Kovacs and the Polar Bear play last show with Chris Lee

Sadly, the rumors are true. This Saturday’s show at the Grey Eagle will be Chris Lee’s last (see show flyer, designed by Israel Hill) with local folk-rock faves Kovacs & the Polar Bear. The affable guitarist/keyboardist/bassist is officially moving out to Portland next month. (Don’t worry, Kovacs will soldier on.)

Of course, like the nice guy he is, Chris (who records solo under the name Birthday Boy) won’t be leaving us empty-handed. He’s dropping his debut album, Future Apartments, next month, with a CD release party at the Emerald Lounge on April 14. Be sure to check it out, since that will be Chris’s last performance before moving back to the 1990s, err, Portland.

So on the eve of his final show with the band he’s been a central part of for more than four years, we called Chris to get the lowdown on the future of Kovacs, his upcoming solo album, and on what the hell Portland’s got that Asheville doesn’t. (I mean, c’mon. Has he seen Portlandia?) 

Xpress: So why you leaving us, man?

Chris Lee: [Laughs.] I think it’s just time. I’ve been talking about it for awhile. My girlfriend’s sister lives out in Portland, and my girlfriend’s been dying to get out there. I love Asheville, but I’ve lived in the Asheville area since I was 9 years old. I’m ready to check out some other stuff, you know?

And just so everyone’s clear, you’re leaving on good terms with the band.

Absolutely. We’re all still really good buddies. When I first told them I was moving, there were probably a couple weeks there where they were pretty pissed at me. Nobody wants to see their friends leave town, you know? But we’re all really good. And I’m trying to leave the Kovacs situation in really good standing. We’re getting other friends in there to take my place. So it’s good. It’s real positive.

So there’s a replacement ready? That’s got to be pretty big shoes for whoever is coming in. You played keyboard, guitar, bass, sang…

Our friend Casey Ellis is going to take over some roles. It’s been a pretty relaxed thing as far as getting somebody in there and learning everything, which is how Kovacs does it. But I’m confident that they’ll make it work. They’ll find the right fit. I’d love for them to keep writing music, and have those songs in the style of whoever’s playing with them.

Are you going to pursue your solo project, Birthday Boy, in Portland?

I’d really love to do the same kind of thing I did with Kovacs. I’m putting out [Future Apartments] to try to just establish myself as a musician, to kind of show people what I can do individually, and hopefully I can get on with another crew like Kovacs out there. Although I enjoy writing songs and performing live, being the frontman makes me a nervous wreck. [Laughs.] It’s way too much burden. I mean, I’d love to tour with that and be successful with that and all. But I’m definitely more comfortable as part of a group.

So tell us a little about Future Apartments. Does it sound anything like Kovacs?

Well, it’s not as polished as Kovacs. My stuff’s a little more rough around the edges, it’s a little weirder. It grabs from a wider variety of genres. Half of it’s lo-fi garage rock stuff, and the other half is cheap-keyboard electronic stuff. And there’s a ton of vocal harmonies all over the place.

Most of the recording for that album was with free studio hours you won in a songwriting contest, right?

Yeah, through 98.1 The River and CityMac. I won 30 hours of studio time and a MacBook Pro. And I used those …

You won a MacBook Pro, too? Holy crap.

[Laughs.] Yeah. So I used it all pretty well. 30 hours of studio time seems like a lot, but I apparently have eyes bigger than my stomach. So I still had a lot of the project left, the final little bits, so I recorded a lot of stuff at home at the end. Almost all the electronic stuff you hear was all done at home on the MacBook. Then I did a Kickstarter campaign and raised about $2,700. I put all that toward the mastering and the mixing, which Brian Landrum did — he also did the latest Kovacs album [Second Sister]. And right now it’s getting pressed.

So what do y’all have planned for this Saturday’s farewell show?

I’m pretty sure we’re going to play a couple of new ones that we haven’t played live before. Depending on how they turn out in practice this week. But what I really want is this to be like a true show like we’ve been doing the past year. Just for my own sentimental value. Just play like we have been playing. Casey will join in on a couple of songs, because we’ve kind of found that with the added stuff that he does, it really makes it pop. It should just be… I don’t know if there will be a lot of emotion, ‘cause we’re pretty tame guys and all. [Laughs.] 

You sure you’re not going to shed a tear up there during the encore?

I can’t promise anything. [Laughs.] But, I don’t know, it’s hard to be sentimental when I’m so excited about the future, you know? It’s funny. This is the number one thing that’s keeping me in Asheville, is being with Kovacs & the Polar Bear. And it’s the only reason I hadn’t left sooner.

From what I’ve heard, Portland isn’t all that different from Asheville. People always say they’re like sister cities.

It’s a pretty fair comparison. They are extremely similar places, especially the attitude. I watch that show Portlandia, which is — everytime I mention that I’m moving to Portland, people ask “Have you seen Portlandia?” [Laughs] Yes, I have seen the show — but it’s just like that with all the environmentally conscious and just plain conscious people. People riding fixed gear bikes and everything. But, you know, it’s a much bigger city at the same time. It’s very industrial. And it’s got public transportation, which is something that Asheville totally lacks.

What do you think you’re going to miss most about Asheville?

The band. That’s one thing that scares me about going out there, is having to prove myself all over again. 

Any chance you’ll come back to Asheville?

Yeah, definitely. I love Asheville. This is my favorite place on Earth, so far. But I’ve only really lived here, so… [Laughs.] 

who: Kovacs & The Polar Bear “Farewell Chris Show,” with Joshua Carpenter
where: The Grey Eagle
when: Saturday, March 31 (9 p.m.)

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