Polica are the band that Bon Iver mastermind and Grammy Award winner Justin Vernon told Rolling Stone are “the best band I’ve ever heard”. Much has been made of this quote, but hype is not a wave they ride on. Rather, they prefer to stun audiences with gorgeous performances, impressing many as a stand-out breakthrough artist at SXSW 2012. The band developed from Channy Leaneagh’s involvement in Gayngs, a 25-headed supergroup (including members of Spoon and Bon Iver) formed by Spoon frontman Ryan Olsen. It was Ryan Olsen who recognised her vocal ability and began working with her, sharing new ideas that would eventually form the genuinely unique soundscapes that define Polica.
The Minneapolis quartet Polica have had a strong year, joining Bon Iver for a 2012 European tour and playing a bunch of festivals and many headline shows along the way. They are bringing their unique sound to Australia for the first time in 2013, playing St Jerome’s Laneway Festival as well as some intimate sideshows in Sydney and Melbourne in early February (dates below). Polica vocalist Channy Leaneagh was kind enough to speak via phone link as she multi-tasked ‘mum stuff’ – making tea for her daughter and doing the dishes. She barely shied away from our conversation – apart from the odd apology as she broke focus to speak briefly with her daughter.
MF: Bon Iver backed up his statement that “Polica are the best band in the world” by taking your band on tour to Europe as support. What was that experience like?
Channy: He had some of the nicest crowds that I’ve ever played for and larger stages than we’ve ever experienced before. We love those guys, their awesome crew and their really good catering (laughs). It was great.
MF: Playing those larger stages with Bon Iver, and considering the short history of the band, do you feel like you were thrown in the deep end at all? Were you prepared for it?
Channy: I think we were. Before we’d even put a record out we were touring with Clap Your Hands, Say Yeah for four sold-out shows. It was just because we happened to be needed and had the same booking agent. It was an opportunity that was really great at the very start of our career. We just made it work, because you never know when those opportunities are ever going to present themselves again.
MF: Your involvement in Gayngs was a pretty big launching pad for Polica. Did you ever imagine that this group would emerge from such a project?
Channy: No I didn’t, I really didn’t. It came out of me and Ryan hanging out and playing around. The way that hanging out with Ryan and playing around turned into a band was so shocking to me that I’m just starting to slowly realise, OK this is what you do now. It’s really very surprising how it’s changed for me. It’s been a wild ride.
MF: When you went into Gayngs you said you were “OK slipping into the background and observing”. What did you learn from being in that environment with so many talented musicians?
Channy: It was the first time I toured with a band outside of my region. I learnt how a band tours – touring nationally. I learned from watching guys who’d played together for like 10 years. A lot of those guys from Gayngs had been friends and been doing music together in different projects for a really long time. So just watching them play together and how they really listen to each other taught me how to be a listener and not be in the spotlight. I think that is a valuable lesson. Even though I appear to be the front person in Polica, it is important that I am a listener and contributor, that I still remain humble and let other people work or shine in the band.
MF: Like Gayngs, I feel like you are trying to push new ground and do something different. Did you purposely try and do this on the record?
Channy: No, not really. Ryan Olsen is one of those people who is always going to push it to a place that’s challenging for him, even alone. He’s not necessarily trying to make something that will shock people, but he’s not interested in working on anything that’s not challenging to him. I agree in the same way in that you don’t want to be guilty of copying anybody or doing something that’s already been done. I feel the nature of the way we started it was just sort of fooling around but in a very serious, focused way. This is a band that didn’t have a record coming out at the time when we were working on it, so there was a lot of play and experimenting. And so I think I just procured new sounding things. There are no limitations when you feel free as an artist, when you feel like no one’s watching and no one cares. It’s a great experience as an artist to make something without anybody criticising it or caring.
MF: How much influence did Ryan Olsen have on production?
Channy: He sat with me in his room and played me the beats and told me to ‘sing it again’, or ‘you can do better than that’. His role in the band is getting people to bring something good to the table, then he chops it up and puts everything together. He really was the producer on this record.
MF: Was there ever talk of him going on tour with Polica?
Channy: No, I mean sometimes he kind of threatens. But he’s got about 20 other projects he’s working on right now. He likes to be at home and be in his cave. His presence is there, and that’s how we work it.
MF: You’ve often spoken about how important your daughter is to you. Does that relationship have any bearing on your music?
Channy: It is always part of my mind and my frame of reference. It definitely has a bearing on how serious and how dedicated … maybe not that, but I guess the pressure I have on myself to put in a good days work. My parents and her father – lots of people – are working to take good care of her when I’m gone and to make it possible for when I’m on the road with this band. I’m supporting her with this band. You feel like you’ve got to work hard and make it worth everybody’s time, and wanting to do a good job and to be a good role model for my daughter.
MF: You don’t have a guitarist or synth player in the group. Your set-up of two live drummers, bassist and yourself on vocals creates a different dynamic. Why did you choose to have no guitarist or synth player?
Channy: It’s not like a statement or anything. Maybe some day there will be. I think at the time that we started this band we wanted to have plenty of room. Ryan knew, well we all knew, that in order to have a successful band everyone had to get along, and the four of our personalities work really well – our vibe is perfect. We connect really well and enjoy playing together. Its hard to find someone we trust to bring into the fold. We are open to it and possibly one day we’ll get someone to play synth. But at the moment, if its not broke don’t fix it, and we are happy with the way it sounds. We don’t feel its necessary right now. Musically, it can be for a spirited room to play because there isn’t a guitarist involved. There is a lot more room vocally and for the bassist to move around. Also, its different, we want to have different soundscapes available. It’s interesting to try different arrangements.
MF: It is your first time touring Australia for Laneway Festival. Are there any artists you are excited to hear or play alongside?
Channy: I would like to hear Alt-J because I have never heard them before and people have been giving them a lot of praise, and I’m curious to hear what they sound like. We are very, very excited to tour Australia. We can’t wait.
Poliça are playing 2 dates in Melbourne and Sydney in support of their Laneway appearances.
Poliça – Laneway Sideshows – Australian Tour Dates
Monday, 4th February
Northcote Social Club, Melbourne
Tuesday, 5th February
Oxford Art Factory, Sydney