When Bear Vs. Shark announced its first reunion show following a good deal of teasing on social media, there was plenty of excitement for the Michigan band’s return. Existing for only a few years in the early 2000s, Bear Vs. Shark released two albums of near perfect post-hardcore before disbanding at the end of 2005. During its time together, the band became known for its frenetic live shows, with singer Marc Paffi screaming like a lunatic while jumping off anything climbable. While plenty of bands are known for having a loose cannon as a singer, Bear Vs. Shark’s musicianship backed up Paffi’s antics. The band shifted gracefully between propulsive bursts of energy and plaintive ballads, while its members switched instruments between songs. With Bear Vs. Shark gearing up for a reunion tour along with a reissue of its two full-lengths, The A.V. Club spoke to Paffi and guitarist-bassist John Gaviglio about what got the band back together and how it feels to be playing shows in 2016.
The A.V. Club: When did the idea of reuniting first get floated, and how did everyone get behind it?
John Gaviglio: I moved back to Michigan from New York about four years ago to go back to school, and I think since I’ve been back, me, Marc, Brandon [Moss, drummer], we’ve been talking about doing it. We’re like, “We need to do this,” and there’s a few times we had a couple beers and just played the songs for fun. It really came to fruition this year when Marc’s bandmate from his other band, Bars Of Gold, posted a photo of Mike [Muldoon, guitar, bass, keyboards] and Brandon on stage at a Bars Of Gold show, and he posted, “Oh, Bear Vs. Shark reunion confirmed!” And he posted it on Facebook, and it just went crazy. We had a thousand likes in an hour, and all these people posting shit. Every one of us were getting calls from people asking us to confirm this. We’re like, “Okay, maybe now is actually a good time to do this.” So we just started putting our feelers out. We got contacted by a booking agent almost immediately. I think he really made us feel like we could do it and make it successful, but also that people were ready for it. I think that kind of led to it. We got together a couple times, everyone just discussing it. It was so great to hang out with everyone again. I think at that point, we were like, “Let’s at least do a couple shows,” and then it blossomed into what it is now.
Marc Paffi: The first time we all got together, we had no idea how things were going to go. I feel like as soon as we started playing songs, it’s like, “Okay, all right. We can do this.” The more and more we practiced, the more and more we realized, “Oh, we can definitely do this.” It’s come together surprisingly naturally. It’s a stupid analogy, but riding a bike, that’s kind of how it felt.
JG: I have to agree with Marc on that. It was so fortunate that Marc and Brandon had been playing in Bars Of Gold for the past five or six years.
MP: Going on seven, yeah.
JG: Seven, yeah. You had that connection going, between drums and vocals, which is so important to the Bear Vs. Shark songs, but also Nick Jones, who is playing with us in place of Mike Muldoon, he’s in [Bars Of Gold] as well, so he’s got that rapport going, and they play well together. After a couple of practices, it was like the old days. It was great.
MP: I was just thinking about it this past weekend, because we had practiced on Friday night. I don’t know if I could have done it had I not been playing for the past six or seven years with Bars Of Gold. Vocally, I don’t know if I could have got myself back up to the level of singing those songs.
AVC: John, you didn’t stop playing either, right?
JG: Yeah, that’s correct. After Bear Vs. Shark broke up, I ended up linking up with Matthew Dear. He’s a big electronic guy. We actually went to undergrad together at University Of Michigan. He’s like, “Oh, well Bear Vs. Shark is broken up—why don’t you join my band? I’m putting a band together.” So I ended up touring with him for five years. That was such an awesome experience. Like you’re implying, it really improved and kept my skills going the entire time, too. That definitely helped me transition back into the Bear Vs. Shark material.
AVC: When you both were out playing shows with these other projects, would people always ask when Bear Vs. Shark was coming back?
MP: I don’t think there was a single show that went by that it didn’t get brought up. That leads into getting back together to play shows. It was like, “God, I never saw you guys play, but I really love your band. I was too young.” Or, “I saw you guys one time in some butt-ass town in Oklahoma.” It was stuff like that.
JG: We love you, Oklahoma.
MP: I mean, I have no problem with Oklahoma. I want to get down there and play. Unfortunately, I’m banned from the state. It’s something that’s been brought up a lot. It was like something like, when we started Bars Of Gold, it was like, “Ahh, well, listen. Here’s what’s going to happen. It’s going to be Bars Of Gold featuring Brandon Moss and Marc Paffi from Bear Vs. Shark.” That was a thing on a flyer. I’ll always be “from Bear Vs. Shark.” Not that it’s a bad thing. I’m proud of what we did. But that was always behind us, for sure.
AVC: At least publicly it never seemed like you tried to distance yourself from it. Was there ever a time where you got tired of people bringing it up?
