Bearmonster

Bearmonster marry guitar and drums minimalism with samples to make darkish lo-fi roots music.

Bearmonster is Ken Schopf and Shaun Wolf Wortis, who've played together for a long time. Read more about Bearmonster.

Ken Schopf and Shaun Wolf Wortis Download photo

Bearmonster // Little

Release date: 2024

Label: YNH Productions

One warehouse. One laptop. One lockdown. Two fathers, funneling their worries into new music from 20 feet apart. If the circumstances surrounding Bearmonster’s new album make it sound like a science fiction tale, that’s because it partially is.

Out of the chaos of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Boston duo of Ken Schopf (drums, backing vocals) and Shaun Wolf Wortis (lead vocals, guitar) have crafted a dynamic snapshot of humanity in crisis with Little, Bearmonster’s debut full-length album. Set for release this summer via YNH, Little harvests the jagged fragments of pandemic living and rearranges them into a 14-track collage of equally jagged rock, creating a sound that’s been chopped up, reshuffled, and artfully spliced together J Dilla-style. While recorded during unprecedented times, Little reaches far beyond the pandemic, capturing humanity’s knee-jerk reactions to disaster, be it cocooning or going batshit crazy. Wortis’ later diagnosis – and recovery from – throat cancer underscores the album’s themes of grappling with mortality, control, and unexpected upheaval.

As society retreated into their homes and themselves in 2020, Schopf and Wortis created this new world from a Somerville warehouse, recording Little exclusively on their laptop. After laying down dozens of instrumentals (plus learning how to navigate the recording software Logic), the duo reassembled their material into a varied but cohesive patchwork of gritty roots-rock, a feat made possible through Schopf’s and Wortis’ decades of shared musicianship and friendship. The pair have weaved in and out of each other’s creative spheres since the early 1990s, most notably in their band Slide. Pieces of their musical past together even worm through Little via snippets of 20-year-old recordings from their old practice space in Watertown.

Schopf’s and Wortis’ 30-plus year relationship has aligned their tastes and musical approaches, with a shared appreciation of J Dilla, The Soulquarians, and Latin Playboys shaping the sonic landscape of Little. Yet amidst the perils of a pandemic, the two artists found a more pressing common ground: A parent’s duty to protect their family.

“We’re both not just coming from similar places, but going through the same shit -- just trying to keep your kids together, engaged, and healthy,” says Schopf. “There’s this instinct to circle the wagons that could be in response to Hurricane Katrina, or could be in response to some sort of other, more homegrown kind of crisis.”

In that sense, Little knows no one time, place, or catastrophe. Snippets from old horror movies interspersed among the album hurtle listeners into the past, as hysteria over monsters and invaders mimics the world’s modern perils. The setting, meanwhile, leaps from intimate, at-home concerns to trouble halfway across the world. “Palpitations,” for instance, provides a sobering reflection on mortality, while “Fear (Panic in Hyderabad),” revisits Wortis’ firsthand account of the virus encroaching upon an Indian city.

“There were rumors of the virus being at the city's edge a bit like Godzilla, and there was a panic,” Wortis recalls. “News crews arrived and filmed people darting around, and I was in an office upstairs and people in the office were watching the panic below. Everyone left, leaving me and a few travelers alone.”

As the opening track, “Fear (Panic in Hyderabad)” serves as a strong representation of Little, displaying Bearmonster’s knack for interweaving found sounds, samples, and their own chopped-up instrumentals. Sirens and street noise from Hyderabad immerse the tune in reality, while Bearmonster’s blues stomp mimes the earth-shattering footsteps of the mythical creature Wortis alludes to. Audio taken from vintage Indian horror flicks further elevates the very real sense of impending chaos, as crowds fled Hyderabad and an eerily watchful security team circled the area with clipboards.

“A lot of times, these movies are about people becoming monsters, and the secret demon seed within them,” Wortis says. “We were seeing that all over the place – this crisis kind of drove people into crazy places.”

Little isn’t afraid to cozy up to those “crazy places,” which often are forms of coping, maladaptive or otherwise. “Dopamine” likens a cycle of doom-scrolling to drug use; Wortis’ woozy vocals levitate above Ken’s simple but steadfast drum beat, simulating the high of constant “tap, tap, tapping” a phone screen (not unlike Poe’s famed “The Raven”). “Burrow” and “Cranky,” on the other hand, speak directly to the urge to hole up in the face of danger – and the cantankerous cabin fever that can ensue once someone locks themselves indoors. The need for isolation grates against an opposing desire for total control, resulting in a “push and pull” rhythmic effect that evolves Bearmonster’s sound from their 2019 EP Confidence Man. Boston mixing engineer Pat DiCenso, whose past clients include GA-20, Arkells, and Oberhofer, provided Little’s final touches.

“It’s really about the feeling that you’re able to achieve, even if the sounds are not pristine or the end product is not some shiny thing,” Schopf adds, citing the raggedness of R.L. Burnside and music in the vein of Fat Possum’s roster as influences.

“The focus of Confidence Man was clearly more on presenting guitar and drums as how we would sound live,” explains Wortis. “With this next record, we threw that out the window and said ‘we don’t even know if we’ll have the chance to do this live, so let’s just make a record that sounds really good to us.’”

When Schopf and Wortis unveil Little to a live crowd, it’ll likely sound different from the recording. Amidst the process of preparing the album, Wortis was diagnosed with throat cancer and rushed into surgery. He dodged radiation and chemotherapy, but walked away from the procedure missing a few chunks of his tongue and tonsils.

“Being diagnosed with cancer was a whole new level of fear,” he reflects. Wortis is now in recovery and learning how to work with his altered vocal chops – what he optimistically views as a “new instrument” to experiment with.

