Boston’s been bent and the resulting shape is perfect.
Ever since Bent Shapes formed in 2009 under the moniker Girlfriends, principal songwriters Ben Potrykus and Andy Sadoway have been crafting pop punk that soundtracks the streets of our city. Fast forward through a name change, several EPs, and the addition of bassist Jenny Mudarri and guitarist Luke Brandfon; the band is far bigger than they could have expected. The members are gearing up to celebrate the release of their upcoming LP, Wolves of Want. To celebrate, we order a long spread of Taiwanese dishes and floral tea at JoJo Taipei where we talk about their new, glossy sound while the collegiate roar of Allston—a sound they’ve since graduated from—is kept at bay outside.
First things first: Wolves of Want will be your go-to summer album. Their sophomore full-length, which saw recording and production help from Elio DeLuca of Titus Andronicus, is giddy and addictive. Instead of picturing snarling creatures and lustful hearts, though, think instead of something a little more revolutionary. The album’s title comes from a phrase lifted out of pamphlets anarchist/activist Lucy Parsons handed out in the 1880s. Her“To Tramps” essay, addressed to those on the low end of the socioeconomic ladder, talked about how no matter what you do, you’re never more than a few days ahead of the wolves of want. To Bent Shapes, it read as a visualization of basic needs people lack – they just happened to spruce it up in the process.
Like all good pop, Wolves of Want masks the sad with neon happiness. “For all the shit mainstream pop gets, there’s a lot of stuff that gets snuck in there by songwriters behind the scenes,” Potrykus says between bites. “I bring in more major chords and stuff because I don’t like sitting alone with my thoughts playing dissonant or minor key music.” Opener “New Starts In Old Dominion” tracks crippling debt and apartment moving while remaining the happiest soon-to-be song of the summer. Then there’s “Intransitive Verbs”, a heavy song with cello in major key made haunting by the sparseness of the instrumentation. “When you schedule spontaneity, then you get spontaneity,” adds Sadoway. “We kind of were just like, ‘Let’s do it. Let’s get it done.’ And if we want to get better at that, we’ll do more of it. To me that was incredibly liberating.” That sense of freedom and joy is impossible to miss in each song.
After listening to Spoon and The Walkmen before hitting the studio, the band decided to try adding horns in the studio. For the most part, it worked. “It was very dangerous,” says Sadoway. “Once you’re in a studio, especially if a studio has a lot of gear, to be like, ‘What if we put this in every song?! Let’s have a flute solo!’ That’s cool, in that it’s an option, but does it make sense for the song?”
There’s a line in “Realization Hits” about reducing your passions until they become your job, drawing the Americanized occurrence with a rightly despondant frown. Sometimes what you’re aspiring to might not be that fulfilling once it’s actually achieved. Luckily for Bent Shapes, that doesn’t apply to them as musicians. “I have a hard time with the idea of careerism, because it seems like a prison that you lock yourself into,” explains Potrykus. “I’m not 100% anti-civilization or anything like that, but I’ve read some theoretical pieces on labor in general and how it has an impact on our sense of self and an impact on what life is to us. I don’t really know what I want out of music, and I don’t know what I want to do for money, but what I’m doing now is fine.”
There’s no avoiding it. America’s got a lot of issues. Along with that come a whole lot of stigmas. For one, mental health is rarely understood or treated with the same respect or urgency as that of physical health. Potrykus knows this firsthand. He happens to live with several anxiety disorders, including OCD. “You look to people to tell you that this is okay, or that this’ll be fine, so that you don’t freak out over it,” he explains. “It’s the sort of thing that is seen as a silent epidemic. I have times where I feel much more secure than I did at other times when things were at their worst. Now I’m at a point where I don’t do any talk therapy, I’m still on meds, but a lower dosage than I was, and things are seeming okay. If people feel comforted or not alone when they read or hear a lyric I’ve written about my own experience, then that’s amazing and I’m always down to talk about that stuff with people if they want to talk to me about it.”
One of the treatments for OCD is exposure response prevention, a method where you expose yourself to whatever it is that causes you anxiety—thoughts or a situation, whatever it is—and you repeatedly put yourself in that position. Performing these songs live, lyrics where Potrykus admits his struggles, helps him overcome them in a way. “I write down what I’m feeling about situations that I went through that are particularly upsetting or painful, and then I’m singing them over and over again; it’s kind of a form of therapy,” he says. “I’ve had a few low-level panic attacks in my life, and one sort of full on panic attack. I was lying down in somebody’s yard in Central Square, with some strangers feeding me a biscuit, and 911 gets called. By the time they arrived, I was able to sit up, but I seriously felt paralyzed or like I was dying. I can laugh at it now because it seems so ridiculous, but it’s a bad scene. Overcoming that is a long, long process.”
That lyrical depth reaches a wider audience because Bent Shapes crafts melodies that uplift it. “I’m looking for how we can lock the bass and drums together, how can we make this not just a dynamic blast of sound for two to three minutes,” says Sadoway. “If there’s a lyric that wants to be emphasized, maybe there’s something we can do to line up with that.”
That emotional honesty is what makes Bent Shapes so essential to Boston. That, and the other obvious fact: “You don’t leave for a couple years? Congratulations, you’re one of the longest running bands in Boston,” jokes Potrykus. They mean the best in all that they do (they offered to pay for my meal, which led to a conversation about Equipay among other great things, none of which was mansplained) and waste no time showing their gratitude. The best, however, is their appreciation of the house shows, the venues that let them grow their strengths back in the day.
“As you get older, you get more and more distant from the college age crowd, so it’s hard to know what’s going on as far as DIY stuff because usually the stuff that’s going on, the people at the forefront of that, are people who are students,” says Potrykus. “They don’t know that people might come in and like, smash a bottle of poo on their floor. When you know how weird shit can get, I don’t think people would choose to do that as readily. It’s for everyone’s benefit that there are people with boundless optimism coming into Boston looking for a degree.”
Sadoway laughs and widens his eyes, as if past house show horrors are playing out in front of him again. “Thank you, students,” he says, and shakes his head. It’s a love-hate relationship and Bent Shapes are out of its throes, even though the city will forever call them its own.
BENT SHAPES, SPORTS, CUFFS. THU 3.10. GREAT SCOTT,1222 COMM. AVE., ALLSTON. 9PM/18+/$10. GREATSCOTTBOSTON.COM.