MP: Not for me, personally. I really loved being in that band, and I realize that it definitely helps Bars Of Gold, the fact that me and Brandon were in Bear Vs. Shark. There’s no denying that. And I’m proud of all the music that we made, too. I love it when people bring it up, because it’s something that I’m proud of.
AVC: Once you got back in a room together, did playing the songs come back to you pretty naturally?
JG: I think the energy was always there in the beginning, but maybe our memories weren’t as good as we wanted them to be. But it really came quickly. I feel like I still remembered almost 95 percent of how to play all the songs. It was really like riding a bike, in a lot of ways. To go along with what Marc was saying, I love those songs, too, and I listen to those albums regularly. I’d sit and play my guitar along to those albums. It wasn’t to stroke my ego, it was just that I really loved that stuff. I was a huge fan of Marc and all the musicians in the band.
MP: I think, too, a lot of those songs were written at a pretty pivotal point in all of our lives. For me, lyricwise, all I had to do was remember the first line, and it was like everything was just automatic. And that’s kind of how it worked for every song. “All right, what’s the first line? Oh, there it is.” And everything just came after that, completely natural for me. I will say that I did have to look up a couple of lines on the various lyric websites, and they were all completely wrong. Completely wrong. I’m like, “What? ‘Like a turtle in a half shell?’ I never said that!” Just really weird shit.
I think our set right now is at 15 songs from both records that we can nail, and then we’re adding another five that we can switch in and out. Some of those are kind of weird, you know? But we’ll have them down by the time we play the Detroit shows in September. Obviously, the East and West Coast shows, they’ll be solid, so we’ll mix and match everything. For the most part, everybody’s clicked in. It’s pretty awesome. Especially with the two drummers—Brandon, and Ashley [Horak] switching off as Brandon’s playing. They’re trying to get it down so Brandon’s still playing and getting off the stool as Ashley’s sitting down to play the next song. It’s cool, man.
AVC: How did you map out all these changes? Basically everyone plays bass, you have two drummers, people are switching instruments a lot—and these songs aren’t particularly straightforward.
JG: Oh, yeah, we got charts. We got mad charts up in that practice space. We definitely take into account lulls, and certain songs are quieter, certain songs are slower than other songs, and we want to get a feeling from the set, but we also count in who’s playing drums, who’s playing bass, guitar, and when we’ve got to switch, because we don’t want to switch every frickin’ song. You got to plan that shit.
MP: But we’ve always had to do that. Even when there was just one drummer. Brandon, Mike, and Derek have all—er, John, Mike, and Der…
JG: My name is John.
MP: Yeah, I know that. Thank you. They’ve always had to figure stuff out. Listen, I’m not going to lie, as a singer, it’s been extremely frustrating. [Laughs.]
JG: If anything, it gives you a breather.
MP: That’s why I love it. Now they’re doing this weird guitar pass, where it’s some kind of synchronized guitar-passing where they each spin around and pass. I don’t know, maybe you’ll see it if you come to a show.
JG: Yeah, we actually do a version of The Stations Of The Cross. I’m not sure if you’re familiar with that.
AVC: I was raised Catholic. I know all about the stations.
JG: It’s really, really great. Quite pious.
AVC: The sixth station where Veronica wipes the face of Jesus is always a great moment.
JG: That part of the show’s going to be off the hook.
MP: It’s crazy, because Brandon actually played Jesus.
JG: Well, he played Jim Caviezel as Jesus.
AVC: Who’s playing Pontius Pilate?
MP: That would be me.
JG: Yeah, that’s clearly Marc. It was like the role was made for him.
MP: My mom’s going to be super proud.
JG: I hope she does not read this interview. She will not talk to you for a little while.
AVC: How did it feel to get back on stage after 11 years and play these songs? How did the crowd react to you guys coming out and doing it again?
JG: The first show we did was that show at Third Man [Records in Detroit], and that was awesome. I think we all had a little bit of nerves going up there. It was pretty magical, after the first couple songs kind of settled us down, because everyone in the audience was singing every single word to every song, to the point where no matter what we did they were having so much fun. It was among the best shows, or one of my favorites shows that we ever played. And then the Flint show was a different animal, because that was the first show that we announced, so I think a lot of people were under the impression that we weren’t going to play anymore shows, and so people flew in from Georgia, Virginia, California, they drove in from Canada and Pennsylvania, just to see us. The excitement at that show by the audience was the epitome of pure joy. When you’re playing a show, you feed off the audience, obviously. There was no way you could not feed off that energy. They were just amazing shows.
MP: To be honest, I really don’t have to do anything. I could just hold the microphone out on a mic stand—just start the show, sing the first song, and then everybody else can just sing. The audience could sing the rest of the songs. It was really incredible, and pretty overwhelming.