His silver lining attitude rounds out what seems to be one of the album’s core sources of strength: The belief that creativity will always prevail, even in the face of catastrophe.

-Victoria Wasylak, Boston music journalist, June 2024

"Little"

  • Fear (Panic in Hyderabad)
  • Burrow
  • Chicken Tracks
  • Cranky/li>
  • Palpitations
  • Mask
  • Dopamine
  • Death Cult
  • Medium Roast
  • Monsters of Earth
  • Hard Times
  • Little
  • Periodic Limbs
  • Birds

Production Credits:

Ken Schopf:
Drums, vocals
Shaun Wolf Wortis:
Guitar, vocals
Recording and producing:
Bearmonster
Mixing:
Pat DiCenso

Bearmonster // Confidence Man EP

Release date: 2019

Label: YNH Productions

As much as popular culture would like you believe otherwise, creativity is not solely the domain of the young, and making music—particularly rock music—is not a pursuit exclusive to 20 year-olds with good haircuts. In the case of Shaun Wolf Wortis and Ken Schopf—the duo behind Bearmonster—the creative path has been long, winding, and inextricably linked-a circuitous creative path that, some two decades after first meeting, eventually lead to the creation of their new EP, Confidence Man.

After playing together in Boston-based band Slide in the 90s with a certain level of success, Wortis and Schopf eventually stopped playing together in order to tend to other more pressing issues-namely, the pull of day jobs and the realities of starting their own families. Though they continued to get together occasionally over the next few years in order to jam and record their ideas, the notion of being a full-time band continued to recede further into the rearview. Despite the fact that both musicians would spend subsequent years playing, producing, and working on philanthropic projects related to music, it was only after Schopf moved back to Boston after many years living in Baltimore that the two decided it was time to do something with the material they had been quietly amassing over the years. “There just came a point when it was like, OK, Let’s get out and record something,” recalls Wortis, “Let’s do some shows and call it something. Let’s just do something.

The five tracks on Confidence Man represent the collision of both new and old ideas. Using a few of their old band’s songs as a jumping off point, the duo began to reimagine how they could make music together. Eschewing the obvious rock duo reference points—White Stripes, Black Keys, Flat Duo Jets— tracks like “Shifting Lights” and “Do You Love Me?” take things in a more experimental direction, marrying the minimalism of guitar and drums with a variety of experimental loops and sonic manipulations. While the idea of mashups and genre-blending might be somewhat expected for younger musicians, Wortis and Schopf arrived at said approach as a result of so many years spent playing music in a variety of permutations and in different kinds of bands. “Part of the pleasure we get playing with each other is a shared love of genre-bending,” says Wortis, “It's a weird combination of trying to do something with current technology and play with unexpected, bigger sounds than we could possibly do naturally. The idea was to do a minimalist take on it, but to do it within our own context of pop music and modern blues/rock and roll. It is about the notion of being minimalist and trying to be as small as we can, but also push the limits of what two people can do with this kind of setup. For us, that means that I play guitar and Ken plays drums—these old drums from the 1950s—and then there's little triggers that will set off sound and samples and loops. When I'm playing guitar I split the signal, and add a lower octave. It sort of sounds like three people instead of just two”

“We were very influenced by bands like The Meters, funk band from the ‘70s that used doubled guitar and bass doubled to very cool effect, but we had other things on our mind too. For example, there are these weird gospel records from the 1950s that are just drums and guitar with people singing on top of them. They have a really raw quality. Because they were made at a time before there was a real national radio, the people were kind of coming out of the hills and recording the stuff that they always sang without really being self-conscious, or being technically aware of how it should be done.”

Bearmonster live Click to download photo

While the songs on Confidence Man might fall under the ambiguous umbrella of “indie lo-fi” or some hybrid of rock, blues and punk, all five tracks are commonly informed by a spirit of righteous anger, made by two “older dudes who have no patience for bullshit.” Tracks like “Rise Up” and “Goddamn” are built on the tension and anger so palpable right now in popular culture, while “Do You Love Me?” pulls inspiration from what is arguably the unlikeliest of sources—poet Emily Dickinson.

“Most of these songs in various ways are political,” says Wortis, “We wanted to make a statement of anger, basically, that somehow addressed all the shit that's going on. We wanted to be pretty forthright about that. At the same time, I got really interested in Emily Dickinson's poems, mostly because she's so obsessed with death. I was sort of looking at our current political landscape and cultural landscape and thinking, ‘Shit. This is like death. It really is like hell.’ Dickinson appealed to me because she has all of these beautiful ways of talking about the darkest things.”

For both Wortis and Schopf, the opportunity to reconnect and play music together again has been both invigorating and restorative. While the musical landscape may have changed significantly since the ‘90s, Wortis refutes the notion that making music is somehow a young person’s game. “Fuck that,” he says. “I don’t think people really give a shit. They simply want to connect, particularly right now at a time when everything in the world feels so crazy. That’s why we are doing this now, to hopefully connect with other people who might feel the same and take comfort in how good it feels just to say something.”

—T. Cole Rachel, Senior Editor, The Creative Independent

"Confidence Man"

  • Do You Love Me?
  • Goddamn
  • Rocket
  • Rise Up
  • Shifting Lights

Production Credits:

Ken Schopf:
Drums, vocals, loops, samples, effects
Shaun Wolf Wortis:
Guitar, vocals
Rich Gilbert:
Guitar solo on Rocket
Produced:
Bearmonster, with Andy Plaisted
Recorded:
Andy Plaisted at Electric Andyland, Somerville, MA

"Confidence Man" EP, 2019

Discog

"Little", 2024

"Confidence Man" EP, 2019

Bearmonster illustration