MUSIC Over beers one night, a friend of Himalayan Bear (a.k.a Ryan Beattie) described for him a tattoo he wanted: a boat full of sailors being swallowed by a kraken with the inscription "Hard Times" beneath it. Thus, the title of Himalayan Bear's third, and most fully formed album to date, was born.
"I wanted to make it a bit more LP-centric," Beattie says of the record. "I was trying to explore a concept — every song is a love song."
The Victoria, BC native (and former Frog Eyes guitarist) opted to go electric on Hard Times; abandoning the mainly acoustic sound of his previous albums in favor of heavy reverb. "I've had an obsession for a few years with Hawaiian lap steel," he confesses. For Beattie, the lap steel guitar embodies a balance between complete despair and total bliss. This dynamic — a juxtaposition of soaring highs and agonizing lows — serves as a surprisingly fitting description for another instrument: Beattie's incredible voice.
He's been making music since his teens, but it wasn't until his early twenties that Beattie discovered he could sing as mournfully as his heroes. His voice can be low, soothing, and subdued in one moment, only to launch into a howling falsetto in the next.
Although Hard Times often evokes the leisurely tropical repose of the Hawaiian music Beattie enjoys, it also meanders into the shadowy, foreboding wilderness where he resides. He calls his Victoria home a "paradise of darkened woods." Beattie's artistic environment appears on tracks such as "The Caballo" — a sparse forest hymn on which he repeatedly croons, "there is a darkness that quakes in me."
For Himalayan Bear, recording has traditionally been a solitary process. This time around, however, Beattie wasn't alone. He chose to record the eclectic batch of songs at the Last Resort — a Victoria house with a basement recording studio that he describes as sort of a drop-in center for touring musicians. "You can run upstairs, and someone will be there that you haven't seen for maybe a year." For this reason, he was able to enlist the help of friends to contribute a range of instrumentation such as trumpet, double bass, and of course, lap steel. "Coming out and engaging with people is far more helpful," Beattie says. "Having other people's hands on [a] record makes any record better."
It took about a year for the album to come to fruition, yet the accomplishment for Beattie is bittersweet. On Sept. 20, Absolutely Kosher founder Cory Brown announced that due to financial hardship, the serendipitously titled Hard Times would be the Bay Area record label's final release. "I've been really fortunate to work with them," Beattie says of Absolutely Kosher, which has also put out several Frog Eyes albums. "They've had some pretty amazing releases; seminal releases. Certainly, to be the closing chapter is quite an honor."
He's toured extensively with Frog Eyes over the past several years, but playing a Himalayan Bear show is an entirely different animal. "To me, playing live is the greatest thing ever," says Beattie. "Obviously singing is a bit more intense for me, a bit more emotional. I tend to work myself into this wailing frenzy."
When I ask where his inspiration comes from, the amicable, talkative Beattie suddenly goes quiet. It becomes apparent that music is somewhat of an involuntary response; it simply pours out of him. After a moment of silence, he offers, "just beautiful things in your head, you know?"
HIMALAYAN BEAR With Garrett Pierce and Ready Steady Tues/25, 9 p.m., $7 Hemlock Tavern 1131 Polk, SF (415) 923-0923 www.hemlocktavern.com