JG: We met people that were maybe 11 the last time we played. These people have heard of our band over the past 10 years and become passionate fans without ever seeing us live. It was so great to meet them. The stories people would tell us about what we meant to them, it was really overwhelming and great to see. It was such a great feeling.
AVC: Part of the reason the band ended wasn’t because you all hated each other, but you hated touring and didn’t seem to enjoy the band becoming a day job. The fact that one of your first reunion shows was a benefit shows this isn’t just some cash grab. Has coming back to it in this way been freeing?
MP: I feel like it definitely can. Like John said earlier, we had started out just thinking we would do the one or two shows, and then obviously it blossomed into more. I mean, we’re strictly doing this because we want to do it. It’s pretty much at the point now where if you want to come see us play, right now is probably a good time. I don’t know if it’s going to continue, if we’re going to play any shows in the future, but as of right now, this is it. We’re doing it while all of us are in the stage of our lives where we can do it, and I think if we would have waited any longer, it gets exponentially harder to get all of us together to practice, let alone get all of us together to go to the East Coast or the West Coast. The money really has nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing to do with it. If we didn’t want to do it, we wouldn’t do it. We really want to do it, and we’re really enjoying it. From the response of those first two shows, it makes me really happy that we have picked the East Coast shows and the West Coast shows and the Chicago shows to do.
JG: I was just going to say, it’s a lot more liberating now to do it as opposed to back when we were 25 years old. Back then, there was so much pressure associated with it that it really interfered with us and fucked with our minds. At the time, we thought, “Oh, shit, we’re getting so old, and we’ve got to make this a success. People are pushing us to do all these things we don’t want to do, and we’ve got to stay true to our music.” We always had these lofty ideals that I like to think we stuck to most of the time. But it was just so much pressure to do that at the time. All our friends are getting married, settling down, having their fucking 401(k)s and shit. Meanwhile, we’re sleeping on people’s floors, making $300 a month. It was stressful. Now we’re all a little more established in our lives. There’s no pressure at all from this. I think there was a little bit in the beginning before we knew all the shows were going to sell out. But now, it’s like, all right, it’s going to be a success, the shows have been awesome, and there’s no obligation for us to do anything we don’t want to, and we sound fucking good. We’re not phoning in any of these performances to make any money. It’s just total love of doing it, and there’s nothing else that we have to worry about.
MP: That’s the big beauty of it. I know there’s expectations from the people that are coming to the shows, and they will not be disappointed. Trust me. We have put a lot of work into making sure the product and the songs and everything that we’re putting forward are as close to what they were 10, 15 years [ago]. Am I as flexible? No, I’m not going to lie. I’m not as flexible. Are my joints in as good of condition? Probably not.
JG: You still look real good, Marc.
MP: I mean, I feel good. My point is, I blew my knee out at the Third Man show, and then the next night, I didn’t rein it in, and that caused us to have to end the set minus one or two songs, just because I couldn’t stand up anymore. But, I mean, it’s going to be awesome. We’re definitely putting in the work to make it amazing for everybody. And as long as I keep the hot/cool, 20 minutes hot, 20 minutes cold, I think after the show, it will be good.
AVC: It probably also helps having more breaks in between shows, where you’re not doing a week straight of getting hurt every night.
MP: That’s kind of why we planned everything the way that we planned it. I was pretty adamant about that from the beginning—to the chagrin of John, possibly. It was important to me to make sure that every show was really good, both vocally and physically. It’s funny, but my voice never felt stronger than after we played those two shows, and my body never felt weaker. It was an interesting scenario. I’ve got to relax a bit. I can’t necessarily jump.
JG: It’s just so hard to relax though, when everyone’s fired up.
MP: I just can’t jump down straight on my knees like I did when I was 24. It’s not quite the same. Maybe I can jump down a little bit and just not land on my knees. We’ll see. We’ll see how it goes.
AVC: You can get some gym mats for the stage to keep the illusion going.
MP: I was thinking about wearing full pads, like full knee pads and elbow pads. That might come to fruition. We’ll see. I’m not sure.
AVC: Like a hockey goalie?
JG: Didn’t you do that at one show?
MP: I was just going to say, surprisingly, I’ve already done a show in full hockey gear. One of our earlier shows.
AVC: What was the impetus for that?
MP: There was no reason. There was no physical reason. It was just like, “I should put on a complete hockey outfit, with the shoulders pads and everything, and go out and play this show.” And it was kind of fun, because then you could just fly all over the stage and bounce off walls. I’m not going to do that, so I hope nobody expects that. I’m probably just going to wear shorts and a T-shirt. But maybe a helmet.
AVC: Along with the shows, Equal Vision is reissuing the two albums. How important was it to get those back out there, and is there any hope that people who missed them initially might discover them now?
