Upstream with the Bears of Blue River 

Members of This Story move to Chicago, form new band

When The Bears of Blue River close their debut EP, The Killer Bee Scare, by warning, "Don't waste your time on me," don't take them seriously.

On Killer Bee, Bears frontman Gavin Wilkinson set out to make an album with melodies that stick in your head. He succeeded. His band has crafted an indie folk-pop gem that blends styles ranging from the mid-century styles of Johnny and June Carter Cash to Simon and Garfunkel, Roy Orbison to Frankie Lymon.

The Bears will celebrate the release of the EP Wednesday night at the Earth House, kicking off a two-month tour that will take them around the Midwest, the East Coast and deep into the South.

A new story

Gavin Wilkinson spent most of his high school years leading the Muncie folk band This Story. When the band split up in February 2008, it was like a musical graduation for Wilkinson. And like so many graduates, he spent the following months adrift, having fun but not committing to any particular venture.

Instead, Wilkinson played supporting roles in his friends' bands. He observed group dynamics and began to understand how songwriting works. "I gained a better grasp on how important each element of a song is," he says. "I realized it was OK for a song to be sparse - that not a lot has to be going on to make a great song."

In his spare time, he toyed around with his own songs. "I wanted to create something that stuck in peoples' heads long after they heard it," he says. He spent time studying indelible songs by '60s one-hit wonders, trying to replicate their appealing melodies.

The group of friends Wilkinson played his new songs with slowly grew. Old This Story band mates such as multi-instrumentalist Justin Spring and bassist Joey Patrick joined him and new friends Ben Janz and Brian Swoverland rounded out the line up. But the band was missing a strong female voice.

A new voice

Wilkinson met Maggie Gard while working at a Jimmy Johns near the Ball State campus. The photojournalism student stopped in regularly and struck up a friendship with Wilkinson. One day, she sent him a video of her playing guitar and singing. "I was blown away by her voice," he says. He insisted they play music together.

Wilkinson has an uncanny ability at finding female backing vocalists to compliment his gravelly lead vocals. They become characters in his songs, driving the lyrical narrative and creating conflict. In This Story, Rachel Weidner and Laura Relyea's beautiful voices countered Wilkinson's gruff, urgent vocals. But where Weidner and Relyea talked Wilkinson back from the edge, Gard delivers a hard smack to his face. There is a sage quality to her husky vocals and she tells it like it is. Underneath it all, though, Wilkinson and Gard's vocal relationship is full of flirtatious fun.

But Gard was a raw talent and Wilkinson recalls that she was unsure of herself. When it came to recording the EP, she was able to use her time in the studio to grow into her voice.

A new album

If the end of This Story was a graduation, recording The Killer Bee Scare was the first semester of college for Wilkinson. Acting as his professors were Margot & the Nuclear So and So's Richard Edwards and Tyler Watkins.

Wilkinson moved to Chicago and lived down the street from Edwards. When it came time to record the EP, Wilkinson asked Edwards to produce the album and Watkins to be the engineer. They advised him to record acoustic demos, and when those tracks were completed, Edwards sat on his porch and listened to them with Wilkinson.

Edwards taught Wilkinson how to search for the best musical ideas in his demos and then develop and structure those moments. "Something as simple as a stronger arrangement made him excited to work on the thing again, and when it was done, I think he sometimes had a hard time believing that it had existed in such a completely different state just days before," says Edwards. "He's very eager to get better, so sitting on a porch with him, destroying this thing he's written in order to, hopefully, make it stronger, was actually an enjoyable process."

"They allowed me to be a student and learn as much from them as possible," says Wilkinson.

The benefits of his musical education are evident on The Killer Bee Scare, with five catchy songs that linger in your mind. Along with Gard's show-stealing vocals, Patrick becomes a musical tailor, weaving his bass through the melodies like thread, pulling all the elements together into a cohesive unit while also giving the songs a buoyant boost. Wilkinson ditches the somber mood that drove This Story and replaces it with a lighter introspection on relationships and age. Finally, his male band mates come together and drape the compositions with doo-wop harmonies, a perfect element to an already pleasurable listening experience.

"I can't wait to get the album out there," Wilkinson says. "I've never dedicated so much time to a project before."

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