WHILE IN upstate New York last fall, Scottish band PAWS had an encounter with paws of a more dangerous sort. The three-piece was recording its second album, Youth Culture Forever—out May 6—at the isolated Highland Mills home of Adam Pierce, who runs the US arm of their record label FatCat.
"We were in the living room watching a movie," says singer/guitarist Phillip Taylor. "If I recall correctly, I think we were watching The Deer Hunter. We were just kind of sitting there, maybe rolling a joint or something, or eating some food. Not really paying attention, watching TV. [Adam] has these kind of French doors in his living room that have a netting on them to keep out mosquitoes, and the doors were wide open onto his porch. His dog, Jake, stood up and started backing into the kitchen, and Adam was like, 'Jake, what's up?' Then Adam was like, 'Holy shit.' We were like, 'What?' and he was just like, 'Don't move, don't move.'
"We looked over to the French doors and there was a bear, and his face was in through the open door, next to the netting. His face was in the house, and none of us had noticed. We all just sat there with this black bear—if it stood up on its hind legs, it was definitely going to be taller than all of us. He was pretty calm, but it was just so surreal. We didn't know what to do, so we just kind of sat there and he slowly backed out after a minute, once he realized that we were all very aware that he was there. Adam moved over very quietly, and just slid the door shut and locked it and that was that. The bear circled the house for a minute or two—Adam said it was quite surreal because he sees bears up there all the time, but none of them have had the audacity to come up to the house."
Run-ins with bears aside, the sessions for Youth Culture Forever were otherwise tranquil and productive, the rural locale allowing the band to get down to business. It was a change from the sessions for their first album, 2012's Cokefloat!, which was recorded in East London surrounded by distractions in the form of pubs and friends. "This time we wanted to be totally isolated," Taylor says. "We stayed at Adam's house, slept on his floor, and every day we were up early, made a pot of coffee, and then went in the room for 10 hours a day and blasted through it all."
Youth Culture Forever is yet another marvel from PAWS, a splendid pop-punk record that shrugs off some of the cuddlier aspects of Cokefloat! and the band's loveable early singles in favor of a weightier, but also cleaner sound. It also finds PAWS asserting a firmer identity; while the primary influences of American '90s alternative rock (the Breeders, Pixies) are still present, there's no mistaking this iteration of PAWS for any other band.
Youth Culture Forever also finds a happy, compulsively addictive balance of rock power and pop sheen, which pairs perfectly with the group's perhaps inherent Scottish dolefulness (Taylor and drummer Josh Swinney grew up together in Tain, a small town in the Scottish Highlands). "Owls Talons Clenching My Heart" has melody for miles, and "Someone New" boasts a staggered blast beat that first conceals then bolsters its effervescent verses and choruses. Meanwhile, "Alone" is a bottom-heavy ballad, "YCF" echoes the band's lo-fi roots with a demo-like ambience, and album closer "War Cry" is a thunderous, lumbering stoner-rock epic that spirals out for close to 12 minutes.
"That song, it's a lot of fun to play, but I don't think we've ever played it the same way twice," says Taylor. "A lot of our stuff is really poppy, but before, I don't think we really felt inclined to express the side of us that's really into heavy music. A lot of the heavier qualities in songs that have come through in the past have been just little short bursts in songs, little frantic bits. But we're all really big fans of pretty heavy music, not just pop. Since Ryan [Drever, bassist] joined the band, we've expressed that side of us a little more—us jamming together, trying to expose parts in songs that could be poppy but bringing them out as a lot heavier."
It's a stunning but perhaps not surprising development for a band that has yet to make any false steps. With each release, PAWS' songwriting chops have shone through clearly, and now the band has an album that matches the force and velocity of their live show. The album title, too, reflects the band's philosophy by way of a quote from Adventure Time, although Taylor downplays its overarching implications.
"To be honest, I don't think it really applies to a lot of the material or anything like that, other than the song ['YCF']," he says. "When Adventure Time first came out in the UK, we just got sucked into it, because I don't know, I just had a bad time at that period, and it just totally cheered me up, because it had so many amazing strange positive messages for kids in it. I've never seen a cartoon that has so much moral content in such a hilarious manner. [Youth culture forever] is really kind of an incredible idea, just encouraging younger people to think for themselves. I think the whole point is that youth will always play a part in what's to come; the future's invested in youth. And we thought it was a really strong ideal—there's always going to be strong youth culture, and it'll always change. By the time I'm 50, if I make it that far, there's going to be a new youth culture happening, and I think it's cool as a recycled thing that's always going to change what's to come."