JG: I don’t know. I guess I’m mainly doing it for the current fans. I haven’t really thought about reaching out to new fans and making people aware that we exist. But in my mind, they’re going to find us if they want to, or maybe they’ll hear about us through word of mouth. That’s how we’ve gotten to where we are now.
The double LP, that had been something that EVR had approached the Bars Of Gold guys about when they were on tour in upstate New York. Maybe I forgot to mention that in the beginning, too, but that was kind of part of the decision to get back together. Because they were like, “Oh, we want to reissue it for the 10th anniversary,” and we’re like, “All right, this is perfect timing. We’ve got the reissue coming, 10th anniversary”—it was all part of the equation. I’m super psyched about the new album. The art looks sweet. Marc did all that. Marc always does all of our art. The tracks were all remastered. They sound awesome. They sound a lot hotter.
MP: I think it’s really cool to have the complete collection of our music in one giant mass. This is pretty much it. It’s not every song—there are a couple stragglers here and there. In fact, we just learned a song that we didn’t release on any record. It was on our EP, so I think people might be like, “I have no idea what this is. Is this a new song?” “No, it’s a really fucking old song.”
Like John said, I think people will find us if they want to find us. As far as trying to find new fans, I hope we reach some new people. Maybe people that come with friends that hadn’t heard us or seen us before. I’m just excited that both records are going to be put out together.
JG: I don’t want to give too much away, but the interior of the gatefold has photos from the history of the band that we all assembled and Marc formatted. It’s a retrospective, in a lot of ways, of when the band was in full force. Part of the cool thing about the band is that we’ve all been friends for such a very long time, and it was not just dudes getting together to be in a band. It was best friends getting together with one goal in mind from middle school that we were going to be in a band and we were going to tour and make some awesome songs and not compromise on that shit.
MP: It’s crazy, too—I’m the new person to the group, and I’ve been friends with these dudes for 23 years. Mike and John and Derek, and Brandon came into the fold early, too, so I am the newbie to the group.
JG: We met Marc at church. Marc’s mom was my catechism teacher.
AVC: It all comes back to the Lord Jesus Christ.
JG: No doubt about that, man. [Sings.] Yah-weh / I know / You are near.
AVC: Is there a reason Mike isn’t taking part in the reunion? It doesn’t appear to be due to any falling out.
JG: We all put the hard sell on Mike to do it, but it would be so hard for him, because he lives out in New York. I think we all talked to him. I talk to him on a daily basis pretty much. Everyone talks to him pretty regularly. I don’t think his interest was really there, and logistically, it wouldn’t have been possible. I think that our debate about getting the band back together for the past three or four years was like, “Okay, Mike’s in New York. What are we going to do?” And then, we thought, “Okay, well we’ve got this great guitar player Nick Jones. He said he’s more than willing to do it. He’s a fan of our band and also a really great friend.” So we talked to Mike about it, and he said, “Yeah, that’s totally cool.”
MP: The summertime is when Mike makes the bulk of his money, so we’d pretty much be asking him to be like, “Hey, dude, can you quit your job and come back here with no job, practice maybe once every two weeks, and then play just a few shows, and then go back to your life? Would that work out for you?” It was just not the right time. Trust me, we didn’t let him off the hook by any means. We tried to get him to do it. We all love him to death. So there were no hard feelings between him and us. But I think we also sought his permission. Well, not his permission, but his blessing to do it. If he was adamantly like, “I won’t have any part of this. You guys are ridiculous. I’m not going to ever talk to you again if you do this,” it might have been a different story. But he wasn’t like that at all. It was one of those spans in life where he just couldn’t do it.
AVC: Beyond these shows and the reissue, are there any future plans for Bear Vs. Shark? More shows? New music?
MP: From my point of view, as far as new music goes, there’s not going to be any new music anytime soon. There hasn’t even been talk of new music whatsoever. As far as shows go, I wouldn’t necessarily put it out of the question. If a good cause arises, or if something comes up, it’s definitely not out of the question. Obviously, we can still do it, but as of right now, I would definitely say, this is it. We’ve talked about doing this for a long time—just doing a handful of shows, and then being done, officially. As of right now, from my perspective, that’s how we’re all looking at it. Maybe John has some random-ass thing he’s going to say.
JG: Yeah, well, I booked us on a tour of the Czech Republic.
JG: No, I feel the same way that Marc does. Going back to what we were discussing earlier, I like the current situation because there’s no pressure to do anything down the road. I’m having so much fun. Why foreclose any possibility of anything else happening? So, who knows? Who knows what’s going to happen? From my point of view, after we do these tours, this tour, and our last show on November 12, maybe we’ll get together over the holidays and discuss how it all went. Take it from there. We all got jobs and babies and shit. There’s other shit going on in our lives. We just don’t want to ruin this by putting too much in front of us at one time.