”
With the support of Suicide Squeeze Records founder and friend Dave Dickenson, Minus The Bear’s debut EP This Is What I Know About Being Gigantic arrived swiftly in the fall of 2001. Across seven breezy tracks, the group’s laid-back attitude matched the tone of their heady math-rock meets dance-punk compositions. Knudson’s tapped guitar lines bounced playfully around Murchy and Tate’s propulsive rhythm section, adeptly accented by the shimmering glitches and textures of Bayles’ electronics. Pitchfork got on board, praising the EP’s “fervent rock energy” and restless pursuit of “unexpected bridges, rhythmic dynamics and time signatures.”
With “goofy” track titles like “Hey, Wanna Throw Up? Get Me Naked” and “Just Kickin’ It Like a Wild Donkey,” paired alongside Snider’s nonchalant lyrical detours—mysterious women in smoke-filled rooms, illicit substances, and devilish misadventures—the release cemented Minus The Bear as the ideal party band who didn’t sacrifice technical skill. “At the time that we were living, we were kind of a hard-partying band. A lot of nights at the bar, a lot of hanging out at people’s houses; a lot of whiskey and a lot of beer,” Snider says of the Gigantic EP. “The stakes were low. There are a lot of notes, and, with my guitar playing, I would just kind of play where Dave wasn’t playing, filling in some of the other places or interpreting what he was doing. I think that there was a good melodic sense to the songs that we were writing at the time, too, even though there’s this busyness in the music.”
Yet for the frontman, the band’s instrumental playfulness also allowed for new and contrasting approaches to his vocal delivery and narrative construction. “I was trying to be a little more concrete than I was in Sharks, trying to tell a story but not necessarily the whole story; a part of the story, or a picture from within a story, instead of this big, huge, beginning-middle-end thing. I think that, melodically, the song would just let me know what it wanted.”
With their status in the Pacific Northwest indie scene rising quickly, work began in earnest on the material for their debut full-length album. While the Gigantic EP was largely an in-house endeavour, with Bayles handling engineering and mixing duties, the band chose to work with legendary producer and Sub Pop icon Steve Fisk for what would become Highly Refined Pirates. As Snider acknowledges, the appeal was obvious. “I hadn’t worked with a different engineer or producer that wasn’t Matt for years, and I’d always loved [Fisk’s] recordings. He did a bunch of the big '80s/'90s Seattle grunge bands [Screaming Trees, Soundgarden, Nirvana], as well as a lot of stuff with Unwound. I really loved the Treepeople work he did, and I just wanted to see what he could do with us. What would it be like, you know?”
The answer, as it turns out, was a challenging and occasionally grueling experience. Snider describes Fisk as “very analog” and “pretty fucking old school,” where his desire for uniqueness pushed the newly formed quintet out of their comfort zone—sometimes intentionally so. “He was relatively hard on me for layered lyrics and things like that. There are moments on the record where I’m like, ‘Shit, I wish I’d done a couple more takes of that vocal or this guitar part.’ But [Fisk] would leave things a little bit more ragged,” Snider says. “It was this contradiction, where we were trying to make a somewhat slick-sounding rock record, but the performance stuff was more raw, more real, I think than what we might have done if we were self-producing and being more self-conscious about it.”
On Highly Refined Pirates, Fisk’s insistence on spontaneity manifests in a record that feels paradoxically more refined and self-assured than the Gigantic EP. Opener “Thanks For The Killer Game Of Crisco Twister” takes Knudson’s frenetic tapping and blends it into a swirl of spiked notes against the hypnotic flow of Tate’s rolling hi-hats and Snider’s buttery yacht-rock croon. Moving briskly through stop-start drops and tempo changes, the track eventually pivots into a full-blown jam band outro that locks the quintet into a gleeful dance groove. Elsewhere, album highlights like “Get Me Naked 2: Electric Boogaloo” and “Let’s Play Guitar In A Five Guitar Band” find Minus The Bear crafting genuine indie anthems that feel purposeful and effortless with infectious call-and-response chants and ear-worm vocal melodies.
Look no further than the undeniable fan-favourite “Absinthe Party At The Fly Honey Warehouse,” the band’s third-most played track across their seventeen-year career, to hear the album’s stunning emotive power in final form. Snider’s iconic opening line (“Hey, let’s cross the sea/ And get some culture”) sets up a wistful tale of pure wanderlust as the protagonist wines and dines their way across a foreign continent, revelling in good company, the weight of history, and the thrifty freedom of a two-star hotel.
For Snider, “Absinthe Party” is a song about travel and escapism, “about losing yourself in the experience of it, with the people that surround you.” It’s an enduring example of the frontman’s ability to conjure up evocative imagery through the power of narrative storytelling, instantly drawing the listener to distant, lived-in locales with characters that feel like fleshed-out, life-long friends. Unsurprisingly, however, Knudson puts it best: “Jake’s lyrics are so wonderful. It’s cool when you can see a song transport people to this other place that is either in their head, or they’ve had so many experiences while listening to that song that it just takes them to that moment. When you listen to that song, you just feel like you’re with him… It just takes you there.” It’s this element—Snider’s mastery of lyrical imagery and a noir-like tendency for lingering one-liners and scenes of ratcheting sexual tension—that elevates the late-night reveries of Highly Refined Pirates to states of overwhelming “frisson.”
Roughly three minutes into Side B’s deep cut “I Lost All My Money at the Cock Fights,” Bayles’ undercurrent of electronics and Snider’s down-tempo verse fade away to reveal a delicate interplay of guitar lines. The song’s protagonist is in the thrall of a chance romantic encounter and running through the rain to find his companion’s car. “It’s another one of those moments. We don’t know what else happened that night, where they got to, or where they met. It’s just a snapshot,” Snider explains. “It’s all in the eye. You’re interested in this person, you’ve never seen them before, and you’re suddenly in that rare kind of event when you can see that they like you too, they’re interested. Sometimes saying what happened gets you to the essence of that feeling, that experience, and I hope that’s what happened here.” As Tate and Murchy slide back into the mix on a steady backbeat, Knudson’s tapping ramps up intensity alongside scattershot snare fills and swirling atmospherics right before the track’s crescendo blows wide open, allowing Snider’s final soaring line to lift off against the band’s roaring instrumental cascade: “Her hair streaked her shirt with rain/ And that did something to me.”
According to Knudson, while the band never fully embraced the emo wave of the 2000s, they existed in a “weird nebulous region of people that enjoyed interesting instrumentation but also loved the storytelling,” despite never quite finding a home among the Pacific Northwest indie rock scene that birthed them. In retrospect, then, two decades on, it feels accurate to describe the affinity for Highly Refined Pirates within Minus The Bear’s adoring fanbase as something approaching a greatest hits. As Andrew so succinctly put it: “The truth is, Minus the Bear didn’t really fit in anywhere. They made remarkably innovative underground music that was ignored by many and cherished to death by those who gave it the time it deserved.”
For Snider, their debut album allowed them to find their voice and chart their own course as a creative unit. “I always felt like Highly Refined Pirates is the piece that got us to where we became what we were supposed to be. We were learning what kind of band we were on the first record. For both Menos El Oso  and then Planet of Ice , I think we were the band that we intended to be.” At its core, however, Highly Refined Pirates will forever remain a unique snapshot, a moment frozen in time, a testament to five friends completely in sync with the music they loved and having a damn good time while doing it. In Knudson’s prophetic words, it’s all there on the record, in the music: “It was just a different kind of everything.”
For more on Minus The Bear, read: Minus The Bear albums ranked from worst to best.